Beat Generation

views updated May 09 2018

Beat Generation

The Beat Generation, or "Beats," is a term used to describe the vanguard of a movement that swept through American culture after World War II as a counterweight to the suburban conformity and organization-man model that dominated the period, especially during the Eisenhower years (1953-1961), when Cold War tension was adding a unparalleled uptightness to American life. The term "Beat Generation" was apparently coined by Jack Kerouac, whose 1957 picaresque novel On the Road is considered a kind of manifesto for the movement. In 1952, John Clellon Holmes wrote in the New York Times Magazine: "It was John Kerouac … who several years ago … said 'You know, this is really a beat generation … More than the feeling of weariness, it implies the feeling of having been used, of being raw."' Holmes used the term in his 1952 novel Go, with obvious references to New York's bohemian scene. The claim, advanced in some circles, that Kerouac intended "beat" to be related to "beatific" or "beatitude" is now considered spurious by etymologists, though Beatitude was the name of a San Francisco magazine published by poet Allen Ginsberg and others whose folding in 1960 is regarded as the final chapter in that city's Beat movement (generally known as the San Francisco Renaissance).

Kerouac penned a dictionary definition of his own that characterized Beats as espousing "mystical detachment and relaxation of social and sexual tensions," terms that clearly include those at the literary epicenter of the Beat movement, such as Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, John Clellon Holmes, William Burroughs, Neal Cassady, and Herbert Huncke, the latter an alienated denizen of Times Square who served as an important guide to the nascent movement. Each of these figures embodied creative brilliance with various combinations of psychotic episodes, unconventional sexuality, or antisocial traits. Later additions included Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Diane di Prima, and many others. They, along with the writers who were drawn to the experimental Black Mountain College in North Carolina—or, like the expatriate Burroughs, to drug-soaked residency in Tangiers—carried forward an essentially Blakean and Whitmanian vision that welcomed spontaneity, surrealism, and a certain degree of decadence in poetic expression and personal behavior. In the 1950s, this put them in opposition to the prevailing currents of literary modernism on the model of T. S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, and the middlebrow poetry of Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg. Poetry, like Ginsberg's "Howl" or Corso's Gasoline series, was the favored genre of expression and the "3-Ms"—marijuana, morphine, and mescaline—were the drugs of choice.

William Carlos Williams enthusiastically took on the role of unofficial mentor to the East-Coast Beat poets after meeting Allen Ginsberg, and Kenneth Rexroth has been described as the "godfather of the Beats" for acting as catalyst to the famous reading at the Six Gallery in San Francisco, where on October 13, 1955, Ginsberg offered his first highly dramatic performance-recital of "Howl." Nearby was Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights Bookstore, which served as both shrine and paperback publisher for the literature of the Beat movement through its familiar black-and-white "Pocket Poet" series. Following the reading, Lawrence Ferlinghetti approached Ginsberg and convinced him to publish a chapbook of "Howl" through City Lights Press in San Francisco. In 1957, Howl and Other Poems was seized by customs officials, and Ferlinghetti was tried on charges of obscenity. The trial brought great notoriety and worldwide recognition to the message of Beat poetry, and the book's sales skyrocketed after the charges were dropped.

In general terms, the Beat poets were leftist in political orientation and committed to the preservation of the planet and the human species. Their literature speaks out against injustice, apathy, consumerism, and war. Despite such generalizations, however, at an individual level the poets are very difficult to classify. A highly diverse group, their political and spiritual views varied to extremes: Jack Kerouac and Gregory Corso, for example, supported the war in Vietnam; Allen Ginsberg was a Jewish radical and anarchist; and Philip Whalen was ordained a Zen priest. The difficulty of pinning down the essence of the Beat poets is part of their allure. The Beats earned their defiant image in part through the controversial themes in their work, which included celebration of the erotic, sexual freedom, exploration of Eastern thought, and the use of psychedelic substances. Fred McDarrah's Time magazine article offers evidence of how they were unkindly characterized in mainstream media: "The bearded, sandaled beat likes to be with his own kind, to riffle through his quarterlies, write craggy poetry, paint crusty pictures and pursue his never ending quest for the ultimate in sex and protest." Such condescending judgments only served to fuel the fascination with the Beat image among younger people.

