A “Beat” Generation: Influence and Knowledge from the Masters

Jack Kerouac once advised that one should,

“blow as deep as [they] want – write as deeply, fish as far down as [they] want, satisfy [themselves] first, [and] then [their] reader cannot fail to receive telepathic shock and meaning – excitement by same laws operating in [their] own human mind […] [One should] write outwards swimming in sea of language to peripheral release and exhaustion…tap from [themselves] the song of [themselves] blow! – now! – [their] way is your [their] way…”

Kerouac was a major contributor to the Beat Generation as well as American Literature in general. He was a single piece to a puzzle otherwise known as the Beats. The diverse group of writers, poets, artists, and musicians, commonly categorized as the Beatniks, provoked new beginnings in music, literature, and art. The Beats were a very influential group of people who inspired all aspects of fine arts as society knows them today; they modernized the old style of writing (Jack Kerouac’s 1959 novel On The Road), broke the barriers placed on music, literature, and art (Bob Dylan & Patti Smith in the 1960s-70s), and opened numerous opportunities for aspiring artists, musicians, and writers. The Beat “Movement” was greatly influential in the history of the American arts, and the events that led up to the beginning of the movement were extremely imperative to the movement itself.

Preceding the Beat “movement” was a war that shook the globe: World War II. The generation of children and young adults that were brought up from the 1920s and all the way through to the end of the war did not have anybody they could trust. John Clellon Holmes explained that after being “brought up during the collective bad circumstances of a dreary depression”, the young teens and children “weaned during the collective uprooting of a global war” and distrusted “collectivity”. Towards the end of the 1950s, the blossoming of the Beat Generation was the direct upshot of a steadily growing germination progression. Teens began to shed their “goody-goody” image and divulged into a world of black markets, bebop, narcotics, sexual promiscuity and hucksterism (Holmes). The Beats formed as a sort of rebellion against the cheery lifestyles of their fellow citizens and against World War II in general. They began to question conventional traditions and politics. The ‘Beatniks’ became concerned with changing perception and defying unadventurous writing, as well as battling against social conformity and working towards expressing emotions in a new and exciting way.

The Original Beats

The famous Beat, Jack Kerouac, first used the idiom ‘beat’ in 1948 while he was talking to John Clellon Holmes: “So I guess you might say we’re a beat generation” (Asher). The four original Beats, Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassidy, and William Burroughs all banded together in the late 1940’s. According to the Encyclopedia of Road Subculture, Jack was born Jean-Louis Kerouac on March 12th of 1922 in Lowell, Massachusetts. He attended Columbia University on a football scholarship, where he met Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassidy. Although Kerouac was a big-time jock, he always had a book in his hand. He later went on to drop out of school and he had a short stint in the military. His friends (Ginsberg, Lucien Carr, and Cassidy) inspired him to construct more than one travel-prose book. Kerouac dubbed his writings as ‘spontaneous prose’. He is best known for his work, On the Road, a novel that “romanticized hitchhiking and the American road to readers and travelers around the world”. The novel made a big impact on American Literature in that it caused society to think and voice their opinions on Jack’s writing.

Allen Ginsberg, another significant member of the beats, was born on June 3rd, 1926 in Newark, New Jersey. He got his start in poetry when he began protesting the Vietnam War in the 1960’s; he wrote and published several poetic pieces, including ‘Reality Sandwiches’ and ‘Planet News’. Ginsberg’s pivotal and well-known poetic work ‘Howl and Other Poems’ set off the San Francisco Renaissance. ‘Howl’ defined a generation with a clout and revelation that had not been seen by the American people since T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’. When Ginsberg was writing ‘Howl’, he was not particularly writing it for an audience. He constructed ‘Howl’ because he knew that he had the ability to do so. It was more for himself and his group of friends to read and behold rather than being a public spectacle.

The gang's all here: the original beats all hanging around a local diner.
The gang’s all here: the original beats all hanging around a local diner.

