Monday, July 28, 2014

Literary Look: The Beatnik Movement- A Beat Generation

Here is the first installment in a reoccurring post series I hope to make. I am attending college to obtain a degree in secondary English education, as some of you may know, so naturally I love literature as an art and a subject to study in addition to reading for fun. I am very fascinated by literary movements and how authors seem to feed off of the energy created by other authors and artists of different mediums to create a movement.
 I am currently reading Jack Kerouac's On the Road which is probably the defining book of the literary movement known as the Beatniks or the Beat generation, so I thought I would cover this movement for my first literary look post. Of course I can't cover everything about this movement,( I would love to, but I don't want to bore you, or be up all night typing) so I will just cover the highlights and offer you some suggested reading from the movement.

Quick Overview 
The Beat movement occurred in the U.S. in the 1950's. The generation that was coming of age and entering early adulthood in this time were greatly affected by WWII and the mass destruction the world had witnessed. Many authors and artists in the Beat movement served during the war. The term 'beat' was given to this generation by some of those usually seen as the original members of the group, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Kerouac described his generation as being furtive, exhausted, and down-and-out, or beat, and so the name stuck. My Penguin The Portable Beat Reader, 1992, classifies the Beat generation as,
" ...A cultural revolution in progress, made by post WWII generation of disaffiliated
young people coming of age into a Cold War world without spiritual values
they could honor. Instead of obeying authority and conforming to traditional
middle class materialistic aspirations, these young people dealt as best
they could with their will to believe, even in the face of an inability
to do so in conventional terms." (pg xx)

Major Contributors and Works 

Jack Kerouac 
Kerouac belongs to group that has been called the nucleolus of the Beat generation. He met the other members at Columbia University before he dropped out. Kerouac's most well-known novels belong to his "Legend of Duluoz" series which is a semi-autobiographical series of his life. His name and the other beatnik writers names are changed in each book as to protect them, but the stories are mostly true. The most well known of Kerouac's works are On The Road, The Dharma Bums, and The Subterraneans.  
On the Road is a great place to start with Kerouac and the Beat generation in general. Just watch which version you buy of this book. The original scroll version is a slightly edited version of the original draft Kerouac wrote in three weeks with no paragraph breaks. So be warned a version marked the Original Scroll will be more difficult to read. You should look up pictures of the Original Scroll, it really is something to see.

Allen Ginsberg 
Ginsberg is another "founding" member of the Beat generation. He met Kerouac and William Burroughs at Columbia University. Ginsberg was always a trouble maker and was suspended from Columbia twice. Ginsberg had a very strong fear of the atomic bomb, which was a recurring idea in his works. His best known work is his poem Howl, and Kaddish a poem in six parts which he wrote in the course of forty-eight hours under the influence of multiple drugs. Howl is also well known for the controversy that followed the poem's publication when it faced an obscenity trial, which only helped sell countless copies of the poem. Ginsberg is also well known for his activeness in the fight for equal rights for same-sex couples, as he himself was gay. 


William S. Burroughs 
After Burroughs graduated from Harvard he had a difficult time finding his own identity, and basically just got hooked on drugs. On of his friends encouraged him to write a factual book based on his experience with drugs,which has become one of his most known books, Junky; this task got him hooked on writing. In 1951 Burroughs accidentally killed his wife and basically spent the rest of his life in pursuit of various drugs. His most popular book Naked Lunch also deals with the idea of drug addictions.    


Neal Cassady
Cassady is someone you should be familiar with if you want to read the Beat works. Although Cassady didn't write much in terms of published literature, he sure did inspire a lot of it. Kerouac would write of him in many of his novels, and Cassady serves as the main focus of On the Road. Cassady lived a carefree life, never worrying about the future, or those that he has made promises to and seemed to embody many of the main ideas that pop up in Beat literature. 

Lesser Known Highlights 
Diane DiPrima's poetry
Bob Dylan's Blowin' in the Wind and The Time's They are a Changin'
Tuli Kupferberg's hilarious satirical piece 1001 Ways to Beat the Draft 
Carolyn Cassidy's (Neal Cassidy's wife) Off the Road   

Have something to add? Want to recommend me something from this era? Let me know! 


  1. Despite studying English Literature at university I never studied the Beatnik Movement (probably because the modules I chose tended to lean towards the 19th century), but while I'd heard of Beat Poetry before I had no idea there was 'Beat Prose', too - I thought it was an entirely poetic thing! Thanks for teaching me something new. :D

    I have yet to read any Kerouac, though I've been told to read The Road many times - I need to get on that!

    1. Glad you're learning something new!
      I don't think the Beat Generation is taught in a lot of classes actually. I have never read anything from this movement in a class setting. It's probably because it doesn't always appeal to the general audience. It's also a very American movement that is tied really closely with American history and you really can't talk about or understand the literary movement without knowing the historical events that surround it.
      thanks for stopping by!