“First Thought, Best Thought.” With this idea in mind, and a pen in hand, we see the birth and evolution of the Beat Generation.They were the men that humanized the underbelly, the poor and the drunk, the defeated. They were the predecessors of the Hippie Movement, followers of Buddhism, and above all, writers.
The Beat Generation was a literary movement born in America in the 1950s and 60s, as a result of the Second World War. The general atmosphere in society was that of positivity. With the economic boom, a majority of the citizens saw prosperity. America emerged as a superpower that was the leader of the world, international peacekeeper, and capable of facing and solving any problem. But there was another America too. It consisted of minorities and immigrants, inequality toward women and racial discrimination and the gap between the rich and poor increasing. There were norms of society, dictating what behaviour was right, what jobs respectable, what company stimulating; a drudge of school and then work, an endless cycle of the nationalized institutions of society producing mass copies of the same dull person. No one, it seemed, questioned anything, or even thought at all, for that matter.
The Beat Generation, as a counter culture movement, stood in strong opposition of this way of life. They were a group of men who met at Columbia University where some of them were studying. The main pillars of this movement were Jack Kerouac (On The Road), Allen Ginsberg (Howl) and William Burroughs (Naked Lunch). Other prominent members were Neal Cassady, Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gary Snyder.Women seem to be starkly missing in mainstream representation of the Beats, mentioned as no more than minor characters and sex objects. They were there though, and some of them were brilliant writers. These include Joyce Johnson, Carolyn Cassady, Elise Cowen and LuAnne Henderson, among others.
They were influenced by jazz, and recognised the genius of Harlem. The music inspired them, the melancholy or upbeat tunes spoke to them, and they even performed their own poetry to music backgrounds, releasing their poetry collections as music albums instead of publishing them. They experimented with drugs, believing it led to the achievement of a higher consciousness, and many of their works are written under the influence of hallucinogens. They spoke out about alternative sexualities, which was a taboo at the time. In fact, Cassady was bisexual, and Ginsberg and Burroughs were gay, but forced to take wives. Ginsberg even had to go to a mental hospital and get treatment for his “illness”. They also propagated threesomes and group sex. They didn’t stay in one place for long, going on spontaneous road trips, hikes and mountain climbs. They lived on a pittance, hitchhiking and saving money wherever possible.
They didn’t harbour material attachments, and were looking for something more; meaning and a purpose in life, for truth. There is an excerpt in Kerouac’s On The Roadthat puts things into perspective:
“the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars”
And this is what they wrote about: their lives and friends and influences and moments of awe and inspiration. Kerouac developed the ‘Spontaneous Prose’ style of writing, the characteristics of which were long, run on sentences, lack of “correct” punctuation, no meter or rhyme to govern them. They did away with the traditional form of writing. They wrote like they thought, recording raw, unedited experience on paper. Rejection and innovation seem to be the key characteristics, ‘First thought, best thought’ their motto
“Poetry is the one place where people can speak their original human mind. It is the outlet for people to say in public what is known in private.” –Allen Gisnberg
“I am so busy interviewing myself in my novels, and have been so busy writing down these self-interviews” –Jack Kerouac
The term “Beat Generation” was coined by Kerouac to describe them. He meant it as finding beauty in the supposed ugly. In one way it meant‘being beat’ or defeated, ‘beaten down’. But it also meant ‘beatific’, finding substance in this way of life. Parents did not like the growing influence they had on the youth, popular culture dismissed them as conceited, and the media ruined them. The media created an image of the “beatnik”, a person abiding by the beat ideology, sitting in coffee houses and reading poetry. But they missed, or chose to ignore, the real meaning behind their actions, the search, the thirst for meaning, their philosophy. Beatnik became a fad, a large-scale joke, an insult.
Despite this dismissal, there are people who understood what they were really about, and their influence is widespread. They popularised and redefined spoken word poetry, and introduced the new spontaneous writing style. They had a huge influence on music, vitalising Rock and Roll. The Beatles spell their name with an ‘a’ because of the Beats. Other artists their influence rubbed on were Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison (The Doors), Grateful Dead, Patti Smith, Kurt Cobain, Soft Machine and The Clash. They also helped popularise Eastern religion in the West, emphasizing on meditation. Ginsberg rallied for the legalization of marijuana and homosexuality. Their work faced obscenity trials which helped define and check censorship, especially related to art, in America.
The timeless expression of the Beats shook the country and awakened the youth.