Beat generation

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The term beat generation was introduced by Jack Kerouac c. 1948 to describe his social circle to the novelist John Clellon Holmes (who published an early novel about the beat generation, titled Go, in 1952, along with a manifesto of sorts in the New York Times Magazine: 'This is the beat generation'). The adjective 'beat' (introduced by Herbert Huncke) had the connotations of 'tired' or 'down and out', but Kerouac added the paradoxical connotations of 'upbeat', 'beatific', 'beatific vision', and the musical association of being 'on the beat'.

Calling this relatively small group of struggling writers, students, hustlers, and drug addicts a 'generation' was to make the claim that they were representative and important—the beginnings of a new trend, analogous to the influential Lost Generation. This is the kind of bold move that could be seen as delusions of grandeur, aggressive salesmanship or perhaps a display of perceptive insight — it might be best to think of it as an insight into some trends that became self-reinforcing: the label helped to create what it described. The members of the beat generation were new bohemian libertines, who engaged in a spontaneous, sometimes messy, creativity. The beat writers produced a body of written work controversial both for its advocacy of non-conformity and for its non-conforming style. Echoes of the beat generation run throughout all the forms of alternative/counter culture that have existed since then (e.g. 'hippies', 'rockers', etc). The beat generation can be seen as the first modern 'subculture'.

The major beat writings are Jack Kerouac's On the Road, Allen Ginsberg's Howl, and William Burroughs' Naked Lunch. Both Howl and Naked Lunch became the focus of obscenity trials in the United States of America that helped to liberalize what could be legally published.


The canonical beat generation authors met in New York: Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, (in the 1940s) and later (in 1950) Gregory Corso. In the mid-1950s, this group expanded to include figures associated with the San Francisco Renaissance such as Kenneth Rexroth, Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen and Lew Welch.

Perhaps equally important were the less obviously creative members of the scene, who helped form their intellectual environment and provided the writers with much of their subject material: There was Herbert Huncke, a drug addict and petty thief met by Burroughs in 1946; and Hal Chase, an anthropologist from Denver who in 1947 introduced into the group Neal Cassady. Also important were the oft-neglected women in the original circle, including Joan Vollmer and Edie Parker. Their apartment in the upper west side of Manhattan often functioned as a salon (or as Ted Morgan puts it, a 'pre-sixties commune') and Joan Vollmer in particular was a serious participant in the marathon discussion sessions.

William Burroughs was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1914; making him roughly ten years older than most of the other original beats. While still living in St. Louis, Burroughs met David Kammerer, presumably an association based on their shared homosexual orientation. David Kammerer became obsessed with a young student of his named Lucien Carr, and when Carr was sent off to school, Kammerer began a pattern of following him around the country. The two met up with Burroughs again while he was living in Chicago, and later when Carr was transferred to Columbia University in 1943, both Kammerer and Burroughs followed. While at Columbia University, Lucien Carr met Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, and introduced them to William Burroughs.

In 1944 Carr stabbed and killed Kammerer in an altercation that took place in a park on the Hudson River, and disposed of the body in the river. This may have been some form of self-defense, though Carr was the only witness to the scene. Kerouac helped Carr dispose of the weapon, and was arrested as an accessory to the crime when Carr turned himself in the next day. Kerouac wrote about this much later in the book Vanity of Duluoz (1968), though some version of these events also made it into his first novel The Town and the City (1950). Burroughs had long had an interest in experimenting with criminal behaviour, and gradually made contacts in the criminal underground of New York, becoming involved with dealing in stolen goods and narcotics and developing a decades long addiction to opiates. Burroughs met Herbert Huncke, a small-time criminal and drug addict who often hung around the Times Square area. The beats found Huncke a fascinating character. As Ginsberg put it, they were on a quest for 'supreme reality', and somehow felt that Huncke, as a member of the underclass had learned things they were sheltered from in their middle/upper-middle class lives.

Various problems resulted from this association: In 1949 Ginsberg was in trouble with the law (his apartment was packed with stolen goods, he had been riding in a car full of stolen goods, and so on). He pleaded insanity and was briefly committed to Bellvue, where he met Carl Solomon. When committed Carl Solomon was more eccentric than psychotic — a fan of Antonin Artaud, he indulged in some self-consciously 'crazy' behaviour: he stole a peanut butter sandwich in a cafeteria, and showed it to a security guard. If not crazy when he was admitted, he was arguably driven mad by the insulin shock treatments applied at Bellvue, and this is one of the things referred to in Ginsberg's poem 'Howl' (which was dedicated to Carl Solomon). After his release, Solomon became the publishing contact that agreed to publish Burroughs first novel Junky (1953) shortly before another serious psychotic episode resulted in him being committed again.

