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date: 09 December 2023

The Beat Movementfree

The Beat Movementfree

  • Chuck Carlise


  • North American Literatures

The Beat movement was America's first major Cold War literary movement. Originally a small circle of unpublished friends, it later became one of the most significant sources of contemporary counterculture, and the most successful free speech movement in American literature. It is at once a reclamation of poetry from the modernist pedestal of the New Critics and an attempt to infiltrate the academy itself; as closely associated with the proliferation of Eastern spirituality in America as it is with the drug culture and jazz rhythms of the street.

The Beat movement is often identified by its three highest-profile writers: Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs—three friends who met in New York City in the mid-1940s. However, the nucleus always included numerous influences and fellow writers, whose lives form the plot through which the Beat movement travels.

“A New Vision”: New York

A good starting point for understanding the significance of the Beat scene is to consider the context within which its members found their collective voice. The early 1940s was a relatively prosperous time for the United States. Having recovered from the Great Depression and high on World War II patriotic zeal, the country was in the early stages of learning the power of commodity capitalism while also developing the most destructive weapon in the history of the world. The seeds of communist paranoia were planted but still developing, and craftless, mechanized assembly line monotony would soon become the preferred method of production for everything from cars to homes.

It was beneath this shadow that, in 1943, Allen Ginsberg and Lucien Carr, students at Columbia University, became friends. Ginsberg was a seventeen-year-old prelaw student who switched to English after studying with Mark Van Doren and Lionel Trilling. His father was a published lyric poet, and his mother, a radical communist and Russian émigré, had spent much of Allen's childhood slowly deteriorating into paranoid schizophrenia—a fact that compounded his own shaky sense of sanity in the years before he became open about his homosexuality. Carr was a charming transfer student from St. Louis, Missouri, who had been followed east by David Kammerer, a thirty-one-year-old friend who was romantically obsessed with him. The group came to include twenty-nine-year-old William Burroughs, a Harvard graduate with a sardonic wit and an infatuation with criminal life, all of which contributed to his status as an elder statesman in the circle. Soon they met Jack Kerouac, a twenty-one-year-old former football star and Columbia dropout who aspired to become a writer. Kerouac was a devout Catholic, the son of working class, French-Canadian parents. Sensitive, idealistic, and both shy and bursting with energy, he was already a mild alcoholic, and he would never completely dry out. Kerouac's girlfriend, Edie Parker, and her roommate, Joan Vollmer, also entered the picture, and a veritable salon was formed that conducted frenzied discussions on literature and politics and enjoyed an open sexual climate. Ginsberg and Carr declared their intention to create a “New Vision” for literature, and this “libertine” circle began collaborating on projects—reading their work to each other and generally supporting each other's literary aspirations—a practice they would continue long after their respective publications and fame. Marijuana and Benzedrine were commonly used by the circle, and before long, Burroughs had started using morphine and heroin. In his drug expeditions, Burroughs met Herbert Hunke, a Times Square hustler, who introduced them all to the real criminal life, as well as to the language of hip culture, including the term “beat” as a way of expressing the exhaustion of being down-and-out.

This group thrived until, in 1944, after a night of drinking, Kammerer made a frighteningly desperate sexual advance, and Carr stabbed him to death with a Boy Scout knife. Kerouac and Burroughs were both arrested as accessories, for aiding Carr after the incident, and the group temporarily disintegrated: Carr was in a reformatory, Burroughs was at home in St. Louis, and Kerouac bargained a quick marriage for Edie Parker's family to bail him out of prison.

