Beat Movement

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Editor: Ira Mark Milne
Date: 2009
Document Type: Topic overview; Critical essay; Work overview; Brief biography; Excerpt
Pages: 35
Content Level: (Level 5)

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About this Person
Born: May 08, 1930 in San Francisco, California, United States
Nationality: American
Occupation: Poet
Other Names: Snyder, Gary Sherman
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Beat Movement


c. 1944

The roots of the Beat literary movement go back to 1944 when Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs met at Columbia University in New York. It was not until the 1950s that these writers and other "Beats" would be recognized as a movement and as a generation of post-World War II youths whose attitudes and lifestyles were far removed from typical Americana. Kerouac used the term "beat" to describe both the negatives of his world and the positives of his responses to it. On one hand, "beat" implied weariness and disinterest in social or political activity, and on the other it was reminiscent of the Beatitudes of Jesus—declarations of blessedness and happiness uttered during the Sermon on the Mount. While certain measures of blissfulness—often drug-induced—may have applied to followers of the Beat Movement, so would feelings of disillusionment, bitterness, and an overwhelming desire to be free of social constraints.

The work of Beat writers is characterized by experimental styles and subjects, including spontaneous writing without regard for grammar, sexually explicit language, uninhibited discussion of personal experiences, and themes ranging from a rejection of American values and fear of nuclear war to sexual escapades and road trips. Representative works of the movement are Kerouac's novel On the Road, Burroughs's novel Naked Lunch, and poems such as Ginsberg's "Howl" and Gregory Corso's "BOMB." None
Beat Movement Page 30  |  Top of Articleof these works appeared on American bookshelves until nearly a decade after Kerouac first used the word "beat" to signify an outlook on writing and an outlook on life. What had begun as a small cluster of rebellious outcasts in New York City soon grew into a larger group based in San Francisco and eventually spread its influences across the country. Beats appeared everywhere in the 1950s, paving the way for the hippies of the following decade.


William Burroughs (1914-1997)

William Burroughs was born February 5, 1914, in St. Louis, to well-to-do parents with a family history of successful business ventures. But even as a youth, Burroughs did not fit in with his upper-class, Midwestern background, for he was a bookish boy with homosexual tendencies and a fascination with guns and lawlessness. Burroughs was a top student and eventually earned a degree from Harvard, though he never lost his attraction to crime. In 1943, Burroughs moved to New York to become involved in the city's gangster underworld, which led to his experimentation with heroin and several run-ins with the law. There, Burroughs also met Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, two members of a small group of social nonconformists at Columbia University who would become major players in the Beat Movement. Also at Columbia, Burroughs met Joan Vollmer, who became his common-law wife, gave birth to their son, and found herself on the wrong end of one of Burroughs's pistols.

Although he was usually surrounded by literary types, Burroughs did not start writing until 1950 when he decided to write a semi-autobiographical story, Junkie. Without finishing the first novel, he began another in 1951, this one also somewhat autobiographical, titled Queer. By this time, he had moved his family to Mexico to escape drug charges. It was there that he accidentally killed his wife by attempting to shoot a glass off her head, William Tell-style. Later, Burroughs confessed that it was Joan's death that gave him the incentive to pursue writing seriously.

Throughout the 1950s, Burroughs continued to write, but his material was generally considered too obscene for print. Finally, in 1959, his most famous book, The Naked Lunch, was published in Paris. Three years later, it was
Jack Kerouac Jack Kerouac(© Jerry Bauer. Reproduced by permission) published in the United States as simply Naked Lunch. This book brought celebrity to Burroughs, though mostly among the underground, and he went on to write several more books, plays, and film scripts and to receive an American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award in 1975. Although many do not consider him one of the original Beat writers, he came to be viewed as one of the most popular. Both his writing style and lifestyle were undeniably characteristic of the movement, but his work found an even greater audience in the last decades of the twentieth century. Burroughs died in Lawrence, Kansas, August 2, 1997.

Neal Cassady (1926-1968)

Neal Cassady was born February 8, 1926, in Salt Lake City and grew up in a poor section of Denver with an alcoholic father. Cassady learned quickly how to fight and how to steal, and, perhaps most importantly, how to charm people while he was doing it. After years in and out of reform schools and juvenile prisons, Cassady developed the instincts of a con artist and the rebellion of a free-spirited, fun-loving bum who wanted only to travel, ramble on in stream-of-consciousness conversations, and have sex with whom ever seemed the most beneficial partner at Page 31  |  Top of Articlethe moment. Essentially, it was Cassady's personality that was his major contribution to the Beat Movement. Though he published his autobiography in 1971 and eventually some collections of letters, he never produced a single book while the Beat Movement was in full swing.

Cassady wound up in New York in 1946 where, through a friend at Columbia, he met Ginsberg and Kerouac. Ginsberg was promptly captivated by his western ruggedness and cowboy nature, and the two became lovers even while Cassady carried on various affairs with women, whom he claimed to prefer. But it was his relationship with Kerouac that made Cassady one of the most influential instigators of the Beat Generation. In the late 1940s, the two went on a series of car trips across the United States, and these often harrowing, always riotous adventures became the basis for Kerouac's most famous book, On the Road. Kerouac captured Cassady's voice in the novel, essentially writing it the way Cassady talked: fast, off the cuff, without any hesitation or self-consciousness. The two travelers eventually parted, but Cassady continued his road adventures, winding up in Mexico in the late 1960s. There, after a night of too much alcohol, Cassady wandered out into the cold and rain and passed out. He slipped into a coma and died the following day, February 4, 1968.

Gregory Corso (1930-2001)

Gregory Corso was born March 26, 1930, in New York City. Of the writers who became famous among the Beats, Corso had one of the most natural poetic talents: He was capable of producing powerful lyric verse in an expressive, yet genuine voice, as well as bawdy, poetic ramblings, typically uninhibited and sexually explicit—hallmarks of Beat writing. Corso published his first volume of poetry, The Vestal Lady on Brattle and Other Poems,in1955andhissecond, Gasoline,in 1958. Also in 1958, Corso published a broadside of one of his most famous poems, "BOMB," which is a love poem to the atomic weapon, written in the shape of a mushroom cloud. He became immediately popular with fellow Beat writers and with mainstream readers as well, but the popularity he enjoyed in the 1950s and 1960s dwindled over the following decades. Still, he continued to write and publish, and he received the Jean Stein Award for Poetry from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1986. His Mindfield: New and Selected Poems was published in 1989 and reprinted in 1998. Corso died from prostate cancer in Minneapolis on January 17, 2001.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti (1919-)

Lawrence Ferlinghetti was born on March 24, 1919, in Yonkers, New York, to French and Italian parents but was raised by his aunt Emily with French as his first language. Ferlinghetti earned a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1941, and soon after graduation he enlisted in the U.S. Navy. After World War II, he attended Columbia University for graduate school on the GI Bill. Ferlinghetti earned his master's degree in English literature in 1947 and went on to earn his doctorate from the Sorbonne in Paris in 1951. In 1953, Ferlinghetti and his new wife settled in San Francisco and opened a small bookstore called City Lights. City Lights began publishing books in 1954, quickly racking up a number of Beat Movement authors such as Ginsberg, Corso, and Burroughs. Ferlinghetti, as a writer, critic, publisher, and activist, was an important figure within the Beat Movement, although he has never considered himself a Beat poet. Ferlinghetti was the first recipient of the Literarian Award from the National Book Foundation, in 2005, for "outstanding service to the American literary community."

Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997)

Allen Ginsberg was born June 3, 1926, in Paterson, New Jersey, and grew up a shy, sensitive boy in a highly chaotic household. His father was a poet, teacher, and Jewish socialist, and his mother was a radical Communist and unconstrained nudist with symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia. Her bouts with mental illness weighed heavily on the young Ginsberg, as he was often the only one she trusted when the rest of the world was, in her mind, plotting against her. But Ginsberg had another struggle to contend with as well—his sexual orientation to boys.

Ginsberg took his father's advice to study labor law at Columbia. Although he had shown an interest in poetry, it was not until he met fellow student Kerouac and nonstudents Burroughs and Cassady that he turned his attention to literary pursuits. His friendship with these three and others among the rebel crowd had other influences as well: drugs, crime, and opportunities to express his homosexuality freely. Ginsberg was eventually suspended from Columbia, but by then he was writing poetry profusely though not publishing much. His break came in 1955 when he joined other Beat poets for a public reading in San Francisco and delivered a resounding Page 32  |  Top of Articleperformance of what became his trademark poem, "Howl." Just as Kerouac's On the Road was the quintessential novel of the Beats, "Howl" was—and remained—the quintessential poem. Ginsberg's popularity was almost instantaneous after this reading, and his first collection, Howl and Other Poems, was published in 1956. Other books followed in a relatively short period, and Ginsberg's fame and infamy grew. Despite an obscenity trial for "Howl," (which was eventually declared not obscene), he found recognition among the prestigious literary mainstream and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1963. In 1969, he received a grant from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and, in 1974, a National Book Award for Fall of America. Ginsberg published poetry collections throughout the 1980s and 1990s, including Cosmopolitan Greetings: Poems, 1986-1992 and Selected Poems 1947-1995. Ginsberg died of a heart attack while suffering from liver cancer, April 5, 1997, in New York City.

Jack Kerouac (1922-1969)

Jack Kerouac was born March 12, 1922, in Lowell, Massachusetts. His father was a successful printer in Lowell, but by the mid-1920s, the economy of the city began to collapse, and the older Kerouac turned to gambling in hopes of supplementing his income. Young Jack was already interested in creating stories, inspired by radio talk shows, but he was also a star player on his high school football team. When Kerouac was awarded a football scholarship to play at Columbia, his family moved to New York with him. But at the university, Kerouac fell in with the renegade crowd, including Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Cassady, and he had a fight with his coach who afterwards refused to let him play. Eventually, Kerouac dropped out of Columbia, bitterly disappointing his family.

As a student, Kerouac had begun writing a novel, and his new friends praised his work. With Ginsberg's promotional help, Kerouac's first book, The Town and the City,was published in 1950, gaining him respect as a writer but not bringing him fame. Throughout the 1950s, Kerouac wrote novels that went unpublished for a time, including Dr. Sax and The Subterraneans, interspersed with his cross-country adventures with Cassady. But one book that resulted from those travels put him on the map as one of the most—if not the most—significant writer of the Beat Movement: On the Road, published in 1957, was an immediate success. It was Kerouac who had coined the term "beat" to reflect both the downtrodden, world-weary attitudes of the post-World War II generation and, at the same time, the optimistic, "beatific" will to live unconstrained by social conventions. His own life certainly reflected these definitions, particularly the former, and he had difficulty tolerating his sudden stardom. He turned to alcohol for consolation and escape but was never able to control the drinking and manage a writing career at the same time. His last somewhat successful novel, Big Sur, was published in 1962. His health destroyed by alcohol, Kerouac died of a stomach hemorrhage in St. Petersburg, Florida, October 21, 1969.

Gary Snyder (1930-)

Gary Snyder was born May 8, 1930, in San Francisco but grew up in rural Washington state and Portland, Oregon. Interested in literature and Native American culture as a child, he went on to earn a bachelor's degree in anthropology and literature from Reed College in Portland. While in college, Snyder published his first poems, eventually meeting Ginsberg and Kerouac and becoming associated with the Beat Movement as part of the San Francisco Renaissance in the mid-1950s. Although Snyder was not part of the original group that formed at Columbia University, his philosophy and style were a natural fit. Ferlinghetti compared Snyder to Thoreau because unlike most Beat writers who came from an urban background, Snyder was closely aligned with the natural world. Snyder and Kerouac spent several months living in a remote cabin in California, which inspired Kerouac to write The Dharma Bums and base one of the characters on Snyder.

Snyder had an interest in Asian culture and language and became a practitioner of Zen Buddhism, a religious philosophy which independently attracted many Beat writers. He lived in Japan from 1956 to 1968, studying Zen Buddhism, forestry, and ecology. After returning to the United States, Snyder lived in the San Francisco area and continued to write and lecture. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1975 for his collection Turtle Island. Snyder was appointed professor of creative writing at the University of California at Davis in 1985, a post he retired from in 2002. In 2004, Danger on the Peaks was published, his first book of poetry in twenty years.

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"A Berry Feast"

Snyder and his long poem, "A Berry Feast" (The Back Country, 1957), were made famous when he read the piece at the close of the seminal Six Gallery Reading in San Francisco on October 7, 1955. This event marked the beginning of the San Francisco Renaissance, a literary, mostly poetic, movement that paralleled and entangled with the Beat Movement, often involving the same writers. "A Berry Feast" is a poem in four sections that explores the summer imagery of the fecund natural world where animal and human boundaries blur. The final image of the poem is of a dead city grown over with blackberry brambles, an image that undermines humankind's prideful interest in civilization.


Corso's most famous poem, "BOMB," was originally published as a "broadside," a single large sheet of paper printed on one side, by City Lights Books in 1958. It then appeared in Corso's 1960 collection, The Happy Birthday of Death. With its words arranged in the shape of a mushroom cloud, the poem is Corso's ironic attempt to mitigate the destruction of an atomic war by portraying the bomb-drop as a Christ-like second coming. Essentially, the explosion marks the end of human history and the beginning of heavenly eternity. Although the theme is dark and chilling, Corso presents it in typical Beat style with a rush of fragmented images, raw languge, and a wry sense of humor. It is primarily the latter attribute that turned off many would-be supporters. With lines such as, "I sing thee Bomb Death's extravagance Death's jubilee / die by cobra is not to die by bad pork," Corso offended members of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament when he read the poem at New College in Oxford in 1958. The crowd heckled him. Some reviewers were kinder, however, expressing appreciation for the extraordinary imagery in "BOMB" and declaring the bizarre humor right on target with the Beat attitude. Critics on either side would have to admit that the poem brought Corso to the front of the Beat literary movement, although his work is probably least remembered.

