Fear in Writing: Literary Movement Series: Beat Generation

Today in Literary History

Today in Literary History...December 14, 1907: Rudyard Kipling receives the Nobel prize for literature, the first English-language writer to do so.ud

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Literary Movement Series: Beat Generation

"...Look magazine, preparing a picture spread on S.F.'s Beat Generation (oh, no, not AGAIN!), hosted a party in a No. Beach house for 50 Beatniks, and by the time word got around the sour grapevine, over 250 bearded cats and kits were on hand, slopping up Mike Cowles' free booze. They're only Beat, y'know, when it comes to work..."

And so the term beatnik was born.  Herb Caen of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote this in an April 2, 1958 article, combining the name of Russia's Sputnik with the Beat Generation, and implying they were "far out of the mainstream society" and "possibly communist."

But these were not the original Beats.  These were the offshoots, the visible and physical elements of the Generation that outsiders could grasp.  They were lazy, sloppy and, for the most part, parodies of the message Beats were trying to convey.  (In New York in the 60s, you could Rent-a-Beatnik, just look in The Village Voice.)

So we go back to the beginning...In the 1950s, the original Beat writers met in NewYork, and later in San Francisco where they pushed the San Francisco Renaissance, which encouraged this city as the center of American avant-garde.  Those central figures were Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs (not a part of the San Francisco meeting), Jack Kerouac, and Gregory Corso.  Between them, they pushed the boundaries of acceptable literature and lifestyle: openly discussing "drug use, sexuality (in particular homosexuality) and criminal behavior without condemnation, and sometimes with approval" (source).
The first work to bring the Beat Generation to the public was Ginsberg's Howl.  The graphic sexual language led to an obscenity trial, but the form took like wildfire.  Ginsberg utilized a no-restrictions, spontaneous style that took on the experiences of his friends and, in particular, a mental patient named Carl Solomon (also a writer, Report from the Asylum: Afterthoughts of a Shock Patient).  Through Solomon, Ginsberg attempted to take on, albeit indirectly, his own mother's schizophrenia and lobotomy.

The Howl obscenity charges were actually brought against the domestic publisher--Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who ran City Lights Bookstore.  Freedom of speech won out when Judge Clayton Horn ruled the poem was of "redeeming social importance."  And the publicity helped further the reach of the Beats.

Note for film lovers: Southern Mystery Cities' favorite James Franco plays Allen Ginsberg in the 2010 film Howl, directed by Rob Epstein.  Anyone who saw Franco in Milk or the TV movie James Dean knows he can jump into someone else's skin with ease.

But from where did this new generation of bucking the norm come?

Following the world wars, popular society seemed to need order, but a strong intellectual undercurrent revolted and the Beats were part of this revolt.  The improvisational elements of jazz were a huge influence (think spontaneous riffs and Kerouac's spontaneous prose), as were the elite-attacking elements and performance art aspects of Dadaism and Surrealism (think action paintings of Jackson Pollock and the montage element of Dadaist Hannah Höch).
"For us, art is not an end in itself ... but it is an opportunity for the true perception and criticism of the times we live in."  Hugo Bell, leader of Zurich Dada movement
So, while the Beats certainly bucked the norm, they weren't alone.  They had their influences and they had their predecessors.  Tuesday, we discussed how Romanticism came from the postwar era and post-revolution minds of Europe and North America.  So did the Beats stem from the buttoned-down post-war culture, fighting the constraints of society and releasing the forbidden passions.

I can't get into all the Beat writers here.  Burroughs' Naked Lunch speaks to the BG's nonlinear style, while Kerouac's On the Road shows stream of consciousness and breathing in literature via the connecting dash.  Think about journaling, and ad breathtaking imagery and a view into the subconscious.

