The Twentieth Century has witnessed several moments which have helped to shape the face of American culture. Each movement has in some way altered the way we, as Americans, think and act. One of the most influential literary movements of this century has been that of the Beat movement. The Beats were initially a small group of individuals situated in New York. The Beat writers were a small group of friends at first, and a movement later. The Beat Generation in literature consisted of a relatively small number of writers, of which Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs are the best known today.
All three met in the surroundings of Columbia University in New York City in the mid 1940’s, and they remained close friends. They encouraged each other’s individualistic writing efforts before publishers began to take their work seriously in the late 1950’s. Their purpose was to provoke, to challenge, to question the changes caused by the new technologies, to help Americans to remember that this too was once a place where men could dream of a better future. The Beats were dissatisfied with America’s blandness.
McDonalds and bigger department store chains had Americans eating, dressing and furnishing their homes the same way. The emerging television set within homes had Americans informed and entertained from one single media point. So blandAfA? A? a €sA-A,A blah! They felt a lack of purpose in life both socially and culturally, they needed a way out. They found their purpose through literature, social contacts, and freedom. The Beats had a real appreciation for their freedom and fought to expand it.
They liked the ability to pick up and go On the Road, which is the title of Jack Kerouac’s book describing his adventures hitchhiking across country. The Beats would define themselves “as poets in a land of philistines, men seeking spiritual destinies rather than material ones” They set out on journeys trying to find themselves. They set out to impact America socially and culturally, as a result they impacted the country politically. Politicians and Conservatives alike became more and more afraid of the so call “radicals” corrupting the youthAfA? A? a €sA-A,A making them think!
They shaped a vision of complete political, spiritual, and sexual liberation, and brought a new kind of realism to art, in which spontaneity and improvisation were stressed. They experienced with new writing styles, such as Kerouac’s “spontaneous prose,” and the new ways of living, experimental methods that pushed the term “freedom” to its society-burdened limit with adventures that included crime, hedonistic parties, and the brilliance of their work that made writers of the Beat generation noticeable to the public.
Everywhere they went, they celebrated the beauties of life: nature, literature, artwork, and experience. The Beat Generation cultural movement defied conventional values of the 1950’s and ignited the counterculture of the 1960’s. The Beat Generation was not a bunch of media hype like today’s “Generation X” which is supposed to encompass millions of people identified solely by age. The Beat Generation was a small group of adult writers based in New York or the San Francisco Bay Area, highly connected to the publishing and writing industry. If Generation X is like Woodstock, the Beat Generation was like a small dark tavern at two in the morning, with a bunch of old jazz musicians jamming onstage and Jack Kerouac buying rounds at the bar. ” (Levi Asher – Literary Kicks) What is Beat? The original word meant nothing more than bad or ruined or spent.
Jack Kerouac coined the term “beat”, with all it’s hipster significance, during a conversation with Herbert Hunke a junkie, prostitute, petty thug, and aspiring writer he used the expression “Man I’m beat! which meant that he was tired. Huncke used the term “beat” to describe his general feelings and outlook on life. It was at this time that young people were beginning to feel neglected, rundown, and outcasts. Jack had a field day with this expression. The kind of beatnesss is what described Kerouac and his friends; bright young Americans who’d come of age during the World War II but couldn’t fit in as clean-cut soldiers or complacent young businessmen. They were beat because they didn’t believe in straight jobs and had to struggle to survive.
They lived in dirty apartments, sold drugs and committed crimes for food money. They hitchhiked across America because they couldn’t stay still without getting bored “It’s the beat generation, it’s the beat to keep, it’s the beat of the heart, it’s being beat and down in the world and like oldtime lowdown and like in ancient civilizations the slave boatmen rowing galleys to a beat and servants spinning pottery to a beat. ” (Kerouac -AngelHeaded Hipster) The term “beat” has a second more spiritual meaning; “beatific” or sacred and holy.
Kerouac was a devout Catholic and explained many times that by describing his generation as beat he was trying to capture the secret holiness of the oppressed. The Beats were soon beat, beaten down by the government, beaten by the police, beaten down by any and all controlling establishments, including, for some time, the literary world, and the only thing Kerouac and Ginsberg and Burroughs had left was the determination to keep the beat, to listen to their hear beats, to groove to the beat of jazz that they loved, and to celebrate the true spirit of the lower class, the real Beat Generation.