A Coney Island of the Mind

A Coney Island of the Mind (1958) is one of Lawrence Ferlinghetti's most well-received

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  • The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg, directed by Jerry Aronson and released in 1994, is a comprehensive, affectionate documentary on the poet's life. It runs eighty-three minutes and includes accounts of Ginsberg's troubled childhood, his fame as a Beat and, later, as a hippie, and as a compassionate, still active, older poet.
  • John Antonelli's documentary Kerouac was released in 1995. The film begins and ends with Kerouac reading excerpts from On the Road and uses an actor to portray some of the scenes from the Beat writer's life. Actual footage of Kerouac includes TV clips, one showing his appearance on the William F. Buckley Show, in which he insults Ferlinghetti and declares himself a Catholic.
  • In 1997, writer and director Stephen Kay released TheLastTimeI CommittedSuicide, a visual adaptation of actual letters writtenbyCassady andsenttoKerouac. The movie chronicles Cassady's life as an oversexed young man in Denver and features rich, excellent detail of postwar American culture.
  • The four-CD set Howls, Raps and Roars: Recordings from the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance, produced by Fantasy Records, was released in 1993. It includes fifty-four minutes of Allen Ginsberg reading "Howl," "Footnote to Howl," and "Supermarket in California," among other poems, as well as readings by Kenneth Rexroth, Ferlinghetti, Corso, and others.
  • Naked Lunch, read by Burroughs himself, was produced as an audio book on cassette by Time Warner AudioBooks in 1995. This novel is Burroughs's most famous work as well as a significant product of the Beat Generation literary movement.
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William S. Burroughs with some of the props from the film Naked Lunch, based on his novel William S. Burroughs with some of the props from the film Naked Lunch, based on his novel(The Kobal Collection / The Picture Desk, Inc.)

collections of poems, selling over one million copies. Popular among the Beats as a publisher and owner of City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, Ferlinghetti solidified his recognition as a poet with this book, in which the poems present a kaleidoscopic view of the world as a place with discontinuous images and a carnival-like absurdity. When Ferlinghetti did public readings from this collection, he was usually accompanied by jazz music, and many of the poems themselves have a similarly spontaneous rhythm. Coney Island found an audience with both Beat and mainstream readers, as well as critics from both sides. Most cite similar reasons: even though the central theme of the collection may be the meaninglessness of life, individual poems still intrigue readers with poignant, definable thoughts.

The Dharma Bums

Published in 1958, Kerouac's novel The Dharma Bums is based on his friendship with poet Gary Snyder and a mountain-climbing trip they took to Yosemite in 1955. Snyder, portrayed as Japhy Ryder in the book, is known for both his Beat-style poetry and his serious study of Zen Buddhism. Like Kerouac's On the Road, published a year earlier, The Dharma Bums recounts the raucous adventure of two friends with rambling details and spontaneous confessions, but its greatest significance is the search for spiritual enlightenment that the friends' trip represents. While the characters in much of Kerouac's other work go on wild journeys as a means to escape life and to run away from themselves, here Japhy and Ray Smith (Kerouac) set out in search of dharma, or supreme truth, in an effort, essentially, to find themselves. Despite the turnabout in themes, The Dharma Bums was well received as an archetype of Beat ideology, heralding a discontent with standard American values and the quest to find something more satisfying for the spirit, as well as for the mind and body.


The opening lines of Ginsberg's lengthy poem "Howl," published in Howl and Other Poems in 1956, are some of the most recognized in twentieth-century poetry: "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." Dedicated to Carl Solomon, a lifelong friend Page 35  |  Top of Articlewhom Ginsberg met at the Columbia University Psychiatric Institute in 1948, "Howl" is a three-part, free verse lamentation on the social and personal woes of post-World War II American society. Part I describes the despair felt by many individuals during this unsettling era; Part II identifies social conformity, big government, and materialism as some of the causes for human discontent and restlessness; and Part III is a series of statements directly addressing Solomon, praising true friendship, and announcing the poet's feeling of victory over social control of his emotional and sexual identity.

As of 2008, "Howl" is widely considered to be the most important poem to come out of the Beat Movement, with some critics claiming it revolutionized American poetry in total. There were those who felt the same way in the 1950s, but there were also many who would have preferred to see Ginsberg's work burned instead of read. The sexually explicit language, mostly homosexual in nature, shocked readers and critics alike. The San Francisco Police Department was not impressed either, and authorities, declaring the work obscene, promptly arrested its publisher, Ferlinghetti. During the obscenity trial, several well-known and well-respected poets testified in support of Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg, and the freedom of poetry in general, and they eventually succeeded in persuading the judge. "Howl" was declared not obscene, and the notoriety of the trial greatly enhanced its popularity, as well as sales of the book.

Naked Lunch

Burroughs's most widely known novel, Naked Lunch, was not published in the United States until 1962 when it was finally declared not obscene following three years of legal trials. A publisher in Paris had accepted it in 1959. While thousands of people can claim they have read the book, few may be able to say they know what it is about, for Naked Lunch has no consistent story, no running narrative, no uniform point of view, and no readily recognizable theme. Loosely, it tells the tale of junkie William Lee and a hodgepodge of grotesque characters who flail about in a bleak, sadistic world of drug addiction, sexual depravity, and madness. The subject matter, such as it is, is not what made this book one of the hallmarks of the Beat literary movement. Rather, it is the style, or the origins of its style, that piqued readers' curiosity and brought critical attention—negative as much as positive—to Burroughs's creation.

Naked Lunch is composed of a series of random sketches and rambling notes. Burroughs wrote hundreds of snippets while living in Tangiers, and, with the help of writer friends Kerouac and Ginsberg, among others, he haphazardly assembled the pieces and presented them to a publisher, claiming however the publisher stacked the pages on his desk would be just as suitable a way to publish them as any. As a result, one can actually read Naked Lunch front to back, back to front, or any direction coming and going. It was this seeming lack of true literary endeavor as well as talent that irked many reviewers of Burroughs's work. Some claimed it took no intelligence to create the so-called novel and even less to read it. In spite of the harsh, even insulting criticism, Naked Lunch became a national bestseller and sealed its author's literary reputation, for better or for worse.

On the Road

Kerouac's novel On the Road, published in 1957, has been called the quintessential work of the Beat Movement. Like many of his other works, this book draws on the author's own experiences and relationships, and its characters are derived from real people. In this case, the two central players are Sal Paradise, based on Kerouac himself, and Dean Moriarty, based on his free-spirited, rabble-rousing companion, Cassady. On the Road chronicles the cross-country road trips of Paradise and Moriarty, symbolizing their fervent search for values greater than those they consider typically American. What results is perhaps most emblematic of the Beat Generation's feelings of detachment and dissatisfaction. Instead of finding the values they seek, Paradise and Moriarty become saturated with drugs, alcohol, sex, and crime—all leading to disjointedness and a scattering of their lives amid the chaos. Many Beats considered this book their anthem because they could so strongly identify with the cycle of hope and disappointment that endlessly revolves in its pages. General readers tended to find the work amusing, if not enjoyable, but critics were divided. Some praised On the Road for giving voice to an entire generation of disenchanted, embittered Americans, and others denounced it as an illiterate, incoherent exercise in self-absorption and self-pity. Like other controversial Beat material, Kerouac's work outlasted the worst criticism and wound up in the annals of prominent American literature. On the Road was, and remained, an exceptional work, as much for its style as for its message.

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At the end of World War II, Americans enjoyed a period of blissful relief and charged-up happiness unlike any realized before. Although an odd mixture of pride and sorrow over the dropping of atomic bombs left many people uneasy about the path to victory, it did not waylay the renewed spirit of optimism and drive for prosperity that swept the country at a feverish pace. The latter part of the 1940s and most of the 1950s have been called times of innocent fun, social quietude, and old-fashioned family values. The end of the war turned Rosie the Riveter into June Cleaver, as most women gave up their wartime jobs to raise the first of the baby boomers while dads worked as the sole breadwinners in the family. But not everyone welcomed a neatly prescribed life with the conventional spouse, two kids, and a white picket fence around a well-manicured lawn. Some people were disillusioned with postwar complacency and protested social norms that smelled more like social control than simply a style of living. A faction of those people became self-identified members of the Beat Generation.

Disillusionment may be considered the core theme of the Beat Movement, for it encompasses the basic reason for the split from mainstream society that the original Beats desired. Although the foundations of the movement may be traced to the four kindred personalities of Kerouac, Burroughs, Corso, and Ginsberg, there is little doubt that countless other Americans were experiencing a shift in feelings in the wake of a war with unsur-passed technological destruction. To have the nation responsible then settle into an era of home-land peace, frivolity, and abundance was too much for some to swallow. People attracted to what would become the Beat lifestyle turned in that direction because of an initial distrust of America's renewed sense of pride and accomplishment, many fearing that a gratified society was a vulnerable one, left open to greater governmental and social control. Rather than be mollified by the quaintness of the average happy family in the average happy neighborhood, the disillusioned Beats struck out against such expected contentment in favor of being intentionally discontented.

Social Nonconformity

If disillusionment is a core theme of the Beat Movement, social nonconformity is another

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  • In the 1950s, the Beat Movement touted frequent drug use, sexual freedom, disinterest in social and political issues, and disregard for law. How do you think a movement like this one would fare at the beginning of the twenty-first century? Why would American society tolerate a new Beat Movement or why would it not?
  • Though few in number, all the original members of the Beat Generation were young, white males, yet women and African Americans were certainly affected by and involved in the movement. Do some research to find out more about the lesser-known Beats and write an essay on how their lives were similar to or different from the prominent ones.
  • Of the three main artistic facets of the Beat Movement—writing, visual art, and music—the writings were the most controversial and often least welcomed by mainstream Americans. Why do you think this was the case? What was it about Beat literature that was so different from abstract expressionist art and bebop music?
  • Author Gertrude Stein coined the term "Lost Generation" in the 1920s as a label for the intellectuals, poets, artists, and writers who gathered in France after World War I. What did Stein mean by this term and how was the Lost Generation different from or similar to the Beat Generation?

value that directly resulted from it. Looking solely at the four major originators, one may assume that only criminals and drug addicts were true members of the Beat Generation. But as tempting as it seems, that assumption is an unfair generalization of the entire group. Surely, most Beats visibly and vocally pronounced themselves social outsiders, but for some, being different meant wearing a particular style of clothing, listening to jazz music improvisations, Page 37  |  Top of Articleusing hip language, and showing complete disinterest in social and political concerns. For others, nonconformity did entail a more reckless lifestyle; from heavy use of alcohol and other drugs to theft, homicide, and gangster involvement, many took life to a steep extreme, and some, of course, fell over the edge.

The most common responses of nonconformity shared by both moderate and extremist Beats were a rejection of materialism, scoffing at traditional American values, and complete indifference toward social activism. At the same time, individual expression and personal enlightenment were highly regarded, and the pursuit of self-awareness often translated into free-spirited, spur-of-the-moment adventures across town or across the country. Obviously, some members of the Beat Generation had to maintain steady jobs, but mobility was key to staying clear of social constraints and circumscribed behavior. Perhaps the strongest statement of nonconformity expressed by this generation was to accept and, indeed, celebrate its description as "beat." The term essentially pointed a finger in society's face and said, "Look what you've done to us."


While spontaneity is more an action than an idea, it has been called the primary virtue and a one-word summary of the Beat Movement. This theme, more than any other, speaks to the frenzied, intense emotional state that many Beats found both exhilarating and necessary. Moreover, it embodies the tendency not to think twice about hopping into a car and taking off for unknown destinations just for the thrill of adventure and the prospect of discovering something new about oneself and life in general. To be impulsive was not to be cautious. For the Beats, caution was a symptom of social conformity, and living off the cuff was an openly defiant response to such careful, regimented existence.

While living life as an unbridled, impetuous free spirit may seem harmless enough—even attractive, though most citizens would not admit it—spontaneity often manifested itself in dangerous activities for the Beat Generation that not only changed the rapid-fire lives of many, but also ended some. Indiscriminate sexual encounters with numerous partners, often strangers, were common among Beat followers, and these spontaneous acts occasionally led to unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. Physical pleasure also came in liquid form; whether whiskey to drink or heroine to inject, drugs flowed freely among the Beats, and the desire for an immediate rush far outweighed any concern about overdosing or even dying. The abuse of cigarettes and marijuana helped maintain a moderate high in between heavier drug trips, and the continuous search for sensory experiences was considered a justifiable reason for remaining open to spontaneous urges.


The Cut-Up Technique

The cut-up technique of composing prose originated with Burroughs, and it was a spin-off of his unusual method of putting together his most famous novel, Naked Lunch,from snippets of notes he wrote and then pieced together. His subsequent novels, The Soft Machine, The Ticket that Exploded, and Nova Express, were constructed from chunks of various writings which he had literally cut up and then randomly paired into a new work. In doing so, he came up with such lines as the following: "He rents an amphitheater with marble walls he is a stone painter you can dig can create a frieze while you wait" and "The knife fell—The Clerk in the bunk next to his bled blue silence—Put on a clean shirt and Martin's pants—telling stories and exchanging smiles—dusty motors," both from Nova Express. Once Burroughs introduced it, the cut-up style of writing became a hit with the Beats, and others experimented with it in poetry, essays, and even political speeches, just for fun. The typical method is to take a written page, cut it down the middle vertically, then cut each of those two pieces in half horizontally, so that there are four "chunks" of writing. Next, arrange the chunks in different pairs to see what new lines or phrases appear. Burroughs found the results refreshing, even when the pieced-together prose made little or no sense and could not be translated literally. This style protected against what he and other experimental writers considered the confining boundaries of traditional word usage and standard grammar. The cut-up style was as much a rebellion against language control as a quirky creative impulse, and Burroughs claimed rebellion was the more important factor.

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Spontaneous Prose

While the cut-up technique may have been the strangest literary form spawned by the Beat Movement, another just as unusual for its time was what Kerouac called "spontaneous prose," and it became the most prominent and recognizable style of the Beats. As the name suggests, this type of writing is not plotted or preconceived in any way. Instead, it consists of a flow of thoughts, written down as it occurs in a continuous stream of images and movement. There is very little regard for punctuation, which threatens to get in the way of the lines' pulsing rhythm. Kerouac compared writing spontaneous prose to a jazz musician blowing a horn, sometimes with long, drawn-out notes, other times in quick, snappy toots, but always creating rhythm through improvisation. As with proper grammar, a writer's consciousness is seen as a hindrance to spontaneity and should be avoided; that is, writing without consciousness is a must for the Beat writer. Yet another taboo is revision. Once the language has flowed directly from the mind to the paper, the writer should not go back and revise. To do so, of course, is to take the spontaneity out of spontaneous writing, and, for the Beat writer, that means ruining the work.

