The Beat Generation

At almost the exact moment that tremendous postwar prosperity was reaching unprecedented numbers of Americans, some critics began to question the impact of this culture of abundance on the country’s stated values of freedom, democracy, and equality. In the second half of the 1950s, best-selling liberal writers such as Sloan Wilson, William Whyte, and Vance Packard depicted American business and consumer culture as unfulfilling, conformist, and manipulative. Leftist writers—careful readers of Karl Marx, if not necessarily Marxists—took these criticisms even further. They condemned modern American businesses and consumer culture for fueling a form of psychological estrangement much deeper than simple dissatisfaction. They called this condition “alienation,” a term they borrowed from Marx. Alienation, Marx argued, was a profound form of spiritual discontent and dehumanization that workers experienced in their lives as they sought to comply with the dictates of industrial work, class hierarchy, and capitalist bureaucracy.

Although Marx located alienation primarily in the lives of industrial workers, radical thinkers in the 1950s and 1960s argued that virtually no one could escape the alienating effects of modern consumer culture. C. Wright Mills despaired of the “alienating process that has shifted men from a focus upon production to a focus upon consumption.” Herbert Marcuse, meanwhile, warned that “free choice among a wide variety of goods and services does not signify freedom if these goods and services sustain social controls over a life of toil and fear—that is, if they sustain alienation.”

Other thinkers on the left, without necessarily using the term “alienation,” also denounced what they saw as dehumanizing and psychologically corrosive effects of modern American consumer culture. This group included anarchist thinkers such as Paul Goodman, who condemned “the economic lunacy” encouraged by television in his best-selling work Growing Up Absurd (1956); E. Franklin Frazier, an African American sociologist and author of an incisive critique of African American business and the middle class, Black Bourgeoisie (1957); and the feminist and former labor journalist Betty Friedan, who in her work The Feminine Mystique (1963) denounced advertisers for “persuading housewives to stay at home, mesmerized in front of a television set, their nonsexual human needs unnamed, unsatisfied, drained by the sexual sell into the buying of things.”

Perhaps the clearest example of disenchantment with and alienation from the middle class was not the work of these mainstream writers and intellectuals; the clearest example came instead from a group of younger writers and artists who emerged largely from the middle class but chose to stand outside the mainstream of middle class culture. They held that culture in contempt—they ridiculed and repudiated not just the personal anxieties of organizational life, but many of the fundamental premises of middle-class society. They were the men and women who called themselves “the Beats.” They openly challenged the conventional values of middle-class American society: material success, social values, political habits. Many of them adopted an alternative lifestyle for themselves that emphasized rootlessness, anti-materialism, drugs, antagonism to technology and organization, sexual freedom, and a dark, numbing despair about the nature of modern society. But, most of all the Beats were in search of “ecstasy,” of a release from the rational world, of a retreat from what they considered the repressive culture of their time.

The Beat writers were a small group of close friends first and a movement later. The phrase “Beat Generation” was invented by Jack Kerouac in 1948. Per Kerouac “Beat means weariness with all forms of the modern industrial state”. The phrase was introduced to the general public in 1952 when Kerouac’s friend John Clellon Holmes wrote an article, ‘This is the Beat Generation,’ for the New York Times Magazine. The term “Beat Generation” gradually came to represent an entire period in time, but the entire original Beat Generation in literature was small enough to have fit into a couple of cars. The core group consisted of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady and William S. Burroughs, who met in the neighborhood surrounding Columbia University in uptown Manhattan in the mid-40’s. They picked up Gregory Corso in Greenwich Village and found Herbert Huncke hanging around Times Square. They then migrated to San Francisco where they expanded and expounded on their anti-cultural ways.

After the first wave of Beat writers became famous, a second wave followed. Some later arrivals to the crowd include Bob Kaufman, Diane DiPrima, Ed Sanders, Anne Waldman, Ray Bremser and Ted Joans. The “latter day beats” added some much needed cultural diversity, as well as an infusion of new ideas and talent, to the core of white male friends that were the “classic beats.” The ranks of legendary Beat poets continued to slowly evolve;  more attention was paid to other talented writers who had gathered at the fringes of earlier Beat scenes, including Charles Plymell, Jack Micheline, Herschel Silverman, Marty Matz, Ron Whitehead, Jim Carroll, Janine Pommy-Vega and countless others.

