Beat Generation

Literary/ Cultural Context Essay

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The Beat Generation was a small group of loyal, intricately connected writers and the name given by those writers to describe certain counter-cultural characteristics of American post-war youth during the 1940s and 50s. The Beats wrote about their personal lives and attempts to engage in heightened experiences through an intensely frenetic and exploratory bohemian lifestyle. Much of what defines the Beats and their writing can be seen as a defiant reaction against the largely conformist attitudes of the post-war decades. The beginnings of the Beat generation can be traced back to the mid-1940s, to a closely knit group of young intellectuals centered around the Manhattan campus of Columbia University; this then evolved into a popular counter-cultural movement precursing in many ways the Hippies of the sixties. With the success of their publications, the core group of Beat Generation writers gained the kind of notoriety and celebrity-status that has rarely been attained by other American writers. Always controversial, and often vehemently dismissed by their critics, the Beats now enjoy a canonic status among American letters long after the dissipation of the social movements they initiated.

The three principal Beat Generation writers were Jack Kerouac (1922-69), Allen Ginsberg (1926-97), and William Burroughs (1914-97). Though the list of essential beat writers certainly extends well beyond this trio, these three stand out both as originators of the beat movement and as its most prolific and successful writers. These three writers also provided the beat canon with its three most seminal works: Ginsberg with the publication of Howl in 1956, Kerouac with On the Road in 1957, and Burroughs with Naked Lunch in 1959. These publication dates correspond to the zenith of national attention that focused on the beat phenomenon in the late 1950s. During this time, Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs served as the key figureheads and spokespersons of their literary movement.

Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs were attending classes at Columbia University in 1943 and were introduced to each other by Lucien Carr, a mutual friend and fellow Columbia student. Kerouac, the football-playing son of catholic blue-collar French-Canadians from Lowell, Massachusetts, Ginsberg, the studious son of communist Jewish intellectuals from Paterson, New Jersey, and Burroughs, the aloof, erudite and protestant Harvard graduate from the Midwest, formed an eclectic and somewhat unlikely threesome. Soon after they met, however, they discovered a mutual affinity for metaphysical inquiry, intense conversation, and writing. As a result, they frequently engaged in prolonged and sustained discussions on literary, philosophical, and psychological topics. Burroughs, older and more educated than Kerouac and Ginsberg, had some training and a keen interest in psychoanalytic techniques. He often led and set the agenda for these sessions, which included an odd amalgam of subconscious probing, bizarre role-playing games, creative writing exercises, and the discussion of ideas found in books they were reading. These mental marathons were often fueled well beyond the midnight hour by various types of amphetamine (speed). Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs attested that the mutual intimacy and spiritual questing of these early years were formative in their development as writers.

During this time the three key beats were part of a larger circle of friends that formed the initial core of the beat generation. This group included a number of other Columbia students, but, somewhat atypical for a social circle of college kids, it also encompassed streetwise hipsters, junkies, prostitutes, thieves, pimps, and small-time con-artists. Again, it was Burroughs, with his penchant towards petty crime and drug use, who was primarily responsible for bringing these low-lives into the mix. Along with their new acquaintances, the young beats were quickly acquiring a taste for experiences that lay beyond the normal societal fringes of the time. Their late night antics and partying began to migrate through the street scenes of Broadway and Times Square. They frequented the jazz clubs of 42nd Street, hanging out with musicians and partaking of their habitual lifestyles, including forays into sex and drugs.

One of their new friends was Herbert Huncke, known as Huncke the Junkie. Huncke was a heroin addict who grew up in a travelling circus and maintained his habit by pick pocketing suits and jumping drunks on the subway. Huncke was a natural storyteller with a diverse and acquisitive vernacular. Taking much of his linguistic style from African-American street slang, it was Huncke who first introduced the term “beat” into the group. To Huncke it meant impoverished, down-trodden, or beat-up. Kerouac later expanded the term to include its connotations of rhythm and holiness (beatific). Another character attaching himself to the fledgling beats was a young pool-hustler and car thief from Denver named Neal Cassady. His athletic good looks, western charm, and fast-talking antics awed the other beats. To them, Cassady was the physical embodiment of the Bebop style of jazz to which they were all then listening. Huncke and Cassady became muses to the beat writers and were celebrated by them as new forms of the American hero.

