Let’s go a little back in time. To an era that inspired so many forms of art, an era in which a few guys started something big, even without the intention of doing so. Long after my punk phase in high school, I got the urge to read the words of the Beat generation again nowadays. Perhaps I wasn’t ready to really get it back then and I’m not even sure if I get the whole thing still, but it sure is one of the most interesting group of people I’ve read about. For me, it all started with reading Jack Kerouac. His novels embodied the most interesting atmosphere of freedom. Plus, I’m quite interested in any kind of outcast.
The Beat generation is the name used for a group of American poets and authors that formed a literary movement, mainly centered in New York in the 50s. After the great depression, people, most of them being unemployed railroad workers, traveled from state to state to work daily jobs. These travels of the labor class had influences. It is the influence that established the Beat generation in the first place. In 40s, a group of students at Columbia University started having meetings including Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs who were very much affected by the idea of being on the road. They believed that literature should be real, coming from the author’s experiences and philosophy. Nothing about the Beats could have been considered “conventional” as they formed a very nonconformist group, living on the road, defying common rules in a time America was creating new norms and insisting on making them permanent and effective through media.
Nothing exists until it’s observed. The artist observes something invisible to others and puts on paper or canvas something that did not exist until they observed it.— William Burroughs
Most of them did not have the intention of having an influence on American literature, maybe except for Allen Ginsberg who wanted to make people realize more. Or, like he said in an interview: “There’s no beat generation. It’s just a bunch of guys trying to get published.”
What’s interesting is, in the never-ending eventfulness and chaos of the 20th century, these guys’ words were a celebration of life, even though it was almost a condemnation to the society and sometimes life itself. Traveling penniless, working tiring jobs, reading and writing, meditating, experimenting with drugs, loving people they weren’t supposed to love, even stealing… Just enough reasons to become “obscene”. No wonder they created great controversy. Allan Ginsberg’s Howl even had a filed suit, accusing the publisher for the obscene work but the judge ruled against this accusation. The FBI had so many files on Ginsberg that they could touch the ceiling when put on top of each other on the desk. And yet, Howl is considered one of the best examples of American literature today and one of the most popular poems of history. So don’t let their hedonism fool you.
On The Road
On The Road is one of the milestones for the underground literature, telling the adventures of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady and the people they met along the way. This book has one of the most interesting muses in history, in my opinion: Neal Cassady. The book is about writer friends traveling through America, doing whatever the hell they want. It’s written from Jack Kerouac’s point of view. What’s interesting is that out of all the characters in the book, the whole thing feels like it’s about Cassady rather than Kerouac himself. He is the muse, both for his adventures, his life on the road, and for his book.
“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.” -Jack Kerouac
Kerouac was not the only person Cassady had an influence on. He is being described as this extremely lively person (even as the adonis of Denver by Ginsberg in Howl) with an utter charisma. It’s important to recognize his influence on Ginsberg too. Ginsberg was in love with him and they had a love affair for some time but Cassady broke it off except for their occasional,on-and-off relationship that went on for 20 years. So, going through the writers’ works, it’s impossible not to get curious about Neal Cassady.
Dharma Bums was also a book with a similar tone and subject. The beats also introduced America to Zen, Buddhism and Eastern culture. They combined the meditative way of Zen with the idea of being on the road which they saw as the ultimate goal. A search for nothing. It was searching that mattered.By providing a new way of critical thinking and philosophy, they freed some part of the youth from the lie of living in the happiest place in the world, waking them up from the consumptive utopia.
“Writing at least is a silent meditation even though you’re going a hundred miles an hour.” – Kerouac
The beat generation had its many influences on music and culture. It almost directly led to the Hippie movement in the 60s. The Doors, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Janis Joplin and Pink Floyd were some of the artists that were referring to the Beats.
If you don’t want to read the books but would like to dive in to the movies about this there are 3 that I liked which were filmed in recent years:
- Howl (2010)
- Kill Your Darlings (2013)
- On The Road (2012)
P.s: The post was supposed to be specifically about Ginsberg but I got distracted too much, so here it is. Might elaborate more on Ginsberg later.