The Beats wrote in the language of the street about previously forbidden and unliterary topics. The ideas and art of the Beats greatly influenced popular culture in America during the 1950s and 1960s. Central elements of Beat Culture include the rejection of standard narrative values, the spiritual quest, exploration of Western and Eastern religions, experimentation with psychedelic drugs, rejection of materialism, explicit portrayals of the human life, and sexual freedom and exploration. Ginsberg and other major figures of the movement, such as the novelist Jack Kerouac, advocated a kind of free, unstructured composition in which the writer put down his thoughts and feelings without plan or revision in order to convey the immediacy of experience. Because of their values and culture, the members of the Beat Generation developed a reputation as new bohemian hedonists who celebrated non-conformity and spontaneous creativity.

“The Beats wrote in reaction to the materialistic, conformist America they saw developing in the 1940’s.” (Foster, xii). They expressed their alienation from conventional, or “square” society by adopting a style of dress, manners, and “hip” vocabulary borrowed from jazz musicians. The “typical” hip Beat featured beards or goatees, short hair, berets, white tee shirts with rolled up sleeves, often holding a pack of cigarettes, and Khaki pants. He quite often was pictured reciting poetry and playing the bongos. They advocated personal release, purification, and illumination through the heightened sensory awareness that might be induced by drugs, jazz, sex, or the disciplines of Zen Buddhism. The Beats and their advocates found the joylessness and purposelessness of modern society sufficient justification for both withdrawal and protest.

In other words, they wrote against the mainstream, using their art as both an escape from their world and a suggested solution to what they believed ailed it. Drug usage, sexual freedom, and a wandering lifestyle all characterized the Beats, and this is why the dominant culture rejected them in the beginning. However, the Beat writers also completely changed the face of American poetry and prose, ushering in a new kind of writing and way of seeing the world, so that later they were seen as an important part of American literary history. The reaction to The Beats: “Whatever it is they’re in revolt against we must take care that the anarchy that is so apparent in the Beat Generation is not mistaken for anything other than it is, namely a signal of distress, a cry for love, a refusal to accept defeat at the hands of the unloving lovers who made them what they are.” What made the Beats so frightening and subversive to many more conventional Americans in the 1950s was their frank rejection of the disciplined, ordered life of the postwar middle class; their open alienation from a culture that most people were lionizing; the way in which some, at least, ignored the careful boundaries of race that mainstream society still observed and made connections with black culture; their celebration of the sensual as opposed to the rational. (

Some young people expressed their acceptance of the Beat Culture in their attitude and attire, using the main character played by James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause or Marlon Brando in The Wild One as models. Jackson Pollock and other artists were also at the vanguard of another form of cultural rebellion; the significance of their giant “abstract expressionist” painting moved the center of the art world to New York City. Other young people would attempt to copy the writings and attitudes of the Beat Generation. In rejecting conventional society, many Beats and their followers enjoyed jazz and drugs, and studied Eastern religious thought. Key works of the Beats include Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, in which the main characters travel simply for the joy of traveling, and Howl, a poem by Allen Ginsberg that outlines in graphic detail the evils of modern society and what that society does to those attempting to live decent lives in it. It should be emphasized that few young people were actual members of the Beat Generation; a larger number went to coffeehouses, dabbled in writing poetry, and sympathized with the plight of Holden Caufield in Catcher in the Rye.