Neal Cassidy, friend to Kerouac and Ginsberg, as well as a member of the original beats, was born in Salt Lake City, Utah. His life was a difficult one; he had a life of hardships and was married three times. He spent most of his youth in juvenile detention centers and reform schools. Cassidy tagged along on many of Jack Kerouac’s spontaneous road trips and hitchhikes, and eventually his persona was put into Kerouac’s novel On the Road through the character of Dean Moriarty. Neal Cassidy was never a very prolific writer and he only published one short novel, ‘The First Third’, chronicling his dysfunctional childhood life.

The fourth and final original Beat was William Burroughs, who was born on February 5th of 1914 in St. Louis, Missouri. Burroughs lived an exceptionally easy life, attending Harvard University. Out of all of the original Beats, he was the most open about his homosexual tendencies and narcotic experiments. Burroughs wrote the critically acclaimed Naked Lunch, as well, which gained him much notice (The Beat Page).

Not only were there numerous amounts of beat novels and poetry, but there was a good deal of beat music. Two names stand out among the rest. The first, Elvis Presley, was born on January 8th of 1935 in Tupelo, Mississippi. Elvis’ music was quite unusual for its time, and the image that he put out for the world (the image of Rock ’n Roll) was one that drove young teens crazy, and made their parents even crazier. He put out a lot of ‘bluesy’ tunes, and was a big fan of jazz in general, which was popular at the time of the beats’ uprising. He put out music that moved against the wholesome tide that had been washing upon the shores in the preceeding decades.

Another prominent Beat musician is Bob Dylan. Dylan commented once that he, “came out of the wilderness, and just naturally fell in with the Beat scene … [He] got in at the tail end of that and it was magic.” Imre Saluszinsky, who wrote ‘The Genius of Dylan’ for “The Australian” Weekend Review, said that, “the Dylan of the early and mid-’60s [was] a Beat poet.” Dylan used his “chains and loops of surreal, stream-of-consciousness imagery, street-talk idiom, and hostility to “straight” social-conditioning” as a way to face a challenges that presented itself among most musicians and writers. He popularized poetic lyrics in the music industry. Dylan, extracting inspiration from Ralph Waldo Emerson, was, in a way, a modern transcendentalist. He preached of self-reliance and became a prodigy of Emerson. A creative and different approach to writing came with the Beats’ new outlook on literature and the fine arts.

Writing & Art

Initially, the most common form of writing is, in many ways, bare. Novels lack relatable situations. The “old” style of writing contains the standards: punctuation and old-style dialogue. There is not much room for individualism with punctuation, for fear that sentence structures would be improper, and thoughts will be misconstrued. In regards to old-style dialogue, Romanticism texts are written in old English, and Realism texts are written with basic and uninteresting terminology. With Beat-like writings, concepts like punctuation and monotonous dialogue go out the window. Kerouac’s original copy of On the Road was constructed on a single scroll, disregarding punctuation or placing it strange spots. Dialogues in Beat texts are relaxed and modern and they have very little limitations. There is more room for creativity and rare writings on topics that are taboo to society. Beatniks can chronicle their drug trips, sexual escapades, and midnight joy rides for the entire world to read.

When comparing and contrasting works preceding the Beatniks and texts written by the Beatniks, there are definitely more differences than similarities. The characteristic that both pre-beat and beat writings share is the freedom to typically write about anything. Pre-beat writings did not necessarily have limits as to what they can or can not write, but they did not really try to expand ideas like the Beat writers did. In contrast, modern, Beat-like style turns heads, whereas the previous style over-looked. Everything about Beat writing is unconventional, which causes talk and commotion. The modern style of writing due to the Beats helped to break down barriers in literature in terms of expression and fundamental rules. The Beats also broke barriers placed on music and art as well.

If you can't beat them, join them.
If you can’t beat them, join them.

