The Beat Generation was a group of American post-World War II writers who came to prominence in the 1950s, as well as the cultural phenomena that they both documented and inspired. Central elements of “Beat” culture included experimentation with drugs, alternative forms of sexuality, an interest in Eastern religion, a rejection of materialism, and the idealizing of exuberant, unexpurgated means of expression and being.
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 original “Beat Generation” writers met in New York. Later, in the mid-1950s, the central figures (with the exception of Burroughs) ended up together in San Francisco where they met and became friends with figures associated with the San Francisco Renaissance.
Significant figures, events, and elements
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. 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.
Burroughs was introduced to the group by an old friend, David Kammerer, who was enamored of 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.
The 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 Times Square) was small-time criminal and drug-addict Herbert Huncke. The Beats were drawn to Huncke, who later started to write himself, perceiving 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 over Ginsberg while he was driving with Huncke, his car filled with stolen items Huncke planned to fence. Ginsberg crashed the car while trying to flee. He escaped on foot, but left incriminating notebooks behind. Ginsberg 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.
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.
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”, Kerouac’s roman à clef for 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.
Women of the Beat Generation
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 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. Later, women emerged who claimed to be strongly influenced by the Beats, including Janine Pommy Vega in the 1960s, Patti Smith in the 1970s, and Hedwig Gorski in the 1980s.
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. Much of this usage was “experimental,” in that they were often initially unfamiliar with the effects of these drugs. They were inspired by intellectual interest, as well as simple hedonism.
The actual results of this “experimentation” can be difficult to determine. Claims that some of these drugs can enhance creativity, insight or productivity were quite common, as is the belief that the drugs in use were a key influence on the social events of the time (see recreational drug use).
Many of the key Beat Generation figures were homosexual or bisexual, some of them quite openly, including two of the most prominent writers (Ginsberg and Burroughs). Many of them met each other through homosexual social connections, specifically 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 focuses on drug use, but also contains sexual content. In addition to references to homosexuality, it included explicit descriptions of alternative sexual practices. Both works were prosecuted for obscenity. Victory by the publishers in both cases in effect marked the end of literary censorship in the United States.
In comparison, though considered racy at the time, Kerouac’s writings were relatively 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).
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.[page needed] 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 poets were major influences on the Beats, including 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.
Influences on Western culture
While many authors claim to be directly influenced by the Beats, the Beat Generation phenomenon itself has had a pervasive influence on Western culture more broadly.
In 1982, Ginsberg published a summary of “the essential effects” of the Beat Generation:
- Spiritual liberation, sexual “revolution” or “liberation,” i.e., gay liberation, somewhat catalyzing women’s liberation, black liberation, Gray Panther activism.
- Liberation of the world from censorship.
- Demystification and/or decriminalization of cannabis and other drugs.
- The evolution of rhythm and blues into rock and roll as a high art form, as evidenced by the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, and other popular musicians influenced in the later fifties and sixties by Beat generation poets’ and writers’ works.
- The spread of ecological consciousness, emphasized early on by Gary Snyder and Michael McClure, the notion of a “Fresh Planet.”
- Opposition to the military-industrial machine civilization, as emphasized in writings of Burroughs, Huncke, Ginsberg, and Kerouac.
- Attention to what Kerouac called (after Spengler) a “second religiousness” developing within an advanced civilization.
- Return to an appreciation of idiosyncrasy as against state regimentation.
- Respect for land and indigenous peoples and creatures, as proclaimed by Kerouac in his slogan from On the Road: “The Earth is an Indian thing.”
The term “Beatnik” was coined by Herb Caen of the San Francisco Chronicle on 2 April 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. “Beatniks” appeared in many cartoons, movies, and TV shows of the time, perhaps the most famous being the character Maynard G. Krebs in The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. (1959–1963)
While some of the original Beats embraced the beatniks, or at least found the parodies humorous (Ginsberg, for example, appreciated the parody in Pogo) others criticized the beatniks as inauthentic posers. 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).
Since 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 (poet), Andy Clausen, David Cope, Eileen Myles, Eliot Katz, Paul Beatty, Sapphire (author), 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 Lennon was a fan of Jack Kerouac. Ginsberg later met and became friends with members of the Beatles. Paul McCartney played guitar on Ginsberg’s album Ballad of the Skeletons.
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 friends with members of The Doors, at one point touring with keyboardist Ray Manzarek.
Ginsberg was friends with 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 friends with Mick Jagger, Lou Reed, 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.
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. 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.
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.”
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.