The Beat Generation is a literary movement started by a group of authors whose work explored and influenced American culture and politics in the post-World War II era. The bulk of their work was published and popularized throughout the 1950s. Central elements of Beat culture are rejection of standard narrative values, spiritual quest, exploration of American and Eastern religions, rejection of materialism, explicit portrayals of the human condition, experimentation with psychedelic drugs, and sexual liberation and exploration.
- Origin of name
- Columbia University
- Times Square Underworld
- Greenwich Village
- San Francisco and the Six Gallery reading
- Pacific Northwest
- Significant figures
- Gary Snyder
- Neal Cassady
- Gender and the Beats
- Drug use
- Early American sources
- French surrealism
- Literary legacy
- Rock and pop music
- Internal criticism
- The Beats comment on the Beat Generation
Allen Ginsberg's Howl (1956), William S. Burroughs's Naked Lunch (1959) and Jack Kerouac's On the Road (1957) are among the best known examples of Beat literature. Both Howl and Naked Lunch were the focus of obscenity trials that ultimately helped to liberalize publishing in the United States. The members of the Beat Generation developed a reputation as new bohemian hedonists, who celebrated non-conformity and spontaneous creativity.
The core group of Beat Generation authors – Herbert Huncke, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Lucien Carr, and Jack Kerouac – met in 1944 in and around the Columbia University campus in New York City. Later, in the mid-1950s, the central figures (with the exception of Burroughs and Carr) ended up together in San Francisco where they met and became friends of figures associated with the San Francisco Renaissance.
In the 1960s, elements of the expanding Beat movement were incorporated into the hippie and larger counterculture movements. Neal Cassady, as the driver for Ken Kesey's bus, Further, was the primary bridge between these two generations. Allen Ginsberg's work also became an integral element of early 1960s hippie culture.
Origin of name
Jack Kerouac introduced the phrase "Beat Generation" in 1948 to characterize a perceived underground, anti-conformist youth movement in New York. The name arose in a conversation with writer John Clellon Holmes. Kerouac allows that it was street hustler Herbert Huncke who originally used the phrase "beat", in an earlier discussion with him. The adjective "beat" could colloquially mean "tired" or "beaten down" within the African-American community of the period and had developed out of the image "beat to his socks", but Kerouac appropriated the image and altered the meaning to include the connotations "upbeat", "beatific", and the musical association of being "on the beat".
The origins of the Beat Generation can be traced to Columbia University and the meeting of Kerouac, Ginsberg, Lucien Carr, Hal Chase and others. Jack Kerouac attended Columbia on a football scholarship. Though the beats are usually regarded as anti-academic, many of their ideas were formed in response to professors like Lionel Trilling and Mark Van Doren. Classmates Carr and Ginsberg discussed the need for a "New Vision" (a term borrowed from Arthur Rimbaud), to counteract what they perceived as their teachers' conservative, formalistic literary ideals.
Times Square "Underworld"
Burroughs had an interest in criminal behavior and got involved in dealing stolen goods and narcotics. He was soon addicted to opiates. Burroughs' guide to the criminal underworld (centered in particular around New York's Times Square) was small-time criminal and drug-addict Herbert Huncke. The Beats were drawn to Huncke, who later started to write himself, convinced that he possessed a vital worldly knowledge unavailable to them from their largely middle-class upbringings.
Ginsberg was arrested in 1949. The police attempted to pull Ginsberg over while he was driving with Huncke, his car filled with stolen items Huncke planned to fence. Ginsberg crashed the car while trying to flee and escaped on foot, but left incriminating notebooks behind. He was given the option to plead insanity to avoid a jail term, and was committed for 90 days to Bellevue Hospital, where he met Carl Solomon.