Consequently, the Beats achieved fresh success by breaking down or improving a myriad of aspects in the fine arts; novels and poetry, art, and music. The Beats greatly enhanced poetic standards previously set by rousing poets. In earlier literary periods, poets among the likes of Whitman and Dickinson went against the grain. Whitman, in particular, pushed the envelope in what was considered “customary” to readers; in his poetry, he describes life on the battlefront. Whitman, Dickinson, and Emerson were the foundation for distinctive poetry, poetry that Beat poets followed suit to. Beat poets changed the way people thought about poetry because their works were so simplistic and often held deeper meanings. Beat poetry, as well as Beat novels, does not always have one distinct focus in regards to a topic. They write about strange topics and household objects. A solid example can be found in a poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, entitled ‘Underwear’:

Underwear with spots very suspicious
Underwear with bulges very shocking
Underwear on clothesline a great flag of freedom
Someone has escaped his Underwear
May be naked somewhere
Help!
But don’t worry
Everybody’s still hung up in it
There won’t be no real revolution
And poetry still the underwear of the soul
And underwear still covering
a multitude of faults.

Ferlinghetti’s eccentric poetry was different from the customary poetry telling of beautiful nature scenes and love. He showed the world that poetry could be about anything, even something as simple as a pair of underwear. Other writings, such as On the Road and ‘Howl’, also proved that novels and poetry did not have to focus on one single aspect and that writings could be just one long stream of consciousness or thought. Writings by Kerouac and Ginsberg were controversial because they were out of the ordinary. They wrote to appease no one but themselves and did not anticipate a large audience of readers.

The Beats broke barriers in art as well. Earlier works of art featured landscapes, classical portraits, and ordinary objects as they were in real life settings. Beat art was a bit more abstract and played around with different colors and styles according to skill. One man, among many, redefined the face of art as we know it today: Andy Warhol. Warhol took normal objects, like fruit and people, and created masterpieces by placing them in odd positions or settings, using abstract patterns, and utilizing fanatical insignias. All of his art flowed from one central insight, “that in a culture glutted with information, where most people experience most things at second or third hand through TV and print, through images that become banal and disassociated by repeated again and again and again, there is role for affect-less art.” He was very powerful in establishing the fact that not all art had to look the same.

Music & Uncharted Territory

In post World War II times, wholesome, rhyming lyrics were welcomed. Songs were focused about the same concept and sounded fundamentally, if not exactly, the same. The Beats were greatly influenced by jazz and the blues, music that was more realistic and believable. From then on, music started to become more original. Great American song writers like Bob Dylan and Elvis Presley wrote songs about corruption and unhappiness, showing society that concepts like unfaithfulness and depression did not have to be kept secret. On that same tier, artists were writing song with promiscuous content. Previously seen as unacceptable, promiscuity and sexuality were major themes that every beat explored, whether they were a musician, writer, artist, etc. Elvis is the perfect example of this. Just take a look at sexually charged songs like Spinout and Girls! Girls! Girls!

Spinout:

Better watch those curves, never let her steer
If she can shake your nerves, boy
Then she can strip your gears
She’ll get your high and goin’ fast
Then she’ll let you run out of gas
So spinout, yeah spinout

Girls! Girls! Girls!:

Girls, sailin’ sailboats,
Girls, water skiin’,
They’ll drive me out of my mind, yay, yay, yay
Girls, big and brassy,
Girls, small and sassy,
Just give me one of each kind

With broken barriers came more opportunities and inspiration for the younger generation of aspiring artists, writers, and musicians.

Additionally, the Beats opened doors for subsequent generations. After the Beats put their materials out for everyone to behold, other artists, musicians, and writers saw that creativity could be more easily embraced. The Beats, in a way, helped others to see that no one could put a limit on their work. They also demonstrated idiosyncratic writing. Writers could make their stories and novels all their own; they did not have to feel like their words and feelings were useless and redundant. The opportunity to be more open presented itself as well.

The beats were known for their care-free spirits, their knowledge, and their wicked cool parties.
The beats were known for their care-free spirits, their knowledge, and their wicked cool parties.