Contemporary Idiom

The Beat Generation did not invent writing in contemporary idiom, for novelists and poets throughout history often used a colloquial language with which to tell tales and give voice to characters, though often it was interspersed with more formal language from an objective narrator. The Beats, however, took the idiom of their generation to daring new levels with the inclusion of words and subject matter previously considered too immoral or illegal to print. But Beat writers knew that if one was going to be truly spontaneous, then nothing could be held back. If the mind thought it, the hand should write it, and, obviously, the mind can entertain shocking, illicit, and highly personal thoughts. The use of sexually explicit language, as well as forbidden four-letter words, became the norm in Beat writing, and this characteristic drew most of the negative attention to the movement's poets and novelists. Whereas many critics of the outlandish new writing could overlook, or simply scoff at, odd techniques and their so-called unliterary results, most railed against the description of all kinds of sexual encounters in the language of the street. The protests were enough to keep some novels and poems off American bookshelves for years while publishers and authors endured obscenity trials, but, in the end, the use of contemporary idiom, even at its extreme, was deemed legal. By the twenty-first century, it was deemed literature.


Abstract Expressionism

While Beat writers were having their heyday throughout the 1950s, visual artists were also struggling against social conformity and the restrictions they felt postwar society placed on them with its expectations about art. What arose was a kind of "Beat" painting and sculpture that took the name "Abstract Expressionism," and its techniques and resulting works rocked the art world as much as Beat writing disturbed the literary scene.

A group of painters and sculptors known as the New York School led the Abstract Expressionism revolt by advocating individual emotions and the freedom to present those emotions with as little inhibition as possible. The idea was to make the art of the moment, just as Kerouac's spontaneous prose made literature of the moment. And like the Beat writers, abstract expressionists welcomed confrontation with a complacent society trying to settle into a safe, benign, middle-class life after World War II. There should be no complacency, according to the artists, and they rebelled against the image of the lofty painter standing at his easel overlooking a serene meadow and capturing the pastoral landscape on his canvas. Abstract expressionists often used huge canvases, and many rejected that conventional surface altogether. They used paper-mâchéand three-dimensional objects as surfaces, and, in place of common artists' brushes and scrapers, they used spray cans, garden tools, sticks, and a variety of other objects to create their work. Even more outrageous, the abstract expressionists employed whatever material was convenient to incorporate into a piece of art—from broken glass and sand piles to toilet seats and garbage.

One major avant-garde artist of this period, Jackson Pollock, created "drip paintings" by literally holding a can of paint above a surface and letting it drip onto it. Pollock was also known for stepping back from a large canvas with his can in hand, then slinging it so that the paint splashed Page 39  |  Top of Articlein wild streaks all over the surface. Robert Rauschenberg created what he called "combines," or artworks that integrated three-dimensional objects such as umbrellas, stuffed toys, and tires with othermaterial. And in1959, ClaesOldenburg walked through the streets of New York City wearing a paper-mâchéelephant mask, his first one-man art show. Later, he collaborated with Coosje van Bruggen, his wife, to design and build huge public artworks of common objects, such as a giant clothespin in Philadelphia, big shuttlecocks strewn across the museum lawn in Kansas City, and a large spoon with a cherry perched on it in Minneapolis.


When Cleveland disk jockey Alan Freed started using the term "rock and roll" in 1951, it was in reference to his radio show, "Moondog House Rock and Roll Party"; the music he was playing was rhythm and blues. By the end of the decade, however, those simple yet volatile words were the signature label for a revolution in music that spawned singers as diverse as Elvis Presley, Bob Dylan, the Bee Gees, and the Goo Goo Dolls, among others. But the Beat Movement promoted another type of music, almost a combination of rhythm and blues and what eventually became the thumping gyrations of rock and roll. It was a style of jazz called "bebop," and its artists were black musicians who played primarily in big-city nightclubs, some becoming famous recording artists such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, and Charlie Parker.

Bebop is a discordant, unmelodious, and syncopated music that arose from its musicians' desire to separate themselves from typical mainstream jazz and the predictable harmonies and rhythms of 1940s swing music. Like Beat writers and visual artists, bebop musicians were fiercely individualistic, and they proved it with wholly improvised solos and nontraditional rhythms that tended to change from performance to performance. Again, it was the freedom to create the music of the moment, and, while it enjoyed a solid audience that grew tremendously throughout the 1950s—particularly in large cities and bohemian pockets of smaller towns—bebop also offended the more traditional music lovers with its dissonant, if not cacophonous, instrumental sounds. But that, of course, suited bebop musicians just fine. As more and more people, both black and white, joined the ranks of bebop fans, the musicians found themselves having to reach even greater levels of musical dissonance just to maintain that rebellious, outsider edge.


The Beat Movement in film encompassed a wide variety of forms: documentaries about the Beat Generation, movies based on the lives of the most prominent Beats, and movies based on their novels. Some films featured appearances by Beats who either played themselves or characters based on their own personalities, while other movies, without a direct Beat connection, had themes, characters, and subjects that showed obvious influence by the movement.

Pull My Daisy, which came out in 1959, is the only film that well-known Beat writers actually created themselves. As could be expected, it was a spontaneously arranged movie, derived from an unfinished play by Kerouac called The Beat Generation. The plot concerns Cassady and his wife Carolyn, who are trying to fit in with typical middle-class suburbanites only to have their Beat friends crash a sedate party and ruin the couple's reputation in the neighborhood. Among the actors are Ginsberg and Corso, and Kerouac provides a voice-over although he is never seen on screen.

Kerouac's novel The Subterraneans, made into a film and released in 1960, is based on incidents in the lives of Ginsberg, Corso, and Kerouac himself. Considered by Beats and non-Beats alike to be a bad attempt at making a "real" Hollywood movie, The Subterraneans was a box office flop, and in the early 2000s it is hardly remembered, even by movie buffs. A more successful Beat film did not appear until 1991 when Naked Lunch made it to the big screen, but it is a common misconception that the movie is based on Burroughs's novel. Instead, it is a semi-fantasy based on Burroughs's life during the time in which he was writing the book. The "plot" refers to Burroughs's job as a pest exterminator, and scenes include people snorting or shooting up bug spray, typewriters coming to life as sexually charged insects, and an escape to Tangiers where the main character endures insect-filled nightmares and tries to write a book. The movie Drugstore Cowboy, released in 1989, featured an appearance by Burroughs himself who plays— as one may guess—a drug-addicted priest who knows more about the dope scene in Portland than anyone else in town. Both Drugstore Cowboy and Naked Lunch enjoyed moderate box office success.

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Documentaries about the Beat movement include The Beat Generation (1959), The Beatniks (1960), and The Beats: An Existential Comedy (1980). Films with indirect Beat connections include American Pop (1981), an animated film in which a rebellious son hears a reading of "Howl" and takes off on an adventure similar to Kerouac's in On the Road; Hairspray (1988) in which a Beatnik character reads "Howl" in order to frighten away a group of "squares"; and Wild at Heart (1990), which is based on a novel by Barry Gifford, who coauthored Jack's Book, an oral biography about Kerouac.


A decade after the Beat Movement was at its height, the counter-culture movement, which began in the United States and spread worldwide, was represented by a loosely associated group of young people who called themselves "hippies." The word "hippie" comes from "hipster," a label given to Beat writers in the 1950s. Hippie culture values pacifism; creative expression through music, writing, film, and other art forms; recreational drug use; environmentalism; sexual liberation; alternative religions; and alternative lifestyles. Writers representative of this movement include Ken Kesey, Abbie Hoffman, and Tom Robbins. Kesey, an early hippie, became heavily involved with psychoactive drugs after participating in a government drug study. This experience influenced his writing of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1962). Hoffman was an political activist, best known for public protests and non-fiction works that brought attention to the anti-war movement, which opposed U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. He is the author of Steal This Book, first published by Pirate Editions in 1971 and later available freely online at Robbins, like Kesey, experimented with psychoactive drugs and was inspired by the experience in his writing. His first novel, Another Roadside Attraction,waspublished in 1971; as of 2008, Robbins had published nine books and had a devoted readership to his work.


The Beat Movement got its start in the late 1940s and began losing momentum by the early 1960s, but the entire decade in between was a bountiful time for Beats. The members of the movement, keenly aware of the realities of the time, were not lulled into the sentimentality commonly associated with the 1950s. There is a distinct irony about the decade that many Americans old enough to remember those years often overlook. The nostalgia that has become synonymous with it—convertibles and road trips, hula-hoops and Elvis, TV and the technology boom, and "I Like Ike" pins on the lapels of happy suburbanites— tends to blur other events of the period that suggest anything but merriment and complacency. The Cold War with the Soviet Union, back yard bomb shelters, duck-and-cover exercises in grade school classrooms, the Communist revolution in Cuba, McCarthyism at home, and increased racial tensions all tell the story of a United States quite different from the wistful, fond memories that some older Americans still hold.

Although the United States and the Soviet Union had been allies in World War II, the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953 resulted in Nikita Khrushchev's rise to power and his eventual strengthening of Soviet political and military control over Eastern Europe. Both the United States and the Soviet Union had nuclear weapons capabilities, and as tensions between the two world powers escalated, so did the buildup of arsenals on both sides. In the United States, personal tensions mounted as well, and some families constructed bomb shelters in their back yards while their children learned how to drop to the classroom floor and cover their heads in the event that bomb sirens sounded during school hours. In an attempt to improve relations, President Eisenhower and Khrushchev were to meet at a summit in Paris in 1959, but two weeks prior to the event, a U.S. spy plane was shot down over Russia. The summit still took place, but the Soviet leader stormed out before it was over, and another planned meeting between Khrushchev and Eisenhower in Moscow was canceled. Meanwhile, closer to home, Fidel Castro led a Communist revolution in Cuba and became that country's ruler in 1959.

The Cold War and the threat of real war was a major impetus behind Eisenhower's decision to launch the largest public works program in U.S. history—the construction of the Interstate Highway System, which would connect the nation coast to coast and provide emergency runways for military aircraft, as well as quicker evacuation

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  • 1940s: The beginnings of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union create an uneasy current of fear and doubt in an otherwise hopeful and complacent post-World War II United States. The conflict involves massive arms buildup by both nations, including nuclear warheads—the most worrisome aspect of the Cold War.

    Today: The United States and Russia are allies in the war on terrorism, although President George W. Bush's decision to withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which forbids testing and deployment of a ballistic missile defense system, greatly concerns Russian officials.

  • 1940s: In an effort to flee the crime and "unsavory" elements of the big city, many Americans head to the suburbs. In Long Island, New York, builders erect Levittown, a middle-class suburb with prefabricated housing materials, the first of its kind. Over the next decade, land values increase, sometimes up to 3000 percent, in prime suburban neighborhoods, where population increases by 44 percent.

    Today: Many inner-city areas are little more than dilapidated slums with high crime rates and widespread drug trafficking. Sociologists largely blame the "white flight" of the 1940s and 1950s for the decline of the cities, although there are current efforts to restore many downtowns and historical areas of cities and to draw people of all races and economic levels back there to live.

  • 1950s: The beginning of what many will call the commercialization of the United States comes in the form of fast food and theme parks. Ray Kroc buys out a hamburger franchise from the McDonald brothers and the golden arches are born. Harland Sanders begins his Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise. In California, Disneyland opens, the first theme park in the U.S. "history of leisure," and the Barbie doll is introduced to delighted children and adult collectors alike.

    Today: Fast food chains are the mainstay of many Americans' diets, although the once omnipotent McDonald's has tough competition from other burger restaurants as well as from pizza, taco, and deli sandwich servers. The Disney empire has expanded to include Disney World in Florida and similar theme parks elsewhere in the world. Although the parks in the United States still flourish, Euro-Disney suffered some losses toward the end of the twentieth century.

  • 1950s: Homosexual relationships are common among the Beat Generation but condemned by mainstream Americans as well as by the legal system. Labeled as sexual psychopaths under many states' laws, gays and lesbians are classed together with child molesters and rapists. In one instance in 1954, police in Sioux City, Iowa, arrest twenty suspected homosexual men after two children are brutally murdered. Although authorities never claim the men have anything to do with the crime, they are sentenced to a mental institution until "cured."

    Today: Legal recognition of same-sex unions and spousal benefits for long-term domestic partners are important gay-rights issues. While there is some relaxation of social attitudes towards gays and lesbians in current times, the legal system still presents a challenge for gays and lesbians. By the end of the twentieth century, thirty states have explicitly banned same-sex marriages, and, at the national level, the Defense of Marriage Act (1996) restricts the federal definition of marriage to heterosexual couples. However, in May 2008 the California Supreme Court strikes down the state ban on same-sex marriage.

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routes. The use of major highways for war purposes never materialized, but the possibility of it was indicative of how threatened both the U.S. government and the American people felt during the 1950s. Worries were not confined to the physical horrors of war, however. They also involved concerns about a possible Communist takeover of the United States. Nothing short of mass hysteria resulted when Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin began holding hearings on the alleged Communist infiltration of the U.S. military. McCarthy and his followers also began identifying as Communists people in other government agencies, as well as well-known people in the movie industry and professors at universities. The senator's accusations were groundless; nonetheless, reputations were ruined and esteemed professionals were blacklisted. McCarthy's frenzied heyday ended when Eisenhower, military officials, and members of the media banded together to prove his "Red Scare" fraudulent. Ultimately, the senator was formally censured by Congress.

Many U.S. citizens feared being overcome by a foreign power. Those fears were not nearly as debilitating as problems Americans caused for themselves with racial intolerance and hatred. The 1950s saw the beginnings of one of the most significant movements of the century—the civil rights movement—sparked by the Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka decision in 1954, which made illegal racial segregation in schools. Blacks began openly defying previous separatist rules, including such historical acts as Rosa Parks's refusal to give up her seat to a white man and move further back in a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955. This one act initiated a yearlong bus boycott in Montgomery, organized by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. After Eisenhower signed the Civil Rights Act in 1957, tensions mounted even further, and, in one instance, Governor George Wallace of Arkansas refused to protect black students entering Central High School in Little Rock. Eisenhower was forced to send federal troops to the site. For the rest of the decade and on into the 1960s, issues of racism and civil rights continued to divide the country, often at the expense of human life.

