Every generation has its middle class, majority, and norm, which are decided by that era’s standards of behavior and thought. Similarly, each generation has a group that rejects these standards and rebels against the norm. In the 1950’s a group of American writers that exemplified this behavior formed. They were called the beat generation. The beat generation was particularly remarkable because although it was began by an exceptionally small group of people, its cultural influence was enormous. The beats rebelled against things like conformity and consumerism in the post World War II society. Their writing challenged both traditional American values and contemporary writing styles. Incorporating influences such as jazz, art, literature, philosophy and religion, the beat writers created a new vision of modern life and changed the way a generation of people sees the world. However, the beat generation was soon transformed from a youthful rebellion into an elaborate money making tool. The beat generation was a movement that started a cultural revolution in the United States.
Despite their small size, a group of early beat writers were able to shape an entire movement. The original group consisted of writers like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, William S. Burroughs, Gary Snyder, and Charles Bukowski. Most of the group’s members met and formed around New York City’s Greenwich Village and later came to reside in San Francisco where they gained fame. “The phrase ‘Beat Generation’ was invented by Jack Kerouac in 1948. The phrase was introduced to the general public in 1952 when Kerouac’s friend John Clkellon Holmes wrote the article, ‘This is the Beat Generation,’ for the New York Times Magazine” (Levi Asher, 2000). “The word beat had various connotations for the writers, including 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 restorative powers of the beat of jazz music and poetry” (Microsoft Encarta, 2001). Many writers in the group later renounced the term when they felt it lost its meaning. It took the beats a long time before they gained fame however. Jack Kerouac’s novel, On the Road, went through many different publishers before anyone agreed to print it. When it did come out it was heavily criticized by the press. In the 1950’s the lifestyle that On the Road explored was considered deviant. “The stereotype that emerged in the mass media was a spaced-out beatnik, dressed in black, pounding on bongo drums and muttering gibberish as poetry” (Microsoft Encarta, 2001). America’s youth, however, identified with the feelings of despair and the need for freedom expressed in their work. The beats created a revolution that began with many young people leaving their conventional lives to hitchhike around American and find themselves.
Like most subcultures, the Beat Generation rebelled against the social and cultural norms of their time. For them it was the post World War II society that they rejected. “Cultural historians point out that acquisition of consumer goods, which had been scarce during wartime, became a central feature of postwar life, driven by the mass media, advertising, and generous loan terms” (Encarta, 2001). The beats refused to be a part of the expanding consumer culture. Not only did they reject changing American values, the beats also rejected the traditional writing styles of the era. “Kerouac spoke and wrote of a ‘Spontaneous Prose’; Ginsberg described ‘poetry adapted from prose seeds, journals, scratchings, arranged by phrasing or breath groups into little short-line patterns according to ideas of measure of American speech’ ” (Allen 1973). This informal writing style made it extremely difficult to get their work published. Along with their radical writing style, the beats also incorporated jazz, philosophy, drugs and religion that went against the norm into their movement. Musicians such as Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and Dexter Gordon were considered extremely revolutionary at the time. “The Beat writers found artists who had broken away from mainstream art forms with original, spontaneous expressions that challenged their audiences emotionally and intellectually” (Encarta, 2001). The beat writers also studied a great deal of Eastern philosophy which was very rare for Americans at that time. Jack Kerouac became fascinated by Buddhism and even tried to adopt the lifestyle of a monk. Religion was an important part of the Beat Generation. The beats were particularly interested in meditation and achieving a higher consciousness. They focused on this in their writing, causing it to eventually spread to their followers as well. The use of drugs and alcohol was another way the beats rebelled against society. Through the heavy use of drugs, from marijuana to acid, the beat writers believed they could achieve a higher consciousness or a more creative mental process for writing. This also influenced the followers and increased the popularity of drugs among the youth.
When the small group of writers that began the beat subculture eventually gained the fame they had been searching for, the happiness that success brought was ephemeral. Their vision of the beat generation soon mutated into a stale tool for commercialism as most subcultures eventually do. The media embraced the beat generation, but they avoided the more controversial aspects of it. They wanted to present a non-threatening image of the subculture so that it would appeal to the general public. In 1959 MGM released a movie called the Beat Generation while Jack Kerouac appeared on many television shows. He began to represent the beat generation and his novel On the Road was thought of as a bible for followers of the movement. “As rebelliousness became more commonplace, as suburban conformity began to be replaced with a more open and unconventional lifestyle, the stark contrast which had existed between the Bohemia of the Beats and the American middle class gradually began to fade” (Gontarski 1990). This commercialization led to the downfall of the beat generation and it was soon replaced with another counterculture, the hippie movement. This new counterculture, however did adopt many views of its former and leaders of the beat generation such as Allen Ginsberg became active participants in this new rebellion. The influence of the beat generation can also be found in the philosophies of many new subcultures such as punk.
As long as there is a majority counter cultures will always exist. The beat generation was one of the many to directly challenge American values. The Beats have forever altered the nature of American consciousness. The Beat Generation of writers offered the world a new attitude. They offered a method of escape from the unimaginative world we live in, through the exploration of one’s intellect.
Allen, Donald & Tallman, Warren
Gontarski, S. E.
“The Beat Generation,” http://www.litkicks.com/BeatPages
Microsoft? Encarta? Online Encyclopedia
“Beat Generation,” Microsoft? Encarta? Online Encyclopedia 2001
http://encarta.msn.com ? 1997-2001 Microsoft Corporation