A big impact the Beats had on writing was their insistence that, “the writer should refuse inhibition and self-censorship.” As Kerouac put it, one should, “believe in the holy contour of life… [and have] no fear or shame in the dignity of [their] experience, language & knowledge”. Homosexuals, lesbians, and bisexuals could also be more open about their orientation, a subject that although not always welcome, was never done before and could be done from then on (McLemee). Those involved with the fine arts had the opportunity to express themselves freely after seeing how the works of the Beats were accepted by their society. In regards to music, currently there is more flexibility and creativeness in modern lyrics. Society does not realize that underground hip-hop artists, metal bands, and other artists are really Beat poets in disguise. Beat poets like Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti paved the way for modern music today. Without the Beats in general, modern music, art, and literature would be, to some extent, altered.

As a whole, the Beats shaped society as it is known today. If the concepts introduced to us by the Beats were never launched, a lot of things that we take for granted would be greatly affected; our novels would be exceptionally different, as well as modern poetry. If the Beat “movement” had never come to pass, much of today’s writing would not be structurally the same. Art would still be in primary colors. Music would not evoke the emotions it does in the present day. The opportunities to express one as an open individual would not be open to the world. Society would still be stuck in a post-World War II society, where everyone puts up a facade to disguise their true feelings. Without the Beats, much of the world would be uninfluenced and therefore exceedingly different.

The Beats, as a whole, did a great deal for modern society; they enhanced and restructured the current form of writing, broke down the restraints that were placed on music, literature, and art, and provided new opportunities for continuing generations. William S. Burroughs once suggested that one should, “strip [their] psyche to the bare bones of spontaneous process, give themselves one chance in a thousand to make the pass.” In essence, people should never second-guess themselves or underestimate the power of what they say. Who knows, anyone could be part of the next generation of great influence and knowledge.

Web Sources

http://ezone.org/ez/e2/articles/digaman.html
http://websupport1.citytech.cuny.edu/Faculty/pcatapano/US2/US%20Documents/beatgeneration.html
http://www.litkicks.com/BeatGen#.U307OfldV0Y
http://www.beatdom.com/?p=672
http://www.glbtq.com/literature/beat_gen.html

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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20 Comments

  1. Sherita
    1

    I think I would have run off with Jack Kerouac if I would have come across him during his time.

  2. Katy Light
    0

    If there is any book that would be banned, it should be Howl… Although very graphic (in the extremely creative beat poetic form), this compilation of poetry is very interesting to read. Allen Ginsberg, a homosexual poet wrote Howl and Other Poems as an way to bring out his thoughts and express many issues that was very important to him. This automatic controversial book was sent to trial for obscenity and other charges. Poetry can be complex at times, and the message lies in between the lines.

    • Aldo Rapp
      0

      This book played a pretty big part in the shaping of the “writing part” of my mind.

  3. Slattery
    0

    On the Road entertained the hell out of me even though it leads nowhere. But this is not actually a bad thing because that’s the leitmotif here: a road trip up and down North America in search of the American dream…or some beatnik version of it, anyway.

    Kerouac’s descriptions of frantic jazz bands and everything he encounters on the road (rivers, mountains, clouds, gas stations, people) are complex but straightforward and unpretentious. His ability to describe cities like New York, L.A. and and San Francisco in one clear sentence is uncanny and effortless.

    The novel reminded me a lot of The Great Gatsby, with Sal Paradise playing Nick Calloway to Dean Moriarty, an annoying and infuriating sociopath who plays everybody like puppets. I sort of expected Dean to end up dead and not because I disliked him but because of his lifestyle. Somehow, it seemed fitting. He always seemed to be high, even when he wasn’t. The last page summarizes what I felt for him all throughout the novel: pity. But I guess he is the embodiment of “Beat”.

    • Read it this year and it was a very difficult read for me. I am not a fan of drug abuse and drug culture. With the majority of this book revolving aroing around it made for a lot of eyerolling and sighs on my part.

      I get that this book represented the zeitgeist for a large portion of American youth. I made a point in discussing this book the other day that this was a lineal heritage from Huck Finn, to Bound For Glory, to On The Road. I stand by that. They each catch the spirit of the times that they deal with.