The introduction of Neal Cassady into the scene in 1947 had a number of effects. A number of the beats were enthralled with Cassady — Ginsberg had an affair with him; and Kerouac's road trips with him in the late 40s became a focus of his second novel, On the Road. Cassady is most likely the source of 'rapping' the loose spontaneous babble that later became associated with 'beatniks'. He was not much of a writer himself, though the core writers of the group were impressed with the free-flowing style of some of his letters, and Kerouac cited this as a key influence on his invention of the spontaneous prose style/technique that he used in On the Road (the other obvious influence being the improvised solos of Jazz music). This novel (when it eventually appeared in 1957) transformed Cassady (under the name 'Dean Moriarty') into a cultural icon: a hyper wildman, frequently broke, largely amoral, but frantically engaged with life.

The time lags involved in the publication of Kerouac's On the Road often creates confusion: It was written in 1952 — around the time that John Clellon Holmes published Go, and the article 'This is the beat generation' — and it covered events that took place much earlier, beginning in the late 40s. Since the book was not published until 1957, many people received the impression that it was describing the late 1950s era, though it was actually a document of a time ten years earlier. The legend of how On the Road was written was as influential as the book itself: high on speed, Kerouac typed rapidly on a continuous scroll of telegraph paper to avoid having to break his chain of thought at the end of each sheet of paper. Kerouac's dictum was that 'the first thought is best thought', and insisted that you should never revise text after it is written — though there remains some question about how carefully Kerouac observed this rule.

In 1950 Gregory Corso met Ginsberg, who was impressed by the poetry Corso had written while incarcerated for burglary. Gregory Corso was the young d'Artagnan added to the original three of the core beat writers, and for decades the four were often spoken of together; though later critical attention for Corso (the least prolific of the four) waned. Corso's first book The Vestal Lady on Brattle and Other Poems appeared in 1955. Then during the 1950s there was much cross-pollination with San Francisco, California area writers (Ginsberg, Corso, Cassady and Kerouac all moved there for a time). Ferlinghetti (one of the partners who ran the City Lights press and bookstore) became a focus of the scene as well as the older poet Rexroth, whose apartment became a Friday night literary salon. Rexroth organized the famous Six Gallery reading in 1955, the first public appearance of Ginsberg's poem Howl.

An account of the Six Gallery reading forms the second chapter of Jack Kerouac's 1958 novel The Dharma Bums, a novel about another poet that read at the event: Gary Snyder (written about under the name of 'Japhy Ryder'). Most of the people in the Beat movement had urban backgrounds and they found Snyder to be an almost exotic individual, with his backcountry and rural experience, and his education in cultural anthropology and Oriental languages. Lawrence Ferlinghetti has referred to him as 'the Thoreau of the beat generation'. One of the primary subjects of The Dharma Bums is Buddhism, and the different attitudes that Kerouac and Snyder have towards it. The Dharma Bums undoubtedly helped to popularize Buddhism in the West.

Women of the beat generation

There is typically very little mention of women in a history of the early beat generation, and a strong argument can be made that this omission is largely a reflection of the sexism of the time rather than a reflection of the actual state of affairs. Joan Vollmer (later, Joan Vollmer Burroughs) was clearly there at the beginning, and all accounts describe her as a very intelligent and interesting woman. But she did not herself write and publish, and unlike Neal Cassady, no one chose to write a book about her; she has gone down in history as the wife of William Burroughs, killed in an accidental (or perhaps 'accidental') shooting.

Gregory Corso insisted that there were many female beats, in particular, he claimed that a young woman he met in mid-1955 (Hope Savage, also called 'Sura') introduced Kerouac and Ginsberg to subjects such as Li Po and was in fact their original teacher regarding eastern religion (this claim must be an exaggeration, however: a letter from Kerouac to Ginsberg in 1954 recommended a number of works about Buddhism).

Corso insisted that it was hard for women to get away with a Bohemian existence in that era: they were regarded as crazy, and removed from the scene by force (e.g. by being subjected to electroshock). This is confirmed by Diane di Prima (in a 1978 interview collected in The Beat Vision):

I can't say a lot of really great women writers were ignored in my time, but I can say a lot of potentially great women writers wound up dead or crazy. I think of the women on the Beat scene with me in the early '50s, where are they now? I know Barbara Moraff is a potter and does some writing in Vermont, and that's about all I know. I know some of them ODed and some of them got nuts, and one woman that I was running around the Village with in '53 was killed by her parents putting her in a shock treatment place in Pennsylvania ...

