See also the companion article Beat Generation: Influences and influence

The Beat Generation is a group of American post-WWII 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 and alternative forms of sexuality, an interest in Eastern religion, a rejection of materialism, and the idealizing of exuberant, unexpurgated means of expression and being.

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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.[1] Both Howl and Naked Lunch were the focus of obscenity trials that ultimately helped to liberalize publishing in the United States.[2][3] 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, the central figures (with the exception of Burroughs) ended up together in San Francisco in the mid-1950s where they met and became friends with figures associated with the San Francisco Renaissance.

In the 1960s, elements of the expanding Beat movement were incorporated into the Hippy counterculture.

Hip BurroughsFile

Front cover art for collected works of William S. Burroughs: The Burroughs File

Significant Figures, Events, and ElementsEdit

Origin of nameEdit

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. The adjective "beat" could colloquially mean "tired" or "beaten down",[4][5] but Kerouac expanded the meaning to include the connotations "upbeat," "beatific," and the musical association of being "on the beat".[6]

Columbia UniversityEdit

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,[7][8] [9] 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 with 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.[10] He weighted, 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 twice about this incident, once in his first novel, The Town and the City, and again in one of his last, Vanity of Duluoz.

The Times Square "Underworld"Edit

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.[11]

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.[12]

Neal CassadyEdit

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 readingEdit

Hip JackKerouacAlleyStreetSign

"Jack Kerouac was here"[13] and urban beautification were enough to turn this one-way alleyway in Chinatown, San Francisco, California, that connects Grant Avenue and Columbus Avenue, into somewhere that is in turn known for its engraved Western and Chinese poems, including poets such as John Steinbeck, Maya Angelou, and Kerouac himself.[14]

Template:See also Allen Ginsberg had visited Neal and Carolyn Cassady in San Jose 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 [15] 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.[16][17]

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.[18]

Women of the Beat GenerationEdit

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.[19] Joan Vollmer for instance did not write, although she appears as a minor figure in multiple authors' works.[20] 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.[21] Corso and Diane Di Prima, among others, insist that were female Beats, but that it was more difficult for women to get away with a Bohemian existence in that era.[22] [23]

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.

Drug useEdit

The original members of the Beat Generation used a number of different drugs, often to excess, 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).[24]


Hip GinsbergWaldman

Anne Waldman and Allen Ginsberg, Postbeat Poets. Ginsberg was of course also a Beat poet

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 other extreme 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.[2][3]

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).

See alsoEdit

Further readingEdit

  • Campbell, James. This Is the Beat Generation: New York–San Francisco-Paris. LA: University of California Press, 2001. ISBN 0-520-23033-7
  • Cook, Bruce The Beat Generation: The tumultuous '50s movement and its impact on today. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1971. ISBN 0-684-12371-1.
  • Gifford, Barry and Lawrence LeeJack's Book An Oral Biography Of Jack Kerouac, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1978. ISBN 0-312-43942-3
  • Grace, NancyJack Kerouac and the Literary Imagination, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. ISBN 1-4039-6850-0
  • Hemmer, Kurt ed. Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. Facts on File, 2006. ISBN 0-8160-4297-7
  • Hrebeniak, Michael. Action Writing: Jack Kerouac's Wild Form, Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 2006.
  • Johnson, Ronna C. and Nancy Grace Girls Who Wore Black: Women Writing the Beat Generation. Rutgers, 2003. ISBN 081353065
  • McDarrah, Fred W. and Gloria S. McDarrah. Beat Generation: Glory Days in Greenwich Village Schirmer Books (September 1996) ISBN 0-8256-7160-4
  • McNally, Dennis. Desolate Angel: Jack Kerouac, the Beat Generation, and America. NY: DeCapo, 2003. ISBN 0-306-81222-3
  • Miles, Barry. The Beat Hotel: Ginsberg, Burroughs & Corso in Paris, 1957–1963. NY: Grove Press, 2001. ISBN 0-8021-3817-9
  • Sanders, Ed Tales of Beatnik Glory (second edition, 1990) ISBN 0-8065-1172-9
  • Theado, Matt (ed.). The Beats: A Literary Reference. NY: Carrol & Graff, 2002. ISBN 0-7867-1099-3
  • Watson, Steven. The Birth of the Beat Generation: Visionaries, Rebels, and Hipsters, 1944–1960. NY: Pantheon, 1998. ISBN 0-375-70153-2


