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The Beat Generation

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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,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night ...

- Allen Ginsberg, 'Howl'

Origins of the Movement and the Generation

Beat as a movement began after World War II, a reaction by some against society's conformism and mindless acceptance of new materialistic roles. After the war was over, consumer goods became paramount to the American Way and other, simpler things no longer mattered as much. Television began to feature functional families that could never exist in actual life and products guaranteed to make everything 'better'. With the anti-Communist fever running high as well and accusations arising from everywhere, Allen Ginsberg mourned what he called 'the lost America of love'.

The 'Beat Generation' was composed of people fed up with American materialism and close-mindedness. They wrote mind-bending books and poetry, and attempted to use words in the same way as famous jazz artists such as Charlie Parker and Miles Davis created their music around improvisation. Some of the best known Beats include Jack Kerouac, a prose writer whose works include On the Road and The Dharma Bums; Allen Ginsberg, who wrote the amazingly free (and now famous) poem 'Howl'; and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who owned a book store and published many Beat writings, as well as writing poetry himself.

The first book that may be called 'Beat' in any sense was Go, by John Clellon Holmes (1952). The characters in Go, seen from later years, closely resembled the Beat Generation - the characters were mostly disenchanted writers grouping together in New York City. John Clellon Holmes also published an article in the New York Times newspaper, entitled 'This is the Beat Generation' that same year. However, Holmes was never truly accepted as Beat by the others, and the Generation didn't come to the public eye until the obscenity trial of Allen Ginsberg's 'Howl' in 1956 (the charges were eventually dropped).

Beat Writing

Walt Whitman was a written influence of the Beat Generation (especially his poems in Leaves of Grass) - his work abandoned traditional verse patterns and often focussed on the awakening and divinity of the self. His work, along with that of new jazz musicians such as Charlie Parker, challenged his audiences to think in new ways.

Beat writing often reflects Buddhism and other Asian ways of thought, a result of the Zen Buddhist philosophy followed by many major Beats. It concentrates on the frailty and uselessness of life as well as satori. Beat poetry sometimes uses the haiku form, but also can be free-verse (depending on the author and the piece).

'Howl' was the poem by Allen Ginsberg that really brought the Beat movement into the world. There is rhythm in it, and it is full of free-association and an accurate (depending on how you look at it) portrayal of American disillusionment.

yacketayakking screaming vomiting whispering facts and memories and anecdotes and eyeball kicks and shocks of hospitals and jails and wars,
whole intellects disgorged in total recall for seven days and nights with brilliant eyes, meat for the Synagogue cast on the pavement,
who vanished into Nowhere Zen New Jersey leaving a trail of ambiguous picture postcards of Atlantic City Hall

who cut their wrists three times successively unsuccessfully, gave up and were forced to open antique stores where they thought they were growing old and cried,

who were burned alive in their innocent flannel suits on Madison Avenue amid blasts of leaden verse and the tanked-up clatter of the iron regiments of fashion and the nitroglycerine shrieks of the fairies of advertising and the mustard gas of sinister intelligent editors, or were run down by the drunkentaxicabs of Absolute Reality,
who jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge this actually happened and walked away unknown and forgotten into the ghostly daze of Chinatown soup alleyways and firetrucks, not even one free beer ....
'Howl' put the Beats on the map with its arrival in 1956.

Another famous Beat work is Naked Lunch, a collection of short stories by William S Burroughs. Naked Lunch was published in 1959, making Burroughs an underground celebrity. It is widely considered his best work, although he has published other things, such as Junky, which concerned his heroin addiction. Burroughs also went through a 'cut-up' phase after the completion of Naked Lunch, in which he tried to make novels out of snippets of other works - the Beat Generation was always looking for something new to try, something wildly different from the mundane un-art that everyone had come to expect.

Jack Kerouac encouraged others to write spontaneously, with little or no revision, so that their writing took on the tone of improvised jazz music. His own Beat works encompass this ideal; On the Road was written completely in three days and is probably the most recognised and widely read Beat work to date. Poetry worked especially well in this style, the line breaks indicating a breath mark or pause, and the words having a visual as well as aural rhythm. Kerouac himself (more noted for his prose than poetry, although he, like most Beat writers, composed both) used dash marks in many of his books to represent a breath, and usually a change in focus. Other than those dashes, an entire page or more might be without punctuation. The words had to speak for themselves.

Beat Beliefs and Actions

The Beat Generation advocated the rediscovery of the self, through a variety of ways. Casual sex, drugs, Zen Buddhism, and listening to music were obviously the most popular, and they were fitting trappings for those involved in the 'rucksack revolution' (the term care of Kerouac). Beats also tried to experience as much as possible, so a favourite pastime was traipsing through America and getting to know people and see new things.

Jack Kerouac was the first to use the term 'Beat Generation' to apply to the people who embraced his beliefs about today's America and employed writing to convey their thoughts to others. The word 'beat' has many different connotations, and they were all intended. It refers to beaten and weary people. Music's beat, especially the beat of jazz, attracted many people of the Beat Generation. And the term made reference to beatitudes - the belief that the entire natural world and everyone in it are blessed.

The word 'beatnik' arose later in the 1950s, referring (usually derogatorily) to those who embraced the Beat way of life but weren't really 'Beat' in the true sense of the word. The public's view of beatniks, perpetuated by the media, involved spaced-out people dressed entirely in black, women with pale 'panstick' faces, that muttered gibberish masquerading as 'poetry' beneath their breaths.

Poetry readings were a part of beatnik life, however misleading the other stereotypes could be. Oftentimes beatniks (and true Beats) would gather in coffee houses and read aloud or listen to others' poetry, sometimes composed on the spot. Jazz was also often involved, with bands backing and getting in on the action. 'Howl' and other pieces composed for this type of performance are better heard and understood aloud - this type of poetry is known as spoken word poetry, and still goes on today in coffee houses across the world.

The Demise of the Beat

During the early 1960s, focus began to shift from Beat-thinking into hippie-thinking. Around 1963, The Beatles became more and more popular and bridged the gap between the beatniks of the 1950s and the hippies of the 1960s with newly energetic American blues and rock music. The baby-boomers were trying everything, and although they liked the style, attitude, and freedom of the Beats, they also liked the music of more popular artists such as BB King, the Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan.

The final blow to the popular Beat movement (though it goes on even today in some groups) was Vietnam and the sudden lack of media acknowledgement for people of the Beat Generation. The media latched on to the outspoken anti-war hippies during Vietnam, and Beats slowly disappeared beneath their more 'up-to-date' anti-establishment counterparts.

For Further Perusal

  • Beat Generation News has many of the things that you would expect on a good beat site: biographies, explanations, and different thinking.

  • LitKicks (Literary Kicks) has good biographies about many people important in Beat history, although the most important bit of the site is, by far, the messageboards. People can post what they have been thinking about lately, or poetry/prose they have written.

  • On the Road, written by Jack Kerouac, has its own very special entry here. On the Road was the bible of the '50s beatniks; the story followed the retreat of Dean Moriarty to California. Dean Moriarty was based on Kerouac's real-life friend and inspiration Neal Cassady, another famous Beat writer.

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