The group reassembled before long, however, and by 1946, Neal Cassady, a friend of Hal Chase (Vollmer's roommate) had come from Colorado to visit. The appearance of Cassady, a twenty-year-old Denver con man and car thief with an endless supply of energy and irresistible sex appeal, altered the lives of Kerouac and Ginsberg forever. While in New York, Cassady had a short affair with Ginsberg and quickly became the first and great unrequited love of the poet's life, as well as a paradigm for sexuality (Burroughs and Hunke were also homosexual but were not nearly as attractive to Ginsberg as Cassady, who was bisexual). To Kerouac, Cassady embodied the explosive, spiritual energy he felt was so lacking in the age. Cassady asked Kerouac to teach him how to write before returning to the West. The two exchanged letters often, and Kerouac was deeply affected by the spontaneous energy of Cassady's prose. A fan of the improvisational bop jazz of Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, Kerouac saw Cassady's huge monologues as verbal bop, and began developing a writing method based on this that he later outlined in The Essentials of Spontaneous Prose (1957), including the notion of first-thought best-thought, which would greatly influence Ginsberg.

Road Years: Beyond Columbia

Much of this nucleus was dispersing by the late 1940s. Kerouac, who had been in and out of the merchant marine during the war, spent 1946 to 1948 traveling the country with and without Cassady. He spent time in Denver, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New Orleans, Mexico City, and other places, and occasionally stopped at his mother's house to work on what would become his first book, the autobiographical, Thomas Wolfe–inspired novel, The Town and the City, which was published in 1950. These trips were eventually immortalized in his greatest work, On the Road.

Ginsberg, after having a hallucinated vision of William Blake and having gone through several failed romantic advances with Cassady, was arrested in 1949 for possession of Hunke's stolen property, stored at Ginsberg's apartment. Hunke went to prison, and Ginsberg was sent to the Columbia Presbyterian Psychiatric Institute.

While there, he met Carl Solomon, a fellow intellectual and publisher, who connected to Ginsberg profoundly at a pivotal moment in the young poet's life, and was ultimately the muse to whom Ginsberg dedicated his masterwork, Howl. In 1950, out of the hospital, working a steady job, and even occasionally dating women in an attempt to “cure” his homosexuality, Ginsberg met twenty-year-old Gregory Corso, an idealistic “jail-kid” who was obsessed with the romantic poetry of Shelley and Rimbaud.

Meanwhile, Burroughs and Vollmer married and settled in Mexico City to cultivate their respective drug habits. One night in 1951, while waiting in an apartment to sell a gun, someone suggested that Burroughs (an excellent marksman) demonstrate his William Tell act. Vollmer put a glass on her head, but Burroughs shot low. She was struck in the forehead and died quickly. Burroughs ultimately faced very few legal consequences but was haunted by the act for the rest of his life. He later, and famously, cited this as the beginning of his writing career, because it put him in touch with “the Ugly Spirit” that he believed possessed him at the time and thrust him into a lifelong struggle, from which he had to write his way out. Two years later, Junky was published under the pseudonym William Lee. Influenced by the hard-boiled detective stories of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, it is essentially a true confession of Burroughs's heroin addiction. Ace Paperbacks (owned by Solomon's uncle) published it as part of a two-volume set—the other volume being an antidrug tract by a former narcotics officer.

Kerouac, experiencing the most prolific writing time of his career, eventually moved to San Jose, California, with Cassady and his wife, Carolyn (a three-way affair later documented in Carolyn's memoir Off the Road). Among the numerous projects he had completed by this time was On the Road, which was written in a twenty-day Benzedrine-induced frenzy on a single spool of typing paper. The book would remain unpublished for several years, rejected even by Ace. In 1954, Ginsberg traveled to San Jose to join them. Spurned by Cassady, and not wanted around by Carolyn, he quickly found himself in the bustling cultural scene just to the north, in San Francisco.

Confluence: The San Francisco Renaissance

During these same years, another scene was emerging in the San Francisco area. Often considered an entirely different (if overlapping) movement by critics, as well as by some of the writers within each scene, the San Francisco Renaissance ultimately found its roots in the crossing of many spiritual, political, and literary influences.