In spite of the obvious causes of fear and doubt that ran rampant throughout the United States during the 1950s, some Americans still lived and many tried to emulate the Ozzie and Harriet life they viewed on their prized new gadget, the television. Along with a fascination with TV came the new rage in dining—frozen TV dinners, often enjoyed directly in front of the box for which they were named. Americans who preferred even faster food began to experience a new chain of hamburgers called McDonald's, and poultry lovers learned that they could grab a quick meal at Kentucky Fried Chicken. The significant form of entertainment to emerge from the decade was rock and roll, and when Sun Records released Elvis Presley's first record in 1954, the music industry was changed permanently. Perhaps the most significant impact of an innovation on the American way of life was one originally considered a preventive military move. The tens of thousands of miles of highway constructed during this period put the country on the move. People drove. They bought stylish new automobiles and took lengthy family vacations across state or across country. Many moved to recently built suburbs and enjoyed the longer drive to work, and still others began shopping at establishments in places they would once have considered too distant. More than any other American value, mobility was adopted by the Beat Generation as much as it was by the Ozzies and Harriets across the country. Although their reasons, purposes, and destinations may have been quite different, both groups found themselves happily on the road.


Criticism of the Beat Movement was initially almost as divided as the Beats themselves were from mainstream American society. While there was little disagreement that the Beat Generation had indeed caused a stir with its literature, art, and music, supporters and detractors argued mostly about the true artistic value of the methods and the results. The prevalent negative critique claimed, simply, that their writings were not literature. Beat writers were attacked for their disregard for proper grammar and their often incoherent, rambling prose that seemed accessible only to its authors. Supporters, however, found the strange styles and shocking subjects refreshing and justified the creative techniques as valid reactions to a humdrum, conservative mainstream. Decades after their fading away—and after the beatniks and hippies of the 1960s, disco freaks of the 1970s, and "me" generation of the 1980s—a more objective criticism emerged.

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Gaslight Poetry Caf, a popular spot for Beat poets Gaslight Poetry Café, a popular spot for Beat poets(© Bettmann / Corbis)

Many Beat Movement reviewers have largely put aside the debate over what was real writing talent and what was not in order to concentrate on why the movement began in the first place and what influence it had on its own generation and those that followed. In his 1992 publication of Understanding the Beats, author Edward Halsey Foster claims that "writing was for the Beats a means through which the self might be redeemed, or at the very least a place where its redemption might be recorded." Foster goes on to rationalize the unorthodox writing style as "a literature through which the individual could flourish beyond all factionalism, all ideologies." This philosophical contention echoes many critics' hindsight summaries of what the Beat Movement was all about. By the early 2000s many agreed that there was merit after all in its writings and other artistic expressions. Perhaps Steven Watson says it best in his response to Kerouac's historical definition of the Beat Generation as those who "espouse mystical detachment and relaxation of social and sexual tensions," a description the Beat icon provided for Random House Dictionary. Haidee Kruger, writing for Literator, identifies the Beat Movement as a bridge between two major literary movements of the twentieth century, Modernism and Postmodernism. In The Birth of the Beat Generation, published in 1995, Watson says that "As the twentieth century draws to a close, the Beat Generation has outlived that historical moment, surviving notoriety and media blitz to become classic literature for succeeding generations."


Pamela Steed Hill

Hill is the author of a poetry collection, has published widely in literary journals, and is an editor for a university publications department. In the following essay, Hill explores how the fractured, volatile lives of the primary Beat writers translated directly into the fractured, volatile works they produced.

The clearest dividing line between reviewers who praise the volumes of poetry, novels, stories, and essays from the Beat Movement and those who do not is the disagreement over what real literature is and what is not. Beat writers themselves did not make the decision easy, and most probably did not care at the time, nor would they care today. Indifference was "where it was at." Yet, like it or not, the originators of the movement became famous, even sporadically wealthy, but they often had problems handling the popularity, as well as the money. To be "normal" was not an option, and their work needed to reflect that. As a result, the writing was unorthodox, controversial, outlandish, and shocking, at least for that time. But were the styles, themes, and subjects wholly premeditated and cheaply contrived or could they be helped, considering the personal lives of the authors? Probably no other so-called "movement" of writers was as directly related to life experiences as the one coined "Beat," and a discussion of the movement is inseparable from a discussion of its authors. Few in number and relatively short in staying power, the Beat Generation produced the only kind of writing its members could have mustered.

There is little disagreement over the small number of main players who could legitimately call themselves Beats. Corso claimed the movement consisted only of Burroughs, Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Corso himself, and that four

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Beat Movement

  • In 2000, literary historian Thomas New-house published The Beat Generation and the Popular Novel in the United States, 1945-1970. Newhouse provides history and criticism on popular American novels in chapters covering "The War at Home: The Novel of Juvenile Delinquency," "Hipsters, Beats, and Supermen," "Breaking the Last Taboo: The Gay Novel," and "Which Way Is Up? The Drug Novel."
  • Thomas Owens provides a thorough look at the innovative and controversial style of jazz that came alive in the 1940s and 1950s in Bebop: The Music and Its Players (1995). Focusing on the roots of bebop and moving into a study of its major players, including Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, Owens presents a readable, yet studious, account of the music and the techniques of the musicians. Serious jazz lovers will enjoy this work.
  • In the 1993 book Reframing Abstract Expressionism: Subjectivity and Painting in the 1940s, author Michael Leja suggests that abstract expressionist artists were part of a culture-wide initiative to "re-imagine the self." Incorporating the works and interests of other personalities of the period, Leja compares such artists as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Willem de Kooning to contemporary essayists, Hollywood filmmakers, journalists, and popular philosophers.
  • In 1997, Yale professor John Lewis Gaddis published We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History. An expert on this period in history, Gaddis argues that there was indeed an international Communist conspiracy, that Castro and Khrushchev were victorious over Kennedy in the Cuban missile crisis, and that, ultimately, the Cold War was inevitable. This is a thought-provoking look at a volatile time in U.S. history.

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people did not even make up a "generation." In The Birth of the Beat Generation, author Steven Watson says that "By the strictest definition, the Beat Generation consists of only William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, and Herbert Huncke, with the slightly later addition of Gregory Corso and Peter Orlovsky." Corso may not have appreciated his placement as a "slightly later addition," but Watson's list is still small, no matter how the names are juggled. Moreover, the people behind the names appear to have had life's cards stacked against them from the beginning. Violent childhoods, broken families, bizarre fascinations, and no regard for personal health are the common experiences and common attitudes of the Beats, and their writing was little more than a public explosion of private fireworks. Considering that all survived their beginnings to become internationally known, the volatile foundations of these writers are worth a look.

Without doubt, Burroughs was oddest of them all. Typical, brief biographies neglect to mention that he began investigating methods of forging hard metals for weapons when he was eight years old; that he built homemade bombs as a teenager, one of which blew up in his hands, sending him to the hospital for six months, and another which he tossed through a window of his school principal's house; that, also as a teenager, he ingested a bottle of chloral hydrate and nearly died; that he almost killed a college classmate when he aimed at the fellow's stomach but ended up blowing a hole in his dorm room wall; that he severed the tip of his little finger with a pair of poultry sheers in protest of his first male lover's infidelity. All this by the time he was twenty-five. Burroughs's adulthood in New York and Page 45  |  Top of Articleelsewhere is more documented than his childhood and adolescence, but it too rings of the same macabre fascinations and dangerous activities that enveloped his early years. The writing he did as both a youth and as an adult reflects his morbid obsessions and ghoulish practices, as well as his blatant disregard for laws and social mores. How aptly named is the "cut-up" technique for an author whose own mind and body consistently felt the puncturing and rending of a base, depraved, and fractured existence.

Another prominent Beat writer, Corso, also grew up with violence, although initially he was not the one asking for it, as it seems Burroughs was. After his mother abandoned him at the age of six months, Corso was placed in foster homes, living with three sets of parents in ten years. At twelve, he stole a radio from a neighbor and was sentenced to juvenile detention, the first of many run-ins with the law. In detention, the young Corso endured so many beatings that, in desperation, he rammed his hands through a window and was sent to the children's psychiatric ward at Bellevue hospital. After another stint in a boys' home, he wound up living on the street, where he honed his theft skills. At sixteen, he and two other street kids robbed a finance company of $7,000, and all of them went to prison. Corso was released at age twenty when he headed to New York and met the other members of the Beat Generation.

Ginsberg's childhood was not filled with as much personal violence as was Burroughs's and Corso's, but it was just as torn though in a different direction. Bouts with schizophrenia landed his mother in a sanatorium when Ginsberg was only three years old, and she was in and out of institutions for the rest of her life. Being without his mother for extended periods of time was hard on the boy, but being with her proved even more challenging. When she was home, Naomi Ginsberg went on vocal tirades in support of Communism and insisted on walking around naked. She forced her son to listen to her paranoid fantasies, including her fear that Ginsberg's father was poisoning their food, that she had to cover her ears with kitchen pots to ward off evil, and that there were insects threatening to take over their home. Ginsberg began to console himself with two primary comforts: writing and sexual fantasies. He became consumed with both and often melded the two in his secret diary. His well-publicized work as an adult is proof that he never got over it.

By comparison to his three main cohorts, Kerouac seems to have led an almost normal childhood, but normal is definitely a relative term. At age four, Kerouac endured the death of his nine-year-old brother, and he clung to his Catholic teachings with fanatical adherence, believing in visions of ghosts and statues whose heads could move on their own. A shy loner, Kerouac turned to writing and used the prose process as a means of sexual stimulation. Writing himself into a frenzy, so to speak, remained a habit, if not trademark, throughout his adult writing career. So too did the alcoholism he picked up from his father. Perhaps more so than the others, Kerouac tried to live a valid "literary" life, but there were too many obstacles in the way, many of which he created himself.

These biographical summaries obviously portray the worst of their authors' lives and, admittedly, they lean to the darker side for a purpose. To address Beat writing is to address Beat writers, and, while there are numerous other published Beats, the four mentioned here are considered the core group. There are also numerous other writers of all genres, all decades, all centuries whose lives were surely as violent, despairing, eerie, and dreadful as those described here, so what is the difference? What makes the Beat Movement so intrinsically tied to the similar quirks and experiences of the people involved? First, size. Even if one extends the circle of Beat writers beyond the Columbia group, beyond Greenwich Village, across the country to San Francisco, the number of members is still fewer than that of other well recognized literary movements. Extending the circle, however, is generally artificial, for a discussion of the Beats always returns to the handful of original members. Second, the personalities and resulting behavior of those members play a significant role in shaping the movement, as well as in confining it to a tight space in literary history. Most important, the writers themselves incite the debate on whether the word "literary" should even apply to their works.

Those who fare best in the debate are the poets. Generally given more license to experiment with styles and to ignore rules of syntax and grammar, poets Ginsberg and Corso tended to be criticized more for their subjects than their presentations. Explicit sexual references and anti-American pronouncements overshadowed the often incoherent, rambling lines and forced Page 46  |  Top of Article
Allen Ginsberg reads poetry in Washington Square Park in New York City Allen Ginsberg reads poetry in Washington Square Park in New York City(AP Images) imagery. The prose writers were measured—and still are—with a different yardstick. Is cutting up pages of someone else's words and randomly splicing them together to create one's own work really "writing"? Even when individuals slice and shuffle their own words, is that literature? Regarding spontaneous writing, does it take real talent to sit at a typewriter and tap out every thought that comes to mind without any regard for plot, cohesion, readability, or an interesting subject? In the 1950s, many people answered no to all these questions. Hindsight, however, has been kinder. Now, critics are tempted to judge the products of the Beats based on nonliterary facets such as cultural restrictions and postwar fears. The Beats, it seems, are now praised for the very practices that condemned them fifty years ago. A complacent, smug America needed a good shaking, and the Beats provided it. The question remains: did they provide it through good writing?

That question will not be answered here or anywhere else. Like any "art" debate, it comes down to personal opinion. Perhaps the more intriguing point to ponder is whether the main writers of the Beat Generation—those who gave it both voice and a name—were only imitating their broken, scattered, "beat" lives with the works they produced. And further, could they have produced anything else? The contention here is no. The Beats wrote what they wrote because they lived how they lived. Rebels produce rebellious work—the more dissenting the lifestyle, the more defiant the writing. It is hard to imagine a Burroughs or a Ginsberg writing like William Faulkner or Robert Frost, or even like Norman Mailer or Gary Snyder, for that matter. While these writers and poets and countless others could surely be called defiant or even shocking by certain audiences, the Beats wore their pain, anger, criminality, and deviance on their sleeves like well-earned badges. They displayed grim personal lives openly through their actions and even more deeply through the words they put on paper.

Source: Pamela Steed Hill, Critical Essay on the Beat Movement, in Literary Movements for Students, The Gale Group, 2003.

Haidee Kruger

In the following essay, Kruger examines the poetry of Allen Ginsberg, a leading member of the Beat Movement, as it relates to other literary movements of the time. Kruger specifically focuses on its critical position between the transition from modernism to postmodernism.

Much critical writing about the Beat Movement has focused on the strong interrelationship between the literary and social discourses within and around the movement. However, the study of Beat literature also necessitates an awareness of its position within the literary discourse of the twentieth century. Beat writing may be seen as standing in the unstable, shifting territory between two equally unstable, shifting literary movements: modernism and postmodernism. Beat poetry pits itself against high modernism and the New Critical tradition, draws upon some aspects of early avant-garde modernism, and simultaneously remoulds these aspects into what may be regarded as the beginnings of postmodernism in the USA. This article presents a reading of Allen Ginsberg's Beat poetry against this literary-historical background. A brief general overview of some of the key characteristics of Beat poetry is given, followed by a discussion of a number of Beat poems, organised around some salient features of Ginsberg's Beat poetry that may be

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linked to Beat poetry's position in the transition from modernism to postmodernism.


