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And they shall beat their swords into Guitars...TM

William Burroughs, Beat Writer

Beatnik Writers

The Beat Generation by Megan Feider

With such means at his disposal, the poet can enter on a career as a prophet and revolutionary, a cultist or a populist by turns. Or he can, in a more profound sense, become the person who keeps raising alternative propositions, eluding the trap of his own visions as he goes. (Jerome Rothenburg)

These revolutionary people who kept "raising alternative propositions" were the creative and suffering members of the Beat Generation. Many scholars and literary figures believe that up until the Beat era of the 1950's, poetry and social politics had frequently followed those who conformed to the standards that American society established.

From this era came extraordinary literary works from a generation of a professed bohemian writers, leading a lifestyle that raged against the economic conformity of the postwar 1950's. Rising from the epitome of a false and conformist America, they formed alternative ways of thinking and a new way of life. This group of "beat" writers, who formed in New York City, were at first few in number, but grew to have an impact on American society, especially in literature and politics, that still lasts today. Founders of this Beat Generation, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, not only started a new style of American literature but ignited the rebellion against social conformity in the 1950's through their poems of social and political criticism.

The materialistic decade of the 1950's was also a decade of conformity. The acquisition of material goods, which had been scarce in the Great Depression and during World War II, became the main focus of postwar lives. Material goods such as cars and other household items had become more affordable to middle class families and was viewed as an important addition to the suburban family.  This significant acquisition of goods was driven especially by the new way the media of television and advertising portrayed the suburban family life as the ideal.

Conformity was everywhere in America - from cars to clothes, from social behavior to politics.  Most women had one choice: conform to be a housewife and mother. During the Cold War, the United States led its allies against the communist Soviet Union. This allowed for American condemnation and even for the persecution of dissidents and social nonconformists as threats to U.S. national security. It was in this atmosphere that a group of writers came forward to declare their alienation and disgust from what they saw as the epitome of deplorable suburban conformity through their poetry and lifestyles: The Beats.

Jack Kerouac

The term "Beat Generation" was first used by poet Jack Kerouac in the late 1940's. It was while attending  Columbia University in New York City that Jack Kerouac first met Allen Ginsberg. Together they were drawn to literature and began using drugs like benzedrine and marijuana in their dormitory rooms to inspire them to create what they called a "New Vision" of art. Kerouac, born on March 12, 1922 in Lowell, Massachusetts, was attending Columbia University on a football scholarship. During the outbreak of World War II, he dropped out of school and enlisted into the U.S. Navy, only to be soon discharged as an "indifferent character" after he refused to accept Navy discipline

This "indifferent character" of Kerouac's was a perfect match for the  character of Allen Ginsberg. Born on June 3, 1926 in Newark, New Jersey, Allen Ginsberg attended Columbia University on a scholarship from the YMCA. Like Kerouac, Ginsberg's rebellious and early insecure nature got him into much trouble.  Twice he was suspended from the University. Once he was suspended for writing obscenity on a dirty dorm room window about the President of Columbia University, Nicholas Murray Butler, and the second time for letting Kerouac sleep in his dormitory room overnight. Ginsberg's temperamental emotions and his mother's depression and frequent nervous breakdowns played a large role in Ginsberg's life and became the subject of many of his infamous and revolutionary poems including "Kaddish"  and "Howl." These two poems would later prove to be some of Ginsberg's most influential poems for America ever written.

According to Kerouac, the word "beat" had various definitions and connotations for the writers such as despair over the beaten state of the individual in mass society and belief in the beatitude, or blessedness, of the natural world and in the powers of the beat of jazz music and poetry. Later in the 1950's, the term "beatnik" was referred, often despairingly, to the people who held the ideas and attitudes of the Beat writers. Scholars during this decade described the lifestyle associated with the Beats as deviant. Kerouac, seeming to be the spokesman of the Beat Generation, was piled with questions and requests to explain it. Soon, a stereotype merged in the media showing beatniks to be spaced-out, always dressed in black and pounding on bongo drums muttering gibberish as poetry); nevertheless the media had no idea of what the Beat Generation would have to offer American society and politics in the late 1950's.

William Burroughs

William Burroughs, the author of "Naked Lunch" and "Junky" was an influential beatnik writer along side Jack Kerouac. The lifestyles which the group of beatnik writers adopted were against typical suburban, conformist family life in the 1950's. Beat poets would hold poetry readings at local cafes, coffee houses or art galleries where they would read their latest revelations to other members of the beat circle. These other beat artists and poets included William Burroughs, Herbert Huncke, Neal Cassady and Carl Soloman; but this circle was still quite small in number.  The women in the beat circle which included Diane di Prima, Joan Vollmer Adams Burroughs, Carolyn Cassady, Joan Kerouac and Elise Cowen were then a large part of the Beat Generation; but ironically, were to a large extent eminently marginalized and ignored as prominent figures by journalists later on. Anne Waldman, an aspiring writer during the 1960's, wrote about the beat women: "The women of the Beat were considered the epitome of cool. They were black-stockinged hipsters, renegade artists, intellectual muses, and gypsy poets who helped change out culture forever. They were the feminist before the word was coined, and their work stands beside that of the men."

