a black and white picture of young Beat poets

The Beat Generation and Its Cultural Influence on Post-war America

The Great Depression was over and the Second World War ended.  The economic and political changes had their destructive effects. To resolve their internal dilemmas, the intellectuals of the 1950s found inspiration in the literary legacy of American transcendentalism and British romanticism. In particular, the mystical visions haunting the poetry of British romantics, and transcendentalism’s emphasis on nature have left a great impact on them.  It was the Beat Generation that revisited these ideas and visions, and applied them in their works. The originators of the Beat Generation were Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg,  and William S. Burroughs. Though they were not a unified group. Rather, each writer or intellectual of this movement had their own visions. Among other beat poets we could count Diane di Prima, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Richard Brautigan, Gregory Corso and Michael McClure.

As anti-conformist and rebellious figures, the beats didn’t share the same ideology with mainstream society. Theirs was more humanistic. Thus, they were marginalized and despised by many, even in the academy. As Stephen Prothero states, “like pilgrims to Lourdes or Mecca, the beats were liminal figures who expressed their cultural marginality by living spontaneously, dressing like bums, sharing their property, celebrating nakedness and sexuality, seeking mystical awareness through drugs and meditation, acting like ‘Zen lunatics’ or holy fool” (210). Above all, with the Beat generation, a new consciousness was emerging, the effects of which would continue for a longer period.

In this blog, first, I will explore some of the beat writers and their most prominent works individually. Then, I will try to trace the influence they left on the next generations, which found voice in the 1960s countercultural movements, along with music.

a black and white image of a smoking man writing with this typwriter as the letters and words are just stretching out from the typewriter as a demonstration of cut-up technique
Credit: faena.com

Beat Generation 

To begin with, what mattered most to the beats was the process itself, rather than reaching to a certain end. That’s why one of the most prevalent themes of their works was road travel, such as Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. In addition to that, sexual and drug-based experiences given in a confessionally intimate framework were some other prevalent themes. More, laden with hallucinations, the beats reflected on their anxieties about their own generation as well as the ever-increasing institutionalization of ideas and cultures. In other words, they felt threatened by the monopolization of individuality. Therefore, their basic drive was to create a self that was anti-conformist in its nature.

Furthermore, another pushing factor for the Beat Generation was the strict literary formalism. The beats wanted to use different techniques.  Their approaches were more experimental. Burroughs, for instance, used a “cut-up” method; he would juxtapose randomly selected words in an arbitrary way. More, Kerouac used the method of stream of consciousness, which allowed the readers to penetrate the inner worlds of the characters. The reason for their chase after individual expressions also corresponded with their experimental approach to the structure itself.

Last but not least, “the beats studied gnosticism, mysticism, native American lore, Aztec and Mayan mythology, American transcendentalism, Hinduism, and especially Buddhism“(Prothero 216). All these different mythologies and religions enabled them to come up with different means to  achieve spiritual freedom. To put it differently, these were alternative philosophies which offered a way out from capitalism for the beats.

a black and white picture of Jack Kerouac in his square patterned shirt, reading a paper as sitting by his study-desk
Credit: newyorker.com

Jack Kerouac

In 1948, Jack Kerouac came up with the term “Beat” and is considered as the founder of the Beat generation. “Beat” stood up for “beautific” and also referred to a downtrodden state. Kerouac is especially known for his two novels: The Dharma Bums and On the Road. Both reflect on Kerouac’s personal experiences. While On the Road represents a hysteric soul, The Dharma Bums, as the title suggests, is more about a transcendental journey and meditation.

Kerouac’s interest in Buddhism mainly stems from his deep suffering inside and his seeking a way out with Buddhist sutras ( Prothera 217). He was not the only one who sought answers from another culture’s belief system. As a result of this sort of engagement with other cultures and religions, the beat writers endowed themselves with a saint-like status.

a black and white image of the beat poet Allen Ginsberg with his reading glasses, long curly hair and beard looking directly at the camera
Credit: gaiadergi.com

Allen Ginsberg

Along with Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg was another leading figure of this movement. Ginsberg’s writings were considered “obscene” and even despised by the academy. His works were banned for years. It was a shared destiny for the beats. Today, his most remembered poem collection is Howl. Ginsberg bases this poetry collection on his personal experiences and his own generation, and Howl comes as a big critique of mainstream culture and politics. In Ginsberg’s own words, “Howl” is an “affirmation by individual experience of God, sex, drugs and absurdity.”  Also, he considers the poems in Howl as quite religious.

