The Beat Generation is a literary movement started by a group of authors whose work explored and influenced American culture and politics in the post-World War II era. The bulk of their work was published and popularized throughout the 1950s. Central elements of Beat culture are rejection of standard narrative values, spiritual quest, exploration of American and Eastern religions, rejection of materialism, explicit portrayals of the human condition, experimentation with psychedelic drugs, and sexual liberation and exploration.
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. Both Howl and Naked Lunch were the focus of obscenity trials that ultimately helped to liberalize publishing in the United States. The members of the Beat Generation developed a reputation as new bohemian hedonists, who celebrated non-conformity and spontaneous creativity.
The core group of Beat Generation authors – Herbert Huncke, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Lucien Carr, and Jack Kerouac – met in 1944 in and around the Columbia University campus in New York City. Later, in the mid-1950s, the central figures (with the exception of Burroughs and Carr) ended up together in San Francisco where they met and became friends of figures associated with the San Francisco Renaissance.
In the 1960s, elements of the expanding Beat movement were incorporated into the hippie and larger counterculture movements. Neal Cassady, the driver for Ken Kesey‘s bus Further, was the primary bridge between these two generations. Allen Ginsberg’s work also became an integral element of early 1960s hippie culture.
Origin of name
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. Kerouac allows that it was street hustler Herbert Huncke who originally used the phrase “beat”, in an earlier discussion with him. The adjective “beat” could colloquially mean “tired” or “beaten down” within the African-American community of the period and had developed out of the image “beat to his socks”, but Kerouac appropriated the image and altered the meaning to include the connotations “upbeat”, “beatific”, and the musical association of being “on the beat”.
The origins of the Beat Generation can be traced to Columbia University and the meeting of Kerouac, Ginsberg, Lucien Carr, Hal Chase and others. Jack Kerouac attended Columbia on a football scholarship. Though the beats are usually regarded as anti-academic, 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.
Times Square “Underworld”
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 New York’s Times Square) was small-time criminal and drug-addict Herbert Huncke. The Beats were drawn to Huncke, who later started to write himself, convinced that 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 Ginsberg over while he was driving with Huncke, his car filled with stolen items that Huncke planned to fence. Ginsberg crashed the car while trying to flee and escaped on foot, but left incriminating notebooks behind. He 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.
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.
Beat writers and artists flocked to Greenwich Village in New York City in the late 1950s because of low rent and the ‘small town’ element of the scene. Folksongs, readings and discussions often took place in Washington Square Park. Allen Ginsberg was a big part of the scene in the Village, as was Burroughs, who lived at 69 Bedford Street. Burroughs, Ginsberg, Kerouac, and other poets frequented many bars in the area including the San Remo at 93 MacDougal Street on the northwest corner of Bleeker, Chumley’s, and Minetta Tavern. Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, and other abstract expressionists were also frequent visitors and collaborators of the beats.
Cultural critics have written about the transition of Beat culture in the Village into the Bohemian hippie culture of the 1960s.