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Beat Generation

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English Literature

The Beat Generation was a Postmodern literary movement that sprang up in New York in the late 1940s and lasted until the mid-1960s. Characterised by its free-flowing, collaged prose and rebellious mindset, the movement built on a few existing Modernist techniques whilst adding elements like those of jazz-inspired improvisation and Eastern mysticism.

The most well-known Beats include Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and William Burroughs.

Postmodernism is a movement that reacts against rationality, objectivity, and universal truth, which were key attributes of Modernism. It is characterised by its use of non-linear plots, metafiction, subjectivity, and the blurring of boundaries between high culture and pop culture.

Memes are often considered a Postmodern art form, even if only for their meta aspects.

The Beat Generation: Authors

The three most famous founders of the Beat Movement met in New York City in the 1940s. Allen Ginsberg attended Columbia University, while Kerouac was a Columbia dropout, and Burroughs a Harvard graduate. A fourth member, Lucien Carr, also attended Columbia and is credited with writing what some consider to be the Beat Manifesto. The movement included many other authors such as Gary Snyder, Diane Di Prima, Gregory Corso, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Carl Solomon, Carolyn Cassady, Peter Orlovsky, Neal Cassady, and Michael Mcclure.

The term 'Beat Generation' was coined in a conversation between Jack Kerouac and John Clellon Holme in 1948. Kerouac used the word 'beat' to describe his post-war generation, after hearing it used by Herbert Huncke, their group's unofficial 'underworld' guide. The term caught on after being used by Holme in the now famous 1952 New York Times Magazine article, titled 'This Is the Beat Generation'. The piece led to the mainstream use of the term and the creation of the widely popular image of a 'beatnik'. A beatnik was portrayed as a young, rebellious intellectual who wore turtle necks and had a moustache. This was not really in line with the reality of the writers and poets of the Beat Movement.

The Beat Generation: Manifesto

Before the movement's mainstream success, in the mid-1940s, Lucien Carr penned what many still regard as the Beat Manifesto. Although others claim the manifesto is the 1952 New York Times article by Holme, Carr’s version pre-dates that article and can be considered the pioneering edition.

Dubbed the 'New Vision' by Carr, the manifesto laid out the ideals that underpinned the Beat’s initial creative output.1

  • Naked self-expression is the seed of creativity.
  • The artist's consciousness is expanded by the derangement of the senses.
  • Art eludes conventional morality

Incorporating elements of Romanticism and transcendentalism, this short manifesto laid the foundations for the characteristics that defined the postmodernist Beat Generation movement.2

Romanticism is the movement that reacted against the Enlightenment. Running from roughly 1798 to 1837, the movement promoted emotion over rationality, and the spiritual over science, while praising spontaneity, the personal, and the transcendental. Key authors and poets include Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, and William Blake.

Transcendentalism is a movement that favours imagination and experience over facts and rationality. Ralph Waldo Emerson is a prominent philosopher and writer in this movement.

Beat Generation: Characteristics

Outside of recurring themes depicting the rebellion against traditional values and an interest in American and Eastern mythology, the Beat Movement was also characterised by some existing techniques such as stream of consciousness prose. Inspired by Herbert Huncke, the Romantics, and poets like Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams, they emphasised the personal, free-thinking, and spontaneous writing. Key characteristics also included an interest in jazz rhythms and the generalised rejection of academic formalism.

Do you think that the rhythm of different musical genres can be related to poetry and prose? If so, how?

Steam of consciousness

The most famous example of a stream of consciousness adaptation in a Beat Generation novel is probably Jack Kerouac's On the Road (1957). This technique is not unique to the Beat Generation, as it has been in use since Edgar Allan Poe and Leo Tolstoy, and was used extensively by Modernists like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. It is a defining characteristic of the movement though, particularly of this most famous Beat Generation novel.