However, a number of female beats have persevered, notably Joyce Johnson (author of Minor Characters); Carolyn Cassady (author of Off the Road); Hettie Jones (author of How I Became Hettie Jones); Joanne Kyger (author of Going On; Japan and India Journals; Just Space); and the aforementioned Diane di Prima (author of This Kind of Bird Flies Backward, Memoirs of a Beatnik). Later, other women writers emerged who were strongly influenced by the beats, such as Janine Pommy Vega (published by City Lights) in the 1960s.

The Beatnik stereotype

The term beatnik was coined by Herb Caen of the San Francisco Chronicle on 2 April 1958, as a derogatory term, a reference to the Russian satellite Sputnik, which managed to suggest that the beats were (1) 'way out there' and (2) pro-Communist. This term stuck and became the popular label associated with a new stereotype of men with goatees and berets playing bongos while women wearing black leotards dance. A classic example of the beatnik image is the character Maynard G. Krebs played by Bob Denver on the Dobie Gillis television show that ran from 1959 to 1963. The general beat stereotype also owed something to some of the popular film actors emerging during the early and mid 1950s (for instance, Marlon Brando and James Dean) who had youthful, adventurous, 'rebel' images. A sensationalist Hollywood interpretation of the sub-culture can be seen in the 1959 film The Beat Generation.

Some other examples of the stereotype: In the television cartoon show, The Simpsons, the parents of Ned Flanders are beatniks. (Hurricane Neddy[1]) In another cartoon, Doug, Doug's sister, Judy, dresses and talks in the manner of a beatnik.

Influences on Western culture

There are many authors who can claim to be influenced by the beats (see the individual articles for each of the beat writers); but the beat generation phenomenon itself has had a huge influence on Western culture overall, larger than just the effects of some writers and artists on other writers and artists. In many ways, the beats can be taken as the first subculture (here meaning a cultural subdivision on intellectual/artistic/lifestyle/political grounds, rather than on any obvious difference in ethnic or religious backgrounds). During the very conformist post-Second World War era they were one of the forces engaged in a questioning of traditional values which produced a break with the mainstream culture that to this day people react to -- or against.

There's no question that beats produced a great deal of interest in lifestyle experimentation (notably in regards to sex and drugs); and they had a large intellectual effect in encouraging the questioning of authority (a force behind the anti-war movement); and many of them were very active in popularizing interest in Zen Buddhism in the West.

A quotation from Allen Ginsberg's A Definition of the Beat Generation as published in Friction, 1 (Winter 1982), revised for Beat Culture and the New America: 1950-1965:

Some essential effects of Beat Generation artistic movement can be characterized in the following terms:
  • Spiritual liberation, sexual 'revolution' or 'liberation,' i.e., gay liberation, somewhat catalyzing women's liberation, black liberation, Gray Panther activism.
  • Liberation of the word from censorship.
  • Demystification and/or decriminalization of some laws against marijuana 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, 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 essence of the phrase 'beat generation' may be found in On the Road with the celebrated phrase: 'Everything belongs to me because I am poor.'

The Transition to the 'Hippie' era

Some time during the 1960s, the rapidly expanding beat culture underwent a transformation: the beat generation' gave way to 'The Sixties Counterculture', which was accompanied by a shift in public terminology from 'beatnik' to 'hippie'. This was in many respects a gradual transition. Many of the original beats remained active participants, notably Allen Ginsberg, who became a fixture of the anti-war movement -- though equally notably, Kerouac did not remain active on the scene: he broke with Ginsberg and criticized the 1960s protest movements as 'new excuses for spitefulness'.

The Beats in general were a large influence on members of the new 'counterculture', for example, in the case of Bob Dylan who became a close friend of Allen Ginsberg. According to Ed Sanders the change in the public label from 'beatnik' to 'hippie' happened after the 1967 'Be-In' in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park (where Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder and Michael McClure were leading the crowd in chanting 'Om').

One version of the beatnik to hippie transition (with emphasis on the Lower East Side of New York) is documented by Sanders in his series of stories collected in Tales of Beatnik Glory:

We were going to miss beatnik, a word we never used but secretly loved. No longer would Civil Rights marchers be deprecated as 'beatnik race-mixers' in the klan towns of the South. Now we were 'hippie dope-scum.