Allen Ginsberg's Beat poetry is widely regarded as representative of Beat beliefs and poetics, and over the years he has become the spokesperson and chronicler of the movement. Ginsberg's long publishing career, spanning half a century, suggests the importance of Beat poetics as a continued force in contemporary poetry, also evident in the steady stream of anthologies as well as popular and academic publications about Ginsberg and various aspects of the Beat Movement (see for example Campbell, 1999; Lee, 1996; Morgan, 2000; Peabody, 1997; Raskin, 2005; Sanders, 2000).

Much critical writing on the Beats has focused on the strong interrelationship between the literary and social discourses within and around the movement, with the emphasis often falling on the effects that the Beats' literary discourse had on the social discourse of the USA of the 1950s and the development of countercultural movements (see for example Charters, 1993; George & Starr, 1985). However, the study of Beat literature also necessitates an awareness of its position within the literary discourse of the twentieth century. Beat writing may be seen as standing in the unstable, shifting territory between two equally unstable, shifting literary movements: modernism and postmodernism. Beat poetry pits itself against high modernism, draws upon some aspects of early avant-garde modernism, and simultaneously remoulds these aspects into what may be regarded as the beginnings of postmodernism in the USA (see Russell, 1985:242; Huyssen, 1986:188). Calinescu (1987a:297) summarises these ideas:

the term postmodernism first came into literary use in the United States, where a number of poets of the later 1940s used it to distance themselves from the symbolist kind of modernism represented by T. S. Eliot. Like the early postmoderns, most of those who subsequently joined the antimodernist reaction were aesthetic radicals and often close to the spirit of the counterculture. The works of these writers constitute the historical nucleus of literary postmodernism. In poetry the corpus of American postmodernist writing would include the Black Mountain poets . . . the Beats . . . and the representatives of the San Francisco Renaissance . . . or those of the New York school . . .

It also needs to be pointed out that the high modernist legacy of formalism, conservatism, erudition, classicism, detachment, intellectualism and impersonality (Charters, 1993:586; Holmes, 1981:5) formed a powerful alliance with the dominant tradition of literary criticism in the post-World War II literary climate in the USA: New Criticism. The New Critics asserted that "the essential property of poetry consists in the reconciliation or harmonization of opposites; that this takes the form of an objective organization of the objective meanings of words" (Robey, 1986:84). This, together with the legacy of high modernism, created expectations of literature centring on impersonality, objectivity, ironic detachment and formal refinement.

Ginsberg's Beat poetry flouted almost every convention institutionalised by the coalition between high modernist poetics and New Criticism. His poetry is aggressively personal, highly emotional, and almost always excessive in style and content. His explicit depiction and celebration of homosexuality, crime and drug use are in conflict with the relatively conservative notions of morality implicitly espoused by New Criticism. As far as style is concerned, Ginsberg's writing is unrestrained, rhapsodic, excessively emotional and declarative, without the delicate intellectual nuances of construction valued by high modernist poetics and New Criticism.

This article presents a reading of Allen Ginsberg's Beat poetry against this background. A brief general overview of some of the key characteristics of Beat poetry is given, followed by a discussion of a number of Beat poems, organised around some salient features of Ginsberg's Beat poetry that may be linked to Beat poetry's position in the transition from modernism to postmodernism.

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Charters (1993:582) regards the Beats' "rebellious questioning of conventional American cultural values during the cold war" as the single most important thematic characteristic of their writing. The Beats strove to counter social conformity with a belief in the sanctity of the individual experience, repression with spontaneity and freedom of experience and expression, and materialism with spirituality. These general aims and beliefs had particular effects on both the content and the style of Beat writing.

Firstly, in terms of style, one of the most important projects of the Beat writers was to create a spontaneous creative style, an "aesthetic of unguarded, untrammeled expression" (Stephenson, 1990:14). Kerouac was the main influence in this project, the aims of which he set out in two accounts: "Essentials of spontaneous prose" and "Belief and technique of modern prose". In the former he states the basic idea of spontaneous prose as "not 'selectivity' of expression but following free deviation (association) of mind into limitless blow-on-subject seas of thought, swimming in sea of English with no discipline other than rhythms of rhetorical exhalation and expostulated statement . . . " (Kerouac, 1995:484).

Ginsberg has acknowledged his debt to what he has called Kerouac's "spontaneous bop prosody" (Clark, 1970:131-132). Many of the structural characteristics of Beat writing can be linked to this quality, such as the surreal juxtaposition of chains of images, the use of organic speech rhythms, and the predominance of improvisa-tory, rambling poetic forms (Holmes, 1981:11).

A second important characteristic of the Beats' writing is their ideal of "making personality the center and subject of their work" (Tytell, 1976:15). In one sense, this may be regarded as a direct reaction against the ideal of impersonality and objectivity established by the modernist legacy of Eliot and Pound. In another, wider sense, this aspect of their writing can be traced back to their conflict with contemporary American civilisation, which they regarded as warped and sterile, partly because of its emphasis on collectivity, conformity, materialism and conservatism. Like Whitman, and the American transcendentalists Emerson and Thoreau, the Beats believed that only individual experience and spirituality could possibly give some meaning to existence in a sterile society (Tytell, 1976:4).

The emphasis on individuality gives rise to a poetry that is generally antiformalist, in the sense that it does not see form as an external imposition, "an overlay you scissored the raw edges of content to fit" (Holmes, 1981:7). Instead, the aim is intuitively to find a rhythm and language inherent to the self and its personal expression. Another characteristic linked to the emphasis on subjectivity is the importance attached to the actual voice of the poet and the consequent development of poetry as oral performance.

A third general characteristic of Beat poetry is the emphasis placed on freedom of experience and expression, which resulted primarily from the Beats' reaction against a conformist society. In terms of the content of Beat poetry, this is linked to the Beats' description of the lifestyle of the counterculture, incorporating taboos such as drugs and homosexual relationships. On the formal level, Beat writing displays the writers' insistence on personal freedom in many respects. Essentially, it entails the freedom to break with established conventions of literary form, and to invent and experiment with new forms. Kerouac's rambling picaresque narratives, Burroughs's cut-up and fold-in techniques and Ginsberg's experimentations with free incanta-tory verse are all ways of breaking with the conventions of literary form (Stephenson, 1990:10).

A final defining trait of Beat poetry is its concern with spirituality. Everson (1981:182) describes the Beat project as an attempt to "incorporate genuine ecstatic and mystical needs" into everyday existence. In doing so, the Beats returned to the shamanistic-prophetic role of the artist in society (Stephenson, 1990:15). They were also particularly attracted to Eastern, "primitive" and mystical religious traditions. In Ginsberg's case, there is a strong link with Judaism, but he also studied, among others, gnosticism, mysticism, native American lore, Hinduism and Buddhism (Prothero, 1991:216; Portugeś, 1984:143). In particular, his eclectic appropriation of Buddhist principles and other Eastern systems of belief has been a pervasive influence on both the content and the form of his poetry (George & Starr, 1985:196; Jackson, 1988).

The above broad characteristics of Beat poetry find their precipitation in Ginsberg's Beat poetry in various ways, many of which Page 49  |  Top of Articlemay be related to Beat poetry's position as simultaneously anti-high-modernist and early postmodernist. Beat poetry is essentially driven by a counterhegemonic and activist impulse, and is a celebration of difference, heterogeneity and contradiction. On a formal level, this finds its expression in experimentalism, improvisation and innovation. On a social level, Beat poetry's activism links with its social involvement and its keen interest in mass culture, a defining characteristic of postmodernist art. This also ties in with the emphasis that is placed on poetry as popular art form, meant to be performed. Another significant feature of Ginsberg's poetry is the importance attached to delight and play—a feature that may be linked to Beat poetry's rejection of the pessimistic and austere image of poetry associated with high modernism. Beat poetry's celebration of immediacy, intensity and irrationality may also be related to this. A last characteristic of Ginsberg's poetry that warrants attention in terms of its relationship to postmodernism is its intertextuality.

In the following section, the above qualities are discussed in more depth, with particular attention to selected poems.



As a whole, Ginsberg's Beat poetry is a celebration of marginalised culture. Gilmore (1997:36) emphasises the role of Ginsberg's poetry in "the freeing up of people and voices that much of established society wanted kept in the margins". The ultimate purpose of much of Ginsberg's Beat poetry is to expose the fallacy of American culture as homogenously middle-class and heterosexual, by foregrounding variety and difference. At the same time, it undermines the hegemony of various other basic assumptions or beliefs upon which Western society is founded, such as the superiority of the ego, and the authority of order, meaning, control, identity and reason. In postmodernist terms, Ginsberg's Beat poetry may therefore be regarded as reflecting a resistance against totalising metanarratives (see Lyotard, 1984; 1993).

On the level of the individual, Beat poetry resists the traditional definition or metanarrative of the self as ego or fixed point of identity, primarily defined by virtue of its capacity to reason. In "Over Kansas" the traditional concept of self as ego is denied, when the poet unequivocally states that "I am no ego", a sentiment echoed in line 8 of "Siesta in Xbalba": "let the mind fall down". Instead Ginsberg's Beat poetry plays with the notion of self, arguing that transitory physical and emotional experience, together with mystical and visionary states, might constitute an alternative locus for the self. This idea is articulated in an early poem, "Psalm I":

    These psalms are the workings of the vision haunted mind and
    not that reason which never changes.
    I am flesh and blood but my mind is the focus of much lightning.
    I change with the weather, with the state of my finances, with
    the work I do, with my company.
    But truly none of these is accountable for the majestic flaws of
    mind which have left my brain open to hallucination.

On a social level, the counterhegemonic nature of Beat poetry is apparent from its resistance against social control and the dominance of a particular group and its ideology. It contests any view of society as a monolithic entity and resists totalisation, instead celebrating plurality and diversity. "Howl" is exemplary of this. The poem is an outcry against the stultifying conventional assumptions of middle-class America, embodied in the god Moloch, who dominates the second section of the poem. Moloch may be regarded as a personification of the metanarratives upon which Western society is constructed. Moloch is "the Mind", which destroys "brains and imagination", in which the self is "a consciousness without a body" whose fate is "a cloud of sexless hydrogen." Moloch is also the desire for progress, regardless of the consequences:

    Moloch whose mind is pure machinery!
      Moloch whose blood is
    running money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies!
    Moloch whose breast is a cannibal dynamo!
    whose ear is a smoking tomb!
    Moloch whose eyes are a thousand blind windows! Moloch
    whose skyscrapers stand in the long streets like endless
    Jehovahs! Moloch whose factories dream and croak in
    the fog! Moloch whose smokestacks and antennae
    crown the cities!
    Moloch whose love is endless oil and stone!
      Moloch whose soul
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    is electricity and banks! Moloch whose poverty is the
    specter of genius!

This second section of "Howl" exposes and questions some of the basic metanarratives on which Western society is based, by drawing their consequences as negative and destructive. It links the primacy of reason with a social ethics based on capitalist exploitation and ruthless progress, and presents the results of these as a terrifying society of "Robot apartments! invisible suburbs! skeleton treasuries! blind capitals! demonic industries! spectral nations! invincible madhouses! granite cocks! monstrous bombs!".

The poem thus rejects the hegemony of these basic metanarratives as numbing, stifling and ultimately destructive. Its counterhegemonic gesture consists of pushing that which has been marginalised and hidden to the foreground. Instead of the dominance of order and reason, the poem celebrates extremities of chaotic and intense experience: physical, emotional and spiritual:

    with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, alcohol and
    cock and endless balls,
    incomparable blind streets of shuddering cloud and lightning in
    the mind leaping towards poles of Canada & Paterson,
    illuminating all the
    motionless world of Time between,
    Peyote solidities of halls, backyard green tree cemetery dawns,
    wine drunkenness over the rooftops, storefront boroughs
    of teahead joyride neon blinking traffic light, sun and
    moon and tree vibrations in the roaring winter dusks of
    Brooklyn, ashcan rantings and kind king light of mind.

All of these experiences are depicted in terms of an absence of control, since control implies some kind of hierarchical structuring of experience. In this process the poem makes a deconstructionist move by inverting the hierarchy and placing the repressed terms (spirit, emotion, body) in the primary position, celebrating the

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

The activist and anarchic tendency of Beat poetry is closely linked to the above, and may be regarded as typical of early postmodernism's "expression of a defensive rage and creative idealism" (Russell, 1985:254). A particularly powerful activist poem written in Ginsberg's Beat phase is "America." In this poem Ginsberg criticises American society on several grounds, using a technique of "one-liners in different voices, sardonic schizophrenic, the tone influenced by Tzara's Dada manifestos" (Ginsberg, 1995). He condemns it for its obsession with technological warfare that destroys human beings, while simultaneously deploring its unwillingness to embrace qualities such as spirituality, honesty and tolerance. He furthermore criticises the fundamental xenophobia of conservative American society, by parodying stereotypical paranoid representations of countries like Russia and China. This paranoia and intolerance are coupled with excessive materialism and emotional barrenness.

The "I" of the poem then (often ironically and humorously) places himself in an oppositional stance. Instead of economic wealth, military power and technologically advanced weaponry, his "national resources" consist of

    two joints of marijuana millions of genitals an unpublishable
    private literature that jetplanes 1400 miles an hour and
    twentyfive-thousand mental institutions.
    I say nothing about my prisons nor the millions of
    underprivileged who live in my flowerpots under the light
    of five hundred suns

Instead of working seriously and responsibly to amass wealth, he smokes marijuana and stays at home, doing nothing but "stare at the roses in the closet." Finally, instead of the emotional and spiritual superficiality of American society, the poet-speaker consistently exhibits a concern for authentic and sincere emotion and spirituality and compassion for all people.

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The last three lines of the poem contain an explicit (though self-deprecating and ironic) personal commitment to change this society—not by participating in its institutions, but by a personal (most probably poetic) effort:

    I'd better get right down to the job.
    It's true I don't want to join the Army or turn lathes in precision
    parts factories, I'm nearsighted and psychopathic anyway.
    America I'm putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.

This commitment to exposing the wrongs of society and actively trying to create solutions and initiate changes pervades much of Ginsberg's poetry. "Death to Van Gogh's ear" is another example of such a poem. The underlying assumption of poems such as these is that poetry should make social injustice its business, and moreover, that poetry has the power to exert some kind of influence on society. This belief is also apparent in Ginsberg's continual practical and poetic involvement with numerous activist groups, campaigning for human rights, peace, environmental issues and gay rights (see Austin, 1995; Carter, 2001; Moore, 1997).