Legend has it that Kerouac wrote On the Road on a typewriter using one continuous sheet of paper. Unusually, he also used stream of consciousness as a narrative technique. The novel’s autobiographical narrator, Sal Paradise, relays the story as an uninterrupted flow of ideas.

Can you see how Kerouac uses the narrator's stream of consciousness in the sentence below?

It seemed like a matter of minutes when we began rolling in the foothills before Oakland and suddenly reached a height and saw stretched out ahead of us the fabulous white city of San Francisco on her eleven mystic hills with the blue Pacific and its advancing wall of potato-patch fog beyond, and smoke and goldenness of the late afternoon of time."

Free verse

The Beats' use of free verse tied into their rebellion against the formal structures of prose and poetry. It is also linked to their intercultural appreciation of the improvisational approach of bebop jazz, another form of rebellion against classical structures.

A key example of free verse can be seen in Allen Ginsberg’s Beat poem Kaddish (1957). Written after the death of his mother, Noami, it has no rhyme scheme, irregular punctuation, and widely varying line lengths, with run-on sentences. Although it makes extensive use of many other traditional poetic devices such as repetition, overall the poem is in completely free form.

The first part of the first verse below highlights this unique approach to structure, punctuation, rhythm, and themes.

Strange now to think of you, gone without corsets & eyes, while I walk on the sunny pavement of Greenwich Village.

downtown Manhattan, clear winter noon, and I’ve been up all night, talking, talking, reading the Kaddish aloud, listening to Ray Charles blues shout blind on the phonograph

the rhythm the rhythm"

Both of these techniques link the Beat Generation’s belief in spontaneous creativity and their rejection of traditional forms and narratives.

Beat Generation: Writers

The Beat Generation is widely considered to revolve around three of its best-known authors, but included many others both before and after its breakthrough in the 1950s.

Of the founding authors, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg are considered to be the most widely read and studied. William Burroughs was the oldest member of the original group, and was perhaps the most subversive in his literary approach and life.

Jack Kerouac

Born to a French-Canadian family in Lowell, Massachusetts, on March 12 1922, Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac was the youngest of three children. He attended Columbia on a sports scholarship but dropped out after an injury.

His subsequent naval career ended with an honourable psychiatric discharge. After a run-in with the law, he went on to marry several times, while continuing to explore a life of heavy drinking and drugs.

While his first novel The Town and the City (1950) helped to earn him some recognition, it didn’t create much of a lasting impression. In contrast, Kerouac’s later autobiographical work On the Road is considered a seminal work of the Beat Generation, with its stream of consciousness approach and very personal portrayal of the human condition.

His work The Dharma Bums (1958) is the other well-known novel within his Legend of Duluoz collection. Many of Kerouac's novels including The Subterraneans (1958) and Doctor Sax (1959), are considered to be autobiographical.

Although best known for his novels, Kerouac was also a poet whose work included a collection written between 1954 and 1961, The Book of Blues (1995). His poetry has earned more criticism than praise, often because the extent of his expertise in matters related to jazz and Buddhism has been questioned.

Kerouac died at the age of 47 due to an alcohol-related illness.

Beat Generation, Writers, StudySmarter

Jack Kerouac Road, San Fransisco, wikicommons

Allen Ginsberg

Ginsberg is the most revered and prolific of the Beat poets. Born on June 3 1926, in Newark, New Jersey to an English teacher father and a Russian expatriate mother, he grew up in Paterson. He also attended Columbia University where he met Jack Kerouac and through him, William Burroughs. Fairly unusually for the time, both Ginsberg and Burroughs openly identified as homosexual and included LGBTQ+ themes in their work.

After an escape from criminal charges and some time spent in a psychiatric hospital, Ginsberg graduated from Columbia before moving to San Francisco in 1954. There he met Beat poets like Kenneth Rexroth and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who were further developing the movement.

He made his name as a Beat poet with the publication of the explicit Howl (1956). A hugely controversial work, Howl was declared obscene by the San Francisco Police. The publisher, Ferlinghetti was arrested. A judge eventually ruled that Howl was not obscene, following support for the poem by prominent literary figures during the trial. The poem is now largely regarded as canonical rather than revolutionary, although modern readings can differ in more ways than those of the original era.