In his works, Ginsberg’s call was for spirituality and to explore alternative means to transcend the material world offered by mainstream politics. He was just trying to feel something rather than consume. Additionally, he had an ongoing conflict with America and its politics, such as American military inventions in foreign countries, which found reflection in Howl. Below I share an excerpt from it where he addresses America directly:

“America, I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing.
America two dollars and twenty-seven cents January 17, 1956.
I can’t stand my own mind.
America when will we end the human war?
Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb.
I don’t feel good don’t bother me.
I won’t write my poem till I’m in my right mind.

I’m sick of your insane demands.
I haven’t read the newspapers for months, everyday somebody goes on trial for murder.

Are you going to let your emotional life be run by Time Magazine?
I’m obsessed by Time Magazine.
I read it every week.

Always telling me about responsibility. Businessmen are serious.
Movie producers are serious. Everybody’s serious but me.”

a black and white picture of William S Burroughs as he sits in his suit and tie
Credit: biography.com

William S. Burroughs

“There is no intensity of love or feeling that does not involve the risk of crippling hurt. It is a duty to take this risk, to love and feel without defense or reserve.”― William S. Burroughs

Burroughs was a 1936 Harvard graduate and had an interest in criminal life. He built phantasmagoric worlds in his novels, full of hallucinations charged with anxiety. For instance, as one of his most popular works,  Naked Lunch, perhaps Kafkaesque in its nature, contains giant bugs, and objects transforming into creatures. The novel has a non-linear structure. As mentioned before, he uses the cut-up technique, what Burroughs later calls “ fold in technique”. More, his works are thought to resemble action paintings. Even Burroughs agrees on that by saying, “ I am attempting to get beyond the limitations of the book page-left to right and down and over. ‘Action writer?’ Why not!”. In a sense, books have their own lives.

For those interested, there is an album by William S. Burroughs named Call me Burroughs released by the English bookshop in Paris in 1965. This album has audits of three novels by Burroughs: Naked Lunch, Nova Express and The Soft Machine.

a black and white image of 5 men sitting and looking directly to the camera, as the first two play bongos, most wear black sunglasses, smoking, have beards, as examples of beatnik stereotype
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“Beatniks”

It was Herb Caen of the San Francisco Chronicle who came up with the term “Beatnik” in 1958. Grounding his ideas on the Beat generation’s pro-Communist tendencies and non-conformist attitudes, he attached the name of Russian satellite Sputnik to the word “Beat” like a tail. Somehow, this term attracted so much attention that the beatnik turned into a stereotype. The media-constructed stereotypical images of beatniks wore a beret, black sunglasses, turtleneck sweaters and played bongos. Also, the “beatniks” were associated with criminal activity, nihilism and drug addictions. More, the beatniks occupied a large place in popular culture, appearing in many cartoons, TV shows and films.

a black and white image of a crowd of people protesting against the Vietnam war with affiches they are carrying in the 1960s America
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Influence of the Beat Generation: 1960s counterculture movements

Dominated by the demonstrations and protests against the mainstream government policies, the 1960s and 1970s were the years of activism. The new generation raised their voices to stop military interventions abroad, such as the Vietnam War. They were against war technology, capitalism,  materialism and discrimination based on sexual orientation  and gender.

More, named as Bohemians and hippies or hipsters, the 1960s generation tried to find alternative spiritual worlds in Buddhism and Hinduism. They were seeking individual expressions rather than becoming a part of a consuming mass society.

In short, as a result of this awakening, the Civil Rights Movement, the environmental movement,  feminist movement, and gay rights movements, along with the Free Speech Movement, started to change mainstream rhetoric.  The changing mindset, of course, was not restricted to political and social life. It also spread to music.

Beat Generation’s impact on music

The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison… Rock’n Roll and Blues…The most iconic musicians during the counterculture movement were inspired by the Beat generation. For instance, on the album cover of the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, Burrough appears right next to Marilyn Monroe along with many other celebrities.

More, as John Tytell states, Dylan was inspired by Ginsberg’s poetry because it offered a new awareness and consciousness of regenerative possibilities in America. He also adds, “That Dylan shares Ginsberg’s surrealistic imagination is evident in early recordings like ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues,’ but even more, Dylan participates in the Beat affinity for the road, the symbol of an attitude toward experience.” In the 1970s, Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg became friends too.