Through the 1940s, small literary magazines like Circle and Ark had been publishing experimental and radical poetry and prose, producing manifesto-like mission statements and attracting the disillusioned youth of the West Coast. Then, in 1946, Robert Duncan, a twenty-seven-year-old Oakland native, returned to Berkeley from New York, where he had known and helped publish Henry Miller, Anais Nin, and Kenneth Patchen. Bringing a surrealist sensibility with him, Duncan soon met twenty-one-year-old Jack Spicer, a fan of Federico Garcia Lorca, who believed in the inherent magic of poetry and relentlessly pushed spoken word readings around town. The two also became regulars at the lively anarchist literary meetings of Kenneth Rexroth. Rexroth was an established poet, slightly older (forty-five years old in 1950), a founder of the radical radio station KPFA, and a tireless anarchist who contributed greatly to the sense of San Francisco as a legitimate cultural center.

Also flourishing in this scene by the early 1950s were three friends who had moved down from Reed College in Portland, Oregon: Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, and Lew Welch. Snyder, a serious outdoorsman and Zen Buddhist with an interest in Native American mythology, had studied linguistics and Asian culture—interests Rexroth shared. Whalen, too, studied Buddhism—he later was ordained a Buddhist monk—and occasionally worked as a fire lookout in the Cascade Mountains. Welch was a scholar of Gertrude Stein; he had greatly impressed William Carlos Williams with his dissertation on her. Welch suffered occasional nervous breakdowns and committed suicide in 1971, but wrote with and influenced many of the San Francisco writers in this period.

It was into this scene that Allen Ginsberg stepped in 1954, bearing a letter of introduction to Rexroth from Williams, a fellow native of Paterson, New Jersey, to whom Ginsberg often wrote for literary mentoring. (Some of Ginsberg's early letters were later published in Williams's postmodern masterpiece Paterson). Intrigued by the scene and moved by many of the personalities within it, particularly Snyder, Ginsberg was soon joined by Kerouac. Not long after Kerouac's arrival, Ginsberg met Peter Orlovsky, a model for the painter Robert La Vigne, who would become Ginsberg's lover and life partner.

Poetry readings were popular in San Francisco around this time, thanks to people like Spicer and Bob Kaufman, a jazz poet who had known Kerouac briefly while they were both in the merchant marine. Kaufman was known not to write his poems down; rather, he would enter a café or meeting hall and begin reciting from memory, or simply make them up as he went. (There is also some dispute as to whether “beatnik” was an improvised bop term of Kaufman's or whether the San Francisco Chronicle's Herb Caen originated it as the degrading slang it became.) Along with presenting readings and selling radical magazines, City Lights bookstore, in North Beach, raised the literary consciousness of the city. Founded, and still owned by the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a Sorbonne-educated veteran of World War II who saw Nagasaki just weeks after the atomic bomb was dropped on it, City Lights was modeled after the great paperback bookshops of Paris, and catered to a decidedly pacifist revolutionary sensibility. Ferlinghetti also ran a small publishing house, City Lights Press, whose Pocket Poets series was intended to make poetry more accessible to the general public.

As literature became a more prominent part of the public consciousness in San Francisco, Rexroth decided to help showcase some of his younger poet friends. He asked Ginsberg to organize a reading, which Rexroth would host, at a converted garage on Fillmore Street, called the Six Gallery. On 7 October 1955, Ginsberg, Snyder, and Whalen were joined by Phillip Lamantia and Michael McClure. Lamantia, a surrealist who had known Ginsberg in New York, read poems by his late friend John Hoffman. McClure, the youngest reader at only twenty-three, had never met Snyder or Whalen until the reading. A Kansas native with a keen interest in animism and natural science, he had entered the poetry scene after taking a workshop with Duncan. Kerouac had been asked to read, but declined, and instead took a collection for wine and sat on the edge of the low stage in the packed gallery. Ginsberg, the penultimate speaker, had been working frantically for two months on a visionary poem unlike any others he had written. He read the first completed section of the poem, “Howl,” in an incantatory and climactic rhythm, with Kerouac pounding on a wine jug, hollering “Go!” at each long-breath line. The reading left the astonished crowd of hipsters stunned, Rexroth in tears, and Ferlinghetti echoing Ralph Waldo Emerson's famous declaration on seeing Walt Whitman's first edition of Leaves of Grass: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career. When do I get the manuscript?”