Beat Generation, Author Allan Ginsberg, Studysmarter

Allen Ginsberg, Beat Generation poet, wikicommons

Although the Beat Generation movement is considered fairly apolitical, Ginsberg's poetry does have political elements that address subjects like the Vietnam War, nuclear power, the McCarthy era, and some of the more radical political figures of the time. He is also credited with coining the anti-war mantra, 'Flower Power'.

Despite his drug-fuelled early years and what were considered very nonliterary themes, he of all the Beat Generation poets rose to become part of what Richard Kostelanetz called the 'pantheon of American literature'.

Beat Generation - Key Takeaways

  • The Beat Movement began in New York in the late 1940s and lasted until the mid-1960s.

  • Four key founders of the movement are Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, and Lucien Carr.

  • The movement was inspired by the Romantic movement, transcendentalism, Bohemianism, and some elements of modernism like stream of consciousness.

  • Beat Generation authors rebelled against academic formalism, as well as the language and themes usually considered 'literary'.

  • The Beat Movement writers and poets tended to live the counterculture lives that they wrote about, with a focus on spirituality or mysticism, drugs, alcohol, music, and sexual liberation.


1 Ethen Beberness, 'Lucien Carr's New Vision', theodysseyonline.com, 2022. https://www.theodysseyonline.com/lucien-carrs-vision.

2 'What is the Beat Generation?', beatdom.com, 2022. https://www.beatdom.com.

Beat Generation

The Beat Generation rebelled against materialism and traditional literary formats, focusing instead on free flow prose, improvisation, and various forms of liberation.


Key to bridging the existing gap between academia and popular culture in the 1950s, the movement is also considered a precursor to the Hippie movement that transformed the 1960s.


Generally the Beat Generation rebelled against materialism and traditional values, as well as accepted academic structures and themes.

The Beat Manifesto included:


  • Naked self-expression is the seed of creativity.
  • The artist's consciousness is expanded by the derangement of the senses.
  • Art eludes conventional morality.

Some main characteristics can be considered to be:


  • Stream of Consciousness
  • Free Verse
  • Explicit Nonliterary Themes 
  • Improvisation
  • Spontaneous Creativity

The Beat Generation writers and poets wrote about quite a broad range of topics from:


  • Drugs
  • Sex
  • Homosexuality
  • Travel
  • War
  • Politics
  • Death
  • Greenwich Village
  • San Francisco
  • Eastern and American Religions
  • Spirituality
  • Music

Final Beat Generation Quiz

Question

Who is the most famous Beat Generation poet?

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Answer

Allan Ginsberg

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Question

Which Beat Generation writer wrote On the Road?

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Answer

Jack Kerouac.

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Question

What movements inspired the Beat Generation?

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Answer

Romantic

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Question

What is the name of the poem that Allan Ginsberg became famous for?

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Answer

Howl

Show question

Question

Who were the most famous Beat Generation founders?

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Answer

Allan Ginsberg

Show question

Question

Who wrote the Beat Manifesto?

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Answer

Lucien Carr

Show question

Question

What is a "beatnik"?

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Answer

In popular 1950s culture, a beatnik was a young, rebellious intellectual who wore a turtle necks and had a moustache.

Show question

Question

What are the three parts of the Beat Manifesto?

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Answer

  • Naked self-expression is the seed of creativity.
  • The artist's consciousness is expanded by the derangement of the senses.
  • Art eludes conventional morality

Show question

Question

What are characteristics of the Beat Generation?

Show answer

Answer

Rebellion against traditional values

Show question

Question

Why is Kaddish considered to be free verse?

Show answer

Answer

Kaddish has no rhyme scheme, uses irregular punctuation, and widely varying line lengths. It also makes extensive use of run on sentences.

Show question

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