Russell (1985:240) points out that formal experimentalism often originates from a desire to find a new voice by violating the constraints of the patriarchal, bourgeois, dominant culture's language and modes of expression. Whereas the acceptance of metanarratives expresses itself formally in closure, totalisation and unity (as embodied in the New Critical idea of the well-made poem), the postmodernist stance towards metanarratives expresses itself in forms that are discontinuous, improvisatory, open and playful. This is the basis of the formal experimentation of Ginsberg's Beat poetry. In particular, his use of the long line or breath unit (together with cataloguing, litany-like repetition and lavish accumulation of language) is a way of challenging the New Critical convention of the carefully contained poem. This experimental technique is probably the most characteristic and innovative formal aspect of Ginsberg's poetry, and is present in the majority of his important Beat poems, like "Howl", "A supermarket in California" and "Sunflower sutra." In most of these poems it is as if the expansiveness of the vision cannot be contained within the confines of traditional poetic form, but spills over into a profusion of words and images linked in one breath. Ginsberg has explained that this is the result of his dictum of "first thought, best thought", which is a way of capturing the "[s]pontaneous insight—the sequence of thought-forms passing naturally through ordinary mind." In "Howl" this idea is metatextually described as follows:

    who dreamt and made incarnate gaps in Time & Space through
    images juxtaposed, and trapped the archangel of the soul
    between 2 visual images and joined the elemental verbs
    and set the noun and dash of consciousness together
    jumping with sensation of Pater Omnipotens Aeterna
    Deus, to recreate the syntax and measure of poor human prose
    and stand before you speechless and intelligent and
    shaking with shame, rejected yet confessing out the soul
    to conform to the rhythm of thought in his naked and
    endless head.

There are many other experimental techniques evident in Ginsberg's poetry, such as making the whole poem one long sentence with little or no punctuation, as in "Europe! Europe!":

    World world world
    I sit in my room
    imagine the future
    sunlight falls on Paris
    I am alone there is no
    one whose love is perfect
    man has been mad man's
    love is not perfect I
    have not wept enough
    my breast will be heavy
    till death the cities
    are specters of cranks
    of war . . .

In other poems, such as "Laughing gas", long lines, continuous lines and broken lines are mixed in a way that seems completely formless. In some cases, the experimentation becomes extreme, resulting in poems approaching the style of concrete poetry, such as the poem "Funny death."

Ginsberg's use of contemporary informal language and specifically American speech rhythms, constitutes another important experimental technique. In this the influence of William Carlos Williams is crucial, though of course there are Page 52  |  Top of Articlevast differences between Williams's and Ginsberg's styles. Ginsberg has repeatedly acknowledged his debt to Williams in this regard (see Géfin, 1984:274), but has also said that what distinguishes his style from that of Williams is his "Hebraic-Melvillian bardic breath" (Ginsberg, 1984b:81) and his "feeling . . . for a big long cranky statement" (in Clark, 1970:136). Ginsberg's use of everyday colloquial language, slang and expletives, mixed with the incantatory Jewish tradition and declamatory Biblical style (particularly evident in poems such as "Howl" and "America" was a reaction against the New Critical convention of the contained poem and the elitism and intellectualism of high modernism, and reflects early postmodernism's concern with free, open and eclectic forms of expression.


While various critics and groups, such as the New Critics, have viewed twentieth-century popular culture as a threat to refined and enlightened minds, one of the main projects of postmodernism has been to undo this dichotomy between works designed for popular consumption and so-called high art (Calinescu, 1987a:285). The Beat ethos of the 1950s and 1960s aimed to bring poetry back to the people, to de-academise it and re-connect it, as performative art, to the community. Beat poetry played a significant role in the development of the American countercultural movement during the 1950s for the precise reason that it was essentially populist, created to draw and involve listeners/readers. This tendency is also obvious in Ginsberg's collaborations with many popular artists, including Bob Dylan, The Clash, Kim Deal (formerly from cult indie band The Pixies) and U2 (Smith, 1996). The populist, open and accessible aesthetic of Beat poetry is reflected in its informal diction, its speech rhythms, its performative nature, its simultaneous personal and social consciousness, its explicit connections to everyday life, and its mix of criticism, humour and idealism.

Apart from the fact that Beat poetry is essentially popular poetry, its connections with popular culture are multifarious. The Beats and their poetry have always been fascinated by popular culture. In poems such as "The blue angel" and "America" the references to mass culture create a largely negative reflection on the com-modification of emotion by popular culture. In "The blue angel" Marlene Dietrich becomes a symbol of "mechanical love", a product of a

culture in which people allow their "emotional life [to] be run by Time Magazine" ("America"). This negative view of popular or consumer culture becomes even clearer in "Death to Van Gogh's ear!":

    Hollywood will rot on the windmills of Eternity
    Hollywood whose movies stick in the throat of
    Yes Hollywood will get what it deserves
    Seepage of nerve-gas over the radio.

However, considering the Beats' own popu-list impulse, it would seem as if it is not the notion of popular culture as such that is criticised, but rather what contemporary American society has made of popular culture. All in all, Beat seems to stand for a popular, widely dispersed culture that embraces positive spiritual values such as honesty, spirituality, love and sensitivity. Positive references to icons of popular culture are often used to express this idea. In "POEM rocket" the speaker refers to Albert Einstein: "O Einstein I should have sent you my flaming mss. / O Einstein I should have pilgrimaged to your white hair!" The same positive reference to Einstein is found in line 23 of "Death to Van Gogh's ear!", coupled with a reference to "immortal" Charlie Chaplin who was "driven from our shores with the rose in his teeth." In "Ignu" Harpo Marx is classified together with (among others) Walt Whitman, Charles Dickens, William Carlos Williams and William S. Burroughs in the category of ignu—"angel in comical form." Figures such as these appear as representations of the imaginative individual countering the deceitfulness, decay and apathy of contemporary mass culture.

Apart from positive and negative associations with popular culture, there are many poems in which there is no real value judgement attached to elements from popular culture where the popular consciousness merely blends with the personal consciousness. Such a poem is "Laughing gas", where the Loony Tunes and Woody Woodpecker make an appearance, Santa Clauses mingle with Christs and Buddhas, while Mickey Mouse cartoons assume apocalyptic overtones. There are clichédfragments of popular texts: "'It was a dark and gloomy night . . . "' and "'You take the high road / and I'll take the low"'(l. 79-80), while the Cheshire Cat appears together with Frank Sinatra, and President Eisenhower. All of these references contribute to integrate an awareness of the social and political environment with the personal consciousness.

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One of the main distinctions between modernism and post-modernism is the latter's inclusion, exploration and affirmative revaluation of elements of delight, enjoyment, play, chance and performance (Calinescu, 1987a:284; Fiedler, 1992:35). In a way, this dimension of postmodernism is a reaction against the sober, serious and largely negative perception of high modernism, so that postmodernism comes to regard itself as "a joyous rebirth of diversity after the austere negativity of modernism" (Calinescu, 1987b:7). Ginsberg's Beat poetry certainly reconnects art with enjoyment and often introduces an element of playfulness. Some poems rely on an almost whimsical play with words and sounds together with sexual innuendo for their playfulness. The two poems "Fie my fum" and "Pull my daisy" are exemplary. The last three stanzas of the former poem are typical:

    Whore my door,
    Stone my dream,
    Milk my mind
    And make me cream,

    Say my oops,
    Ope my shell,
    Roll my bones,
    Ring my bell,

    Pope my parts,
    Pop my pot,
    Poke my pap,
    Pit my plum.

In the last stanza, alliteration, together with the playful associative metamorphoses of words, is particularly important. It accounts for the transformation from "pope" to "pop" to "poke" to "pit", running parallel with the transformation from "parts" to "pot" to "pap" to "plum". The changes seem entirely arbitrary, as if selected on the basis of chance association, but sustain the sexual suggestion. The same processes are at work in the previous stanza, but here they seem to work diagonally as well as vertically. In lines 21-22 the transformative and alliterative process works diagonally, so that "say" becomes "shell" and "oops" becomes "ope". In lines 23-24, vertical alliteration is again more important, with "roll" linking with "ring", and "bones" with "bell". The whole stanza (like all the others) is held together by broken rhyme, with the second and fourth lines of each quatrain rhyming.

In other poems the lightheartedness is based less on form, and more on the humour, irony or absurdity of the content. "The archetype poem" and "A typical affair" both deal with failed relationships in a list-hearted and ironically distanced manner. In "Four haiku" the humour is based on the banal and the absurd:

    Looking over my shoulder
    my behind was covered
    with cherry blossoms

"A supermarket in California" has a kind of wistful lightheartedness created by the absurd images and mischievous references to Whitman's "eyeing the grocery boys."

Ginsberg's Beat poetry displays an awareness of the critical power of humour, irony and parody. This is particularly apparent in "America." The social criticism of this poem has already been discussed, but it is important to note that the poem uses humour, irony and parody to present its irreverence and incisive critique. From the crude humour of "Go f——— yourself with your atom bomb" to the coyness of "When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks?"; from the wry irony of "My ambition is to be President despite the fact that I'm a Catholic" to the deliberately shocking parody of "That no good. Ugh. Him make Indians learn read. Him need big black niggers", the poem uses various humorous devices to expose the corruption of American society.

A last point to be made here is that the notions of voice and performance are crucial to the Beat ethos. Beat poetry is intended to be read aloud, as Ginsberg's many performances over the years attest (see Asher, 1997; Moore 1997). There are also some poems that are intended as songs (with music included), like "A Western ballad" and "Green Valentine blues." In late years, Ginsberg also set many of his poems to music, some of which have been recorded.


In content as well as expression, Ginsberg's Beat poetry is an attempt to transmit the immediate, be it physical, emotional or spiritual. It is, as Altieri (1996: 775) points out of postmodernist poetry in general, poetry that is "direct habitation, a directly instrumental rather than contemplative, use of language. And its test of value becomes the mobility and intensity immediately made available to the poet ..." Linked to this is early postmodernist writing's emphasis on the intuitive rather than the analytic. As Fiedler (1992:33) puts it, early postmodernism is often Page 54  |  Top of Article"apocalyptic, antirational, blatantly romantic and sentimental . . . distrustful of self-protective irony and too great self-awareness".

Ginsberg's early poems written in the William Carlos Williams imagist style are attempts to reflect the immediacy of the sensory experience, together with its emotional, intellectual and spiritual connotations (see "The bricklayer's lunch hour"). However, it is in poems such as "Howl" that the emphasis Beat writing places on immediacy, intensity and irrationality comes to the foreground most powerfully. The first part of the poem centres on descriptions of individuals searching for meaning in extremes of physical, emotional and spiritual experience. The intense physicality of experience is suggested by descriptions of "starving hysterical naked" people "dragging themselves through the negro streets . . . looking for an angry fix" and "ecstatic and insatiate" sex. The high incidence of verbs depicting vigorous, intense action and feeling is a technique used to convey this intensity. Furthermore, the construction of the poem places these verbs in a repetitive configuration which has a cumulative effect, heightening the intensity with each repetition. For example, from line 48-65 the following constructions appear at the beginning of each line:

    who wept . . .
    who sat . . .
    who coughed . . .
    who scribbled . . .
    who cooked . . .
    who plunged . . .
    who threw . . .
    who cut . . .
    who were burned . . .
    who jumped . . .
    who sang . . .
    who barrelled . . .
    who drove . . .
    who journeyed . . .
    who fell . . .
    who crashed . . .
    who retired . . .
    who demanded . . .
    who threw . . .

Emotion is also strongly emphasised as a basic and essential constituent of human experience, as in the following lines:

    who broke down crying in white gymnasiums naked and
    trembling before the machinery of other skeletons, who
    bit detectives in the neck and shrieked with delight in
    policecars for committing no crime but their own wild
    cooking pederasty and intoxication,
    who howled on their knees in the subway and were dragged off
    the roof waving genitals and manuscripts.

Spirituality similarly receives a very strong emphasis. The poem contains many descriptions of spiritual experience, such as: "incomparable blind streets of shuddering cloud and lightning in the mind", "sun and moon and tree vibrations", "visionary indian angels", "telepathy and bop kabbalah" and "supernatural ecstacy."

The immediacy, intensity and irrationality of physical, emotional and spiritual experience are conveyed not only by the long lines and incantatory structure, but also by the surreal juxtaposition of images, which reflects both the immediacy and irrationality of experience and the immediacy and irrationality of the writing process, reflected in the Beat mantra of "first thought, best thought."

The above examples clearly suggest the sense of physical excess and emotional and spiritual intensity that saturates the poem. These emphases are placed in opposition with the negative appraisal of the intellect. The universities and academies with their "scholars of war" are described as being unable to comprehend the full scope of experience, which includes intense beauty, horror, madness, hallucination, fantasy and creative power. The mind is also linked with the evil, death and destruction associated with Moloch, who annihilates all imagination, sensual pleasure, compassionate emotion and creative and spiritual potential.

Against Moloch is pitted the individual who strives to revive the neglected and suppressed dimensions of experience, of necessity involving extremities and intensities of experience that are in conflict with Moloch's sanitation and regimentation of experience. Consequently these individuals are labelled "mad" by societal constrictions. However, the Beats regarded madness in a positive light, along the lines of Antonin Artaud's definition of a lunatic as "a man who has preferred to become what is socially understood as mad rather than forfeit a certain superior idea of human honor" (quoted in Watson, 1995:115). "Howl" is a tribute to this idea. It is dedicated to the poet Carl Solomon, whom Ginsberg met when they were both in the Columbia Presbyterian Psychiatric Institute (Watson, 1995:112), and who became a Beat Page 55  |  Top of Articleicon for his defiance of norms and conventions. The poem describes some of Solomon's exploits:

    who threw potato salad at CCNY lecturers on Dadaism and
    subsequently presented themselves on the granite steps
    of the madhouse with shaven heads and harlequin
    speech of suicide, demanding instantaneous lobotomy,
    and who were given instead the concrete void of insulin
    Metrazol electricity hydrotherapy psychotherapy
    occupational therapy pingpong and amnesia.