Publication and Fame

The reading made them all instant local celebrities, particularly Ginsberg, who quickly set to work finishing the poem and gathering a collection for Ferlinghetti's Pocket Poets series—in which Howl and Other Poems would be number four. After this, things began to happen very quickly. A degree of notoriety had come to the San Francisco Renaissance, and the movement thrived for a short time, then dispersed. Gary Snyder was first to go, leaving for Japan, where he would spend most of the next ten years in a Zen monastery. Before leaving, he took Kerouac on a climb up Matterhorn Mountain in Yosemite, an adventure that resulted in a spiritual breakthrough for Kerouac, which he would document in The Dharma Bums, along with the reading itself. There was a going-away party for Snyder in 1956, followed later in the year by the publication of Howl and Other Poems, which was seized by customs officials as obscene. Ferlinghetti was arrested for selling the book, and went to work amassing an army of intellectuals and critics to testify to its literary worth. Ginsberg, who had recently received news of his mother's death in a mental hospital, wanted little to do with the legal battle. He and Orlovsky left on an extended overseas vacation while the trial progressed. Ferlinghetti's defense overwhelmed the censors; the book was declared to have literary merit, and thus could not be considered obscene. The ramifications of this decision were tremendous; publishing houses such as Grove Press began dusting off works by such banned authors as Henry Miller and D. H. Lawrence.

Another impact of the success of “Howl” was the sudden interest in Beat work. Beginning in 1955, numerous novels and poetry collections by this circle of writers found their way into print, most notably Kerouac's On the Road in 1957. It became a sensation among the disaffected youth, but was harshly reviewed by most critics, including Truman Capote's famous declaration that the book was not writing but typing. The public was fascinated, though, and On the Road and Howl and Other Poems sold extremely well. By 1958, Kerouac had added, among other titles, The Dharma Bums, which features Snyder as the main character. Snyder later published Riprap and the Cold Mountain Poems (1965). Also published in 1958 were Corso's nuclear ode, Bomb, and Ferlinghetti's A Coney Island of the Mind, which, with Howl and Other Poems, is still one of the best-selling poetry books of all time.

Through all this, Burroughs had been living and writing in the Moroccan city of Tangier. He had a steady correspondence with Ginsberg and Kerouac, who visited him after the Six Gallery reading. What they found Burroughs developing was a writing style he called “routines.” Burroughs would start with an image—often something from a dream or begun while extremely high—and begin typing, improvising on it for as long as he could, not unlike the jazzy spontaneous prose Kerouac preached. The difference was that when he came to a block, Burroughs simply stopped and began later on a different image. When Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Corso visited Burroughs, in Tangier and later at the famous “Beat Hotel” in Paris, they found uncountable routines scattered around his dingy apartment, and each attempted to help Burroughs gather, retype, and structure them into a text that Kerouac had dubbed “Naked Lunch.” Burroughs's work was raw and often even more graphic than Ginsberg's, making it virtually unprintable in most countries. Ginsberg was a relentless promoter of his friend's work, however, and gathered some of the less outrageous routines to send to publishers back home.

In March 1958, Robert Creeley published several poems by Beat writers, including routines by Burroughs, in the Black Mountain Review, and soon after, Irving Rosenthal printed more in the Chicago Review. A conservative outcry followed, and when Rosenthal was instructed not to print Burroughs's work in the next issue, he resigned to found Big Table magazine. By the middle of 1959, Big Table I had been seized by U.S. postal authorities. Apparently influenced by the decision at the “Howl” trial, a judge ruled that the Burroughs routines were not obscene. The scandal surrounding the book prompted a French publisher to ask Burroughs for a full manuscript, and by August, Naked Lunch was in print.