The young beats’ inclination toward seedy living erupted into the limelight in 1944 with their involvement in a well-publicized murder trial. Harassed to the point of desperation, their friend Lucien Carr stabbed and killed his homosexual admirer, David Kammerer, in Central Park one night and dumped the body into the Hudson River. Kerouac helped Carr hide the knife and both he and Burroughs were charged with accessory to murder. The arrests, legal maneuvering, and ensuing trial received ample press coverage and the New York spotlight turned its beam on the beats for the first time. Kerouac and Burroughs were released on bail, but the murder initiated the dispersal of the group and for a time the inner-circle fragmented. During the last war years Kerouac and Ginsberg broke away from their studies at Columbia, signing up for stints in the U.S. Navy and Merchant Marines. Through the late 1940s, Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs spent time in jail, mental institutions, and rehabilitation clinics. As their migratory impulses grew and they began to spend more time outside the Manhattan nucleus of their origin, the beats maintained an intimate contact with each other through letter writing. This fervid correspondence continued throughout their lives and was a major crucible for their individual writing styles, often containing the seeds of their most successful works.

While the embryonic beats were seeking kicks and learning to write, America was recovering from World War Two. Millions of veterans were chasing the American dream by beginning professional careers, starting families, and purchasing new homes in the suburbs. A mass conformity to straight-laced living seemed to grip the collective will. Social Conservatism dictated the norms of the time and the 1950s got started with a new republican administration and the specter of a massive military-industrial complex fueling the muscle of a booming economy. The Madison Avenue marketing machine inundated the nation’s citizenry with a brand of philistine consumerism that filled the media landscape with sparkling kitchens, manicured lawns, and a pristine perfection of family life. A new red scare began its march into McCarthyism and the threat of nuclear Armageddon hovered over the nation. The beats reacted to all this with rebellious denial and disdain. Much of what they published in the 1950s was a direct challenge to both the literary formalism of this era and the safe and sensible lifestyles to which most Americans were adhering.

Jack Kerouac was the first beat to be published in 1950 with his novel The Town and the City. A youthful novel, contrasting his boyhood in Lowell with his college years in New York, it received good reviews, but did not sell many copies. Kerouac continued to write prolifically, but would not publish another novel for seven years. The second beat publication, and thematically probably the first, was Go (1952) by John Clellon Holmes. Holmes had been a confidant of Kerouac’s since 1948 and was well acquainted with the beat circle, but admittedly not one of its wilder members. Holmes was a keen observer of the beats, however, and they supplied the subject and characters of his first novel. Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Huncke, Cassady, and others were portrayed quite factually in Go, always racing from one apartment to another, frantically searching for drugs, booze, money, girls, bop, ideas, and inspiration. The title not only captures the essential energy of the young beat maelstrom, but echoes the constant call of Neal Cassady to “Go, man, Go!”, ever pressing his friends towards new kicks and adventures. Because of interest in Go, The New York Times commissioned Holmes to write an essay about his friends. He titled it “This is the Beat Generation” and its publication was the first time the public caught wind of this moniker. In Junkie, published by Ace paperbacks in 1953, William Burroughs documented his life and travails as a heroin addict. Allen Ginsberg, serving as literary agent for his friend, was instrumental in its publication. These early publications of the Beat Generation only sold a few thousand copies each, but already contained some of the consistent themes and literary devices employed in later beat works.

During the early and mid-1950s, the beats drifted in and out of New York City, reassembling from time to time in the environs and haunts of Greenwich Village. The main beats travelled broadly through America and internationally during this time but maintained a close correspondence, offering each other input and advice on relationships, lifestyles, writing styles, and manuscripts. Allen Ginsberg, deeply immersed in William Blake, Walt Whitman, and William Carlos Williams, struggled to find his own poetic voice. Having fallen in love with Neal Cassady, he also struggled with his homosexuality, embracing and rejecting it in fits and starts as he simultaneously strove to maintain a straight and acceptable way of life as a young professional. Ginsberg also met Gregory Corso in Greenwich Village during this time. Corso was a young lyrical poet and ex-con who received most of his literary education reading the English romantics in prison. Ginsberg introduced Corso to Kerouac and Burroughs and he became the new youngest member of this inner circle of key beats, publishing his first book of poetry, The Vestal Lady on Brattle, in 1955. Meanwhile, Kerouac was increasingly driven by an American wanderlust into a transient, hobo-like lifestyle. Hitching rides and jumping trains, he eked out temporary lives in towns along route 66 and other highways, always scribbling observations, stories, and poems in his pocket notebooks. Burroughs remained addicted to heroin and other drugs during these years, struggling to find ways to support his habits, despite a monthly endowment he received from his well-to-do family. In 1951, during a late night party in Mexico City, Burroughs shot his wife, Joan Vollmer, through the forehead while playing William Tell with a shot glass. Burroughs later said that if it were not for this terrible accident, he would not have become a writer.