Music is reflected in the literature of every era in American history, and the soundtrack, indeed the heartbeat, of the Beat Generation was modern jazz. Specifically, it was the propulsive, adventurous and boundary defying sound of bebop, which had evolved during the early and mid-1940s out of the swing era of the previous decade, that captured the imagination of the Beat writers and their followers. With its concentration on small-group dynamics and solo virtuosity, bebop could be seen as a necessary reaction to big band swing’s stifling rigidity of form and structure. Charlie Parker, Max Roach, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and other giants provided the rhythm for the work and a model for the lifestyle of the Beats, who adopted the “hep cat” lingo of the musicians and in many cases unfortunately, their taste for heroin, Benzedrine and other drugs. The stylistic parallels between jazz and the Beats are clear — stream-of-consciousness poetry mirrored by the freely improvised solos, impassioned prose like Charlie Parker’s ecstatic melodic lines on the alto saxophone, rapid fire delivery akin to drummer Kenny Clarke’s lightning-fast syncopations with pianist Bud Powell — but, of course, it runs deeper than the sound. In jazz, the Beats heard a startling new art form born of innovation and freedom, practiced largely by artists considered to be living on the fringes of society and often involved in crime, drugs and excess. Understandably, music made by one definition of a counterculture that flew in the face of the social and musical establishment resonated deeply with another artistic movement breaking free from literary conservatism. Allen Ginsberg claimed that his immortal Beat cornerstone, Howl, was inspired directly by tenor sax great Lester Young’s classic “Lester Leaps In,” which Ginsberg became aware of through Kerouac’s influence. Arguably one of the greatest contributions to Beat culture and American literature, Kerouac’s On The Road, took specific inspiration from Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray’s 1947 blowing session “The Hunt.”

Jack Kerouac wrote On The Road” (1957). It is the story of the adventures of several beatniks who crossed the country looking for the meaning of life. Most reviewers thought the book was autobiographical. It was one of the best-selling books of the decade and often is listed as one of the all-time great books. “That’s not writing; that’s typing,” said Truman Capote. “It changed my life like it changed everyone else’s,” said Bob Dylan. “After 1957 On The Road sold a trillion Levis and a million espresso coffee machines, and also sent countless kids on the road,” William S. Burroughs once remarked.

Kerouac had taken some cross-country trips with Neal Cassady while working on his novel. In his attempt to write about these trips he had begun experimenting with freer forms of writing, partly inspired by the unpretentious, spontaneous prose he found in Neal Cassady’s letters. He decided to write about his cross-country trips exactly as they had happened, without pausing to edit, fictionalize or even think. He presented the resulting manuscript to his editor on a single long roll of unbroken paper, but the editor did not share his enthusiasm and the relationship was broken. Kerouac would suffer seven years of rejection before On The Road would be published.

Kerouac spent the early 1950’s writing one unpublished novel after another, carrying them around in a backpack as he roamed back and forth across the country. He followed Alan Ginsberg and Cassady to Berkeley and San Francisco, where he became close friends with the young Zen poet Gary Snyder. He found enlightenment through the Buddhist religion and tried to follow Snyder’s lead in communing with nature. His novel The Dharma Bums describes a joyous mountain climbing trip Kerouac and Snyder went on in Yosemite in 1955, and captures the tentative, sometimes comic steps he and his friends were taking towards spiritual realization.

Although the critics almost universally panned On the Road, it became a best seller, and Kerouac became famous. It is generally recognized that his sudden celebrity was probably the worst thing that could have happened to him, because his moral and spiritual decline in the next few years was shocking. Trying to live up to the wild image he presented in On the Road, he developed a severe drinking habit that dimmed his natural brightness and aged him prematurely. His Buddhism failed him, or he failed it. He could not resist a drinking binge, and his friends

Hey, Jack Kerouac,” sung by Natalie Merchant and The 10,000 Maniacs, written by Natalie Merchant (1987)