Ripples and Repercussions

While many of the early Beat texts received harsh reviews by academic publications, such as the Partisan Review, there were those who recognized their significance. In 1960, Donald Allen's The New American Poetry appeared. Allen divided the era's poets into several categories, splitting many of these friends into separate subgroups. Kerouac and Ginsberg were listed as “Beats,” and Ferlinghetti and Welch as “San Francisco Renaissance,” while Snyder and Whalen were in a third, unclassified section.

Besides gathering these writers into one literary anthology (the Black Mountain poets and New York school were also represented), this volume continued to widen the conception of what “Beat” meant to the rest of the actual generation. Many talented writers across the country, living in unconnected bohemian pockets, were gradually becoming aware that they were not alone. Writing in New York, Diane DiPrima and LeRoi Jones were two of the most talented and tenacious of these writers—founding the literary magazine Floating Bear and publishing it on a mimeograph machine through the early 1960s. Jones and his wife, Hettie, also ran Yugen, an experimental magazine, for several years, but it was Floating Bear's cheaper and more immediate format that allowed for a crossing of styles and, as another publisher pointed out, gave the writers freedom to fail. Floating Bear 9 was eventually seized on obscenity charges, but Jones and DiPrima were never indicted. Many small literary magazines operated at this time, publishing experimental work for eager audiences, notably including Ed Sanders's Fuck You: A Magazine of the Arts.

Jones, DiPrima, and Sanders were among the more talented young Beat writers to emerge in the wake of “Howl” and On the Road, along with Ted Joans, John Wieners, Ray Bremser, and Brenda Frazer. Jones (who later changed his name to Amiri Baraka) published the excellent Preface to a Twenty-Volume Suicide Note in 1961, and was included in Allen's New American Poetry. His poetry references Kerouac, Snyder, and Ginsberg at times, and draws connections between the early 1960s black American experience and the Beat Generation, in that both represent a generally unwanted, but still distinctly present, sector of American life. DiPrima, a strong female voice in a movement often considered exclusively male, ultimately made her mark through her intensely honest and often uncensored poetry and prose. Her meditation on an early abortion, “Brass Furnace Going Out,” and other poems, such as “Poetics,” prefigure a feminist voice in American poetics by several years, and her love poems, such as Three Laments and Song for Baby-O, Unborn, are among the stronger jazz poetry of the era. Sanders helped begin a transition to political activism. He wrote his first published poem, Poem from Jail, while he was in jail following his arrest at an early protest for peace.

The original wave of writers continued to disperse, however. Snyder and the poet JoAnne Kyger were married in Tokyo in 1960, and both continued writing while abroad. Michael McClure received much attention for his play The Beard, which was both critically acclaimed and challenged as obscene in 1965. Kerouac moved to a cabin in Big Sur, California, owned by Ferlinghetti, in an attempt to cure his alcoholism. The result was disastrous: the solitude and sublimity of the seaside cabin tested his resolve daily, and ultimately sent him into a mental and emotional downward spiral from which he never recovered. His book Big Sur (1962) documents the experience and is, in many ways, his last truly honest writing. Meanwhile, Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Corso spent the summer of 1961 in Tangier, taking part in Timothy Leary's early LSD experiments, later dubbed Psychedelic Summer. Ginsberg also published his tribute to his mother, Kaddish, in 1961– a poem many critics, and Ginsberg himself, believed to be his finest work. He would later travel in Asia with Snyder and Kyger, experiencing a spiritual awakening along the way. Kyger would document this trip in Strange Big Moon: Japan and India Journals, 1960–1964. In Paris, Burroughs had connected with the painter Brion Gysin, and the two had begun collaborating on a method of writing that included cutting previously written texts and rearranging them at random. Burroughs would devote the next decade to perfecting this “cut-up” method.

Whose Generation?: Cultural Significance

The Beat movement was unique in that it directly affected the popular culture of the time—a fact even more significant when one considers how ostracized these writers were by the contemporary literati. Given that odd balance, the question remains of what pulse the Beats were able to tap into that had been so neglected before.

