The Beats Wiki
Perhaps moreso than others, The Beat movement was directly intertwined with the lives of its key players. Their personal experiences were the foundation for The Beat generation. Contributing reasons for this may have been the fact that the writers had little support outside of their own clique from either the academy or the general public.
"Nobody knows whether we were catalysts or invented something, or just the froth riding on a wave of its own. We were all three, I suppose." -Allen Ginsberg
The Beat Generation was a literary and cultural movement inspired by a small group of New York writers during the 1950s. Nonconformity was their mission, and their rejection of established social constructions manifested itself in their culture and works (A Brief Guide to the Beat Poets). In addition to a belief in spontaneous, uncensored form, experimentation with drugs, alternative sexuality, eastern religion, and criminal behavior characterized the movement. The Beats soon garnered a radical reputation as new “bohemian hedonists” who advocated organic creativity; with prominent members including Allen Ginsberg (Howl), William S. Burroughs (Naked Lunch), and Jack Kerouac (On The Road) (Bennett 177). Others included Gregory Corso, Neal Cassady, who both appeared in the writings of Ginsberg and Kerouac, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti who was instrumental in publishing the Beat writers through City Lights, his San Francisco bookstore/publishing company (A Brief Guide to the Beat Poets). Although they met in New York, most of the original beat writers moved to San Francisco in the mid-1950s where they befriended other literary revolutionaries and contributed to the rise of the San Francisco Renaissance(A Brief Guide to the San Francisco Renaissance).
Herbert Huncke, a drug-addict and thief on the streets of New York, introduced the original beats to the lifestyle and language of junkies in the city. He served as an ‘in’ for the authors to the untold, unseen, grunginess of their own environment, and was a major source of inspiration among early beat members. It was Huncke who introduced them to the word “beat,” (Herbert Hunke) and in 1948 Kerouac coined the term during a conversation with John Clellon Holmes; a New York City novelist. “Beat,” meaning “tired” or “beaten down,” referred to a shared sense of spiritual exhaustion and feelings of rebellion against what they viewed to be the general conformity, hypocrisy, and materialism of a prosperous postwar America. On the other hand, Kerouac also intended for the title to reflect “beatitude” and a sense of blessedness (Lawlor 14).
Columbia University – The Beats vs. Formalism
Several members of the original beats, Including Ginsberg and Kerouac actually met as students at Columbia University . It was there, under the instruction of notorious formalists including Mark Van Doren and Lionel Trilling, that they formulated their ideas of organic, anti-academic literature (Gentner 23). Rather than admiring their established conservative professors, many of the beat authors idolized William Carlos Williams (The Biography of William Carlos Williams - Life Story); some even studying with him personally. Because he was so influential and well-loved among them, members of the beat generation are often considered to be the children of Williams .
One of the most important events in the history of the Beats movement was The Six Gallery reading in San Francisco. This was the first time that East and West Coast poets gathered together in a public performance to profound effect - sparking several more readings like it all across California. It was at The Six Gallery reading, that Ginsberg first read Howl. After his performance, it was expected that Ginsberg and his poem would have the same vitalizing effect on the new Beat movement that Whitman had on 19th century poetry (Psychedelic 60s: The Beats: New York). This specific reading marks the beginning of the Beat generation; as Howl immediately solicited national attention to the movement. The poem was so controversial in its use of graphic sexual material, that it underwent trial for obscenity (Allen Ginsberg - Profile of the Poet Allen Ginsberg). Burroughs’s Naked Lunch would undergo a similar trial, and together their court victories would determine that works of literary value would no longer be regarded as obscene (Psychedelic 60s: The Beats: New York). Howl and The Six Gallery reading, while instrumental to the Beat movement itself, redefined literary limits, and would also help to usher in a larger literary revolution - The San Francisco Renaissance.
Women of the Movement
Although it is known that the Beats included women, sexism left them largely unheard of. During the time, it was much harder for women to get away with the Bohemian lifestyle the movement promoted (Knight 4). Oftentimes Beat women were assumed to be crazy, and several were forcibly institutionalized and even admitted into electroshock treatment facilities. Though not as directly associated with The Beats, several women of the movement including Diane Di Prima, Anne Waldman, Joyce Johnson, Carolyn Cassady, Hettie Jones, Joanne Kyger, and Harriet Sohmers Zwerling continued to write and publish (Friedman 200).
Although the movement was an entity in and of itself, The Beats were aware of the larger literary changes of the time. Members of the Beat generation found much in common with other literary revolutionaries (Knight 4-5) including the Black Mountain College and the New York School; these groups, among others, enjoyed and promoted one another’s work. The Beats influenced several other movements and authors as well, such as Amiri Baraka, founder of the Black Arts movement (Amiri Baraka), and Robert Lowell of the Confessionalists (whose students would later include heavy-hitters like Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton) (Lowell Lecture). Into the late 50s and 60s, the beat culture spread and became the Counterculture of the 1960s. With the change came new titles for beat members like “beatniks” and “hippies”. The Beats’ culture and style leaked into the music scene as well, influencing such famous artists as Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, and The Beatles. In fact many believe that the Beatles spelling their name with an “a” is a direct Beat reference (Weinreich 264). Lennon was a known fan of Kerouac; and Ginsberg, who eventually met and befriended members of the Beatles, actually had Paul McCartney play guitar on his album Ballad of the Skeletons. Dylan was also particularly close with Ginsberg, and would later cite both him and Kerouac as being extremely influential in his own work (Ginsberg, Allen Biography: Contemporary Musicians).
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