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The Beat Movement

1. When was it?

1944 – c.1970

2. Who was writing?

Jack KerouacAllen Ginsberg
William BurroughsKen Kesey

3. History

The Beat Movement (participants of which are known as ‘The Beat Generation’) was formed around a group of American writers who came to prominence at the conclusion of World War II. The origins of the movement were formed in jazz-influenced underground literary clubs in New York City, with most artists meeting around 1944.
On the cultural timeline, the Beat Generation was a stepping stone between wartime and the hippy movement that arrived in the US in the 1960s. Its fundamental philosophy was non-conformity, believing that life was about experience and liberation rather than plans and material success. In total freedom one could be human, romantic, and even animalistic.
Certain elements were common in the Beat Generation’s vision of freedom. Geographical and spiritual exploration produced road trips, particularly across America, alongside liberal attitudes to drugs and sex. Exotic religions, often from the East, also held a fascination. Rejecting standard narratives, social structures and institutions was an important part of this freedom.
The movement was controversial in conservative America due to its celebration of drug taking and sex, particularly homosexual sex. Worse scandals dogged particular writers, including suggestions of paedophilia and murder charges. Many of these have become more serious in retrospect, but it was also a murder that gave the movement prominence. In 1944, Lucien Carr, 19, killed fellow founding member David Kammerer, 33, in revenge for stalking and an alleged sexual attack.
Ultimately the Beat Generation was short-lived. Some writers died young, whilst others grew disillusioned with a growing trend of ‘beatnik’ poseurs. Yet the liberal attitude venerated by its authors put counterculture on the American map. Arguably more importantly, it defied censorship laws, allowing greater publishing freedoms for future generations.

4. Traits

The Beat Movement’s interest in free-form jazz is mirrored in its writings. Abandoning traditional narratives and emoting immediate experiences were at the heart of its work, and this often resulted in stream of consciousness prose. Beat poetry is most famous for its abandonment of traditional stanza and verse structures. Overall, the writing can often be seen as the writer finding a spiritual experience and then trying to convey that feeling, even if it was not fully understood.
The general themes of Beat literature involved locating experiences through exploration, either physically (such as road trips) or spiritually and mentally (finding new states of consciousness via philosophy, religion, drugs or alcohol). Cynicism towards rigid social structures, and those who opted to abide by them instead of seeking spiritual liberation, was also evident. Beat Generation writing often includes an element of ‘dropping out’ of regular society, seeking an alternative to the paths one’s parents, peers and education expect.
In terms of content, references to drug use and sex (often explicit) were common. Some tested decency laws and general taste. Language was often influenced by jazz culture, not only in borrowed vocabulary but the consonance, assonance and flow. The movement promoted travelling, but post-war conditions meant this was almost exclusively inside America. Locations were either the open road or within one of the cultural scenes of New York, San Francisco, or Los Angeles.

5. Timeline

6. Examples

Howl 
by Allen Ginsberg

Know Your Book

Title: Howl
Author: Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997)
Published: 1956
Language: English
Genre: Poetry; beat
Synopsis: The poem is a raging lament for the loss of the US counter-culture movement. It notes the role drugs and sexual liberation held, including homsexual liberation, and despairs at how the artists and freedoms have been lost through drugs, mental pressures, early death and structural oppression. An example is given in the poet’s friend Carl Solomon, who Ginsberg met in a psychiatric ward. Finally, the poet says that whilst the time has been lost, the poets did make a difference.

Excerpt from Part I:

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,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz,
who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated,
who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war,
who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull,
who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, burning their money in wastebaskets and listening to the Terror through the wall,
who got busted in their pubic beards returning through Laredo with a belt of marijuana for New York,
who ate fire in paint hotels or drank turpentine in Paradise Alley, death, or purgatoried their torsos night after night
with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, alcohol and cock and endless balls,

On the Road 
by Jack Kerouac

Know Your Book

Title: On the Road
Author: Jack Kerouac (Jean-Louis Kérouac) (1922-1969)
Published: 1957
Language: English
Genre: Fiction; roman à clef; beat; counter-culture; travelogue
Synopsis: The book is divided into five parts and includes trips through California, New York, New Orleans, and Texas. Most of these trips are either spontaneous or drifting, and include meeting strangers, parties, hanging out at jazz venues, taking drugs, and considering sex. Put together, the book represents an exploration of America and its counter-culture.
Setting: USA; 1947-1950
Characters: Sal Paradise (narrator); Dean Moriarty

Excerpt from Chapter 4:

The greatest ride in my life was about to come up, a truck, with a flatboard at the back, with about six or seven boys sprawled out on it, and the drivers, two young blond farmers from Minnesota, were picking up every single soul they found on that road-the most smiling, cheerful couple of handsome bumpkins you could ever wish to see, both wearing cotton shirts and overalls, nothing else; both thick-wristed and earnest, with broad howareyou smiles for anybody and anything that came across their path. I ran up, said “Is there room?” They said, “Sure, hop on, ‘sroom for everybody.”
I wasn’t on the flatboard before the truck roared off; I lurched, a rider grabbed me, and I sat down. Somebody passed a bottle of rotgut, the bottom of it. I took a big swig in the wild, lyrical, drizzling air of Nebraska. “Whooee, here we go!” yelled a kid in a baseball cap, and they gunned up the truck to seventy and passed everybody on the road. “We been riding this sonofabitch since Des Moines. These guys never stop. Every now and then you have to yell for pisscall, otherwise you have to piss off the air, and hang on, brother, hang on.”
I looked at the company. There were two young farmer boys from North Dakota in red baseball caps, which is the standard North Dakota farmer-boy hat, and they were headed for the harvests; their old men had given them leave to hit the road for a summer. There were two young city boys from Columbus, Ohio, high-school football players, chewing gum, winking, singing in the breeze, and they said they were hitchhiking around the United States for the summer. “We’re going to LA! “they yelled.
“What are you going to do there?”
“Hell, we don’t know. Who cares.”

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