In the last section of "Howl", Solomon is apostrophised, using a repetitive incantatory structure starting with "I'm with you", suggesting the speaker's allegiance to Solomon's anti-establishment commitment to the intensity of experience:

    I'm with you in Rockland
    where we wake up electrified out of the coma by our own
    souls' airplanes roaring over the roof they've come to
    drop angelic bombs the hospital illuminates itself
    imaginary walls collapse O skinny legions run outside
    O starry-spangled shock of mercy the eternal war is
    here O victory forget your underwear we're free.

The immediacy, intensity and irrationality of Ginsberg's Beat poetry are further reflected in the numerous poems dealing with dreams, visionary experiences, hallucinations and spiritual experiences, such as "Back on Times Square, dreaming of Times Square", "Siesta in Xbalba", "Sunflower sutra", "Sather Gate illumination" and "Laughing gas."


The intertextuality of Ginsberg's Beat poetry is part of its reaction against such ideas as the autonomy of the "well-made poem". Ginsberg's Beat poems deliberately place themselves within the flux of discourse—be it artistic, social, political, or from the present or the past. This involves stretching and dissolving the boundaries of the poem, engaging it in a polylogue with other texts, resulting in poems that are intentionally and often excessively polyphonic.

The most explicit instances of intertextuality in Ginsberg's poetry are those that relate to artistic texts, mostly in the forms of literary and visual art. However, as will become apparent in the following discussion, Ginsberg's typical intertextual technique assumes a very idiosyncratic form. Instead of incorporating fragments of other texts into his own poems, or playing with the material of other texts in the form of comment, parody and pastiche, he uses strategically selected words (often proper nouns) which function as the nodes by which elaborate texts are activated and engaged.

In some poems the intertextual links are quite obvious, as in "On reading William Blake's 'Sick rose'." In others the intertextual dynamic is subtler. "Bop lyrics" contains an oblique reference to the poet Christopher Smart in its refrain of "Smart went crazy / Smart went crazy." This is the only reference in the poem, but the mention of the name activates a conglomerate of texts, which then feed into "Bop lyrics" (which then feeds back into these texts again). Smart was an eighteenth-century poet, whose life and poetry show much similarity to Ginsberg's (see Hunsberger, 1984). Both poets had interludes of what was classified as madness, and like Ginsberg's, Smart's poetry is concerned with the visionary and the spiritual, intermingled with details from everyday life. It is also strikingly alike in form to Ginsberg's, with similar long lines and repetitive structures. Consider the following example, from "Jubilate agno" (in Allison et al., 1983:470-471):

    For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
    For he is the servant of the living God, duly and daily serving him.
    For at the first glance of the glow of God in the East he
    worships in his way.
    For this is done by wreathing his body seven times round with
    elegant quickness.
    For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of
    God upon his prayer.
    For he rolls upon prank to work it in.
    For having done duty and received blessing he begins to consider himself.
    For this he performs in ten degrees.
    For first he looks upon his forepaws to see if they are clean.
    For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away there.
    For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the forepaws extended.

Once the reference to Smart has activated the additional text of his poetry and life, "Bop Page 56  |  Top of Articlelyrics" explicitly becomes part of a dialogue with the older text. This is particularly evident in the last stanza (which also intertextually links with the poem "Fie my fum"):

    I'm a pot and God's a potter,
    And my head's a piece of putty,
    Ark my darkness,
    Lark my looks,
    I'm so lucky to be nutty.

The same process is followed in a poem like "I have increased power" which explicitly establishes multiple intertextual links, involving references to Hemingway, Shakespeare and Carl Solomon. These three references act like hyper-links, allowing the poem to branch out in many other directions, following (an infinite number of) links to other texts. This denies the idea of the poem as closed artefact and instead places it within the flux of discourse. The poem then becomes not only Ginsberg's musing on death and time, but a point where several texts with related ideas intersect.

"Death to Van Gogh's ear!" and "At Apollinaire's grave" apply this technique more extensively by incorporating multiple references to other artists, so that the poem becomes a multilayered, polyphonic point of intersection. In the latter poem, Ginsberg places himself and his writing in the company of various artists, making the intertextual relationships between texts very explicit. The focus falls on Apollinaire, but the speaker's thoughts while sitting at Apollinaire's grave leads him to invoke the names of many other artists as well: Jacob, Picasso, Rousseau, Tzara, Breton, Cendrars, Vaché, Cocteau, Rigaut, Gide, Whitman and Mayakovsky. In line 11 the idea of intertextual layering is expressed: the speaker wishes to pay homage to Apollinaire by laying "my temporary American Howl on top of his silent Caligramme".

Ginsberg's poetry clearly expresses an awareness that all texts are related and are continually conversing with one another. However, it needs to be emphasised that Ginsberg's version of inter-textuality has a very particular slant, having less to do with a self-conscious attempt to foreground textuality and textual relationships, and more with a need to express the impact of certain texts (be they artistic, social or personal) on his poetic development.


This article has presented a reading of selected Beat poems by Allen Ginsberg, proceeding from the assumption that Beat poetry can be regarded as a reaction against the institutionalised, academicised form of high modernism in the USA of the 1950s. In this anti-modernist reaction the beginnings of postmodernism may be found. However, viewing Beat poetry purely as anti-modernist and early postmodernist is, of course, a reified, convenient construction of Beat, which facilitates a discussion of the poetry in terms of its position and role in twentieth-century literary developments. The relationships between Beat, modernism and postmodernism are complex and heterogeneous. For example, while Beat poetry embodies a definite reaction against the intellectualism, elitism and objective style of high modernist poetry, Beat's indebtedness to modernist poetics is also indisputable. Ginsberg himself has acknowledged this, pointing out the influence of writers like William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound. While he acknowledges some of Eliot's innovation and influence in terms of the use of language, he states in an interview with Pivano (2001:117) in 1968 that "Eliot never solved the verse form problem for us . . . he never solved the problem of how do you register American speech?" According to Ginsberg, he and his fellow post-World War II poets "came in . . . on the coattails of the classicists, of Pound and Williams and Marianne Moore" (Pivano, 2001:117), who, in their very different ways, worked towards new forms to express a new reality and a new language. Ginsberg describes the process of pursuing the direction that these writers set out in as follows:

. . . I don't know if we added anything basic, because Pound's was the first great discovery of the change. The only thing I think is, we learnt the lesson. We were the first generation after them to learn the lesson and begin applying to our own conditions, our own provincial speeches, mouths of Denver and New Jersey, our own personal physiologies and personal breathing rhythms, and to our own police state postwar Buck Rogers Newspeak universal conditions of local ecstasy of god-realization.

(Pivano, 2001)

Ginsberg therefore suggests the double-sided relationship of Beat with the modernist inheritance. Despite its rejection of high modernist poetics, Beat is also a continuation of the avant-garde dimension of modernism, as Ginsberg points out in the same interview with Pivano (2001:112):

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So actually experimental prosody has been the main tradition in American and English poetry for the better part of this last century. And so one may say that it is the "Tradition" that the younger poets in America are working on, it's the "real tradition". And the paradox is that these younger poets who were working in this tradition have been accused of being aesthetic anarchists, of not working in any "tradition" at all. Unfair! Ignorant accusation!

Ginsberg therefore seems to suggest that Beat poetry is best regarded as both a reaction against modernism and a continuation, reclaiming and reinterpretation of the avant-garde ideals of modernism—in which the origins of postmodernism is to be found. In this several other research possibilities are to be found. For example, an investigation of Beat poetry's continuities with the modernist avant-garde (in terms of, for example, imagism and surrealism) would also make a productive and useful contribution to the continuing discourse surrounding the literary-historical dimension of the Beat movement.

There are also several research possibilities relating to the relationship between Beat poetry and South African poetry. There is a direct link between Beat poetry and South African English poetry in the person of Beat poet Sinclair Beiles, who, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, collaborated with William S. Burroughs and Brion Gysin in developing the cut-up technique. Beiles published a number of collections of plays and poetry, including A South African abroad (Beiles, 1991). While there has been some interest in Beiles's work (see Finlay, 1997), opportunities for research remain largely unexplored. In the broader South African literary context, Beat influences may be seen in a number of contemporary South African poets' writing (especially Afrikaans poets; see Kruger, 2006), which open additional avenues for further research.

Source: Haidee Kruger, "'Confessing Out the Soul to Conform to the Rhythm of Thought': A Reading of Allen Ginsberg's Beat Poetry," in Literator, Vol. 28, No. 1, April 2007, pp. 23-46.

Stephen Davenport

In the following essay, Davenport explores sexuality and gender within the Beat movement.

On a lovely autumn day in 1987, I walked into the office of an English professor I had taken a course with the year before, one of the

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most influential and widely quoted literary historians in the country, the first woman to be appointed an editor for either of the major Norton anthologies, in her case The Norton Anthology of American Literature, an Americanist who, despite the title of her contentious essay "The Madwoman and Her Languages: Why I Don't Do Feminist Theory," was at that point doing what she had always been doing: important feminist work. Five years later, much of that work— "The Madwoman" and thirteen of her other most important essays—would be collected and published under the title Feminism and American Literary History.

On that lovely autumn day, there in her spacious office—she was then the Director of the School of Humanities—I asked her if she would direct my dissertation. "What's it going to be about?" she asked. "Jack Kerouac," I ventured. She looked at me. I looked at me, too. I don't remember much about the short conversation that ensued except that she insisted upon my dissertation not becoming, as she put it, "some big macho trip."

Fast-forward to a less lovely March afternoon in 1994. Though I had a full-time, albeit non-tenure-track, job at a nearby college, I was driving the same piano truck I had been driving since I had begun my Kerouac project, moving the same pianos with the same guys in the same way for the same few extra dollars. Aware that I had been recently divorced, one of those same guys, the only one not to be completing or defending a dissertation or turning one into a book and whining about each or all of those steps, asked me how things were going. I told him I was looking forward to a road trip north to deliver a paper at a conference. "What's it Page 58  |  Top of Articleabout?" he asked. "It's for AMSA, the American Men's Studies Association, and it's called "'Putting My Queer Shoulder to the Wheel"': The Beat Reinscription of Cultural and Literary Diversity."' "Hey," he cautioned me, "that sounds politically incorrect on two counts." An alumnus of the same university laboratory high school that has produced more than one Nobel Prize winner and exactly one George Will, Ken seized the opportunity. "First," he said, "you're not gay. And, second, that sounds like a deeply reactionary group." He looked at me. I looked at my hands at ten and two on the wheel.

Autobiographical hors d'oeuvres like the two served above are common enough. They entertain; they instruct. They build community; they serve as confession. In the act of baring ourselves—or getting, as Beat poet Allen Ginsberg would say, "naked"—we simultaneously proclaim our differences and reveal our similarities. If Ginsberg were to walk into an AMSA conference session and repeat his celebrated gesture of disrobing in public and those of us attending the session were to follow suit by unsuiting, we would see simple theme and variation at work. If we chose instead to sit fully clothed in a circle and tell our stories, reveal ourselves for good and bad, in all our ugly beauty, we would be practicing the same "nakedness" that Ginsberg practiced and promoted.

Aside from everything else they might bare about me, the two stories that open this essay—the first about an influential mentor who happens to be a woman, the second about a concerned friend who happens to be a man—suggest an uneasiness about the way in which I position myself in relation not just to the Beat movement that Kerouac and Ginsberg served as figure-heads, but also to the men's movement. The larger story that this essay builds is a cautionary tale about the liberation of post-WWII America from the constrictions of what Paul Goodman referred to at the time as "the Organized System." As with any American story about the human desire for self-expression in the face of conformity—or, at its most basic, life in the face of death—the identification of a primary liberator or liberating force is as historically reductive as it is culturally familiar.

Yet, if we want to write a story of cultural liberation in postwar America, culminating in the civil rights movement, the gay rights movement, the women's movement, as well as the men's movement, we would do well to begin with the Beats, who "act[ed] out a critique of the organized system that everybody in some sense agree[d] with." The Beat critique provided, according to John Tytell "the confirmation that America was suffering a collective nervous breakdown in the fifties, and that a new nervous system was a prerequisite to perception." The rewiring of America called for, as it usually does, a redefinition of what it means to be American. The Beats, to their credit, were active agents in that rewiring, no matter how sloppy the job in its early stages. This essay describes the job the Beat movement—arguably, postwar America's first men's movement—did and the bits of rewiring it left undone for later movements.

In the Beat aesthetic, the body and the word are inseparable. Among the "best minds" of Ginsberg's generation, as he announced on that most famous of Beat nights, the October 13, 1955, Six Gallery poetry reading of "Howl," were those "who howled on their knees in the subway and were dragged off the roof waving genitals and manuscripts" (line 35). "'Open form,"' he later said, "meant 'open mind."' In a short how-to called "Essentials of Spontaneous Prose," Jack Kerouac argued for the same kind of openness, a nakedness he associated with birthing imagery:

[W]rite outwards swimming in sea of language to peripheral release and exhaustion . . . Never afterthink to "improve" or defray impressions, as, the best writing is always the most painful personal wrungout tossed from cradle warm protective mind . . . always honest, . . . spontaneous, "confessional" interesting, because not "crafted."

In theory, then, "afterthinking" or "crafting" is a life-denying impulse or act. In closing form, we close minds; in discouraging diversity, we encourage dishonesty; in limiting variation, we impoverish theme; in differentiating between genitals and manuscripts or the body and the word, we weaken our creative and procreative capacity. We kill, in other words, the potential in art, in life, in our individual and communal selves when we separate the body and the word or, put differently, the material and the spiritual.

Autobiography and spontaneity, body and word, genitals and manuscripts—all of these elements are central to the Beat aesthetic. One evening in 1955, as Kerouac waited for him, Ginsberg grabbed a pencil and in twenty minutes turned an experience he had shared with Page 59  |  Top of ArticleKerouac earlier that day into a now often anthologized poem called "Sunflower Sutra." If the story is true, Ginsberg composed the poem at a rate of more than one word every other second for twelve hundred seconds. Even if the story is only partly true, the final line is a powerful example of the Beat aesthetic:

We're not our skin of grime, we're not our dread bleak dusty imageless locomotive, we're all golden sunflowers inside, blessed by our own seed & hairy naked accomplishment-bodies growing into mad black formal sunflowers in the sunset, spied on by our eyes under the shadow of the mad locomotive riverbank sunset Frisco hilly tincan evening sit-down visions.