      The poison just changed from booze to booze and drugs. The prose in the book seemed to roller coaster from insipid to imagery that saved the story for me. When Kerouac got it right….he got it really right! The writing was definately better towards the end of the book, even with the debauch at Gregoria.

      To sum up it was one of the most interesting reads for me this year even if the subject matter makes me think of wasted opportunities and wasted lives.

      -Amparo

  4. Helen Parshall

    I love your idea that many artists in today’s generation are just beat poets in disguise. I think that’s fascinating. Excellent read :]

  5. While I agree on the historical importance of the Beats, and their great influence in the sixties, I think the cultural pendulum has moved away from their insights into a more shallow and superficial standard of expression, dominated by trivial communication in social media. Beats are dead – though we need them more than ever.

  6. I had an English professor who was an authority on Kerouac. I signed up for the course one summer, but the professor had to cancel class due to a family emergency. Since reading your article, I’ve decided to get Kerouac’s book and read it now.

  7. Elmira Steel
    0

    Kerouac and his friends were a true lost generation as much as the writers in Paris after the first world war were.

  8. Brittany Goodin

    I KNOW I would have run off with Kerouac if I had the chance! I have always loved the unreserved, wild writing of the Beats. My freshman year of college, I took a countercultural lit. course and fell in love with Kerouac before we even started reading his novels, and don’t even get me started on Ginsberg!
    I recently wrote an essay discussing the influence the beats had on future writers and artists and how they helped lead America from the conservative ’50s to the rebellious ’60s.
    Great article, nice read.

  9. Venus Echos

    Yes Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation what a great topic. I have read several works from this era. I remember my first time in San Francisco and while I was walking through China Town I came upon a piece of sidewalk that had a metal plate with Jack Kerouac’s name on it. I was taking photos of it and a woman came up to me and told me if I go down that alley I will find more Kerouac memorabilia. So I did not go down the alley because I was by myself and it was narrow and seedy. So I took the long way around the block and saw over-life size murals of Kerouac and then I came upon the City Lights Book store. I was ecstatic and I went to Kerouac’s room and bought all of his books all over again. Then I went to the bar adjacent to the bookstore and sat and had a drink where Kerouac would drink and began reading my favorite work, The Subterranean.
    I think back about how he would fasten typing paper together to make a scroll and keep typing until he got it all out. If I remember correctly he was author to some of the longest sentences. I find myself doing that sometimes and think of him. I also think about how easy we have it with computers and writing and spell check and now we don’t even need paper. We can write anytime and anywhere and to anybody. It is so exciting to be a part of this technology era and be able to reflect back on inspirational writers from the Beat Generation so thank you for that flash back.

  10. Actually, Beats and Beatniks are quite different. The Beats were the actual poets who contributed to the scene but the Beatniks were the culture that adopted the now exciting look of shrouding in a corner of a coffee shop wearing all black. The Beatniks arguably led to the end of the Beat movement because they took on the persona yet didn’t contribute poetry or any writings to keep the movement moving forward. Instead, they brought the Beat movement closer to Hippie culture which was fundamentally different. Hippie culture put an emphasis on outwardly uniting everyone, “we are all brothers and sisters” type of thing. The beats were interested on the inner thoughts of the individual and is why they emphasized spontaneous writing and condoned self-censorship.

  11. Writing itself is always an attempt to restructure itself. The Beats participated in that tradition. I would think they were more defined as a movement due to censoring. I think discussion of The Beats as a singular movement usually undermines its influence from the tradition it came from–Ginsberg from Rimbaud wanted a “new vision.” Gregory Corso, the best poet to come from the Beats, has undeniable influences and is not without influence, too. Like a lot of movements, it seems, The Beat generation is reactionary–not to discredit any of what it stood for.

    • So true. The opening quote is a really strong representation of the ideal of restructuring writing. Reactionary writing is impossible to disconnect from unless it becomes entirely meaningless. Every time a person writes with intention, it could be said to be reactionary. And, there is nothing wrong with that. With Beat writers, this reactionary writing was very well disguised, and that doesn’t sully the movement in any way.