Carl Solomon was arguably more eccentric than psychotic. A fan of Antonin Artaud, he indulged in self-consciously "crazy" behavior, like throwing potato salad at a college lecturer on Dadaism. Solomon was given shock treatments at Bellevue; this became one of the main themes of Ginsberg's "Howl", which was dedicated to Solomon. Solomon later became the publishing contact who agreed to publish Burroughs' first novel Junky in 1953.
Beat writers and artists flocked to Greenwich Village in New York City in the late 1950s because of low rent and the 'small town' element of the scene. Folksongs, readings and discussions often took place in Washington Square Park. Allen Ginsberg was a big part of the scene in the Village, as was Burroughs, who lived at 69 Bedford Street. Burroughs, Ginsberg, Kerouac, and other poets frequented many bars in the area including the San Remo at 93 MacDougal Street on the northwest corner of Bleeker, Chumley's, and Minetta Tavern. Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, and other abstract expressionists were also frequent visitors and collaborators of the beats.
Cultural critics have written about the transition of Beat culture in the Village into the Bohemian hippie culture of the 1960s.
San Francisco and the Six Gallery reading
Allen Ginsberg had visited Neal and Carolyn Cassady in San Jose, California in 1954 and moved on to San Francisco in August. He fell in love with Peter Orlovsky at the end of 1954 and began writing Howl. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, of the new City Lights Bookstore, started to publish the City Lights Pocket Poets Series in 1955.
Kenneth Rexroth's apartment became a Friday night literary salon (Ginsberg's mentor William Carlos Williams, an old friend of Rexroth's, had given him an introductory letter). When asked by Wally Hedrick to organize the Six Gallery reading, Ginsberg wanted Rexroth to serve as master of ceremonies, in a sense to bridge generations.
Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder read on October 7, 1955, before 100 people (including Kerouac, up from Mexico City). Lamantia read poems of his late friend John Hoffman. At his first public reading Ginsberg performed the just finished first part of Howl. It was a success and the evening led to many more readings by the now locally famous Six Gallery poets.
It was also a marker of the beginning of the Beat movement, since the 1956 publication of Howl (City Lights Pocket Poets, no. 4) and its obscenity trial in 1957 brought it to nationwide attention.
The Six Gallery reading informs the second chapter of Kerouac's 1958 novel The Dharma Bums, whose chief protagonist is "Japhy Ryder", a character who is actually based on Gary Snyder. Kerouac was impressed with Snyder and they were close for a number of years. In the spring of 1955 they lived together in Snyder's Mill Valley cabin. Most Beats were urbanites and they found Snyder almost exotic, with his rural background and wilderness experience, as well as his education in cultural anthropology and Oriental languages. Lawrence Ferlinghetti called him "the Thoreau of the Beat Generation."
As documented in the conclusion of the The Dharma Bums, Snyder moved to Japan in 1955, in large measure in order to intensively practice and study Zen Buddhism. He would spend most of the next 10 years there. Buddhism is one of the primary subjects of The Dharma Bums, and the book undoubtedly helped to popularize Buddhism in the West and remains one of Kerouac's most widely read books.
The Beats also spent time in the Northern Pacific Northwest including Washington and Oregon. Kerouac wrote about sojourns to Washington's North Cascades in The Dharma Bums and On the Road.
Reed College in Portland, Oregon was also a locale for some of the Beat poets. Gary Snyder studied Anthropology there, Philip Whalen attended Reed, and Allen Ginsberg held multiple readings on the campus around 1955 and 1956. Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen were students in Reed's calligraphy class taught by Lloyd J. Reynolds.
Burroughs was introduced to the group by David Kammerer, who was in love with Lucien Carr. Carr had befriended freshman Allen Ginsberg and introduced him to Kammerer and Burroughs. Carr also knew Kerouac's girlfriend Edie Parker, through whom Burroughs met Kerouac in 1944.
On August 13, 1944, Carr killed Kammerer with a Boy Scout knife in Riverside Park in what he claimed later was self-defense. He waited, then dumped the body in the Hudson River, later seeking advice from Burroughs, who suggested he turn himself in. He then went to Kerouac, who helped him dispose of the weapon.