Between the publication of The Town and the City in 1950 and the publication of On the Road in 1957, Jack Kerouac completed the drafts for eleven books and published none. Feeling that editors degraded the original quality of The Town and the City, Kerouac adopted a combative stance against his potential publishers. He committed himself to capturing a natural flow in his prose and resisted all attempts to edit his works as they were first written. Inspired by the rambling, freely associative conversational style of Neal Cassady, Kerouac sought to seize on his thoughts, emotions, and observations as they first occurred, committing them to paper without conscious alteration. Also inspirational to the transformation of Kerouac’s writing style was his love of jazz. To Kerouac’s ears, jazz was the sound of freedom, so he began modeling his prose after the extended improvisational solos of bop musicians. He codified the tenets of his new writing style in a short essay titled “The Essentials of Spontaneous Prose”. In the late Forties and early Fifties, Kerouac embarked on a series of road trips back and forth across North America with Cassady and others, covering more than ten thousand miles. Often driving hours on end at breakneck speeds with Cassady at the wheel, Kerouac recorded the details of these journeys in his many little notebooks. It became part of his writing process to accumulate these notes during his travels and adventures, then sort them out and commit them to manuscripts during more stable and sedentary periods off the road, often back on the east coast staying with his mother. In April of 1951, in a three-week marathon of non-stop writing fueled by coffee and amphetamines, Kerouac wrote On the Road. So as not to pause in order to supply his typewriter with new sheets of paper, Kerouac spliced together long sheets of teletype paper into a one hundred and twenty feet long roll. He fed this into his typewriter and produced a continuous manuscript containing no chapter headings or paragraph breaks. This now famous manuscript that Kerouac presented to his publishers was sold at auction in 2001 for 2.4 million dollars, more than any other literary work in history. Because of his unorthodox style, concerns about libel, and his resistance to editing, it took six years for Kerouac to publish On the Road. His legend as a writer among beat circles grew steadily, however, as his manuscripts were circulated freely. Again it was Ginsberg, constant advocate of his writer friends, who was instrumental in disseminating Kerouac’s works. Other beats began referring to Kerouac as “Memory Babe” for his autobiographical style and his uncanny ability to record the details of the Beat Generation.

In the mid-1950s many of the east coast beats, including Allen Ginsberg, were living in San Francisco. San Francisco was already a burgeoning nucleus for young writers and at this time was experiencing a poetry renaissance. The meeting of the east coast beats with writers of the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance added to a critical mass of interest that was building around the new styles of writing and hip cultural centers of North Beach and Greenwich Village. The now famous Gallery Six reading took place in October of 1955. Organized by Ginsberg and hosted by Kenneth Rexroth, an older poet who served as mentor and elder-statesmen to the Renaissance, this event included performances by both east and west coast poets. West Coast representatives included Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, and Philip Whalen. It was at the Gallery Six that Ginsberg first publicly read his poem Howl. Ginsberg had been experimenting with Kerouac’s “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose” in an effort to unleash more dynamic elements in his poetic voice. In fact, Ginsberg claimed that, while composing Howl, he was mimicking Kerouac. Filling long Whitmanesque lines with jazz-like rhythms and tales of beat adventure, the poem became an instant beat generation manifesto. Reaction to the poem by other writers was immediate and electric. Many claimed that it represented a new form of socially relevant confessional writing. Its detailed chronicling and celebration of wild parties, drug intoxication, orgies, and uncontainable creative energy was a thunderous challenge to straight-laced society. Published by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and City Lights Books in 1956, Howl was declared obscene by federal authorities and the publishers were arrested. The American Civil Liberties Union defended City Lights and the ensuing trial brought national attention to Ginsberg’s poem and friends. Howl was finally deemed not to be obscene and became one of the all-time best selling books of American poetry.

