The Beats were the Nirvana of their generation: individualistic, drug-addled, and, unfortunately, sometimes held responsible for the Nickelbacks created in their wake. Beats begat beatniks, those beret-wearing, saxophone-loving hipsters who morphed into gross ’60s hippies. And now this loose collection of writers—led by Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and the much-older GHAOAT (greatest heroin addict of all-time) William S. Burroughs—is lionized with a sort of gross flattening, a sanding of rough edges into millennial exceptionalism, an exhortation to take that road trip with your bros because you’re special and deserve the Instagram posts. To quote poet Amiri Baraka, the Beat Generation was really just a whole bunch of people who came to the conclusion that society sucked. Fair enough. But what, exactly, was their deal?
Where’d they come from?
Allen Ginsberg, a Jersey kid with a crazy mom, met Jack Kerouac, a Masshole jock turned writerly rebel, through Lucien Carr, an ambitious dude with a stalker, at Columbia University in 1944. Carr took a leadership role in the group, crafting a loose manifesto called The New Vision, which laid out the stylistic ethos of the Beats: unedited self-expression, substances to expand the mind, extreme subjects to disturb the olds. In search of what Kerouac would later call the “dionysian movement in late civilization” (think all-night parties with lots of drugs and women), Carr introduced him and Ginsberg to William S. Burroughs, a figure legendary for his warped mind and debauched appetites. Originally from St. Louis like Carr, Burroughs operated in the seedy underbelly of New York City, particularly Times Square, where he spent nights practicing petty theft and acquiring drugs alongside Herbert Huncke, a poet sometimes credited as the originator of the term “Beat.”
Because it’s vague enough to mean almost anything? Beat could be your poor, your tired, your heartbeat; it could be the rhythms from that jazz they loved so much. There’s also the Catholic angle, the idea of striving for Beatific writing, which seems like the sort of convenient revisionist meaning that’s hard not to roll your eyes at.
Wasn’t there a murder or something?
Lucien Carr had what basically amounts to a former-scout-leader-turned-stalker (though some might contest that?) named David Kammerer who would not take no for an answer when the two rendezvoused in Riverside Park on August 13, 1944. In an act of both self defense and cosmic justice, Carr stabbed Kammerer to death with a Boy Scout knife, weighed his body with rocks, and, as is standard procedure with all accidental homicides, threw his corpse in the Hudson River. He went to Burroughs, who suggested he turn himself in, and then Kerouac, who helped him dispose of the weapon. Carr confessed the next morning and ended up serving two years of his 20-year sentence. The murder attained mythic status in Beat lore, most notably depicted in And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, a collaborative roman a clef written by Kerouac and Burroughs in 1945. The book remained unpublished until after Carr died in 2005. It’s also very bad.
Isn’t this mostly a West Coast thing, though?
San Francisco and its North Beach bookstore City Lights was the Beat Generation’s headquarters in the 1950s. Howl, Allen Ginsberg’s most famous work, was debuted at Six Gallery on October 7, 1955; Kerouac and his running buddy and muse Neal Cassady attended the reading, which was organized by the anarchist philosopher and Beat predecessor Kenneth Rexroth. Ginsberg was joined by Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen, two Pacific Northwest poets who developed strong Buddhist and environmentalist leanings. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, owner of City Lights, served as publisher for Howl, and Kerouac, who unleashed the generation-defining Beat Generation pinnacle On the Road in 1957, would go on to prominently feature the Bay Area in many of his subsequent novels, particularly The Dharma Bums, Big Sur, Desolation Angels and The Subterraneans.
Was Burroughs not there because he shot his wife?
Jesus. Okay, yeah, Burroughs killed his wife, Joan Vollmer, a prominent Beat figure from the New York era whose apartment hosted many soirees, in Mexico City on September 6, 1951. They were playing a game of William Tell where Burroughs attempted to shoot a balanced water jug off Vollmer’s head; he hit her face instead. Coached by his attorney, Bernabé Jurado (who eventually fled the country because of his own shooting problems), Burroughs later amended his story, claiming that he had accidentally misfired the gun while showing it off for sale. He followed his lawyer’s lead and snuck back to the United States, eventually receiving a two-year suspended sentence, which he never served.
That seems kind of no bueno.
Yep! The Beats treated women horribly. If they weren’t nurses or on the lease of a crash pad, women were generally passed around like trophies (see Kerouac vs. Cassady dick-measuring contests) or discarded in the name of free love.
Just out of curiosity, did Louis Armstrong ever drop a Beat Generation diss track?