Despite its title, the song was inspired by all the Beat authors, with Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs getting special mentions in the song. Merchant was simultaneously drawn and repulsed by the lifestyle of the Beats. This was evident in an interview from 1987 where she stated, “I’m suspicious of a lot of the Beat Generation’s activities…they led a lifestyle that was pretty incredible for the time – to be leaping in a car and driving across the country high on amphetamines…talking about philosophy and writing books is a real experimental way of life” (Irwin). This dichotomy was present in her song “Hey, Jack Kerouac,” as Merchant fondly described certain characteristics of the Beat lifestyle while, simultaneously condemning others. In the song Merchant mentioned all aspects of the Beat Generation’s lifestyle, from Kerouac’s “Mémêre” to Ginsberg’s homosexuality. Merchant also condemned the over popularization of the Beats that led to the image of the beatniks of the 1950’s and 1960’s. Referring to Kerouac’s popularity after the publication of his novel, On the Road, Merchant called the author the “brightest star.” She also noted Ginsberg’s poem “How” as another factor that led to the over popularization of the Beats. In addition, Merchant self-righteously criticized how, as she put it, “Kerouac burned himself out and drank himself to death” (Irwin). In the final line of the song, Merchant wrote of the pain and anger caused by Kerouac’s sudden and untimely death, “What a tear stained shock of the world, you’ve gone away without saying goodbye.” (Natalie Merchant and the Influence of the Beat Generation

Hey Jack Kerouac, I think of your mother
and the tears she cried, she cried for none other
than her little boy lost in our little world that hated
and that dared to drag him down. Her little boy courageous
who chose his words from mouths of babes got lost in the wood.
Hip flask slinging madman, steaming cafe flirts,
they all spoke through you.

Hey Jack, now for the tricky part,
when you were the brightest star who were the shadows?
Of the San Francisco beat boys you were the favorite.
Now they sit and rattle their bones and think of their blood stoned days.
You chose your words from mouths of babes got lost in the wood.
The hip flask slinging madman, steaming cafe flirts,
nights in Chinatown howling at night.

Allen baby, why so jaded?
Have the boys all grown up and their beauty faded?
Billy, what a saint they’ve made you,
just like Mary down in Mexico on All Souls’ Day.

You chose your words from mouths of babes got lost in the wood.
Cool junk booting madmen, street minded girls
in Harlem howling at night.
What a tear stained shock of the world,
you’ve gone away without saying goodby

(“On The Road) The Persecution and Restoration of Dean Moriarty,” Aztec Two Step (1972) (In real life, Dean Moriarty was Jack Kerouac’s best friend, Neal Cassady. When he wrote the early drafts of “On The Road,” Kerouac used the actual names of his Beat buddies. However, the publisher insisted that Kerouac substitute fictional names for the real life characters. Neal Cassady became Dean Moriarty. “With the coming of Dean Moriarty began the part of my life you could call my life on the road,” Kerouac writes in the book’s opening paragraph, and Moriarty is very much the catalyst for what follows. The song depicts Moriarty as almost alarmingly free-spirited and unpredictable: “Look at him running don’t he know how to walk/He’s just too damned cunning you can tell by his talk/You can tell he is rude, like a typical dude/If you want my opinion he belongs under lock.” However, it ends on an admiring note: “So relax for a moment as you would for your hobby/His beauty abounds in his mind and his body/He’s like the setting sun’s hues, or the dust on his shoes/He’s living, he’s naughty, he’s Dean Moriarty, yeah.”)

Well I can’t understand what is wrong with the man
Don’t he know how he’s acting is long ago banned
Don’t you think it’s a shame, someone tell me his name
If we let him continue things may get out of hand…

Look at him laughing and carrying on
Like a hydrogen manic or an organic bomb
He’s alive like a child, so terribly wild
He has way too much freedom so of course he is wrong, he’s wrong yeah

He was born on the road in the month of July
And he’ll live on the road ’til he sees fit to die
‘Cause he learned from the road how humanity cries,
How society lies, he sees with more than his eyes

Look at him running don’t he know how to walk
He’s just too damned cunning you can tell by his talk
You can tell he is rude, like a typical dude
If you want my opinion he belongs under lock…

One look in his eyes and you know he’s unsound
There’s no way to faze him he’s nobody’s clown
He’s as deep as the sea and he’s equally free
That’s why I fear him and hate him and wish he were down, was down yeah

Whether riding the rails out of Denver
Or bumming his friends’ cigarettes
He’s asking them all to remember
Making sure that they’ll never forget

So you’re curious ’bout this man who I speak
‘Cause he tears you and scares you out of your sleep
I am sure that you’ll find, if you open your mind
That it’s you and not he who is really the freak…