There were certainly some stylistic differences between 'beatniks' and 'hippies' — somber colours, dark shades, and goatees gave way to colourful '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). In addition to the stylistic changes, there were some 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. To quote Gary Snyder in a 1974 interview (collected in The Beat Vision):

... the next key point was Castro taking over Cuba. The apolitical quality of Beat thought changed with that. It sparked quite a discussion and quite a dialogue; many people had been basic pacifists with considerable disillusion with Marxian revolutionary rhetoric. At the time of Castro's victory, it had to be rethought again. Here was a revolution that had used violence and that was apparently a good thing. Many people abandoned the pacifist position at that time or at least began to give more thought to it. In any case, many people began to look to politics again as having possibilities. From that follows, at least on some levels, the beginning of civil rights activism, which leads through our one whole chain of events: the Movement.

Drug usage

The original members or the beat generation group — in Allen Ginsberg's phrase, 'the libertine circle' — used a number of different drugs. In addition to the alcohol common in American life, they were also interested in marijuana, benzedrine and, in some cases, opiates such as morphine. As time went on, many of them began using other psychedelic drugs, such as peyote, yage, and the synthesized drug LSD (see both psychedelic and psychedelic drug).

Much of this usage can fairly be termed 'experimental', in that they were generally unfamiliar with the effects of these drugs, and there were intellectual aspects to their interest in them as well as a simple pursuit of hedonistic intoxication. Benzedrine at that time was available in the form of plastic inhalers, containing a piece of folded paper soaked in the drug. They would typically crack open the inhalers and drop the paper in coffee, or just wad it up and swallow it whole. Opiates could be obtained in the form of morphine 'syrettes': a squeeze tube with a hypodermic needle tip.

As the beat phenomenon spread (transforming from beat to 'beatnik' to 'hippie'), usage of some of these drugs also became more widespread. According to stereotype, the 'hippies' commonly used the psychedelic drugs (marijuana, LSD), though the use of other drugs such as amphetamines was also widespread. 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.

Historical context

The postwar era was a time where the dominant culture was desperate for a reassuring planned order; but there was a strong intellectual undercurrent calling for spontaneity, an end to psychological repression; a romantic desire for a more chaotic, Dionysian existence. The beats were a manifestation of this undercurrent (and over time, a primary focus for those energies), but they were not the only one. Before Jack Kerouac embraced 'spontaneous prose', there were other artists pursuing self-expression by abandoning control, notably the improvisational elements in jazz music, and the action paintings of Jackson Pollack and the other abstract expressionists.

Also, there were other artists in the post-war period who embraced a similar disdain for refined control, often with the opposite intent of suppressing the ego, and avoiding self-expression; notably, the works of the composer/writer John Cage and the paintings and 'assemblages' of Robert Rauschenberg. The 'cut-up' technique that Brion Gysin developed and that William Burroughs adopted after publishing Naked Lunch bears a strong resemblance to Cage's 'chance operations' approach.

The beats were certainly not the only form of experimental writing in the post-war period. Various other movements/scenes can be identified that were happening roughly concurrently:

  • The Angries, a group of post-war British writers with which the beats are sometimes compared
  • The Black Mountain poets (which John Cage was also associated with)
  • The San Francisco Renaissance can be regarded as a separate movement of its own, with origins preceding the beats.

There were many influences on the beat generation writers: Blake was a large intellectual influence on Allen Ginsberg and there are striking echoes of Walt Whitman's style in Ginsberg's work; the novel You Can't Win by Jack Black was a strong influence on William Burroughs; Marcel Proust's work was read by many of the beats, and may have inspired Kerouac in his grand scheme for a multi-volume autobiographical work.

The full historical background arguably includes: Henry David Thoreau, Imagism (especially Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams and H.D.), the Objectivists and Henry Miller.

Principal writings of the beat generation

  • On the Road by Jack Kerouac (1957)
  • Junky by William S. Burroughs (1953)
  • Howl and other Poems by Allen Ginsberg (1956)
  • Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs (1959)
  • The First Third by Neal Cassady (1970)
  • Minor Characters by Joyce Johnson (1983)

Examples of proto-beat writings

  • The Town and the City by Jack Kerouac (1950)
  • Go by John Clellon Holmes (1952)
  • Who Walk in Darkness by Chandler Brossard (1952)
  • Flee the Angry Strangers by George Mandel (1952)
  • Halfway Down the Stairs by Charles Thompson (1957; depicts late 1940s proto-beats)

N.B.:Kerouac's first novel, The Town and the City, like all of his major works, is essentially an autobiographical novel about the beat circle, but it is not usually considered a 'beat novel' because he had not yet developed his own style (he was consciously imitating Thomas Wolfe). A similar argument is usually made about Holmes's Go.