Another outcome of the east coast beats’ presence in California was their increased exposure to and engagement in Eastern religions and philosophy. Kerouac and Ginsberg were investigating Taoist, Buddhist, and Zen texts and increasingly incorporated the influences into their own literature. Zen philosophy in particular, with its emphasis on paying attention to the now, resonated deep with beat sensibilities. Gary Snyder, a young poet studying Asian languages at the University of California, Berkeley, became an inspiration to the beats both for his knowledge of Buddhist belief and culture and his lively embodiment of those values. Just as On the Road was largely the story of Neal Cassady, The Dharma Bums (1958), Kerouac’s second most commercially successful novel, centered on the portrayal of Gary Snyder as Zen lunatic and American hero. In The Dharma Bums, Snyder envisioned a “rucksack revolution” of millions of young, free-spirited wanderers seeking a natural release from materialistic consumerism, a prophesy that was largely fulfilled in little more than a decade with the hippie movement. Inside their rucksacks, one could often find a copy of The Dharma Bums or On the Road.

In the years following the death of his wife, William Burroughs travelled widely in pursuit of ever more potent drugs and homosexual lovers. After a time trekking through South American jungles in search of the hallucinogenic Yage root, Burroughs began a brief sexual affair with Ginsberg back in New York City. When Ginsberg, still in love with Cassady, soon rejected his sexual advances, Burroughs took flight to Europe and Africa, eventually settling in Tangiers from 1953 to 1958. The ease of procuring heroin in Tangiers contributed to the demise of Burroughs’s health and he struggled between binges on junk and stints in rehabilitation clinics. His fragmented writing during this time formed a surreal record of his experience as a perverted junky haunted by visions of nightmare social control. During a period of recovery in 1957, Kerouac and Ginsberg travelled to Tangiers for a visit and helped him to manage and organize his odd collage of manuscripts. Piecing it together as a loosely connected mosaic of drug-tortured visions and experiences, Naked Lunch took shape as a revolutionary non-linear novel and was given its title by Kerouac. Naked Lunch also became the target of another famous obscenity trial and its success was instantly buoyed by the negative attention.

On Friday night, November 16, 1959, thirty million Americans tuned into the Steve Allen Show to watch Jack Kerouac read from On the Road accompanied by jazz piano. Suddenly the beat generation was a commonly accepted phrase and the writers associated with it enjoyed personal notoriety and professional success. In the eight years following the publication of On the Road, Kerouac published a dozen more novels, most of which had been initially rejected by publishers during the Fifties. In the Sixties, many of them became best-sellers. In total, these novels form a sweeping epic of Jack’s life and the beat generation that he referred to as “The Legend of Dulouz”. Though his writing style varied somewhat over the years, his voice remained true to the essential tenets of his spontaneous prose and the tales race along the American landscape, recording in minute detail the people and places he encountered. Consistent throughout is the narration of a seeker searching for heightened stimulation, both physical and spiritual. Hundreds of millions of these books have been read worldwide and translated into dozens of languages. As the reputation and importance of Howl continued to grow, Allen Ginsberg became one of America’s most famous poets, prolifically publishing and performing his poetry both nationally and internationally. He followed Howl with Kaddish in 1960. Gregory Corso published his second book of poems, Gasoline, in 1958, and often read publicly with Ginsberg. His short, lyrical, and light-hearted style contrasted well with Ginsberg’s longer narratives. William Burroughs became a noted novelist as well, following Naked Lunch with The Soft Machine (1961) and The Ticket that Exploded (1962). John Clellon Holmes, who first put the beats on the map with Go, published The Horn in 1958. The Horn is about a worn-out jazz great shuffling between gigs and looking for a fix. Holmes continued as a successful essayist and spokesperson for the beat generation, writing for the Times, Playboy, and Esquire for decades. Gary Snyder retreated to a Japanese monastery in 1957 to study Zen and did not return to the United States until 1964, but during this time he published several books of poetry including Rip Rap (1959). In 1974 Snyder won a Pulitzer Prize for Turtle Island. Lawrence Ferlinghetti continued to run City Lights Books and published his own collection of poetry in 1958 titled Coney Island of the Mind. It sold more than a million copies. Even Herbert Huncke and Neal Cassady, more raconteurs than writers themselves, began publishing books with some success.