Last but not least, Janis Joplin’s “It’s all the same fucking day” speech discloses the Beat spirit, which emphasizes the moment we live in and pacifism. Also, as Connie Lauerman writes at the Chicago tribute, Janis Joplin, who went to San Francisco in search of the North Beach Beat scene, turns the title of a McClure poem, “Oh Lord Won’t You Buy Me a Mercedes Benz,” into a song and shares the song-writing royalty with him. 

colored image of a movie scene from Naked Lunch in which a detective-like dressed guy smoking and sitting in a bar with a monster-like creature sitting next to the man with its cigarette
Credit: mubi.com
A scene from Naked Lunch

Cinematic Adaptations

Pull My Daisy (1959)

Directed by Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie, Pull My Daisy is an adaptation of Kerouac’s play  Beat Generation. Also, the narration belongs to Jack Kerouac.  With narrative improvisation, the movie employs the cut-up technique. It stars some of the Beat poets, such as Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky and Gregory Corso. The film shares an excerpt from the real life events of the Beat icon Neal Cassady and his wife Carolyn.

As for the title of the movie, it shares the same name with the poem “Pull My Daisy” written by Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. To write this poem, the poets used the method of exquisite corpse. This means that they only saw the previous line of the poem-in-process and then added their own lines until they finished writing it. With regard to that, we can argue that the movie applies a similar attitude to the narrative aspects of Pull My Daisy.

Naked Lunch (1991)

As an example of surrealist science fiction drama, Naked Lunch is an adaptation of William S. Burrough’s novel of the same name. Directed by Canadian director David Cronenberg, it is a co-production between Canada, Britain and Japan. The plot revolves around Bill Lee, who is  an exterminator and drug addict. Embedding surreal and grotesque elements, the film operates ” a self-reflexive investigation into the mysteries of the creative process.”

Kill Your Darlings (2013)

Directed by John Krokidas, starring Daniel Radcliffe and Dane Dehaan, the film focuses on the Beat generation writers, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac. And it pays tribute to them. Love, homoeroticism, poetry, youthful anxiety, and drugs offer alternative lifestyles for these poets. The film starts with Young Allen, played by Radcliffe, as a freshman at Columbia University. And it builds upon Allen’s meeting with Lucien Carr (Dane Dehaan), who introduces Allen to the new poetry movement. The movie intertwines the biography and crime drama into each other.

On The Road (2012)

As the title already indicates, it’s an adaptation of Kerouac’s novel On the Road. Produced by Walter Salles, the film stars Kristen Stewart, Sam Riley and Garret Hedlund. Sam Riley (Sal in the movie) is Kerouac’s alter ego, and the film is about a shared journey accompanied by alcohol, jazz music and women, revealing the changing dynamics of relationships such as friendship and marriage.

Easy Rider (1969)

Produced by Fonda and directed by Hopper, the 1969 American movie Easy Rider stars Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson and Terry Southern. At the beginning of the movie, the song “Born to be wild” plays as we see two motorcycle riders enjoying their journey. Then, the story builds upon these two motorcycle riders who come to America to spend the money they earned by selling drugs. The film sheds light upon the new generation and the changing dynamics of American society. Also, towards the end of the movie, we start to get a sense of how American society approached them from different ages and vocation groups. For instance, girls at the cafe find these guys very attractive. However, the end of the movie really pulls the trigger and  discloses the problems lying at the heart of America.

a black and white image of a film scene from Easy Rider, where two men are riding their motorcycles in America's southern desolate places
Credit: filmquarterly.org

Cultural Significance of the Beat Generation

In their rebellious tone, the Beat generation intellectuals challenged the mainstream culture and politics in postwar America. Growing as an anti-voice to the ever-increasing institutionalization of norms, they formed their own style in literary works using different techniques such as the “cut-up” method and stream of consciousness. More, they inspired the next generations with their alternative life-styles, which found embodiment in the 1960s countercultural movement as well as Rock’n’ Roll and Blues.

Lastly, these countercultural movements, starting with the Beat generation, indicate that life is too short to be stuck somewhere and to be a cog in the machine or to follow a way of life already planned for you. Against all the odds, the Beat generation shows the significance of experimenting and being different and challenging the status quo for a better individualized life. For the last words, I want to end this blog with a quote from Janis Joplin: “You gotta call it love, man. That’s what it is, man. If you got it today, you won’t want it tomorrow, man, cause you don’t need it, cause as a matter of fact, as we discovered on the train, tomorrow never happens, it’s all the same fucking day, man.”

References

Prothero, Stephen. “On the Holy Road: The Beat Movement as Spiritual Protest.” The Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 84, No. 2 (Apr., 1991), pp. 205-222. 

Tytell, John. “ART AND LETTERS: The Beat Generation and the Continuing American Revolution.” The American Scholar, Vol. 42, No. 2 (Spring, 1973), pp. 308-317. 

https://www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-1999-10-24-9910240440-story.html

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