  1. Charters (1992) The Portable Beat Reader
  2. 2.0 2.1 Ann Charters, introduction, to Beat Down to Your Soul, Penguin Books (2001) ISBN 0-14-10.0151-8 p. xix "[...] the conclusion of the obscenity trial in San Francisco against Lawrence Ferlinghetti for publishing Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poerms [...] in which Judge Clayton Horn concluded for the defendant that 'Howl' had what he called 'redeeming social content.' ", p. xxxiii "After the successful Howl trial, outspoken and subversive literary magazines sprung up like wild mushrooms throughout the United States."
  3. 3.0 3.1 Ted Morgan, Literary Outlaw, Avon, New York, 1988. p 347, trade paper edition ISBN 0-380-70882-5 "The ruling on Naked Lunch in effect marked the end of literary censorship in the United States."
  4. "The word 'beat' was primarily in use after World War II by jazz musicians and hustlers as a slang term meaning down and out, or poor and exhausted. The jazz musician Mezz Mezzrow combined it with other words, like 'dead beat' ..." Ann Charters, The Portable Beat reader, 1992, ISBN 0670838853, 9780670838851
  5. "Hebert Huncke picked up the word [beat] from his show business friends on of Near North Side of Chicago, and in the fall of 1945 he introduced the word to William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac." Steve Watson, The Birth of the Beat Generation" (1995), p.3 ISBN 0-375-70153-2
  6. The exuberance is much stronger in the published On the Road, than in its manuscript (in scroll-form). Luc Sante: "In the scroll the use of the word “holy” must be 80 percent less than in the novel, and psalmodic references to the author’s unique generation are down by at least two-thirds; uses of the word “beat,” for that matter, clearly favor the exhausted over the beatific." New York Times Book Review August 19, 2007. [1]
  7. "In this essay "Beat" includes those American poets considered avant-garde or anti-acadmeic from ca. 1955-1965.", Lee Hudson, "Poetics in Performancs: The Beat Generation" collected in Studies in interpretation, Volume 2, ed Esther M. Doyle, Virginia Hastings Floyd, 1977, Rodopi ISBN 906203070X, 9789062030705, p. 59
  8. "... resistance is bound to occur in bringing into the academy such anti-academic writers as the Beats.", Nancy McCampbell Grace, Ronna Johnson, Breaking the rule of cool: interviewing and reading women beat writers 2004, Univ. Press of Mississippi, ISBN 1578066549, 9781578066544, page x
  9. "The Black Mountain school originated at the sometime Black Mountain College of Asheville, North Carolina, in the 1950s and gave rise to an anti-academic academy that was the center of attraction for many of the disaffiliated writers of the period, including many who were known in other contexts as the Beats or the Beat generation and the San Francisco school." Steven R. Serafin, Alfred Bendixen, The Continuum Encyclopedia of American Literature, 2005, Continuum International Publishing Group, ISBN 0826417779, 9780826417770, p. 901
  10. Knight, Brenda, "Women of the Beat Generation: The Writers, Artists and Muses at the Heart of a Revolution" 978-1573241380 Conari Press, 1998
  11. Ted Morgan, Literary Outlaw, Avon, New York, 1988. pp 163-164, trade paper edition ISBN 0-380-70882-5
  12. Ted Morgan, Literary Outlaw, Avon, New York, 1988. pp 205-6, trade paper edition ISBN 0-380-70882-5
  13. Template:Cite news
  14. Template:Cite news
  15. Jonah Raskin, American Scream: Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" and the Making of the Beat Generation:
    "Wally Hedrick, a painter and veteran of the Korean War, approached Ginsberg in the summer of 1955 and asked him to organize a poetry reading at the Six Gallery...At first, Ginsberg refused. But once he’d written a rough draft of Howl, he changed his "fucking mind," as he put it."
  16. Ginsberg, Allen. Howl. 1986 critical edition edited by Barry Miles, Original Draft Facsimile, Transcript & Variant Versions, Fully Annotated by Author, with Contemporaneous Correspondence, Account of First Public Reading, Legal Skirmishes, Precursor Texts & Bibliography ISBN 0-06-092611-2 (pbk.)
  17. McClure, Michael. Scratching the Beat Surface: Essays on New Vision from Blake to Kerouac. Penguin, 1994. ISBN 0-14-023252-4
  18. Bradley J. Stiles, Emerson's contemporaries and Kerouac's crowd: a problem of self-location Fairleigh Dickinson Univ Press, 2003 ISBN 0838639607, 9780838639603, p87 "Although Kerouac did not introduce Eastern religion into American culture, his writings were instrumental in popularizing Buddhism among mainstream intellectuals."
  19. Wills, David: The Women of the Beat Generation. In: Wills, D. (ed.): Beatdom, Vol. 2, Mauling Press, Dundee 2008, pp. 14–18.
  20. Brenner, Joseph M.: Looking for Joan Vollmer (website), The Doomfiles, March 16, 2004. web page
  21. Grauerholz, James. The Death of Joan Vollmer Burroughs: What Really Happened? American Studies Department, University of Kansas.
  22. "their families put them in institutions, they were given electroshock" Knight, Brenda. ed. Women of the Beat Generation: The Writers, Artists and Muses at the Heart of a Revolution, Conari Press, Berkeley, CA ISBN 1-57324-138-5, p. 141. Quotation attributed to "Stephen Scobie's account of the Naropa Institute's tribute to Ginsberg in July 1994."
  23. 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?... 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...From a 1978 interview. Knight, Arthur and Kit ed., The Beat Vision, Paragon House, New York, 1987, ISBN 0-913729-41-8, p. 144.
  24. McClure, Scratching the Beat Surface


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