So relax for a moment as you would for your hobby
His beauty abounds in his mind and his body
He’s like the setting sun’s hues, or the dust on his shoes
He’s living he’s naughty, he’s Dean Moriarty, yeah

Whether riding the rails out of Denver
Or bumming his friends’ cigarettes
He’s asking them all to remember
Making sure that they’ll never forget

The biography on Allen Ginsberg’s website characterized him as “[r]enowned poet, world traveler, spiritual seeker, founding member of a major literary movement, champion of human and civil rights, photographer and songwriter, political gadfly, teacher and co-founder of a poetics school.” Ginsberg was called “The Minstrel of the Beats.” Ginsberg became the most influential figure in the Beat world.

The Beats saw in one another an excitement about the potential of American youth, a potential that existed outside the strict conformist confines of post–World War II, McCarthy-era America. In the first chapter of his 1957 novel On the Road Kerouac described the meeting between Ginsberg and Cassady. Kerouac saw them as the dark (Ginsberg) and light (Cassady) side of their “New Vision,” a perception stemming partly from Ginsberg’s association with communism, of which Kerouac had become increasingly distrustful. Though Ginsberg was never a member of the Communist Party, Kerouac named him “Carlo Marx” in On the Road. This was a source of strain in their relationship.

Ginsberg’s most famous work was Howl” (1955). He begins the poem with “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical, naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night….,” which has been immortalized in American literature. Ginsberg’s first recited “Howl,” on October 13, 1955, at the Six Gallery in San Francisco at an event called “Six Poets at the Six Gallery.” The poem became something of a credo for the Beat Generation. It attacked virtually every aspect of modern society as corrupt and alienating. It further attacked American materialism, American technology, organization, suburbs, militarism, and the very idea of progress. It was an attack on all the underpinnings of modern middle-class culture and society; even an attack on rationality itself.

“Howl” is a biography of Ginsberg’s experiences before 1955; it is also a history of the Beat Generation. “Howl” chronicles the development of many important friendships throughout Ginsberg’s life. “Howl” was considered scandalous at the time of its publication, because of the rawness of its language. It contained many profane four letter words. Many of the phrases that were deemed obscene either discussed sexual actions both heterosexual and homosexual, or referred to sexuality and sexual behavior. Howl” also contained many references to illicit drugs.

Ginsberg’s willingness to talk about taboo subjects made him a controversial figure during the conservative 1950s. In the mid-1950s, no reputable publishing company would even consider publishing “Howl.” At the time, such “sex talk” employed in “Howl” was considered by some to be vulgar or even a form of pornography, and could be prosecuted under law. Numerous books that discussed sex were banned at the time, including Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The sex that Ginsberg described did not portray the sex between heterosexual married couples, or even longtime lovers. Instead, Ginsberg portrayed casual sex. Ginsberg’s publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, was brought up on charges for publishing pornography.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the owner of the City Lights Bookstore and a book publisher, was among the audience at the Six Gallery reading. He was impressed by the poem and offered to publish it and sell it at his bookstore. But, the city of San Francisco declared the book obscene because of the graphic sexual language of the poem, and arrested Ferlinghetti for selling banned obscene material. The ban became a cause célèbre among defenders of the First Amendment. The case presented the question could a work of literature be considered obscene based on certain words, if it possessed a redeeming literary value as a whole?

The ensuing trial attracted national attention, and famously featured the testimony of nine literary experts who spoke out in favor of the poem’s merits. Prominent literary figures such as Mark Schorer, Kenneth Rexroth, and Walter Van Tilberg Clark spoke in defense of Howl. Schorer testified that “Ginsberg uses the rhythms of ordinary speech and also the diction of ordinary speech. I would say the poem uses necessarily the language of vulgarity.” Clark called Howl “the work of a thoroughly honest poet, who is also a highly competent technician.” Judge Horn, who proceeded over the trial, determined that the poem was not obscene. He explained:

