In the 1950s, post-WW2 America struggled to find itself in the midst of major societal changes. The homes that soldiers left behind were very different than the homes they returned to after the war. The women, once dainty and gentle, were stronger and self-reliant. The post-war economy boomed and materialism rapidly replaced rationing. Families gathered in front of brand new television sets to watch the idealized family life of Father Knows Best, Ozzie and Harriet and Leave It To Beaver, programs where the father was undoubtedly in charge, the mother was perfectly subservient in immaculate aprons and children knew both manners and respect. These television families epitomized contentment, a silver-lining condition that led many people to attempt to replicate the fabricated normalcy in their own homes.
Every silver lining has a cloud just as every society has an underbelly. University students began to question adherence to conventions, initially coming together as an informal underground meeting of minds then more publicly. The Beat Generation was an American cultural and literary movement that shared core beliefs that runaway capitalism has a degenerative effect on the human spirit and contradicts social equality. They railed against societal taboos and the prude nature of their parents’ generation, they experimented with hallucinogens and other drugs, drank alcohol in excess and rejected the ideas of conservative sexuality. The founders, including Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, met at Columbia University in the early 1940s. They were small group with huge influence in regards to the consciousness of the nation.
The phrase “Beat Generation” was invented by Jack Kerouac in 1948 with the initial connotation of weary as in tired of the status quo, but also incorporating a musical meaning from the relationship with jazz and further evolving into meaning beatific as spirituality was embraced.
The creative direction of the Beats was polar opposite to the pristine formalism of the early twentieth century modernists. They wrote with bold, expressive, in-your-face strokes much like the jazz music that they preferred. The establishment of the time preferred the orderly “Ozzie and Harriet” lifestyles and felt that this unrestrained expression was threatening. To many, their work crossed the boundaries into pornography and much of their work was censored to be fit for a sensitive society. We have to remember that this was an era where it was inappropriate to show a pregnant woman on TV, when chaste kisses were viewed as verging on overt passion and married television couples had separate beds. A poem that contained a swear word or referred to sex in any way was considered near sacrilege.
Beat poets believed that academia was not the sole source of creativity. They believed that even the most undereducated person had the same opportunity to create as those fortunate enough to attend universities. The Beats wanted to liberate poetry, free it from the walls of colleges and take it to the streets where life, grit and raw reality would allow words dig into both the poet and the audience, paint images as they truly were and affect change from a grass-roots level.
In 1956, Allen Ginsberg’s Howl was published by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Beat member and owner of City Lights Bookstore and City Lights Publishing. (Ferlinghetti’s San Francisco bookstore was the central hub for the Beat Generation.) The raw expressions in Howl were the catalyst for an obscenity trial which challenged the definition of pornography. When Ginsberg won the judgment in that particular case, literature was freed from threats of censorship.
Howl is an extremely long poem that Ginsberg intended to be spoken so that the reader was also the audience. The opening lines below will offer a sense of his free-form style, vivid observations and emotions.
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,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry
dynamo in the machinery of night,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,…
Click here to listen to Allen Ginsberg’s reading of Howl(Part 1). Voice gives his poem a raw power and urgency that silent reading cannot offer.
Although seen by some as a group of rebels and attention-seekers, the Beats succeeded in affecting lasting change. Poetry was released from the strictures of Modernism and censorship, freedoms that allow us to express ourselves with our unique voices today. In addition, the Beats brought environmental issues to the forefront and combined with their devotion to Eastern and Native American philosophies, laid the groundwork for modern environmental ethics.
Major Writers of the Beat Generation
Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997)
Jack Kerouac (1922-1969)
William S. Burroughs (1914-1997)
Gregory Corso (1930-2001)
Lawrence Ferlinghetti (1919-)
Neal Cassady (1926-1968)
Carl Solomon (1928-1993)
John Clellon Holmes (1926-1988)
Joyce Johnson (1935-)
Ken Kesey (1935-2001)
Richard Brautigan (1935-1984)
Gary Snyder (1930-)
Thank you for joining me for Pretzels & Bullfights. As always, my mind is overflowing with fascinating information about each writer in the Beat Generation. I’m sure you are grateful that I chose to narrow the focus to the group rather than purging every tidbit about each writer on this page. 🙂 I hope I’ve sparked an interest in this era, in the Beats, and the results of their work. Once again, thank you.