“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; angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night…” These beginning few lines from Allen Ginsberg’s famous poem, “Howl”, not only mark the beginning of a long era of social reform, but in my opinion, they define the “Beat” generation.
My three main points are going to be chronicling the influences of the best generation, explaining who the “Godfather Beats” were, and explain their effects on the coming generations and writing today.
Before their accomplishments, the Beats were once our age, pursuing their educations and full of curiosity. They grew up in a time much different than ours, however. In the late 1930s and ‘40s, World War Two was causing a baby boom on our home soil, and many families were grieving their dead relatives. The war caused many fathers to try and rule their homes in a stricter way, and an emphasis was placed on being a good citizen and serving your country. This pressure from Uncle Sam, the changing economy, and the widespread inequality seen in America, drove a select group of people to express their growing discomfort with society. An important fact to note is that this is what the term “beat” meant in the phrase “beat writer.” Simply put, beat writing is translated as “writing what you know” (Morgan, 27). For this specific generation, this meant the act of writing what you experience in attempt to expose social conditions, and that’s exactly what these writers did.
Now that you know a couple of the reasons for the rise of this “Beat generation,” it’s important to look at the lives of what several historians have deemed “The Godfather Beats”: Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs. The fight over who the most important Beat was has been in debate since the decade. Ginsberg was quoted to have said Kerouac was his greatest inspiration as a writer, Kerouac once said that Burroughs was such an interesting character that he couldn’t stop writing, and Burroughs claimed that the youth of Kerouac and Ginsberg caused him to start a successful writing career.
Most of you would probably know Jack Kerouac best for his novel, On the Road. In this novel, he comes to terms with many of his life’s downfalls. His older brother died when Kerouac was just a child and his father was an angry alcoholic, so Kerouac was driven to create stories from a very young age. As his Massachusetts hometown began to suffer economically and his father’s business went under, a young Jack Kerouac dropped out of Columbia University. He went into the Marine Corps and actually sailed with them. When he wasn’t with the Corps, he was hanging around New York with a crowd that his parents disapproved of: Ginsberg and Burroughs. So, obviously Kerouac was being pressured from two sides and he tried to be two different people. He was balancing wild city life with his old-world family’s values. Kerouac would keep all of his stories in a briefcase, and while he wrote very frequently and ended up with a great deal of material, he was never published until seven years into his writing career. When On the Road was finally published in 1957, it was widely praised, with many critics stating that “he necessarily captures the steps his generation was taking towards spiritual realization” (Newhouse, 103).
In spite of this success, however, Kerouac was having trouble dealing with his fame. While his friends were embracing Buddhism, Kerouac wasn’t comfortable with any religion, and he developed severe alcoholism due to his childhood and adult confusion. Ginsberg and his friends began to view him as severely unstable and Kerouac retreated to his childhood home to take care of his mother after his father’s death. During these times, he preferred games of darts while drinking cheap jugs of wine in his basement. Even though Kerouac often fell in love, he suffered three failed marriages and died at age 47 due to liver failure.
Allen Ginsberg, the author the poet that I began with, was deemed “Heart of the Beats” by many, although as I said, he’s claimed that Kerouac was his inspiration. From a young age, Ginsberg strived to be like his hero Walt Whitman. This is to say that he pursued a romantic style in his writing that both showcased social commentary and expressed the severe desire for acceptance from a dramatically changing world that often connected with the entirety of the Beats. While Kerouac was reluctant to speak out on behalf of the Beats, Ginsberg would often make public commentary and protest in the several marches around the San Francisco area. In writing “Howl”, the poet wanted to show that everyone was “America” in a sense; that his wild generation and the strict previous era could live in a peaceful harmony instead of in the terrible atrocities that he exposed in his poetry. Ginsberg dealt with racism, sexism, and homophobia in a fight against oppression and in pursuit of equality. He wanted everyone to fully realize themselves and tread their own path to happiness instead of the one the world laid out for them.
He had a lifelong obsession with the first amendment and the several issues that surrounded the freedom of speech and also of press. When he finished “Howl” he was subject to many trials in court as to whether or not the poem should be published. It featured consistent use of slang and profanities, as well as sexual language and phrases that the public often found hard to understand. But that was Ginsberg’s intent, to showcase the voice of his generation. The people presiding over the court were generally much older than Ginsberg, and his attorney had trouble defending the poem’s content. However, when much of the jury realized that these doubts they were having came down to a disagreement with the freedom of speech, nearly all of the claims were dropped and the poem was published to an eager population. It’s very interesting to note that Ginsberg travelled to every continent and each state during his life. These travels both contributed to his influence in America, as well as the development of his second most famous poem, “America.” The brilliance of Ginsberg lived on even after his death in 1997 due to liver cancer.