In 1948, Kerouac and an aspiring writer, John Clellon Holmes, sat in Holmes's New York apartment discussing their generation. Kerouac characterized the postwar youth as a generation of furtives, not simply knowing, but having grown accustomed to living with, the nuclear threat. In the face of such constant, dull fear, the only sense of meaning they were given for their lives was in the form of Cold War propaganda, and the meaninglessness of their soon-to-be-inherited corporate-cog futures. Holmes noted Kerouac's comment, that the entire generation was beat, as the first use of the term “Beat Generation.” In 1952, Holmes published a famous article in The New York Times, “This Is the Beat Generation.” In it, he expands on these ideas, differentiating between the Lost Generation of the 1920s and his own, calling attention not simply to the current youths' sense of being used, but also to an objectless sense of loss that manifested itself in a desperate search for something to believe in. The Beat Generation, then, as Kerouac often noted, was as much about spirituality as it was about restlessness and rebellion. Kerouac would later insist that “beat” referred to street authenticity, exhaustion of the down-and-out, the rhythms of both the heart and the speaker, and ultimately to the beatitudes, which speak directly to the powerless masses.

When On the Road became a sensation five years later, it was due in part to Kerouac's mad exuberance and unorthodox improvisational writing style, but also to his ability to embody the frenetic desperation Holmes had written about. Sal Paradise (Kerouac's alter ego in the book) was the soul of the generation, constantly searching and celebrating, declaring that “the only ones for me are the mad ones,” and seeing holiness in nearly everyone he met. Dean Moriarty (Cassady) was the ideal—the urban cowboy living by his own rules, never stopping long enough to acknowledge that anything could go wrong. Snyder noted years later that the nerve Cassady touched in the New York Beats was in some way connected to the spirit of the old West, the American dream that had been pushed westward a century before. The expansiveness, possibility, and constant, unself-conscious motion Cassady embodied were irresistible in that they were utterly opposed to the deliberate Old World paranoia of the time. In that sense, the Beat tie to San Francisco is much more of an organic expansion than an arbitrary lumping of separate literary movements. To take the search for meaning and belief to its ultimate ends by continuing westward across the Pacific, the introduction of Buddhism, particularly Snyder's celebratory Zen practice, touched that same nerve. Kerouac's blending of Buddhism with his Catholic traditions is also truly a Beat phenomenon—the search for new meaning without erasing one's existing sense of individual self. In addition, the common study and discussion of these things among friends truly dictates the other half of the Beat aesthetic—the search for connection to another person. It is ultimately the same impulse that compelled Kerouac to write his strongest work about his friends (Cassady and Snyder), and the resolution that Ginsberg provides at the end of “Howl,” whose redemptive closing image is a dream of Carl Solomon tearfully arriving at Ginsberg's door in Berkeley.

These same pressures that brought the original Columbia scene together in the mid-1940s affected and catalyzed many of the other arts being produced at this time. The influence of bop jazz on the Beat writers is well documented, particularly in Kerouac's vignette “Jazz of the Beat Generation.” The intensely emotional and unscripted solos of Charlie Parker, Thelonius Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, and Lester Young, and later Miles Davis and John Coltrane, surely were pivotal in Kerouac and Ginsberg's literary development; but more important, these musicians were ultimately after the same things as their literary progeny. The intense jams were diametrically opposed to the acceptable sense of 1940s and 1950s decorum and uniformity, and therefore much closer to real. This same sense of abandon drove Jackson Pollock's chaotically revolutionary 1940s work; his large canvases splattered with paint seem to have an organic motion to them. Pollock, a raging alcoholic like Kerouac, did not believe that he was getting closer to nature, but rather that he was nature, when painting that way. In Hollywood—arguably the most potentially bourgeois, moneymaking sector of the arts—Marlon Brando's stunning Method acting, in films such as A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront, and The Wild One, also speak to this search. Brando's ability to give himself over to the role and improvise action and emotion were essentially the silver screen version of this same spontaneous abandon. This would come to a head in James Dean's 1955 classic Rebel without a Cause—almost the entire film is ad-libbed, with very little direction and no script. Even in stand-up comedy, exuberance and energy found their way to the fringes with new performers like Lord Buckley and Lenny Bruce. Buckley's performances were extremely energetic and utterly unique, while Bruce specialized in pushing the envelope, to the point of often being harassed for obscenity.