Though their role in beat history was neglected for many years, in part due to the prevailing sexism of the times, numerous women writers eventually made their imprint in the beat lexicon. Carolyn Cassady, Neal Cassady’s wife, and Joyce Glassman, a girlfriend of Kerouac’s, recount their experiences with the beats’ inner core in their revisionist memoires about those early years. Diane Di Prima was an active Greenwich Village poet during the late Fifties and went on to serve as a key bridge figure between the Beat movement and the later hippies. Hettie Jones, married to poet Leroi Jones, also wrote a commercially successful memoir of her experiences with prominent beats. Leroi Jones, along with writers Ted Joans, Jim Carroll, Bob Kaufman, John Weiners, and others, are considered part of the “second wave” of beat writers, coming to attention after the first wave became famous. Charles Bukowski and Ken Kesey are examples of famous authors who were not contemporaneously acknowledged beats, but in later years have become strongly connected with the movement.

Popular reaction to the beats’ literary success included both romantic allure and a more conservative detestation. To many, the beats were no-talent hoods, corrupting the youth of America with their searching-for-kicks-at-any-cost mentality. To be sure, the beats were a rise in the social tide that was about to swell into the tsunami of sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll that largely defined the youth of the Sixties. Playing on the name Sputnik, the first satellite launched by the Soviets in 1957, the media began referring to followers of the beat generation as beatniks. The stereotypical beatnik was composed of a gross caricature of the young people who had begun congregating around bohemian centers like Greenwich Village, North Beach, and Venice Beach. Berets, black turtle necks, tight jeans, and goatees were the fashion of choice for the new beatniks, though none of the original beats dressed this way. Beatniks hung out in coffee shops and subterranean cafes reading poetry and digging far-out jazz. Jugs of wine, marijuana joints, and bongos were among the common props of the new beatnik scene. Film and TV caught on quick and beatnik characters began to appear in popular shows and movies. A new round of pulp fiction written by sensationalist beat imitators began to appear alongside other beat works. Words like hip, cool, pad, daddio, and squaresville entered the mainstream American vernacular. By the mid-Sixties however, the beat phenomenon was changing and growing into the Hippie movement. Turtlenecks gave way to tie-dye and jazz moved over for rock n’ roll.

As it turned out, Jack Kerouac hated fame. Though his books were selling well, many literary critics, academicians, journalists, and politicians continued to blame the problems of America’s youth on Kerouac and beat culture. Now known as King of the Beats, he was accused by some of being a communist and an anti-American. Kerouac felt betrayed as well by those now calling themselves beatniks. He complained they were trying too hard to be cool, when he had always associated the term beat with warmth and compassion. Kerouac had never been political and was scorned by both sides of the spectrum for refusing to take a political stand. The effects of lifelong alcoholism and the stresses of success began to take a toll on his health. In 1960, while staying at Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s cabin in Big Sur, California, Kerouac suffered a nervous breakdown. He avoided public appearances and granted very few interviews. He became boisterously conservative and catholic-minded, staying more and more at home with his mother until his death from alcoholism in 1969. Allen Ginsberg, on the other hand, flourished in the limelight. With continued literary success and acclaim, he remained a staunch advocate for his friends’ endeavors and counter-cultural ideals. For Ginsberg, the transformation to political activism was quite natural. He championed many causes associated with the Sixties civil-rights movements and remained a key figure in the Hippie echelon. Burroughs, too, was embraced by consecutive generations as his literary reputation continued to prosper, finding followers and collaborators among the Punks, Goths, and Cyber-punks. Many consider Burroughs the forefather of post-modern literature.

The beat generation’s literary legacy now seems secure. Works by the main beat writers continue to sell robustly. New editions, fresh compilations, and lost works are still pumped out by publishers. The media infatuation for beat legend lives on as well. Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs enjoy a posthumous iconic status that stretches beyond mere literary boundaries. In the academic realm, there is an ever increasing appreciation for the beats and their work as evidenced by their frequency in the curriculum and the growing number of dissertations focused on beat research. Most meaningful, however, is the beats’ enduring influence on young people hungry for travel, freedom, and experience. These soul-searchers continue to find a confirmation of their quest for meaning in beat literature and often join the pulsing crowd of those who claim the beat generation made America better.

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Citation: Donahue, Tim. "Beat Generation". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 06 April 2009 [, accessed 29 February 2024.]

113 Beat Generation 2 Historical context notes are intended to give basic and preliminary information on a topic. In some cases they will be expanded into longer entries as the Literary Encyclopedia evolves.

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