We end with the words of modernist poet William Carlos Williams, who spoke of Ginsberg's ability and effect:
"...He proves to us, in spite of the most debasing experiences that life can offer a man, the spirit of love survives to ennoble our lives if we have the wit and the courage and the faith--and the art! to persist."
Photo info:
First, centered: Ginsberg and Kerouac, from this site, click and see artists' renditions of the BG
Second, right: City Lights Bookstore
Third, left: William S. Burroughs and Gregory Corso, 1980, San Francisco Art Institute

Monday: author Elizabeth Spann Craig
Tuesday: Realism
Wednesday: The Lost Generation
Thursday: Modernism
Friday: author Stephen Tremp

Note: I apologize for the late-morning posting.  Struggling with Blogger's autopost system.


  1. I just read this to my daughter who is studying liberal arts at a small women's college on the fringe of the Georgia mountains. She's going to be studying a lot of literature and I can't help but wonder if the Beats will be included in any way. I'm kind of working backward. Someone recently introduced me to the work of Peter Orlovsky who was Ginsberg's friend/lover/soul mate/charge. Now I want to see Howl and read some of Ginsberg's poetry.

  2. Michele - I am so enjoying your literary movement series! As a crime fiction person, I found this post really fascinating because it's really closely related to some changes I've seen in crime fiction. Early crime fiction was restrained in terms of what "counted" as acceptable topics and language. After the advent of the Beat generation, you also see some real differences in crime fiction. Today's crime fiction is arguably unafraid to discuss just about any topic in just about any way, and I can't help thinking that's related to the influence of Beat writers.

  3. It's so interesting to me that Jazz music was a counterculture influence! It did help to spur so many artistic movements and it doesn't seem at all subversive today.

    Loved "Howl" when I studied it in college. :)

  4. Wow, it's amazing how much I've learned from you this week. I love the series.


  5. Lisa- I studied English Lit in college and never did anything past Southern Gothic--Carson McCullers, Faulkner, etc. Maybe there was another course I could have taken, but I don't remember it being on the curriculum. And you made my day by reading it aloud to your daughter! Thank you for sharing that with me.

    Margot- I was so wrapped up in learning about the Beats here, I forgot to even attempt to make the leap to mystery writing! Thank you for doing it for me...And I see exactly what you mean now that I look for it.

    Elizabeth- It also fits that Jazz was big in the African-American community. Not a counterculture, but definitely a group of people who had to carve out a voice of their own.

    Clarissa- Thank you! I've learned a lot, too, believe me!

    Alex- Thanks, man. Really.

  6. Michele - Yay! I was so looking forward to your take on this and I've not been disappointed. I love Ginsburg. Oh yah, to me, he is still alive - still reciting 'Don't smoke' over and over, still demanding presence in the here (hear) and now (know) - still being his impossible brilliant authentic self. And he does it all with humour, raw love and extreme kindness.
    Jan Morrison

  7. Jan- I was really nervous about your response. And you make me want to read more more more about him!

  8. Thanks for stopping by my blog :)

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  9. I must admit, that back while I was studying English literature at college, I've never became fond of the 20th century literature. All those modern generations of writers always seemed somehow bored with life, overly philosophical and kinda snobbish in their approach to writing, their way of living and their choice of topics.
    James Joyce, Virginia Wolf, Fitzgerald, and then most of other WW1 and WW2 writers mostly had some lazy, lost people as the focus of their stories.

  10. I haven't read very much of the Beat Generation; Howl, On the Road, Naked Lunch, that's about it. But these works are among my favorites.

    I have wondered if the Beat Generation is pure American, or does it include authors from other countries? What about Jean Genet (another favorite of mine), who wrote his masterpieces at the same time (or a few years earlier), and wrote about similar themes?

    Cold As Heaven

  11. Victoria- Beautiful information...thank you!

    Dez- I definitely see that. All of that! No wonder the 18th and 19th century works are having a resurgence: people looking for story and structure.

    Cold- Jean Genet is characterized under the Lost Generation (see more recent post on that) and also Absurdist (which was influenced by existentialism and Dada and surrealism) and Expressionism. Some dark stuff here, Cold!

  12. Thanks for replying, Michele, will check out your post on the lost generation (you have probably understood already that I'm fan of Jean Genet's novels) >:)

    Cold As Heaven