The one major missing link in the Beat literary movement is in the lack of attention given to women writers of the period. When asked about this, Gregory Corso asserted that there were many brilliant women rebelling within this scene, but that this led to family-imposed institutionalization for many of them. Nonetheless, there are several striking female writers, poets, and publishers who emerged from this movement. Diane DiPrima is usually the first to be mentioned, and perhaps the strongest voice, but poets such as Kyger, Elise Cowen, and Lenore Kandel are more recently receiving deserved critical attention. Kandel's erotic love poems, as well as her manifesto Poetry Is Never Compromise, are as powerful and indicative of the Beat aesthetic as any writing of this period, and the uncollected poetry of Cowen, who committed suicide in 1962, is striking and original. Hettie Jones and Joyce Johnson (née Glassman) have both enjoyed successful careers as writers and editors. Jones's memoir How I Became Hettie Jones (1990) and Johnson's Minor Characters (1983) operate as both strong autobiographies and statements on women in the Beat Generation.

Latter-Day Beats and Later Work

Beat influence was enormous on the next generation's counterculture, whose dominant issues centered on the Vietnam War, civil rights, and legalization of drugs such as the new LSD. Ken Kesey, the author of One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, had begun a traveling bohemian circle around his own LSD experiments, and recruited the ageless Cassady to drive their bus. Ginsberg would later become involved with this scene as well. Highly influenced by their own conceptions of On the Road and The Dharma Bums, this circle, dubbed “the Merry Pranksters,” would later define the bohemian, hippie aesthetic. The New Left also reflected the protest sensibility of writers like Rexroth, Ferlinghetti, and Ginsberg—who also involved himself in this scene, supporting or actively participating in nearly every major counterculture event of the 1960s, including the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, where he helped organize protests with Black Panther and Yippie leaders. Burroughs covered the convention for Esquire, teamed with the French avant-garde playwright Jean Genet and the coauthor of Easy Rider, Terry Southern. The previous year, Ginsberg, Snyder, and McClure had been leaders at the San Francisco Be-In; Snyder blew the conch shell to inaugurate the event.

The strongest young voice of this new protest generation, Bob Dylan, was profoundly influenced by the Beats, and became a close friend of Ginsberg during the 1970s. Meanwhile, Burroughs's cut-ups, strange sci-fi scenarios, and heroin awareness were hugely influential in the new proto-punk scene emerging in New York under the wing of Andy Warhol, and on musicians like Lou Reed and David Bowie. The energy of Kerouac's writing can also be seen in the New Journalism of Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson, and in the later jazzy readings of Tom Waits.

By the end of the 1960s, Cassady and Kerouac had died, after too many years of hard living. Already hugely important in pop culture by this time, Kerouac died without seeing real critical support for his writing. Other Beats were more fortunate. The 1970s saw Ginsberg receiving the National Book Award for The Fall of America in 1974, and Snyder the Pulitzer Prize for his Turtle Island collection in 1975. In 1976, Ginsberg and the poet Anne Waldman were asked to found a writing school at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado—the first accredited Buddhist college in the western hemisphere. They named the program the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, and it quickly became a stopping point for most remaining bohemian writers to lecture and read.

In the early 1990s, a resurgence of interest in Beat literature began at universities, along with conferences and academic journals on or influenced by their work. In addition, outside the academy, Beat-influenced poetry slams and readings increased in number across the country. Many retrospectives and long-term projects by Beat writers were produced, including collected works and recordings of many Beat writers, among them Kerouac and Ginsberg, Snyder's book-length, forty-year project Mountains and Rivers without End (1996), and a marathon reading of On the Road on the fortieth anniversary of its publication. By the time of Ginsberg's and Burroughs's deaths in 1997, university courses on the Beats were becoming common, and in 1998, Ferlinghetti was named poet laureate of San Francisco. Later that year, the Modern Library placed On the Road at number 55 on its “Top 100 English Language Novels of the 20th Century.”

