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What Was the Beat Generation?

By Garry Crystal
Updated May 23, 2024
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The beat generation was one of the largest cultural movements of the 20th century. What started off as a literary phenomenon soon progressed to a life-changing attitude for thousands of people around the world. It embraced originality and individuality in the way people thought and acted, throwing out the old rules of literature, music, sex and religion. The effects are still felt in the world today.

Most people regard the writer Jack Kerouac as the king of the beats. It was Kerouac who coined the phrase beat, by proclaiming that his was a Beat Generation. There are a few notions available about what inspired Kerouac to use this particular phrase, but beat refers at least in part to beatific and beautiful. Kerouac and poet Allen Ginsberg, along with the writer William Burroughs, formed the nucleus of the movement — a group of people who broke the mold and changed writing forever.

Kerouac and his group scoured Times Square in New York, looking for new experiences. They sought out drugs, sex, booze, crazy people and crazy situations. Kerouac was the author of the bible of the generation, On the Road, published in 1957, the tale of two free spirits seeking adventure while riding across, and questioning, the heart of America. It was his spontaneous prose that turned the book into a breathless roller coaster ride that still inspires people.

The ethos of the movement had influence across all of the arts. It seemed as if, at the time, the young were breaking free of the old constraints. Marlon Brando and James Dean were ripping through film screens. Jazz musicians such as Charlie Parker and Dizzie Gillespie were playing their music without barriers. Lenny Bruce was questioning racism and sexuality through his comedy routines. Artists such as Jackson Pollock were exploding onto the canvas and ripping apart the Old Masters.

The beat generation was really a response to World War II, which had just ended. Questions arose about the old way of life and social rules that people were supposed to adhere to. A lot of the questions that the beats asked were greeted with court trials and the attempted banning of their material. Ginsberg’s and Burrough’s literature was subject to bans, and one of Ginsberg’s most famous poems, Howl, still cannot be played on daytime American radio.

The movement was not about questioning society, authority, and its rules just for the sake of it. As Dylan sang, the times they are a changing, and people were crying out for something new. There was a new sense of freedom after the war, and the beat generation led the way in exploring it.

By the late 1960s, the movement had all but imploded. Stick-on beatnik beards were being sold in shops, and the hippies had arrived to take on the mantle of change. Kerouac died in 1969 after disassociating himself from the beats. Ginsberg, Burroughs, Neal Cassady, Gregory Corso and many other writers and leading lights, male and female, from the era are gone.

The legacy that the beat generation gave to the world is not just found in books. On the Road is still one of the most popular books of all time, but it is the free thinking, always questioning credo that the beats will be remembered for. If one person is still questioning an unfair rule or daring to create an original thought, that is where the spirit of the generation lives on.

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Discussion Comments

By BearingNorth — On Jul 20, 2010

@ginsberg05- William S. Burroughs did, in fact, have an affair with Allen Ginsberg. When he met Joan Vollmer, it drove Ginsberg crazy and he convinced them to break up after a while. This is quite telling of the early "free love" of the Beat generation. Perhaps these writers transcended gender and the typical understand of human sexuality/attraction.

By ginsberg05 — On Jul 20, 2010

@showered 72- I thought William S. Burroughs was gay with Allen Ginsberg?

By showered72 — On Jul 20, 2010

@jsw23- Interestingly, the Beat women you mentioned were roommates at the height of the Beat movement. Joan Vollmer was actually introduced to William S. Burroughs by writer Jack Kerouac.

By jsw23 — On Jul 20, 2010

Joan Vollmer is often considered a great muse of the beat generation. She was William S. Burroughs commonlaw wife and supposedly his inspiration throughtout the time they were together.

Author of memoir You'll Be Okay, Edie Kerouac Parker, was also a pivotal female contributor to the Beat movement. Edie Kerouac Parker is depicted as Judith Smith in Jack Kerouac's novel The Town and the City.

By pistachios — On Jul 20, 2010

The Beat generation assisted in the freedom to publish uncensored for later generations. Despite the gritty ugliness often depicted in Beat writing, a spiritual yearning often based on the teachings of Eastern religions, Catholicism, and Judaism appeared in various Beat literary works. Both non-conformist attitudes and non-traditional writing styles are touchstones in the Beat movement.

By raresteak — On Jul 20, 2010

The Beat generation gave way to the hippies of the 1960s. In addition, many of the Beat principles are believed to be based upon the transcendentalist notions of Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau.

By anon125 — On Apr 15, 2007

I like how you relate the beats to today. It gave me some inspiration for my paper that I'm writing about the beat generation. Bravo.

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