The identification of the oppressed and society’s outcasts was a key to Beat writing. The Beats were intrigued by the hobos, the racially stigmatized, sexual outlaws, criminals, and drug addicts. This was because they saw these social groups as having rejected mainstream America, and they believed that a new vision of life would only emerge once the thin layer of “civilized values” was stripped away. The Beats used their poetry, literature, and other forms of art to describe what they observed daily.
It was common to find beats sitting on park benches all day with a notepad describing what they saw, in great detail, and transforming it into poetry or just relating it later to friends. Jazz at in the 50’s was seen only as black music, the Beats admired African-American’s spirituality and wanted to emulate them in their literature as much as possible. Often, Beat poetry was read while a accompanied by a jazz orchestra. They wanted to bring poetry and literature into a wider audience. It took the poet out of the bookish, academic world and forces him to compete with acrobats, singers, and midgets
Buddhism became the religion of the Beats because it most closely approximated their experience. There was no need to believe in God, heaven, hell or an afterlife. Rational thinking was their dogma. Buddhism had a clean image because it could not be blamed for creating the dark side of America. It preached peacefulness, harmony with nature and non-attachment to material goods. It’s leaders were not men in suits and ties who led million dollar religious organizations, but were monks in robes who practiced a simple lifestyle and condemned no-one.
Young people of those days really ate these ideas up because it spoke to them on a non-conformist level. There was no conformity in this religion or a guru telling what they should or should not do. Besides “Christian” America had dropped atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Which makes it even more legitimate to reject “Christian” American policies. On The Road and The Dharma Bums are books written by Jack Kerouac (King of the Beats) that portrayed characters hungry for experience and eager to discover a new vision of life.
He made the life of a writer sound exciting and, along with his Beat colleagues, helped liberate poetry from the page and take it to a more spiritual level. Jack helped make the discussion of religion hip by embracing the paradox that it was often the wretched and despised and the poor in spirit, who were most open to the things in heaven. The character Sal Paradise in On The Road, searches for soul in a world that seemed to be losing its soul. This character Sal is a disguised portrait of Kerouac himself.
The story of On The Road is an actual account of Jack and Neal Cassady’s experiences hitchhiking and traveling throughout America’s countryside. These books inspired young people of that day to search within themselves for their souls and to teach them adventures lie all in their grasp. To break the cycle of conformity and blandness that American society was going through and live their lives to the fullest extent. Most young people did that, including a young Bob Dylan, who searched within himself, and decided to write songs and created his own adventures.
Bob Dylan is an official beat. Critics abused the Beats, criticizing their openness and blaming them for the rebellious corrupt youth. The Beats were never recognized as brilliant literary figures until recently. Beatnik is a term made up by columnist Herb Caen, it is a derogatory term. It reflected the society’s attention to the Beats and the recently launched soviet satellite Sputnik. Alas, when many young people and aspiring writers were finding their souls and newly found adventures others were in it for the wild parties of marijuana and hallucinogenic drugs..
The Beat writers, especially despised the young beatniks who dressed in black, beat on bongo drums, smoked marijuana and complained about how much their parents were a drag. They were no longer following the spiritual movement that had been created for them. The Beats left their openness, their light, their freedom of expression, and their liberating soul searching to America’s communities. Their words have enriched our everyday lives and to them we must credit some of the best literary works of the 20th century. The broke the cycles of conformity and led an uprising of spiritual awareness and freedom.
After the publication of Ginsberg’s controversial poem Howl and Kerouac’s On The Road the Beat Generation was known throughout American and even the world. There was a political movement going on, a movement spurred on by a group if writers and poets who honored the lower class, rejected the mainstream, and they proclaimed their love of freedom, freedom from all constrictions regarding both their free-verse styles of writing and their unconfined way of life. The Beat Generation opened the eyes of the world to the unconventional, and, by doing so, made its mark as one of the most significant literary movements of this century.