Carr turned himself in the following morning and later pleaded guilty to manslaughter. Kerouac was charged as an accessory, and Burroughs as a material witness, but neither was prosecuted. Kerouac wrote about this incident twice in his own works: once in his first novel, The Town and the City, and again in one of his last, Vanity of Duluoz. He wrote a collaboration novel with Burroughs, And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, concerning the murder.
Gary Snyder (the poet) was an important member of the beat movement. Gary Snyder is widely regarded as a member of the Beat Generation circle of writers: he was one of the poets who read at the famous Six Gallery event, and was written about in one of Kerouac's most popular novels, The Dharma Bums. Some critics argue that Snyder's connection with the Beats is exaggerated and that he might better be regarded as a member of the West-Coast group the San Francisco Renaissance, which developed independently. Snyder himself has some reservations about the label "Beat", but does not appear to have any strong objection to being included in the group. He often talks about the Beats in the first person plural, referring to the group as "we" and "us".
Neal Cassady was introduced to the group in 1947, and had a number of significant effects. Cassady became something of a muse to Ginsberg; they had a romantic affair, and Ginsberg became Cassady's personal writing-tutor. Kerouac's road-trips with Cassady in the late 1940s became the focus of his second novel, On the Road. Cassady's verbal style is one of the sources of the spontaneous, jazz-inspired rapping that later became associated with "beatniks". Cassady impressed the group with the free-flowing style of his letters, and Kerouac cited them as a key influence on his spontaneous prose style.
Gender and the Beats
The female contemporaries of Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs were intimately involved in the creation of Beat philosophy and literature, and yet remain markedly absent from the mainstream interpretation of the most important aspects and figures of the movement. Further, the Beat writings of Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs often portray female characters in flat, traditional gender roles most typical of an ideal 1950s American housewife.
Rather than offering liberation from social norms, Beat culture actually often marginalized and further culturally repressed American women and, more specifically, many of the female writers of the time period. Although women are less acknowledged in histories of the first Beat Generation, the omission may be due more to the period's sexism than the reality. Joan Vollmer for instance did not write, although she appears as a minor figure in multiple authors' works. She has become legendary as the wife of William S. Burroughs, documented in Kerouac's novels, and killed by Burroughs in a drunken game of William Tell. Corso and Diane Di Prima, among others, insist that there were female Beats, but that it was more difficult for women to get away with a Bohemian existence in that era.
Notable Beat Generation women who have been published include Edie Parker; Joyce Johnson; Carolyn Cassady; Hettie Jones; Joanne Kyger; Harriet Sohmers Zwerling; Diane DiPrima; and Ruth Weiss, who also made films. Poet Elise Cowen took her life in 1963. Anne Waldman was less influenced by the Beats than by Allen Ginsberg's later turn to Buddhism. Later, women emerged who claimed to be strongly influenced by the Beats, including Janine Pommy Vega in the 1960s, Lotti Golden in the late 1960s, Patti Smith in the 1970s, and Hedwig Gorski in the 1980s.
One of the key beliefs and practices of the Beat Generation was free love and sexual liberation. This strayed from the Christian ideals of American culture at this time. Some Beat writers were openly gay or bisexual, including two of the most prominent (Ginsberg and Burroughs). Some met each other through gay connections, including David Kammerer's interest in Lucien Carr.
One of the contentious features of Ginsberg's poem Howl for authorities were lines about homosexual sex. William Burroughs' Naked Lunch contains content dealing with same-sex relations and pedophilia. Both works were unsuccessfully prosecuted for obscenity. Victory by the publishers helped to curtail literary censorship in the United States.
Considered racy at the time, Kerouac's writings are now considered mild. On the Road mentions Neal Cassady's bisexuality without comment, while Visions of Cody confronts it. However, the first novel does show Cassady as frankly promiscuous. Kerouac's novels feature an interracial love affair (The Subterraneans), and group sex (The Dharma Bums). The relationships among men in Kerouac's novels are predominantly homosocial.
