The Beats

The members of the Beat Generation quickly developed a reputation as new bohemian hedonists, who celebrated non-conformity and spontaneous creativity.

During the 1960s, the rapidly expanding Beat culture underwent a transformation: the Beat Generation gave way to the Sixties Counterculture, which was accompanied by a shift in public terminology from “beatnik” to “hippie.”

Themes, ideas, and intentions: dedication to spontaneity, open-form composition, subjectivity, open emotion, visceral engagement in often gritty worldly experiences; in a seeming paradox, the Beats often emphasized a spiritual yearning, using concepts and imager y from Buddhism, Judaism, and Catholicism.

Beat writing is the continual challenge to the limits of free expression; the Beat writers produced a body of written work controversial both for its advocacy of non-conformity and for its non-conforming style.

Jack Kerouac introduced the phrase “Beat Generation” in 1948, generalizing from his social circle to characterize the underground, anti-conformist youth gathering in New York at that time; the name came up in conversation with the novelist John Clellon Holmes (who published an early novel about the beat generation, titled Go, in 1952, along with a manifesto of sorts in the New York Times Magazine: “This is the beat generation.”) The adjective “beat” came to the group through the underworld association with Herbert Huncke where it originally meant “tired” or “beaten down.” Kerouac expanded the meaning of the term, over time adding the paradoxical connotations of “upbeat,” “beatific,” and the musical association of being “on the beat:” the Beat Generation was on the bottom, but they were looking up. Other adjectives discussed by Holmes and Kerouac were “found” and “furtive.”

The original “Beat Generation” writers met in New York: Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, (in 1948) and later (in 1950)Gregory Corso (they are sometimes called the “New York Beats” though only Corso was from New York). Perhaps equally important were the less obviously creative members of the scene, who contributed to the writers’ intellectual environment and provided them with subject matter: There was Herbert Huncke, a drug-addict and petty thief who met Burroughs in 1946 and introduced the core members of the New York Beats to the junky life style and junky lingo, including the word “beat:” Lucien Carr, who was key to introducing many of the central figures to one another; and Hal Chase, an anthropology student from Denver, who, in 1947, introduced into the group Neal Cassady, the focus of many beat works (notably Kerouac’s On the Road). Also important were the oft-neglected women in the original circle, includingJoan Vollmer and Edie Parker. Their apartment on the upper west side of Manhattan often functioned as a salon (or as Ted Morgan puts it, a “pre-sixties commune”), and Joan Vollmer, in particular, was a serious participant in the marathon discussion-sessions.

Burroughs had an interest in experimenting with criminal behavior and gradually made contacts in the criminal underground of New York, becoming involved with dealing in stolen goods and narcotics and developing a decades-long addiction to opiates. Burroughs met Herbert Huncke, a small-time criminal and drug-addict who often hung around the Times Square area. The beats found Huncke a fascinating character. As Ginsberg put it, they were on a quest for “supreme reality”, and felt that Huncke, as a member of the underclass, had learned things that were sheltered from them in their middle-class lives.

In 1949 Ginsberg got in trouble with the law because of this association. Ginsberg let Huncke stay with him for a brief time (as referenced in the line from Howl, “who walked all night with their shoes full of blood on the showbank docks waiting for a door in the East River to open to a room full of steamheat and opium;”) Ginsberg’s apartment was subsequently packed with stolen goods. He rode with Huncke to transport these stolen goods which led to a car chase with the police. Ginsberg pleaded insanity and was briefly committed to Bellevue Hospital, where he met Carl Solomon. When committed, Carl Solomon was more eccentric than psychotic.

A fan of Antonin Artaud, he indulged in some self-consciously “crazy” behavior, e.g. throwing potato salad at a lecturer on Dadaism. Ted Morgan also mentions an incident when he stole a peanut-butter sandwich in a cafeteria and showed it to a security-guard. If not crazy when he was admitted, Solomon was arguably driven mad by the shock treatments applied at Bellevue, and this is one of the things referred to many times by Ginsberg in “Howl” (which was dedicated to Carl Solomon). After his release, Solomon became the publishing contact who agreed to publish Burroughs’ first novel Junky (1953), shortly before another episode resulted in his being committed again.

Women of the beat generation: Corso insisted that it was hard for women to get away with a Bohemian existence in that era: they were regarded as crazy, and removed from the scene by force (e.g. by being subjected to electroshock).

Potentially great women writers wound up dead or crazy. I think of the women on the Beat-scene with me in the early ’50s, where are they now? I know Barbara Moraff is a potter and does some writing in Vermont, and that’s about all I know. I know some of them ODed and some of them got nuts, and one woman that I was running around the Village with in ’53 was killed by her parents putting her in a shock-treatment-place in Pennsylvania …

The Beats often provided titles for one another’s work. Ginsberg gives Kerouac credit for the name “Howl,” even though the original manuscript Ginsberg sent to Kerouac had already been given the title “Howl for Carl Solomon.” Kerouac also provided Burroughs with the title Naked Lunch, and, according to legend, when Ginsberg asked what it meant, Kerouac said he didn’t know but they’d figure it out. Ginsberg gives some suggestions in a later poem: “On Burroughs’ Work.” He says, “A naked lunch is natural to us,/we eat reality sandwiches.”

The term “Beatnik” was coined by Herb Caen of the San Francisco Chronicle on 2 April 1958, a play on the name of the recent Russian satellite Sputnik. Caen’s coining of this term appeared to suggest that beatniks were “far out of the mainstream of society” and “possibly pro-Communist“. His column reads as follows: “…Look magazine, preparing a picture spread on S.F.’s Beat Generation (oh, no, not AGAIN!), hosted a party in a No. Beach house for 50 Beatniks, and by the time word got around the sour grapevine, over 250 bearded cats and kits were on hand, slopping up Mike Cowles’ free booze. They’re only Beat, y’know, when it comes to work …”Caen’s new term stuck and became the popular label associated with a new stereotype of men with goatees and berets playing bongos while free-spirited women wearing black leotards dance.

The beats were known for “playing it cool” (keeping a low profile) but the hippies became known for “being cool” (displaying their individuality).

Literary Legacy: Many novelists who emerged in the 1960s and 70s, many labeled postmodernists, were closely connected with older Beats and considered latter day Beats themselves, most notably Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Terry Southern’s Dr. Strangelove.

6 Responses to “The Beats”

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