I do not believe that “Howl” is without redeeming social importance. The first part of “Howl” presents a picture of a nightmare world; the second part is an indictment of those elements in modern society destructive of the best qualities of human nature; such elements are predominantly identified as materialism, conformity, and mechanization leading toward war. The third part presents a picture of an individual who is a specific representation of what the author conceives as a general condition.” Horn goes on to acknowledge the subjective nature of obscenity laws: “No hard and fast rule can be fixed for the determination of what is obscene, because such determination depends on the locale, the time, the mind of the community and the prevailing mores. Even the word itself has had a chameleon-like history through the past, and as Mr. Justice [Holmes] said: “A word is not a crystal, transparent and unchanged. It is the skin of living thought and may vary greatly in color and content according to the circumstances and the time in which it is used.”

Applying this logic to “Howl,” Horn wrote: “There are a number of words used in “Howl” that are presently considered coarse and vulgar in some circles of the community; in other circles such words are in everyday use. It would be unrealistic to deny these facts. The author of “Howl” has used those words because he believed that his portrayal required them as being in character. The People state that it is not necessary to use such words and that others would be more palatable to good taste. The answer is that life is not encased in one formula whereby everyone acts the same or conforms to a particular pattern. No two persons think alike; we were all made from the same mold but in different patterns. Would there be any freedom of press or speech if one must reduce his vocabulary to vapid innocuous euphemism? An author should be real in treating his subject and be allowed to express his thoughts and ideas in his own words.”

Lawrence Ferlinghetti was “a man who piloted a submarine chaser in the Normandy invasion on D-Day; witnessed the aftermath of the atomic payload on Nagasaki; wrote his dissertation on French poetry at the Sorbonne on the GI Bill; founded City Lights bookstore and publishing house with an eye to an international cohort of midcentury authors; was arrested on obscenity charges for publishing Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and then, defended by the ACLU, won a landmark case in court; and has collected multiple honors in the U.S. and Europe, including Commandeur, French Order of Arts and Letters, for his writings and translations. There are almost a million copies in print of his 1958 poetry collection, A Coney Island of the Mind.”

Ferlinghetti moved to San Francisco in the early 1950s. From 1951 to 1953, after he settled in San Francisco, he taught French in an adult education program, painted, and wrote art criticism. In 1953, with Peter D. Martin, he founded City Lights Bookstore, the first all-paperback bookshop in the country. For over sixty years the bookstore has served as a “literary meeting place” for writers, readers, artists, and intellectuals to explore books and ideas. He played a key role in sparking the San Francisco literary renaissance of the 1950s and was essential to the establishment of the subsequent Beat movement. In 1998, he was named the first poet laureate of San Francisco.

In the 1950s City Lights was the post office that kept writers’ mail while they traveled. The store carried early gay and lesbian publications. Its bulletin boards were the unruly alternative press of their time. They were where you’d announce a political rally or seek a ride, a roommate, a job, a scene or a sex partner.”

Ferlinghetti was one of the defendants in the obscenity trial, The People of the State of California vs. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the other defendant being his partner in the City Lights Bookstore, Shigeyosi Murao. (See above for discussion of the trial.) The decision that was handed down in the Howl obscenity trial led to the American publication of the previously censored Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller and D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover.

Ferlinghetti rarely adopted the stance of intense alienation that was integral to the approach of most of the Beat poets, and he rejected attempts to classify him with the group, although he applauded their efforts. “In some ways what I really did was mind the store…. When I arrived in San Francisco in 1951 I was wearing a beret. If anything I was the last of the bohemians rather than the first of the Beats.” Ferlinghetti’s own lucid, good-natured, witty verse was written in a conversational style and was designed to be read aloud; it was popular in coffeehouses and campus auditoriums and struck a responsive chord in disaffected youth. His collection A Coney Island of the Mind (1958), with its notable verse “Autobiography,” became the largest-selling book by any living American poet in the second half of the 20th century. The long poem Tentative Description of a Dinner Given to Promote the Impeachment of President Eisenhower (1958) was also popular. His collection “A Coney Island of the Mind” (1958) has sold more than a million copies, making it one of the best-selling American poetry books ever published.