See also Burroughs, William S.; Ginsberg, Allen; Kerouac, Jack, and his On the Road; and Snyder, Gary.

Further Reading

  • Allen, Donald M., ed. The New American Poetry, 1945–1960. New York, 1960. Among the first texts to acknowledge Beat as a significant literary movement. Also draws distinctions between Beat, San Francisco Renaissance, Black Mountain, New York school, and other movements.
  • Ball, Gordon, ed. Allen Verbatim: Lectures on Poetry, Politics, Consciousness. New York, 1974. Ginsberg essays on other Beat writers, happenings.
  • Bartlett, Lee, ed. The Beats: Essays in Criticism. Jefferson, N. C., 1981. Critical work on all the major Beat writers.
  • Breslin, James E. B. From Modern to Contemporary: American Poetry, 1945–1965. Chicago, 1984. Some discussion of Beat texts, including a long essay on Howl.
  • Charters, Ann, ed. The Beats: Literary Bohemians in Postwar America. Detroit, 1983. Many excellent essays on almost every figure in this movement, by their biographers, fans, and sometimes by one another. A very good biographical perspective.
  • Charters, Ann. The Portable Beat Reader. New York, 1992. Selections by many key figures in the Beat movement, along with Charters's editorial and biographical commentary. An excellent starting point in the study of the Beat movement.
  • Davidson, Michael. The San Francisco Renaissance: Poetics and Community at Mid-century. New York, 1989. Analysis of historical context, as well as the writings that came out of this literary scene.
  • George-Warren, Holly, ed. The Rolling Stone Book of the Beats. New York, 1999. Cultural and biographical essays and retrospectives.
  • Gifford, Barry, and Lawrence Lee. Jack's Book. New York, 1979. Oral history of Kerouac's life.
  • Ginsberg, Allen. Howl: Original Draft Facsimile, Transcript and Variant Versions. Edited by Barry Miles. New York, 1986. Interesting background and compositional history of the poem.
  • Goodman, Michael Barry. Contemporary Literary Censorship: The Case History of Burroughs' Naked Lunch. Metuchen, N.J., 1981. Complete background of the seminal obscenity trial.
  • Hickey, Morgen. The Bohemian Register: An Annotated Bibliography of the Beat Literary Movement. Metuchen, N.J., 1990. Good listing of primary and secondary sources.
  • Holmes, John Clellon. Passionate Opinions. Fayetteville, Ark., 1988. Many of Holmes's definitive essays on the Beat Generation, with his later commentary as well.
  • Johnson, Joyce. Minor Characters. Boston, 1983. Memoir by Kerouac's former girlfriend. First definitive statement on women in the Beat Generation.
  • Knight, Brenda, ed. Women of the Beat Generation. Berkeley, Calif., 1996. Very good collection of writings on and by Beat women.
  • McClure, Michael. Scratching the Beat Surface. San Francisco, 1982. Firsthand account of Six Gallery reading, among other things.
  • Morgan, Ted. Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs. New York, 1988. Very good biography, including much information on Burroughs's Tangier and Paris years not often noted in other sources on the Beats.
  • Rexroth, Kenneth. American Poetry in the Twentieth Century. New York, 1971. Evaluation of how Beat writers affected development of American poetics.
  • Tonkinson, Carole, ed. Big Sky Mind: Buddhism and the Beat Generation. New York, 1995. Excerpts from many Beat writers on or inspired by Buddhist thought, along with biographical and critical commentary on the subject.
  • Waldman, Anne, ed. The Beat Book: Poems and Fiction of the Beat Generation. Boston, 1996. Selections from many Beat writers, including previously excluded women, such as Kyger and Kandel.