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?

Jack Kerouac

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.


Allen Ginsberg

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!

Gregory Corso

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.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti

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.


Gary Snyder

A poet of meditative naturalism for outdoorsy types; see Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems


Philip Whalen,

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.