Jack Kerouac, who had many women in his life, concluded that, "The truth of the matter is we don't understand our women; we blame them and it's all our fault."  For women, nothing was more exciting than leaving behind the boredom, safety and conformity found in most of the lives of a typical American women for the life of creativity. Long before feminist movement in the 1960's and 70's, the women of the Beat Generation dared to create a life of their own.

The Beats were one of the first groups in American history to partake in casual drug use. Among the more popular of these drugs were marijuana, benzedrine, heroine and amphetamines. While some experimented with drugs, some also experimented with sexuality.  Allen Ginsberg, struggling with his own homosexuality, strived for a more open life. Being openly gay in the 1950's was not only uncommon, it was inadmissible. The lifestyles of the Beats were the most untamed,  free-spirited lifestyles that were widely unaccepted by American social standards. Jack Kerouac was one of the first beat poets to have literature on this unconventional lifestyle published and recognized nationally.

In 1951, Jack Kerouac wrote his best-known novel, "On the Road", a collection of stories about hitchhiking from coast to coast, living a "beaten" lifestyle. Published years later in 1957, the book celebrates freedom from conventional responsibilities, the emotional intensity of a life of hitchhiking, casual sex and recreational drug use. However, Kerouac retreats from these abundances, hoping to find the stability and security he needs for his writing. This novel was the start of the Beat Generation's journey into America's attention as journalists gave it much press, which for the most part was negative. Many classical and traditional literary scholars and poets disliked this "New Art" literature and lifestyle that Kerouac wrote about. Poet George Barker comically writes, in traditional British style, how he feels about Kerouac's works:
 

                Now Jack, dear Jack
                That ain't fair wages
                For laboring through
                Prose that takes ages
                Just to announce
                That Gods and Men
                Ought to study
                The Book of Zen.
                If you really think
                So low of the soul
                Why don't you write
                On a toilet roll?
                (Charters xxiii)

Hoping to expand his knowledge and circle of beat friends, Allen Ginsberg later enrolled at the University of California - Berkeley in July of 1955, where his small group of poetic friends from New York would find expansion. This new circle of friends in San Francisco included poet Gary Snyder, writer and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti, anarchist poet Kenneth Rexroth and Michael McClure among others. In early August of 1955, Ginsberg started writing a poem about his life. This poem was Howl, which gave him the courage to give up graduate school and make poetry a full-time career. Shortly after Howl  was written, Ginsberg organized a poetry reading for October 7, 1955, at the Six Gallery in San Francisco. The reading was called the "Six Poets at the Six Gallery" and was the catalyst that brought together the literary style between the East Coast and the West Coast poets. It was finally when the East met the West that America started to take the Beat literary movement seriously. Michael McClure, who was at the Six Gallery poetry reading that night expresses:

            150 people in the audience that night cheered
             on Allen Ginsberg as he came to Howl's
            conclusion.  Everyone knew that a human
            barrier had been broken, and that a human
            voice and body had been hurled against the
            harsh wall of America and its supporting
            armies and navies and academies and
            institutions and ownership systems and
            power-support bases (Charters xxi).

Poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who also attended the Six Gallery that night, sent Allen Ginsberg a telegram offering him to publish his poetry, featuring Howl  in the Pocket Poems Series, published by his new company, City Lights. Soon after, a policeman got a copy of the poem, and seized it on the grounds of obscenity. Ferlinghetti and his one employee were charged with publishing and selling an obscene book, but Ferlinghetti strongly defended Howl, saying that "it is not the poet, but what he observes which is revealed as obscene." When Judge Clayton Horn came to a verdict, he ordered a release of the book and declared it to have literary merit.  The Howl  trial in San Francisco was widely publicized, bringing in attention from around the nation and also selling thousands of more copies. America now, more than ever before, was giving its attention to the Beats and their writings.

Through their journey of social revolution, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac began their quest with one idea for America in mind: Truth. Allen Ginsberg once proclaimed,  "The original task was to widen the area of consciousness in America", and that is exactly what he did.  From the age of conformity in the 1950's, through the political and social revolutions of the 1960's and 1970's, and until Ginsberg's death in 1997, the reforming minds of the Beats established themselves in the foreground of American minds. The visions of Kerouac and Ginsberg, along with their groundbreaking poetry and principled lives, inspired other revolutionary American poets and activists for five decades.

The Beat poetry and literature that scholars once scorned are now a large part of college curricula. In 1974, Ginsberg was awarded a National Book Award  for poetry and became known as an antiestablishment media hero. Jack Kerouac, however, became severely depressed and died of alcoholism at the age of forty-seven. Nonetheless, before his death, Kerouac achieved recognition for his experimental prose style and phenomenal formulation of the beat literary movement. These accomplishments of the two original beat poets were not easily acquired. Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg were forced to overcome endless societal obstacles in order to accomplish their journey of liberation.   Although these two poets faced much criticism and even severe condemnation, they never once gave into the America that would not listen to them.

Megan is a violist and writer in 11th grade, Milwaukee, WI..

Viewpoint: - impact of the Beat Generation

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