The original members of the Beat Generation used a number of different drugs, including alcohol, marijuana, benzedrine, morphine, and later psychedelic drugs including peyote, yage, and LSD.. They often approached drugs experimentally, initially being unfamiliar with their effects; their drug use was broadly inspired by intellectual interest and many Beat writers felt their drug experiences enhanced creativity, insight or productivity. The use of drugs was a key influence on many of the social events of the time that were personal to the Beat generation.
Gregory Corso worshiped Percy Bysshe Shelley as a hero and was buried at the foot of Shelley's Grave in the Protestant Cemetery, Rome. Ginsberg mentions Shelley's Adonais at the beginning of Kaddish, and cites it as a major influence on the composition of one of his most important poems. Michael McClure compared Ginsberg's Howl to Shelley's breakthrough poem Queen Mab.
Ginsberg's most important Romantic influence was William Blake. Blake was the subject of Ginsberg's self-defining auditory hallucination and revelation in 1948. Ginsberg would study Blake all his life. The first time Michael McClure met Ginsberg, they talked about Blake: McClure saw him as a revolutionary; Ginsberg saw him as a prophet.John Keats was also cited as an influence.
Early American sources
Important American inspirations for the Beats included Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Herman Melville and especially Walt Whitman, who is addressed as the subject of one of Ginsberg's most famous poems ("A Supermarket in California"). Edgar Allan Poe is occasionally acknowledged, and Ginsberg claimed Emily Dickinson was an influence on Beat poetry. The novel You Can't Win by Jack Black had a strong influence on Burroughs.
Surrealism was still in many ways a vital movement in the 1950s. Carl Solomon introduced the work of Antonin Artaud to Ginsberg, and the poetry of André Breton had direct influence on the poem Kaddish. Rexroth, Ferlinghetti, John Ashbery and Ron Padgett translated French poetry. Second-generation Beat Ted Joans was named "the only Afro-American Surrealist" by Breton.
Philip Lamantia introduced surrealist poetry to the original Beats. The poetry of Gregory Corso and Bob Kaufman shows the influence of Surrealist poetry with its dream-like images and its random juxtaposition of dissociated images, and this influence can also be seen in more subtle ways in Ginsberg's poetry. As the legend goes, when meeting Marcel Duchamp Ginsberg kissed his shoe and Corso cut off his tie. Other shared Beat interests were Guillaume Apollinaire, Arthur Rimbaud and Charles Baudelaire.
Though the Beat aesthetic posited itself against T. S. Eliot's creed of strict objectivity and literary modernism's new classicism, certain modernist writers were major influences on the Beats, including Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, and H.D.. Pound was specifically important to Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg..
William Carlos Williams was an influence on many of the Beats, with his encouragement to speak with an American voice instead of imitating the European poetic voice and European forms. When Williams came to Reed College to give a lecture, then students Snyder, Whalen, and Welch were deeply impressed. Williams was a personal mentor to Ginsberg, both being from Paterson, New Jersey.
Williams published several of Ginsberg's letters to him in his epic poem Paterson and wrote an introduction to two of Ginsberg's books. And many of the Beats (Ginsberg specifically) helped promote Williams' writing. Ferlinghetti's City Lights published a volume of his poetry.
While many authors claim to be directly influenced by the Beats, the Beat Generation phenomenon itself has had an influence on American culture leading more broadly to the hippie movements of the 1960s.
In 1982, Ginsberg published a summary of "the essential effects" of the Beat Generation:
The term "Beatnik" was coined by Herb Caen of the San Francisco Chronicle on April 2, 1958, a portmanteau on the name of the recent Russian satellite Sputnik and Beat Generation. This suggested that beatniks were (1) "far out of the mainstream of society" and (2) "possibly pro-Communist". Caen's term stuck and became the popular label associated with a new stereotype—the man with a goatee and beret reciting nonsensical poetry and playing bongo drums, while free-spirited women wearing black leotards dance.
