The canonical beat generation authors met in New York: Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, (in the 1940s) and later (in 1950) Gregory Corso. In the mid-’50s this group expanded to include figures associated with the San Francisco Renaissance such as Kenneth Rexroth, Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen and Lew Welch.
Perhaps equally important were the less obviously creative members of the scene, who helped form their intellectual environment and provided the writers with much of their subject material: There was Herbert Huncke, a drug addict and petty thief met by Burroughs in 1946; and Hal Chase, an anthropologist from Denver who in 1947 introduced into the group Neal Cassady.
Also important were the oft-neglected women in the original circle, including Joan Vollmer and Edie Parker. Their apartment in the upper west side of Manhattan often functioned as a salon (or as Ted Morgan puts it, a “pre-sixties commune”) and Joan Vollmer in particular was a serious participant in the marathon discussion sessions.
William Burroughs was born in St. Louis. in 1914; making him roughly ten years older than most of the other original beats. While still living in St. Louis, Burroughs met David Kammerer, presumbably an association based on their shared homosexual orientation.
David Kammerer became obsessed with a young student of his named Lucien Carr, and when Carr was sent off to school, Kammerer began a pattern of following him around the country. The two met up with Burroughs again while he was living in Chicago, and later when Carr was transferred to Columbia University in 1943, both Kammerer and Burroughs followed. While at Columbia University, Lucien Carr met Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, and introduced them to William Burroughs.
In 1944 Carr stabbed and killed Kammerer in an altercation that took place in a park on the Hudson river, and disposed of the body in the river. This may have been some form of self-defence, though Carr was the only witness to the scene. Kerouac helped Carr dispose of the weapon, and was arrested as an accessory to the crime when Carr turned himself in the next day. Kerouac wrote about this much later in the book Vanity of Duluoz (1968), though some version of these events also made it into his first novel The Town and the City (1950).
Burroughs had long had an interest in experimenting with criminal behavior, and gradually made contacts the criminal underground of New York, becoming involved with dealing in stolen goods and narcotics and developing a decades long addiction to opiates. Burroughs met Herbert Huncke, a small time criminal and drug addict who often hung around the Times Square area.
The beats found Huncke a fascinating character. As Ginsberg put it, they were on a quest for “supreme reality”, and somehow felt that Huncke, as a member of the underclass had learned things they were sheltered from in their middle/upper-middle class lives.
Various problems resulted from this association: In 1949 Ginsberg was in trouble with the law (his apartment was packed with stolen goods, he had been riding in a car full of stolen goods, and so on). He pleaded insanity and was briefly committed to Bellvue, where he met Carl Solomon. When committed Carl Solomon was more eccentric than psychotic — a fan of Antonin Artaud, he indulged in some self-consciously “crazy” behavior: he stole a peanut butter sandwich in a cafeteria, and showed it to a security guard. If not crazy when he was admitted, he was arguably driven mad by the insulin shock treatments applied at Bellvue, and this is one of the things referred to in Ginsberg’s poem “Howl” (which was dedicated to Carl Solomon). After his release, Solomon became the publishing contact that agreed to publish Burroughs first novel “Junky” (1953) shortly before another serious psychotic episode resulted in him being committed again.
The introduction of Neal Cassady into the scene in 1947 had a number of effects. A number of the beats were enthralled with Cassady — Kerouac’s road trips with him in the late 40s became a focus of his second novel, On the Road; and Ginsberg later had an affair with him. Cassady is most likely the source of “rapping” the loose spontaneous babble that later became associated with “beatniks”. He was not much of a writer himself, though the core writers of the group were impressed with the free-flowing style of some of his letters, and Kerouac cited this as a key influence on his invention of the spontaneous prose style/technique that he used in On the Road (the other obvious influence being the improvised solos of Jazz music). This novel (when it eventually appeared in 1957) transformed Cassady (under the name “Dean Moriarty”) into a cultural icon: a hyper wildman, frequently broke, largely amoral, but frantically engaged with life.
In 1950 Gregory Corso met Ginsberg, who was impressed by the poetry Corso had written while incarcerated for burglary. Gregory Corso was the young d’Artagnan added to the original three of the core beat writers, and for decades the four were often spoken of together; though later critical attention for Corso (the less proflific of the four) waned. Corso’s first book The Vestal Lady on Brattle and Other Poems appeared in 1955.
