The picture at left is copyright by Larry Keenan and is used with permissions.
Beat generation refers to the men and women poets, writers, thinkers, and philosophers who emerged on the hip scene in the 1940s and ballooned into the San Francisco Renaissance and beyond (including post-modernism, Black Mountain Poets, and other movements). The concept of “beat generation” was coined by Jack Kerouac when thinking of “beatific.”
The Portable Beat Reader, published by Viking Press, edited by Ann Charters, gives a little insight into why and how the beats came to be. It describes how even though the original beats were few in number, many “movements” in literary history often happened when a cluster of a few writers, tied together by time more than space, uncover a new path or road of writing style and content. This is what the beats did; they went against mainstream, traditional writing, but not because they were rebellious. They simply developed a new way of writing, a “New Vision” (their own early label) while in search of expressing something inherent in their nature that seemed to be more seeking than normal, less confined to reaching some goal through conventional manners (such as marriage, jobs, and other “normal” societal avenues). Ironically, many beats did marry (and divorce), did hold jobs (although usually temporarily, for an income to get them to the next place), and did adhere to the faiths and philosophies they had been raised with–although they also were spiritual travelers, into Buddhism, for example.
The beats can’t be understood, really, without looking at the environment of their times. After WW2, an anti-Communist hysteria swept the United States. Things were “a-changin,” and many different factors played into the culture that gave birth to the beats. In the 20s had been Fitzgerald’s “Lost Generation.” In the 40s, the war. In the 40s was some confusion, some growing awareness of “beat” or “furtive” terms that described the times. “Beat” originally had several meanings: jazz musicians used it to describe being “dead beat” or “beat up.” According to Herbert Huncke (a Times Square hustler and heroin junky), “beat” meant “exhausted, at the bottom of the world, looking up or out, sleepless, wide-eyed, perceptive, rejected by society, on your own, streetwise.”
The original beats emerged in the 40s, and were a small group of friends, consisting of Allen Ginsberg, Lucien Carr, Joan Vollmer Adams, William Burroughs, Edie Parker, Herbert Huncke, John Clellon Holmes, and a few others. Initially, this group began to fade out. After the war, the “beat generation” took on a more distinct meaning as these beats, including Jack Kerouac, began defining themselves, and publishing their writings. It was Kerouac who coined the term “beat generation,” and Holmes who eventually wrote “This is the Beat Generation,” which may have helped put the label into some kind of definition. Kerouac, after his success with On the Road, often spoke to the press about the beat generation, trying to set things straight, to give meaning and reason for it that the public would understand. But the public didn’t really understand right away, nor were they too receptive to the beats.
Other terms were used as well: the “hip generation” by Norman Mailer, the “subterraneans” by Ginsberg, and the “bop generation” by Kerouac. Because of the beats’ tendency toward avant garde (their writings reflected–and documented–their lifestyles, which included crime, road travels, listening to jazz, homosexuality, and drug use), it was difficult for mainstreamers to accept this seemingly vogue outlash. Therefore, the beats were often diminished, misunderstood, and not carefully read or studied. After the Russians launched “Sputnik” in 1958, a San Francisco Chronicle journalist named Herb Caen coined the condescending term “beatnik” when writing about a party in North Beach.
Eventually, the East Coast beats (primarily the Columbia crowd) joined up, on and off, with poets on the West Coast (San Francisco) who had their own literary circle and had been publishing since the war. Several of these poets had created underground magazines and small presses, which often were the only places to get published. These poets include Kenneth Rexroth, Kenneth Patchen, and Philip Lamantia.
In 1955, Ginsberg went to San Francisco to meet Rexroth and the other poets, and wrote “Howl,” a long poem that was considered controversial by many. On October 7, 1955, Ginsberg read “Howl” at the Six Gallery in San Francisco. This poetry reading was known as the “Six Poets at the Six Gallery” and included Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac (who had come to visit Ginsberg, but did not read), Philip Lamantia, Kenneth Rexroth, and Philip Whalen. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who was at the Six Gallery that night loved what he heard in Ginsberg’s “Howl” and offered to publish it at City Lights, his own publishing company. In turn, Ferlinghetti was charged for selling an obscene book. He fought back and later won.