An early example of the "beatnik stereotype" occurred in Vesuvio's (a bar in North Beach) which employed the artist Wally Hedrick to sit in the window dressed in full beard, turtleneck, and sandals, creating improvisational drawings and paintings. By 1958 tourists to San Francisco could take bus tours to view the North Beach Beat scene, prophetically anticipating similar tours of the Haight-Ashbury district ten years later.
A variety of other small businesses also sprang up exploiting (and/or satirizing) the new craze. In 1959, Fred McDarrah started a "Rent-a-Beatnik" service in New York, taking out ads in The Village Voice and sending Ted Joans and friends out on calls to read poetry.
While some of the original Beats embraced the beatniks, or at least found the parodies humorous (Ginsberg, for example, appreciated the parody in the comic strip Pogo) others criticized the beatniks as inauthentic poseurs. Kerouac feared that the spiritual aspect of his message had been lost and that many were using the Beat Generation as an excuse to be senselessly wild.
During the 1960s, aspects of the Beat movement metamorphosed into the counterculture of the 1960s, accompanied by a shift in terminology from "beatnik" to "hippie". Many of the original Beats remained active participants, notably Allen Ginsberg, who became a fixture of the anti-war movement. Notably, however, Jack Kerouac broke with Ginsberg and criticized the 1960s politically radical protest movements as an excuse to be "spiteful".
There were stylistic differences between beatniks and hippies—somber colors, dark sunglasses, and goatees gave way to colorful psychedelic clothing and long hair. The beats were known for "playing it cool" (keeping a low profile), but the hippies became known for "being cool" (displaying their individuality).
Beyond style, there were changes in substance: The Beats tended to be essentially apolitical, but the hippies became actively engaged with the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement.
Among the emerging novelists of the 1960s and 1970s, a few were closely connected with Beat writers, most notably Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest). Though they had no direct connection, other writers considered the Beats to be a major influence, including Thomas Pynchon (Gravity's Rainbow) and Tom Robbins (Even Cowgirls Get the Blues).
One-time Beat writer LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka helped initiate the Black Arts movement.
As there was focus on live performance among the Beats, many Slam poets have claimed to be influenced by the Beats. Saul Williams, for example, cites Allen Ginsberg, Amiri Baraka, and Bob Kaufman as major influences.
The Postbeat Poets are direct descendants of the Beat Generation. Their association with or tutelage under Ginsberg at The Naropa University's Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics and later at Brooklyn College stressed the social-activist legacy of the Beats and created its own body of literature. Known authors are Anne Waldman, Antler, Andy Clausen, David Cope, Eileen Myles, Eliot Katz, Paul Beatty, Sapphire, Lesléa Newman, Jim Cohn, Thomas R. Peters, Jr. (poet and owner of beat book shop), Sharon Mesmer, Randy Roark, Josh Smith, David Evans.
Rock and pop music
The Beats had a pervasive influence on rock and roll and popular music, including the Beatles, Bob Dylan and Jim Morrison: the Beatles spelled their name with an "a" partly as a Beat Generation reference, and John Lennon was a fan of Jack Kerouac. The Beatles even put Beat writer William S. Burroughs on the cover of their album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Ginsberg later met and became friends of members of the Beatles. Paul McCartney played guitar on Ginsberg's album Ballad of the Skeletons.
Ginsberg was a close friend of Bob Dylan and toured with him on the Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975. Dylan cites Ginsberg and Kerouac as major influences.
Jim Morrison cites Kerouac as one of his biggest influences, and fellow Doors member Ray Manzarek has said "We wanted to be beatniks". In his book "Light My Fire: My Life with The Doors", Manzarek also writes "I suppose if Jack Kerouac had never written On the Road, The Doors would never have existed." Michael McClure was also a friend of members of The Doors, at one point touring with keyboardist Ray Manzarek.