Then during the 1950s there was much cross-pollination with San Francisco area writers (Ginsberg, Corso, Cassady and Kerouac all moved there for a time). Ferlinghetti (one of the partners who ran the City Lights press and bookstore) became a focus of the scene as well as the older poet Rexroth, whose apartment became a Friday night literary salon. Rexroth organized the famous Six Gallery reading in 1955, the first public appearance of Ginsberg’s poem Howl. An account of this event forms the second chapter of Jack Kerouac’s 1959 novel The Dharma Bums.
The time lags involved in the publication of Kerouac’s On the Road often creates confusion: It was written in 1952 — around the time that John Clellon Holmes published “Go”, and the article “This is the beat generation” — and it was written about events that took place much earlier, beginning in the late 40s. Since the book was not published until 1957, many people received the impression that it was describing the late ’50s era, though it was actually a document of a time ten years earlier.
The legend of how “On the Road” was written was as influential as the book itself: high on speed, Kerouac typed rapidly on a continuous scroll of rice paper to avoid having to break his chain of thought at the end of each sheet of paper. Kerouac’s dictum was that “the first thought is best thought”, and insisted that you should never revise text after it is written — though there remains some question about how carefully Kerouac observed this rule.
Women of the Beat Generation
There is typically very little mention of women in a history of the early Beat Generation, and a strong argument can be made that this omission is largely a reflection of the sexism of the time rather than a reflection of the actual state of affairs. Joan Vollmer (later, Joan Vollmer Burroughs) was clearly there at the beginning, and all accounts describe her as a very intelligent and interesting woman. But she did not herself write and publish, and unlike someone like Neal Cassady, no one chose to write a book about her; she has gone down in history as the wife of William Burroughs, killed in an accidental (or perhaps “accidental”) shooting.
Gregory Corso insisted that there were many female beats, but that it was hard for them to get away with a Bohemian existence in that era: they were regarded as crazy, and removed from the scene by force (e.g. by being subjected to electroshock). In particular, he claimed that a young woman he met in mid 1955 (Hope Savage, also called “Sura”) was the original teacher of Kerouac and Ginsberg regarding eastern religion, introducing them to subjects such as Li Po.
Still, many of those who entered the scene slightly later in the mid-1950s have persevered, for example: Joyce Johnson (author of Minor Characters); Hettie Jones (author of How I Became Hettie Jones); and Diane Di Prima (author of This Kind of Bird Flies Backward, Memoirs of a Beatnik). And still later a number of women writers emerged who were strongly influenced by the beats, such as Janine Pommy Vega (published by City Lights in the 1960s) and Patti Smith who emerged in the early 1970s.
The Beatnik Stereotype
The term “Beatnik” was coined by Herb Caen of the San Francisco Chronicle on April 2, 1958 as a derogatory term, a reference to the Russian satellite Sputnik, which managed to suggest that the beats were (1) “way out there” and (2) pro-Communist. This term stuck and became the popular label associated with a new stereotype of men with goatees and berets playing bongos while women wearing black leotards dance.
A classic example of the beatnik image is the character Maynard G. Krebs played by Bob Denver on the Dobie Gillis television show that ran from 1959 to 1963.
In the popular television cartoon show, The Simpsons, the parents of Ned Flanders are beatniks. (Hurricane_Neddy  (http://www.snpp.com/episodes/4F07.html))
A sensationalist Hollywood interpretation of the sub-culture can be seen in the 1959 film The Beat Generation.
Influences on Western Culture
There are many writers, artists and musicians who explicitly acknowledge a debt to the beat writers (and for more about them, see the individual articles for each author); but the Beat Generation phenomena itself has had a huge influence on Western Culture overall, larger than just the effects of some writers and artists on other writers and artists.
In many ways, the Beats can be taken as the first subculture (here meaning a cultural subdivision on intellectual/artistic/lifestyle/political grounds, rather than on any obvious difference in ethnic or religious backgrounds). During the very conformist post-World War II era they were one of the forces engaged in a questioning of traditional values which produced a break with the mainstream culture that to this day people react to — or against.
There’s no question that Beats produced a great deal of interest in lifestyle experimentation (notably in regards to sex and drugs); and they had a large intellectual effect in encouraging the questioning of authority (a force behind the anti-war movement); and many of them were very active in popularizing interest in Zen Buddhism in the West.
