Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
The term beat generation was introduced by Jack Kerouac in approximately 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" and "beatific". He was also riffing on the "beat" in music, as coined by jazz aficionados in the 1930's for the legendary jazz magazine, Down Beat. Kerouac was an avid jazz fan and was known to recite and improvise works in collaboration with jazz musicians.
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", "punks", etc). The Beat Generation can be seen as the first "subculture". See the "Influences on Western Culture" section below.
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 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-'50s 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. 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 , presumbably 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-defence, 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 behavior, 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" behavior: 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 -- Kerouac's road trips with him in the late 40s became a focus of his second novel, On the Road; and Ginsberg later had an affair with him. 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.
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 proflific 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 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 this event forms the second chapter of Jack Kerouac's 1959 novel The Dharma Bums. Besides a thinly fictonalized narrator representing Kerouc himself, the main character in the book is "Japhy Ryder," a thinly veiled Gary Snyder. As most of the people in the Beat movement had urban backgrounds, writers like Ginsberg and Kerouac found Snyder, with his backcountry and rural experience, and his education in cultural anthropology and Oriental languages, to be a refreshing and almost exotic individual. Though some people (including Snyder himself) are dubious about the "Beat" tag being applied to West-Coaster Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti later referred to Snyder as 'the Thoreau of the Beat Generation'.
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 was written about 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 '50s 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.
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 Pensylvania ...
However, a number of female beats have perservered, notably Joyce Johnson (author of Minor Characters); Carolyn Cassady (author of Off the Road); Hettie Jones (author of How I Became Hettie Jones); 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) and Patti Smith who emerged in the early 1970s.
The Beatnik Stereotype
The term "Beatnik" was coined by Herb Caen of the San Francisco Chronicle on April 2, 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. While the Krebs character captured a certain style of dress, facial hair, and obvious flakiness, the general beat stereotype probably 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. Indeed, James Dean and his budding actor friend Dennis Hopper experimented with peyote in their private lives, just as some of the East- and West-Coast Beat writers did. An East-Coast bohemian of a slightly younger set, Robert Zimmerman (“Bob Dylan”) has talked of his admiration for Dean.
On another cartoon, Doug, Doug's sister, Judy, dresses and talks in the manner of a beatnik.
Influences on Western Culture
There are many writers, artists and musicians who explicitly acknowledge a debt to the beat writers (and for more about them, see the individual articles for each author); but the Beat Generation phenomena 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-World War II 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 "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 post war era was a time where the dominant culture was desperate for a reassuring planned order; but there was a strong intellectual undercurrent calling for spontaniety, 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 resemblence to Cage's "chance operations" approach.
The beats were certainly not "the only game in town", as far as experimental writing is concerned. 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.
- Gary Snyder read Pound early and was encouraged in his interests in Japan and China by Pound's work.
- William Carlos Williams encouraged a number of beats and wrote a preface for Howl and other poems.
- Pound was also important to Allen Ginsberg and to most of the San Francisco Rennaissance group (Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, etc).
- H.D. was crucial to Robert Duncan.
- Rexroth published with the Objectivists.
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)
Some 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)
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.
- "The so-called Beat Generation was a whole bunch of people, of all different nationalities, who came to the conclusion that society sucked."
- "But yet, but yet, woe, woe unto those who think that the Beat Generation means crime, delinquency, immorality, amorality ... woe unto those who attack it on the grounds that they simply don’t understand history and the yearning of human souls ... woe in fact unto those who those who make evil movies about the Beat Generation where innocent housewives are raped by beatniks! ... woe unto those who spit on the Beat Generation, the wind’ll blow it back."
- "Three writers does not a generation make."
- "Nobody knows whether we were catalysts or invented something, or just the froth riding on a wave of its own. We were all three, I suppose."
- Morgan, Ted Literary Outlaw The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs (1983) ISBN 0-380-70882-5
- Knight, Brenda. Women of the Beat Generation: The Writers, Artists and Muses at the Heart of a Revolution. ISBN 1573241385
- Charters, Ann. Ed. 1992. The Portable Beat Reader. Penguin Books. ISBN 0-670-83885-3 (hc); ISBN 0-14-01.5102-8 (pbk).
- Knight, Arthur Winfield. Ed. The Beat Vision (1987) Paragon House. ISBN 0-913729-40-X; ISBN 0-913729-41-8 (pbk)
- "Beat Culture and the New America 1950-1965" published by the Whitney Museum of American Art in accordance with an exhibition in 1995/1996 -- ISBN 0-87427-098-7 softcover, ISBN 2-08013-613-5 hardcover (Flammarion)
- Jack Kerouac (wrote), Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie (directed) Pull My Daisy (1958)
- Richard Lerner and Lewis MacAdams (directed) Whatever Happened To Kerouac? (1986) Documentary.
- Chuck Workman (wrote and directed) The Source (1999)
- Beat Generation
- Beat Literature: Open Directory Project
- Biographies of Beat Generation writers, artists, & poets
- Beat Generation photographs by Larry Keenan
- Blue Neon Alley - Beat Generation directory
- Beats In Kansas: The Beat Generation in the Heartland
- Fathers of Beat: Website on Beat Generation Writers and run-ins with the law
- Beat Generation and Bohemian Culture - the movement at digihitch
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