Though the most well-known of the Beat poets are white males, the movement was not exclusively so. In contrast with many other literary movements, the Beats were tolerant of diversity and counted many women and poets of color among their ranks. Such poets as Ted Joans, Amiri Baraka (Leroi Jones), and Bob Kaufman were recognized by their peers for the importance of their work. The women of the Beat Generation, including Diane di Prima, Joanne Kyger, Anne Waldman, and many others, were as present if not as visible as the men. As Brenda Knight remarked, "the women of the Beat Generation, with rare exception, escaped the eye of the camera; they stayed underground, writing. They were instrumental in the literary legacy of the Beat Generation, however, and continue to be some of its most prolific writers."

Though many readers have been attracted to the work of the Beats by their cultural image, Anne Waldman contends that their durability stems from their varied and kaleidoscopic use of language. Beat poets abandoned traditional forms, syntax, and vocabulary in order to incorporate new rhythms, hip streetwise slang, and inventive imagery into their work. In her introduction to The Beat Book, Waldman describes this style as "candid American speech rhythms, jazz rhythms, boxcar rhythms, industrial rhythms, rhapsody, skillful cut-up juxtapositions, and an expansiveness that mirrors the primor-dial chaos…. This is writing that thumbs its nose at self-serving complacency." Though their style constituted a break from traditional forms, the Beats always acknowledged the contributions of their precursors. Poets of the early twentieth century such as William Carlos Williams and the imagists H.D. and Ezra Pound paved the way for them by loosening the constraints around poetic language.

When Kerouac and Holmes published articles in the 1950s using the term "Beat generation" to describe their cultural milieu, it was picked up by the mainstream media and solidified in popular culture. "Beat" in popular parlance meant being broke, exhausted, having no place to sleep, being streetwise, being hip. At a deeper level, as John Clellon Holmes wrote in his 1952 article, "beat … involves a sort of nakedness of mind, and, ultimately, of soul; a feeling of being reduced to the bedrock of consciousness." With increased usage of the term in the media, "Beat" came to signify the literary and political expression of the artists of the 1940s and 1950s.

The term "beatnik" has thus been rather generously applied to describe any devotee of the 1950s angst-ridden countercultural lifestyle, ranging from serious Beat intellectuals like Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg to the more "cool cat" bongo-drumming pot-smoking denizens of coffee houses—males in beards and females in leotards—who "dug it" in such far flung bohemian outposts as New York's Greenwich Village and Venice, California. Strictly speaking, "beatnik" was a term invented by the popular press only toward the end of the decade, after the launch of the Russian Sputnik satellite in the fall of 1957 spawned a host of "nik" words in popular lingo on the model of already existing Yiddish slang words like nudnik. Herb Caen, a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle, coined the term "beatnik" in an article he wrote for the paper on April 2, 1958, though the Oxford English Dictionary records the first use of the word in a Daily Express article that July 23, describing San Francisco as "the home and the haunt of America's Beat generation … the Beatniks—or new barbarians."

Whatever its origins, it is clear that during 1958, the word "beatnik" suddenly began appearing in magazines and newspapers around the world as a catchall phrase to cover most forms of urban, intellectual eccentrics, sometimes used in tandem with the dismissive "sicknik." It is also clear that few average Americans came into contact with self-avowing beatniks except by reading about them under the "Manners and Morals" heading in Time magazine or, more likely, through the rather stereotypical character of Maynard G. Krebs, who appeared on the CBS series The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis from 1959 to 1963. Krebs was described by Charles Panati in his 1991 book Panati's Parade of Fads, Follies, and Manias as a figure who "dressed shabbily, shunned work, and prefaced his every remark with the word like. " A decade earlier, however, a poetry-spouting proto-beatnik character named Waldo Benny had appeared regularly on The Life of Riley television sitcom, though he was never named as such.

Arguably the most definitive study of beatniks and the Beat Movement is Steven Watson's 1995 book The Birth of the Beat Generation: Visionaries, Rebels, and Hipsters, in which he describes the Beats as exemplifying "a pivotal paradigm in twentieth-century American literature, finding the highest spirituality among the marginal and the dispossessed, establishing the links between art and pathology, and seeking truth in visions, dreams, and other nonrational states." Watson and other cultural historians see the Beats as cultural antecedents to later countercultural groups that included Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters and hippies in the 1960s and punks in the 1970s. Reflecting on his own earlier participation in the Beat Movement, Robert Creeley wrote in the afterword of the 1998 paperback version of Watson's book that being Beat was "a way of thinking the world, of opening into it, and it finally melds with all that cares about life, no matter it will seem at times to be bent on its own destruction," and closed with the lines by Walt Whitman used as the motto for "Howl": "Unscrew the locks from the doors!/Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!"