Spontaneously composed autobiographical art as material as it is spiritual. In short, body and word.

Perhaps the strongest, clearest expression of our individual and communal need to keep body and word linked lies in our autobiographical impulse, our drive to reinvent ourselves, our "hairy naked accomplishment-bodies," with each story we tell. As both of the recent Jungian best sellers—Robert Bly's (1990) Iron John: A Book about Men and Clarissa Pinkola Esteś' (1992) Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype—demonstrate, the need to tell such stories crosses gender lines. And as the Murphy Brown episode in which a group of men struggle unsuccessfully to keep Murphy from entering their circle and seizing their talking-stick reminds us, men and women will and do cross artificially imposed gender lines regardless of interference.

Twenty-three years ago, the first hardcover textbook devoted to feminist literary criticism, Susan Koppleman Cornillon's (1972) Images of Women in Fiction: Feminist Perspectives, was published. A collection of essays, it included one by Florence Howe, who had just finished heading up the Modern Language Association's 1969-1971 Commission on Women and would soon become MLA's president. Making one of feminism's most important arguments—that no account, critical or literary, is ever disinterested—Howe called on autobiography as a starting point: "I begin with autobiography because it is there, in our consciousness about our own lives, that the connection between feminism and literature begins." It is also there—in autobiography—that masculinity and literature connect.

Certainly both of the two major publishing events in Beat history, Ginsberg's (1956) Howl and Other Poems and Kerouac's (1957) On the Road, stressed just that: that the line between life and literature is autobiography. In foregrounding "our consciousness about our own lives," the Beats walked that line, one that led naturally to what is arguably their primary cultural contribution: their interest in and promotion of diversity. Arguably the best summation of the Beats' cultural critique is the close of Ginsberg's (1956) "America":

    I'd better get right down to the job.
    It's true I don't want to join the Army or turn lathes in precision parts factories, I'm nearsighted and psychopathic anyway.
    America I'm putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.

Fearing a postwar encroachment of homogeneity, these "naked angels," as John Tytell called them, consistently celebrated heterogeneity. They sent out for instance, an early call for multiculturalism, they decried the loss of regional diversity, and they publicly approved of homosexuality long before Stonewall. Everyone's "hairy naked accomplishment-body" needed to be blessed: everyone's story needed to be reinscribed in the "hairy naked accomplishment-body" of America itself if America was to realize its own "golden sunflower" by living up to its promise as the great social experiment of modern times. The "queer shoulder" of Ginsberg's challenge began autobiographically with Ginsberg himself, a homosexual, Jewish, Russian-American child of a Socialist father and a Communist mother, and if he was not really "psychopathic," he certainly did a turn in the Columbian Presbyterian Psychiatric Institute. The less literal "shoulder" Ginsberg wanted admitted to the "wheel" was the Demonized Other, the Unassimilated American. Kerouac's primary idea of the Other was what he called the "fellaheen" (i.e., Mexicans, Native Americans, and African Americans); William Burroughs' list began with petty thieves and drug addicts.

According to Burroughs, the third of the three major Beat figures, America was in fact ready for a sea change:

Once started, the Beat movement had a momentum of its own and a world-wide impact. . . . The Beat literary movement came at exactly the right time and said something that millions of people of all nationalities all over the world were waiting to hear. You can't tell anybody anything he doesn't know already. Thealienation,therestlessness, the dissatisfaction Page 60  |  Top of Articlewere already there waiting when Kerouac pointed out the road.

Artists to my mind are the real architects of change. . . . Art exerts a profound influence on the style of life, the mode, range and direction of perception. . . . Certainly On the Road performed that function in 1957 to an extraordinary extent. There's no doubt that we're living in a freer America as a result of the Beat literary movement, which is an important part of the larger picture of cultural and political change in this country during the last forty years, when a four letter word couldn't appear on the printed page, and minority rights were ridiculous.

Women's rights were also "ridiculous," but they get no mention here. That should come as no surprise, considering Burroughs' very public stance as a misogynist. In an interview published in 1974, Burroughs blames Western dualism on the creation of women: "I think they were a basic mistake and the whole dualistic universe evolved from this error." If women are the result of a key creational error, they are also, as Burroughs adds, at the root of a national problem: "America is a matriarchal, white supremacist country. There seems to be a definite link between matriarchy and white supremacy." For Burroughs, then, woman is the Ultimate Other, both Demonized and Demonizing, for she carries with her into the universe the basic concept of difference and perpetuates it in America with her role in race relations. She is, in other words, the Other who (m)others Others, a perfect queer-shoulder machine.

But what of the Beat movement in general? Were women to be included in the roll call of Others who might conceivably put their "queer" shoulders to the wheel? Were their "hairy naked accomplishment-bodies," their stories, their body and word to be included in the rewiring of America that the Beat critique called for?

The issue of voice is a central one in Joyce Johnson's (1983/1984) Minor Characters: The Romantic Odyssey of a Woman in the Beat Generation, winner of the 1984 National Book Critics Circle Award. Kerouac's girlfriend at the time On the Road was published and a witness to the public clamor that resulted, Johnson closes Minor Characters with the image of herself at "twenty-two, with her hair hanging below her shoulders, all in black like Masha in The Seagull—black stockings, black skirt, black sweater." Johnson's happy, pleased to be seated "at the table in the exact center of the universe, that midnight place where so much is converging, the only place . . . that's alive." Johnson sees, however, that

as a female, she is not quite part of this convergence. A fact she ignores, sitting by in her excitement as the voices of the men, always the men, passionately rise and fall and their beer glasses collect and the smoke of their cigarettes rises toward the ceiling and the dead culture is surely being wakened. Merely being here, she tells herself, is enough.

And at that time, it is.

Aware of the marginalization of women in Beat culture, literary historian Michael Davidson argues that

The Beats offered a new complex set of possible roles for males that, even if they subordinated women, at least offered an alternative to the consumerist ideology of sexuality projected by the Playboy magazine stereotype of heterosexuality and to the Saturday Evening Post version of the nuclear family.

The Beats, then, offered men a way out of the organized system, and though they were guilty of replicating "square" culture's subordination of women, they offered women a way out, too. For many women, Beat culture was preferable to a life in the suburbs.

Even so, replication of this sort is especially disheartening when it occurs within a subculture that purports to be egalitarian and liberationist by nature. Consider, for instance, the goals of the bohemian occupants of Greenwich Village thirty to forty years earlier:

  1. The idea of salvation by the child . . .
  2. The idea of self-expression . . .
  3. The idea of paganism . . .
  4. The idea of living for the moment . . .
  5. The idea of liberty . . .
  6. The idea of female equality . . .
  7. The idea of psychological adjustment . . .
  8. The idea of changing place . . .

That the Beats adhered to all but one of these tenets bespeaks their bohemian roots and aspirations; that their "idea of liberty" did not extend equally to women points to their investment in square, or patriarchal, conventions. Looking back at Beat culture in a June 1989 Village Voice article, feminist writer and activist Alix Kates Shulman decries the conspicuous absence of the Emma Goldmans and Isadora Duncans of an earlier generation of bohemians: "[B]y the time the Beats were ascendant, the postwar renewal of mandatory domesticity, Page 61  |  Top of Articlesexual repression, and gender rigidity had so routed feminism that it lapsed even in bohemia."

During the height of public interest in Beats and beatniks, the place of women in Beat culture was publicized by detractors and exponents alike. In 1959, Life attacked Beat males on a number of grounds, one of which was their financial dependence on women. The year before, Playboy had also attacked the Beats. If Beat women did all the work at home and in the marketplace to support their men, they also, according to Playboy, did all the work in bed: "When the hipster makes it with a girl, he avoids admitting that he likes her. He keeps cool. He asks her to do the work, and his ambition is to think about nothing, zero, strictly from nadaville, while she plays bouncy-bouncy on him." In both versions, the Beat male offends. In the Life version, the problem is work; in the Playboy, sex. In neither case, the square nor the hip, is the Beat rebel masculine enough.

Even sympathetic accounts like Lawrence Lipton's (1959) The Holy Barbarians and Paul Goodman's (1960) Growing Up Absurd wondered aloud why women would be interested in a lifestyle that seemed so obviously to subordinate them. Lipton asked, "What are they like, these women of the beat generation pads? Where do they come from, how do they get here? And why?" Goodman suggested that the Beats might be even more exclusionist than their "square" counterparts: "What is in it for the women who accompany the Beats? The characteristic Beat culture, unlike the American standard of living, is essentially for men, indeed for very young men who are 'searching."'

The typical woman in a Beat narrative, whether a memoir or a novel, lives in the margin of a margin. Consider, for instance, the following description by Joyce Johnson, a woman who, like her famous boyfriend, wanted to be a writer. She knew that margin all too well:

The whole Beat scene had very little to do with the participation of women as artists themselves. The real communication was going on between the men, and the women were there as onlookers. Their old ladies. You kept your mouth shut, and if you were intelligent and interested in things you might pick up what you could. It was a very masculine aesthetic.

As Beat artists, the men were marginalized figures, their shoulders "queer," their status "other." As "onlookers" of the overlooked, their "old ladies" were doubly marginalized. Neither ladies nor artists in their own right, they were at that point too wild for some, not wild enough for others. The rewiring of America had begun, though, and the Beat convergence of body and word around a "table in the exact center of the universe" was instrumental in bringing "the dead culture" back to life. If the Joyce Johnsons of Beat culture suffered because they were women, they chose to do so because suburbia offered the same job without the benefits.

Like the American social experiment that can boast of many successes, so can the Beat experiment. Burroughs may be right when he claims, "There's no doubt that we're living in a freer America as a result of the Beat literary movement." Beats like Ginsberg and Kerouac certainly redefined both the wheel and the shoulder that would make it turn. But the embodied manuscripts they imagined waving seditiously from rooftops were certainly genitally male, the pen as phallus as pen, that old inky sword ripping a highly masculine signature across the body and mind of America. At their worst as a cultural agent, they suffered a failure of the imagination, reverting to old patterns. As Catharine R. Stimpson so ably puts it: "The Beats often feminized invective to scorn the fag. Such a practice is but one mark of a cultural boundary they could rarely cross: a traditional construction of the female, and of the feminine." The Beat movement was, in many ways, what Nina Baym, my dissertation director, did not want to have to deal with: "some big macho trip."

At their best, the Beats forced a national dialogue about alternative discourse and community, and, in their unofficial credo that "open form" means "open mind," they helped America realize what it already knew: that there's room at the wheel for everyone's word and hairy naked accomplishment-body, everyone's story and shoulder, regardless of whether everyone's genitals canwavelikemanuscripts from rooftops. Did the Beats realize that at the time? Apparently not, but the failure of feminism in Beat culture is the failure of feminism in 1950s' America. Twentieth-century bohemian enclaves, regardless of the decade, have always depended on what Davidson calls "elaborate pecking orders and cult loyalties", and gender has always, regardless of the enclave, produced margins into which women have had to write themselves.

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In the twentieth-century narrative of bohemian involvement in women's rights, the Beats are not well positioned historically. Without the advantage of the feminist networks and forums that had some say in European and American bohemian communities prior to World War II, the Beat project has come to constitute, for many, a movement of men for men. Though it sought to rewire America through confrontational, confessional art and liberationist politics, its shortsightedness left key bits of the job undone.

Given historical reminders like this one, can today's men's movement avoid what my piano-moving buddy Ken Stratton suspects is a reactionary impulse and remember that no account, whether literary or critical, is ever disinterested is ever free of autobiography, is ever anything but the story of someone's Other as it is simultaneously the story of everyone's shoulder positioning itself at the wheel? The men's movement, like the women's movement out of which and against which it has grown, is a set of competing—and, in some cases, hostile—practices (e.g., profeminist, mythopoetic, men's rights). Thus, it is not so much a movement as it is a narrative of competing stories, of hairy naked accomplishment-bodies born in autobiography and lived in consciousness and reinvention. The degree to which the men's movement moves at all depends upon the wheel and how many competing "queer shoulders," how much diversity, it permits and how much we have learned, or unlearned, from past movements.

Source: Stephen Davenport, "Queer Shoulders to the Wheel: Beat Movement as Men's Movement," in Journal of Men's Studies, Vol. 3, No. 4, May 1995, pp. 297-307.


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Watson, Steven, Birth of the Beat Generation: Visionaries, Rebels, and Hipsters, 1944-1960, Pantheon Books, 1995.


Charters, Ann, Kerouac, Straight Arrow Books, 1973.

This book is regarded as one of the most honest portrayals of both Kerouac and the Beats in general. Here, Charters thoroughly chronicles the life of the man that some consider "king" of the Beats. In the final section of the book, her description of a visit she made to Kerouac's home in 1966 and the condition in which she found Kerouac himself implies anything but royalty.

Evans, Mike, The Beats: From Kerouac to Kesey, an Illustrated Journey Through the Beat Generation, Running Press, 2007.

Evans's book includes over 200 photographs and book covers of the writers who defined the Beat Generation. This visual guide to the Beat Generation was published to coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Kerouac's On the Road.

Knight, Brenda, Women of the Beat Generation: The Writers, Artists, and Muses at the Heart of a Revolution, Conari Press, 1996.

This book profiles forty members of the Beat Generation who are often overlooked—the women of the movement. Although their Page 63  |  Top of Articleexploits and accomplishments are not as well publicized as those of their male counterparts are, female Beats wrote poetry, took drugs, went on the road, listened to jazz, and lived on the fringe just as the men did. This insightful book includes fascinating biographies, more than fifty rare photos, and excerpts of the original writings of Beat women.

Miles, Barry, Ginsberg: A Biography, Simon and Schuster, 1989.

Miles, a friend of Ginsberg, does an excellent job of portraying his subject as both the legendary Beat poet and as an average man in everyday life. This book provides a solid biography of Ginsberg and explores the effect of the Beat Movement on American culture and mindset and how it anticipated the more radical times of the 1960s.

Morgan, Ted, Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs, Henry Holt, 1988.

This biography of Burroughs is well written. The biographer's success derives from the thoroughness of his research that provides details on such subtopics, as a history of Los Alamos, Texas, where Burroughs attended school. Literary Outlaw provides a fair and provocative look at a Beat icon whose decadent life makes for fascinating reading.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3279300012