  12. m.glenn
    1

    Hi, I’m currently writing a dissertation on the Beat Generation, arguing that the reality of the Beats is not remotely similar to the societial/media views of the Beats, so this article will help, immensely. Thanks for providing me with some wonderful ignorance.

    This article got so many things wrong I hardly know where to start.
    First of all, it’s Cassady, not Cassidy.

    The Beats and the Beatniks were separate. The Beats wrote the literature, the Beatniks acted like Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise (not Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac, for the novel ‘On The Road’ didn’t portray the personalities exactly how they really were).

    You say that Jack Kerouac attended Columbia University and this is where he met Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady. Wrong. Kerouac was at Columbia years before Ginsberg set foot in the place. This makes it sound like they were at university together. Neal Cassady didn’t go to Columbia University (though he did try to get in at one point), and this makes it sound like he did attend the university.

    “Cassady tagged along on many of Jack Kerouac’s spontaneous road trips and hitchhikes, and eventually his persona was put into Kerouac’s novel ‘On The Road’ through the character of Dean Moriarty”
    Wrong, wrong, wrong!
    Kerouac followed Cassady on SOME of his spontaneous trips. Kerouac was terrified of driving; it would give him panic attacks. He hated long road trips. Cassady’s persona was not “put into Kerouac’s novel”, the characterisation of Dean Moriarty was influenced by Cassady. There is a difference. Also, the word ‘eventually’ makes it seem like Kerouac had been attempting it for decades.

    Elvis Presley was not a Beat. Yes, he influenced American Culture (a decade later, might I add), but that doesn’t make someone a Beat.

    Bob Dylan “popularised poetic lyrics in the music industry”.
    What a claim to make. Are you telling me there is no poetry in traditional folk music, and in the blues music of the 1800s? What exactly do you mean by “poetic lyrics”?

    “Romanticism texts are written in Old English”. WRONG. Some are…
    “Realism texts are written with basic and uninteresting terminology.” In your opinion…which is also a pretty shallow thing to say.

    “Beatniks [wrong!] can chronicle [name some of their chronicles…I can’t] their drug trips [only Burroughs did this], sexual escapades [umm…only Ginsberg. In only one poem], and midnight joy rides [enlighten me?] for the entire world to read”.
    Yes, because the entire world can read, and can buy their books.

    “They write about strange topics and household objects”.
    This made me laugh so much. Yes, this is all the Beats write about. Those strange topics…

    “Homosexuals…could also be more open about their orientation [The Beats accepted them. No one else did. In fact, being gay was illegal], a subject that although not always welcome [in fact rarely, even among some Beats], was never done before [How about the Bloomsbury group? Dickinson etc. They were more sexually experimental] and could be done from them on.”

    The best part of that incredibly WRONG paragraph: “could be done from then on”. Where have you been? Homosexuals are STILL oppressed. Less so than only 6-7 years ago…Yes, it’s now legal to be gay but that hardly made a difference.

    “As a whole the Beats shaped society as it is known today”.
    The paragraph that ensues is a string of the MOST ridiculous assumptions.

    Phew. Rant done. Check the facts before pretending you know your stuff.
    Want some help? Read ‘The Typewriter is Holy’ by Bill Morgan.

  13. This was a great read! On the Road is one of my favorite books.

    One thing I would have liked to have seen addressed is how and why the Beats became so successful as a movement and how the counterculture movement shifted from “Beatniks” to “hippies.” I would also be interested in the mechanisms of spreading their counterculture movement as a small group of artists and the role of publishers and other administrative entities in spreading the word.

  14. Jack Kerouac & Hugh Romney both were greats of the Jazz Poetry scene. one album I am searching for was recorded at The Gaslight in Greenwich Village.

  15. Elaina Chastain

    Hey Artifice World! Just wanted to leave some insight on here. I wrote this article as a senior in high school (nearly 7 years ago) and ended up republishing it in 2014 without actually fact-checking everything.

    I appreciate the comments, both negative and positive; as a writer today, I strive to make sure that what I am writing is accurate, and looking back on previous writing materials absolutely helps me grow.

    Thanks all!

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