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.
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.
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
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!
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.
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.
What do you think? Leave a comment.