—Edward Moran

—Caitlin L. Gannon

Further Reading:

Bartlett, Lee. The Beats: Essays in Criticism. Jefferson, N.C., London, McFarland, 1981.

Cassaday, Neal. The First Third and Other Writings. San Francisco, City Light Books, 1971, 1981.

Foster, Edward Halsey. Understanding the Beats. Columbia, S.C.University of South Carolina Press, 1992.

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

Huncke, Herbert. Guilty of Everything. New York, Paragon House, 1990.

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

——. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. Edited by Ann Charters. New York, Viking, 1955.

Kherdian, David, editor. Beat Voices: An Anthology of Beat Poetry. New York, Henry Holt and Company, 1995.

Knight, Brenda. Women of the Beat Generation: The Writers, Artists, and Muses at the Heart of a Revolution. Berkeley, California, Conari Press, 1996.

Panati, Charles. Panati's Parade of Fads, Follies, and Manias. New York, Harper Collins, 1992.

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

Beat Generation

views updated May 23 2018


BEAT GENERATION. The beats emerged in and around Columbia University in New York City in the 1940s. Picking up the word "beat" from their friend Herbert Huncke, the original beat writers, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac, used it to describe their free-form, improvisational style of writing and their unconventional, spontaneous way of life. Joined by writers such as Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, and Gregory Corso, the movement flowered in California in the mid-1950s and influenced much of the cultural rebellion of the 1960s.

At the Six Gallery in San Francisco on 7 October 1955 Ginsberg gave the first public reading of "Howl," a poem characteristically full of vivid imagery, confessional candor, and unbridled self-expression that authorities subsequently labeled vulgar. Ferlinghetti, the director of San Francisco's City Lights Books, was in the audience, and he offered to publish Ginsberg's work. The resulting Howl and Other Poems (1956) gave rise to a censorship trial that brought the beats into the public eye for the first time and cast them as literary rebels prepared to test the limits of censorship and social convention.

The most famous beat novel, Kerouac's On the Road, was written in 1951 but was not published until 1957. Based on his adventures with Neal Cassady in the late 1940s, the book reportedly encouraged countless others to seek personal fulfillment through the pursuit of an existential lifestyle. The success of On the Road thrust Kerouac into the spotlight, where he was acclaimed the "avatar" of the beat generation. Unprepared for fame and ill-equipped to deal with the critical backlash that followed, Kerouac withdrew from the media glare, dropped his beat friends, and distanced himself from the actions and ideals of those who claimed him as an inspiration. When Ginsberg became an important player in the activism of the 1960s, Kerouac denounced his former friend as "anti-American."

Originally derided by most serious critics and lampooned as "beatniks" by the popular media, the beats were rehabilitated in the 1970s. Their work, the basis of numerous academic courses and the subject of hundreds of books, significantly changed American literary conventions and values, and their lifestyle inspired restless souls and cultural rebels of all stripes. In June 2001 the manuscript of On the Road sold at auction for $2.43 million.


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

George-Warren, Holly, ed. The Rolling Stone Book of the Beats: The Beat Generation in American Culture. New York: Hyperion, 1999.

Tytell, John. Naked Angels. New York: Grove Press, 1976.

Watson, Steven. The Birth of the Beat Generation: Visionaries, Rebels, and Hipsters, 1944–1960. New York: Pantheon, 1995.


See alsoHippies ; Literature .

beat generation

views updated May 14 2018

beat gen·er·a·tion a movement of young people in the 1950s who rejected conventional society and favored Zen Buddhism, modern jazz, free sexuality, and recreational drugs. Among writers associated with the movement were Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.

beat generation

views updated May 17 2018

beat generation a movement of young people in the 1950s and early 1960s who rejected conventional society, valuing free self-expression and favouring modern jazz. The phrase itself was supposedly coined by Jack Kerouac (1922–69) in the course of a conversation.