Beatniks and the Beat Movement

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Beatniks and the Beat Movement

The Beat movement was a literary movement that became a social movement as well. In the late 1940s and into the 1950s, a group of writers shared a deep distaste for American culture and society as it existed after World War II (1939–45). These writers included Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997), Jack Kerouac (1922-1969), William F. Burroughs (1914-1997), John Clellon Holmes (1926-1988), and Lawrence Ferlinghetti (1919–). In an era when many Americans were content to pursue consumer culture, the Beats—or Beatniks—sought out experiences that were more intensely "real." Sometimes "real" experiences meant physical pleasures such as sex and drugs or more spiritual pursuits such as Eastern religions, particularly Buddhism.

Of the Beats, the two most important figures were Ginsberg and Kerouac. Ginsberg's poem "Howl" was a biting commentary on the values of postwar America. He described how he "saw the best minds of [his] generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked. . . ." The poem soon became a landmark in the world of postwar poetry and literature. Kerouac's 1957 novel On the Road (see entry under 1950s—Print Culture in volume 3) chronicled the adventures of Kerouac, his friend Neal Cassady (1926?–1968), Ginsberg, Burroughs, and others. The novel painted a vivid picture of Beat life as the vaguely fictionalized characters sought out "real" experiences as they traveled across America. On the Road proved highly influential in its own way, helping to bring Beat values to a broad and mostly young audience. Other important early works from the Beat movement included Holmes' novel Go (1952), and Burroughs' Naked Lunch (1959).

This small group formed the core of the Beat movement. The terms "Beat" and "Beatnik" soon moved beyond them and out into the mainstream, attracting a popular following among disaffected youth. Some of these people followed their own version of the Beat lifestyle, but without producing poetry, novels, and other creative expressions. Once the term hit the mainstream, however, it attracted still more people who knew little of the real Beats, but wanted to look like them. Many adopted a stereotypical version of Beat fashion styles, sporting sandals, black turtlenecks, black berets, and goatee beards. These stereotypes found their way into popular culture, most notably in the television (see entry under 1940s—TV and Radio in volume 2) version of the Dobie Gillis (see entry under 1950s—TV and Radio in volume 3) stories, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (1959–63). In it, actor Bob Denver (1935–) played beatnik Maynard G. Krebs. As a cultural phenomenon, the Beat movement was short-lived. As a literary movement, it proved highly influential, with Kerouac writing a number of novels and Ginsberg establishing himself as a major American poet in the tradition of Walt Whitman (1819–1892).

—Timothy Berg

For More Information

Charters, Ann, ed. The Portable Beat Reader. New York: Viking, 1992.

Foster, Edward Halsey. Understanding the Beats. Columbia: University of South Carolina, 1992.

Ginsberg, Allen. Howl and Other Poems. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1956.

Kerouac, Jack. On the Road. New York: Viking, 1957.

Watson, Steven. The Birth of the Beat Generation: Visionaries, Rebels, and Hipsters. New York: Pantheon, 1995.