The reading at the Six Gallery is often seen as a milestone for the beats, and some say it is the night the beat generation began. It marks what Kerouac termed in The Dharma Bums “The San Francisco Poetry Renaissance.” It marks the East/West coast beats and poets getting together. Furthermore, Ferlinghetti’s victory speaks volumes to what can and cannot be published (he still speaks out against censorship), and voices such as Ginsberg’s began to have a wider audience.
The women of the beat generation are getting more attention. In the 40s and 50s, women were not given the same freedoms as men did for going against mainstream society. A memoir titled Minor Characters was later written by Joyce Johnson, who was Kerouac’s lover in 1957-1958. In it, she says:
“Those of us who flew out the door had no usable models for what were doing. We did not want to be our mothers or our spinster schoolteachers or the hard-boiled career women depicted on screen. And no one had taught us how to be women artists or writers. We knew a little about Virginia Woolf, but did not find her relevant. She seemed discouragingly privileged, born into literature, connections and wealth. The “room of one’s own” that she wrote about presupposed that the occupant had a small family income. Our college educations enabled us to type our way to fifty dollars a week–barely enough to eat and pay the rent on a tiny apartment in Greenwich Village or North Beach, with little left over for the shoes or the electric bill. We knew nothing about the novelist Jean Rhys, an earlier runaway from respectability, dangerously adrift in the Parisian Bohemia of the 1920s; we might have identified with Rhys’s lack of confidence in her writing, found a warning to take to heart in the corrosive passivity of her relationships with men. Though no warning would have stopped us, so hungry were we to embrace life and all of reality. Even hardship was something to be savored.
Naturally, we fell in love with men who were rebels. We fell very quickly, believing they would take us along on their journeys and adventures. We did not expect to be rebels all by ourselves; we did not count on loneliness. Once we had found our male counterparts, we had too much blind faith to challenge the old male/female rules. We were very young and we were in over our heads. But we knew we had done something brave, practically historic. We were the ones who had dared to leave home.”
Other women such as Carolyn Cassady, Neal’s second wife, have written books and memoirs as well, recounting their experiences. It would be a lie to say that the men always treated their women well–as seen as the many affairs and drifting described in Kerouac’s On the Road. Others who have come out of the beat generation, such as Joanne Kyger, were not so ignored, and rose to their own places in poetry and study with consistent support and mutual fueled energy. Joyce Johnson, too, has a recently published book titled Door Wide Open, a collection of letters between herself and Jack Kerouac.
Who the beats were and what they did is largely documented in their own writings. Eventually, more movements were formed, such as the “hippies,” which had their roots in the beats. Some of the beats, such as Ginsberg and Cassady, evolved right along with the times and were well-known for participating in Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters. Ginsberg went on to help form Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poets at the Naropa Institute.
Ginsberg, Cassady, Corso, Whalen, Burroughs, Kerouac, and others have died throughout these past few decades. Many beats fell into alcoholism or drug addiction, which affected their ability to write and stay focused on their earlier searching through the road of life for meaning and at times “paradise.” Those beats still alive have prospered in many ways. Lawrence Ferlinghetti was San Francisco’s first poet laureate, in 1997. Michael McClure stays active, and is currently working with the keyboardist of the Doors, Ray Manzarek, on spoken word CDs and music. Gary Snyder lives is an English professor at UC Davis (CA) and is an “ecowarrier,” enjoying a life as an activist for the environment and a key to his family’s and community’s well-being. Joanne Kyger is getting more attention as a renowned poet with a meticulous voice and a history of experience to reflect upon.
Today many are inspired by the original beats, and what evolved later. Neo-beat movements that do not understand the implicit spirituality in the beats’ writings are often misguided by what the beats were after.
The beat generation was a phenomenon that is regarded as a great and moving cluster of individuals who changed culture, literature, and history in their flight. Beat classes are becoming more popular in universities, online forums are devoted to discussions of the beats, beat-related books and products have their highest sales ever, and so on. The beats, once alive, are still alive. The beat generation, a wide array of various individuals, is much more expansive than the big trio of Kerouac, Burroughs, and Ginsberg. Because the majority of beats are still alive, still publishing, and influential in the writings of many younger people, it’s difficult to propose that the beat generation ever stopped. Its media eyeball has been greatly distorted, and because of this, we either must remove the media myths or create our own. One thing to be sure, the beat generation offered a renaissance period, one whose punctuations have not all been seen.