A quotation from Allen Ginsberg “A Definition of the Beat Generation.” as published in _Friction_, 1 (Winter 1982), revised for “Beat Culture and the New America 1950-1965” published by the Whitney Museum of American Art in accordance with an exhibition in 1995/1996 — ISBN 0-87427-098-7 softcover, ISBN 2-08013-613-5 hardcover (Flammarion):
Some essential effects of Beat Generation artistic movement can be characterized in the following terms: Spiritual liberation, sexual “revolution” or “liberation,” i.e., gay liberation, somewhat catalyzing women’s liberation, black liberation, Gray Panther activism. Liberation of the word from censorship. Demystification and/or decriminalization of some laws against marijuana and other drugs. The evolution of rhythm and blues into rock and roll as a high art form, as evidenced by the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and other popular musicians influenced in the later fifties and sixties by Beat generation poets’ and writers’ works. The spread of ecological consciousness, emphasized early on by Gary Snyder and Michael McClure, the notion of a “Fresh Planet.” Opposition to the military-industrial machine civilization, as emphasized in writings of Burroughs, Huncke, Ginsberg, and Kerouac. Attention to what Kerouac called (after Spengler) a “second religiousness” developing within an advanced civilization. Return to an appreciation of idiosyncrasy as against state regimentation. Respect for land and indigenous peoples and creatures, as proclaimed by Kerouac in his slogan from _On the Road_: “The Earth is an Indian thing.” The essence of the phrase “beat generation” may be found in _On the Road_ with the celebrated phrase: “Everything belongs to me because I am poor.”
There were many influences on the beat generation writers: Blake was a big intellectual influence on Allen Ginsberg and there are striking echoes of Walt Whitman’s style in Ginsberg’s work; the novel You Can’t Win by Jack Black was a strong influence on William Burroughs, and so on.
The full historical background arguably includes: Henry David Thoreau , Imagism (especially Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams and H.D.), the Objectivists and Henry Miller. Some points to consider:
- Gary Snyder read Pound early and was encouraged in his interests in Japan and China by Pound’s work.
- William Carlos Williams encouraged a number of beats and wrote a preface for Howl and other poems.
- Pound was also important to Allen Ginsberg and to most of the San Francisco Rennaissance group (Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, etc).
- H.D. was crucial to Robert Duncan.
- Rexroth published with the Objectivists.
The post war era was a time where the dominant culture was desperate for a reassuring planned order; but there was a strong intellectual undercurrent calling for spontaniety, an end to psychological repression; a romantic desire for a more chaotic, dionysian existence.
The beats were a manifestation of this undercurrent (and over time, a primary focus for those energies), but they were not the only one. Before Jack Kerouac embraced “spontaneous prose”, there were other artists pursuing self-expression by abandoning control, notably the improvisational elements in jazz music, and the action paintings of Jackson Pollack and the other abstract expressionists.
Also, there were other artists in the post-war period who embraced a similar disdain for refined control, often with the opposite intent of suppressing the ego, and avoiding self-expression; notably, the works of the composer/writer John Cage and the paintings and “assemblages” of Robert Rauschenberg. The “cut-up” technique that Brion Gysin developed and that William Burroughs adopted after publishing Naked Lunch bears a strong resemblence to Cage’s “chance operations” approach.
The beats were certainly not “the only game in town”, as far as experimental writing is concerned. Various other movements/scenes can be identified that were happening roughly concurrently:
- the Angries a group of post-war British writers with which the Beats are sometimes compared
- The Black Mountain poets (which John Cage was also associated with)
- The San Francisco Renaissance can be regarded as a separate movement of it’s own, with origins preceeding the beats.
Principal writings of the Beat Generation
- On the Road by Jack Kerouac (1957)
- Junky by William S. Burroughs(1953)
- Howl and other Poems by Allen Ginsberg (1956)
- Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs (1959)
- The First Third by Neal Cassady (1970)
- Minor Characters by Joyce Johnson (1983)
Some proto-beat writings
- The Town and the City* by Jack Kerouac (1950)
- Go by John Clellon Holmes (1952)
- Who Walk in Darkness by Chandler Brossard (1952)
- Flee the Angry Strangers by George Mandel (1952)
Kerouac’s first novel, The Town and the City, like all of his major works, is essentially an autobiographical novel about the beat circle, but it is not usually considered a “beat novel” because he had not yet developed his own style (he was consciously imitating Thomas Wolfe). A similar argument is usually made about Holmes’s Go.