Ginsberg was a friend of Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters, a group of which Cassady was a member, which also included members of the Grateful Dead. In the 1970s, Burroughs was a friend of Mick Jagger, Lou Reed, David Bowie, and Patti Smith.
Singer-songwriter Tom Waits, a Beat fan, wrote "Jack and Neal" about Kerouac and Cassady, and recorded "On the Road" (a song written by Kerouac after finishing the novel) with Primus. He later collaborated with Burroughs on the theatrical work The Black Rider.
Jazz Musician/Film Composer Robert Kraft (not NFL Team owner Robert Kraft) wrote and released a contemporary homage to Jack Kerouac and Beat Generation aesthetics entitled "Beat Generation" on the 1988 CD release "Quake City".
Low rock musician Mark Sandman who was the bass guitarist, lead vocalist and a former member of the alternative jazz rock band Morphine, was widely open to the beat generation and wrote a song called "Kerouac" to make a tribute to Jack Kerouac and his personal philosophy and way of life.
The band Aztec Two-Step recorded "The Persecution & Restoration of Dean Moriarty (On the Road)" in 1972.
There was a resurgence of interest in the beats among bands in the 1980s. Ginsberg worked with the Clash. Burroughs worked with Sonic Youth, R.E.M., Kurt Cobain, and Ministry, amongst others. Bono of U2 cites Burroughs as a major influence, and Burroughs appeared briefly in a U2 video in 1997. Post-punk band Joy Division named a song Interzone after a collection of stories by Burroughs. Laurie Anderson featured Burroughs on her 1984 album Mister Heartbreak and in her 1986 concert film, Home of the Brave. King Crimson produced the album Beat inspired by the Beat Generation.
The Beat Generation was met with scrutiny and assigned many stereotypes. Multiple magazines such as Life and Playboy magazine depicted members of the Beat Generation as nihilists and as unintellectual. This criticism was largely due to the ideological differences between American culture at the time and the Beat Generation including their Buddhist inspired beliefs.
Norman Podhoretz, a student at Columbia with Kerouac and Ginsberg, later became a critic of the Beats. His 1958 Partisan Review article "The Know-Nothing Bohemians," was a vehement critique primarily of Kerouac's On the Road and The Subterraneans, as well as Ginsberg's Howl. His central criticism is that the Beat embrace of spontaneity is bound up in an anti-intellectual worship of the "primitive" that can easily turn toward mindlessness and violence. Podhoretz asserted that there was a link between the Beats and criminal delinquents.
Ginsberg responded in a 1958 interview with The Village Voice, specifically addressing the charge that the Beats destroyed "the distinction between life and literature." "The bit about anti-intellectualism is a piece of vanity, we had the same education, went to the same school, you know there are 'Intellectuals' and there are intellectuals. Podhoretz is just out of touch with twentieth-century literature, he's writing for the eighteenth-century mind. We have a personal literature now—Proust, Wolfe, Faulkner, Joyce."
In a 1974 interview, Gary Snyder comments on the subject of "casualties" of the Beat Generation:
Kerouac was a casualty too. And there were many other casualties that most people have never heard of, but were genuine casualties. Just as, in the 60s, when Allen and I for a period there were almost publicly recommending people to take acid. When I look back on that now I realize there were many casualties, responsibilities to bear.
Lawrence Durrell comments on the subject "about Eduardo Sanguinetti" in the Preface of Sanguinetti's Poetry and Philosophical Essay Alter Ego,
This is what the work of Sanguinetti shows us, in the form of a mirror image. Or, to put it in less philosophical terms, Eduardo Sanguinetti, like almost any other creator, has little understanding of what he is going to do and only partially understands what he has done.
Sanguinetti in a way of contemplating the world and all his work, whatever the medium, reveals this particular way.