The third of the Beat trio, William S. Burroughs, was the grandson of the founder of the Burroughs Adding Machine company. This organization evolved into the Burroughs Company, which worked with computers and still exists as a branch under Uni-Sys today. Burroughs loved to read and also had an obsession with guns and crime. It was said that if there was a rule to break, he generally broke it. His parents died while he was still in grade school, and he responded by refusing to fit into normal society. He became a heroin addict quite intentionally and slunk into the lifestyle of a prototypical drifter. However, even though he strived to battle society’s pressure, he actually graduated high school and attended Columbia University with Ginsberg and Kerouac. As he was born in 1914, he was much older than them but he was inspired by their sense of freedom. Burroughs first attempt at writing was “Junky,” a heroin-laced autobiography which Ginsberg later arranged and released for publishing.
By the time that “Junky” was published, Burroughs was already in East Texas trying to make a living as a farmer with two other drug addicts. He grew oranges, cotton, and marijuana, as well as gave a horrible attempt at raising two children in that environment. Eventually, he fled Mexico with his wife and children as the police were pursuing him on drug charges. Just listen to this next fact. In Mexico, Burroughs would commit a horrible crime. While he and his wife were in the midst of a heroin binge, Burroughs tried to pull a William Tell act on his wife. For those of you who don’t know, William Tell was the one who supposedly successfully shot an apple of a man’s head. Needless to say, in his drug-addled stumble, Burroughs shot his wife between the eyes. After this devastating event, Burroughs left to Tangier and only returned once to the United States to make contact with Ginsberg again. During this return, Kerouac and Ginsberg discovered Burroughs had written several stories in his delusional time away. The pair worked tirelessly to edit and arrange these stories for a release they would later call “Naked Lunch.” “Naked Lunch” is still Burroughs biggest claim to fame, and there was actually a movie made from it, directed by David Cronenberg (probably most famous for Eastern Promises and The Fly). In the final years of his life, Burroughs lived in London and actually recorded an album with Kurt Cobain called “The Priest They Called Him.” (Tytell, 97) It’s ironic that Burroughs lived to be the oldest of the Beats, dying at age 92 outside London.
So now that you know who they were and a little bit about them, and now I want to explain their effect on further generations and myself. One of the biggest effects that the Beats had of course was the social revolution in the 60s and 70s. In my opinion, the Beats caused the hippie generation and the social reform that brought about racial protests and social recognition of several human rights. They ignited the careers for a couple more writers as well. Hunter S. Thompson, probably best known for his novel and subsequent film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, took great inspiration from Kerouac and Burroughs both. When he wrote Fear and Loathing, he and his artist, Ralph Steadman, were mimicking the idea that Kerouac spearheaded in On the Road: a cross country drive and furthermore a journaling of that drive. Thompson took his theories on drugs from Burroughs and became known as the Gonzo journalist. The term Gonzo refers to Thompson’s method of constantly being under the influence of one drug or another to do his reporting. A contemporary of his, Ken Kesey, was similar in drug theory. Kesey’s probably best known for his book One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but he was also Timothy Leary’s most-willing participant in the first LSD tests. Kesey advocated the use of LSD as Ginsberg and Thompson would also advocate later.
For me though, the biggest accomplishment that the Beat generation made wasn’t the drug-addled journalism that they fathered but the style of writing. “Beat” writing is very near to me because I have been a writer and editor for the Beacon going on three full years. Kerouac’s understanding, Ginsberg’s commentary, and Burroughs vision of freedom, all collectively donate to the spirit of writing in today’s society. Not only have their books inspired me to publish, but their movements, especially that of Ginsberg, made college publications like this possible. It used to be that there wasn’t a voice for the younger generation. Now, America is publishing these voices in just about every college and university in the States. I owe them a great deal of thanks for doing what they did.
So, may I end by saying that the Beats were raised in a changing world. As they dealt with the end of World War 2, they were faced with several choices about whether or not to conform to society. They chose to go against the grain and promote self-discovery. Not only did they father a literary movement, but their generation and generations to come. To end with a quote from J.D. Salinger, “Many men have been just as troubled morally and spiritually as you are right now. Thankfully some of them kept records of their troubles. You’ll learn from them if you want to, just like someone, someday will learn something from you.”