So what did these guys actually do, anyway?
In popular imagination, the Beats often get portrayed as free-living dynamos, prolifically churning out literary works as quickly as they lived. The truth is that they hung out for a decade before publishing anything of substance. Burroughs brought his underworlds to the page in 1953 with the pulpy Junky, but didn’t cause too much of a stir until Naked Lunch hit in 1959 and spread throughout the ’60s. Kerouac claimed to have written On the Road in a three-week burst in 1951, but he edited it for years before it reached public eyes; an ode to youthful freedom, its author was 35 by the time it hit bookshelves. Allen Ginsberg’s seminal Howl arrived in 1956. There was much traveling throughout the ’50s, with prominent Beats leaving New York and San Francisco (often by ship) to explore Paris, Mexico City, India, and Tangiers, a longtime favorite of Burroughs, and the setting where, with the help of Ginsberg and Kerouac, he compiled Naked Lunch from more than 500 pages of notes.
Are they really to blame for hippies?
You could say they were precursors—especially Ginsberg, who, after a trip to India with his longtime partner Peter Orlovsky, returned with the Buddhist knowledge that imbued hippie “be-ins” with their oms and “universal love” garbage. Though the Beats were originally apolitical, the ’60s saw a deeper embrace of social justice; the movement’s focus slowly shifted from individualist expression toward collective causes like the war in Vietnam. By late 1966, Ginsberg and Snyder were leading rallies in San Francisco, promoting an uncluttered life and mind. Neal Cassady is the Beat Generation’s other major transition figure, as he graduated from cruising with Kerouac to driving the Merry Pranksters, led by Ken Kesey, across the country in their bus named Further, an iconic journey depicted by Tom Wolfe in his 1968 book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.
And what about drugs?
The Beats had a ‘try and you probably won’t die’ mentality regarding drug use, which, in the context of American history, is kind of revolutionary? They went from coffeeshop residencies to all-nighters fueled by marijuana and amphetamines to LSD and experimental hallucinogens like ayahuasca in the 1950s. They advocated using chemicals to expand the mind and accelerate learning.
Didn’t their work freak people out, too?
One of the lasting legacies of the Beats is that their books were so frank in their descriptions of drug use, sexuality, violence, and political control, that they ended up being in the final wave of literature to face state-sponsored censorship. Ginsberg beat an obscenity prosecution against Howl in 1957, and the much-publicized trials against Naked Lunch in Los Angeles (1962) and then Boston (1965/66), which saw both Norman Mailer and Ginsberg testify, are considered big wins for freedom of expression. The transcripts are pretty great, too.
When did they sell out?
Surprisingly late! Kerouac died in 1969, but the ’90s, which were Ginsberg and Burroughs’s final decade, represented their peak commercial moment, as Burroughs appeared in a Nike commercial, and old photographs of Kerouac and Ginsberg were used by the Gap to sell khakis.
Depressing. So what should I actually read?
Pioneer of the American autobiographical novel, the secret conservative, the hard drinker, the man on an endless spiritual quest which could only end in a hemorrhage from years of excessive alcohol consumption. Start With: On the Road, The Dharma Bums. Deep Cuts: Tristessa, The Subterraneans.
Poet father to the hippies, the social warrior, the open mind, the Walt Whitman of post-war America. Start With: Howl, Kaddish. Deep Cuts: Reality Sandwiches.
William S. Burroughs
A junkie genius, the weirdest of them all, the best American writer for maybe 20 years. Start With: Naked Lunch, Junky. Deep Cuts: The Job, Nova Express.
Aren’t there other authors?
Of course. Try these!
A New York legend, but never appreciated like the others. Try Gasoline & The Vestal Lady on Brattle.
Diane di Prima
The rare female Beat, she wrote the sex-filled memoir Memoirs of a Beatnik for cash, but it serves as a useful (and pretty intense) historical document.
Amiri Baraka, Dutchman and The Slave
His plays Dutchman and The Slave are driven by blistering racial aggression.
Her is a surreal narrative from the owner of City Lights.
John Clellon Holmes
His 1952 roman a clef Go is considered the first novel to depict the Beat Generation.
A poet of meditative naturalism for outdoorsy types; see Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems
San Francisco bohemia meets real-deal Buddhism in these warm, zen-like koans, as see The Collected Poems of Philip Whalen.
Look, whatever you do, just avoid cinematic depictions of the Beat Generation, especially adaptations of Kerouac novels or any film bearing the fingerprints of James Franco or Johnny Depp.
Carter Maness is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, NY. He tries not to tweet here.