"NOBODY KNOWS WHETHER WE WERE CATALYSTS OR INVENTED SOMETHING, OR JUST THE FROTH RIDING ON A WAVE OF ITS OWN. WE WERE ALL THREE, I SUPPOSE."
--Allen Ginsberg, quoted in Great Poets Howl: A Study of Allen Ginsberg's Poetry, 1943-1955
AT SAN FRANCISCO'S SIX GALLERY on October 7, 1955, Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, then 29, performed his first public reading of "Howl." A confessional rant against the nation's social establishment and Eisenhower's America, its profanity and jazz-like rhythms forged a new poetic conscience. Published the next year by Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights Pocket Poets Series, "Howl" initiated a censorship trial that not only established Ginsberg as a symbol of social and sexual defiance but also brought the Beat Generation to the forefront of public attention.
The Beat writers emerged in the late 1940s, when a group of intellectuals--among them Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and Neal Cassady--converged in the neighborhoods around Columbia University in New York City. Fast friends, they possessed countercultural leanings that led them to psychedelic drugs, jazz, literature, sexual experimentation, and spiritual enlightenment. Their bohemian lifestyles bucked the stifling social conventions of mid-century America and earned them notoriety--and fame. Kerouac described the Beats as a "generation of crazy, illuminated hipsters suddenly rising and roaming America, serious, bumming and hitchhiking everywhere, ragged, beatific, beautiful in an ugly graceful new way ... staring out the dead wall window of our civilization" (Esquire, 3/58). Ginsberg characterized the Beats as a group searching for an antidote to the materialistic postwar era.
Often collaborative, the Beat writers' literary works mirrored their nonconformist lifestyles. They transformed their conversations, letters, and experiences into a new kind of art: uncensored, improvisational writings and apologias to their generation. "Howl" led the way; a year later, Kerouac's On the Road (1957) incorporated the rhythms of bebop and jazz into spontaneous prose that reflected his generation's yearnings; Burroughs, in the banned Naked Lunch (1959), developed a "cut-up," collagelike style to describe his heroin addiction. While controversial, the work of Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Burroughs exerted a broad impact on American literary conventions, culture, and consciousness.
Although Kerouac reputedly coined the phrase "Beat Generation" in 1948 to describe his cohort of New York friends, the term grew to encompass a larger group of poets, writers, artists, and activists with similar goals. In San Francisco, writers Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Lew Welch, and others forged a new cultural renaissance. Their work, in turn, spawned countercultural icons such as Ken Kesey, who bridged the gap between the Beats of the 1950s and the counterculture of the 1960s.
JACK KEROUAC (1922-1969)
Fifty years after the publication of On the Road, Jack Kerouac remains one of the Beat Generation's central cultural icons and one of the 20th century's most important authors. Seen as the spokesman for his era, he is best known for his semiautobiographical On the Road, his generation's colorful, confessional zeitgeist.
Born in the working-class town of Lowell, Massachusetts, to French-Canadian parents, Kerouac attended a parochial school before entering Columbia University in 1939 on a football scholarship. After dropping out, he became a merchant seaman and then joined the navy, but psychiatric problems led to his discharge. When Kerouac returned to New York, he befriended a group of intellectuals that included Columbia students Allen Ginsberg and Lucien Carr, William Burroughs, and a joyful Neal Cassady. He also met Edie Parker, whom he briefly married.
Inspired by Thomas Wolfe, Kerouac published his first novel, Town and Country (1950), about life in Lowell and New York City. The novel received some critical acclaim but registered poor sales. A year later, he began On the Road, which narrated his drug-fueled, 1940s car adventures with Cassady across the United States and Mexico. In the early 1950s, Kerouac followed Ginsberg and Cassady to San Francisco, befriended Gary Snyder, and immersed himself in Buddhist philosophy. He also spent time with Ginsberg in Mexico City and Burroughs in Tangier, helping with the manuscript of the latter's Naked Lunch.
The Dharma Bums (1958), another popular success, heralded Zen Buddhism as the bohemian community's new religion. But Kerouac, who never envisioned himself as the patron saint of the Beat Generation and, in fact, was more conservative than his cohorts, returned to live with his ailing mother in Long Island. "It is not my fault that certain so-called bohemian elements have found in my writings something to hang their peculiar beatnik theories on," he said. The pressure of living up to his legendary reputation took its toll. While battling alcoholism, he married a local Lowell...