What is Beat Generation? Its Characteristics, Famous Writers

The term ‘beat’, in this restricted sense, is generally believed to have been devised by Jack Kerouac (1922-69). It bears connotations of down-beat, off-beat, down-and-out, drop-out and beatitude, and denotes a group of American writers (especially poets) who became prominent in the 1950s. They are particularly associated with San Francisco, USA, and their generally accepted father-figures Kenneth Rexroth, Henry Miller, and William Burroughs.

The Beat writers (and many of the ‘Beat generation’) developed their own and a highly idiosyncratic style. Their convictions and attitudes were unconventional, provocative, anti-intellectual, anti-hierarchical, and anti-middle-class (the ‘squares’). They were influenced by jazz, by Zen Buddhism and by American Indian and Mexican Peyote cults, and their Bohemian lifestyle was popularly associated with drugs, free’ sex, drink, and permissive living in general. It was in some respects anarchic and provoked considerable hostility.

Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems (1956) represents as well as anything the disillusionment of the beat movement with modern society, its materialism and militarism and its outmoded, stuffed-shirt, middle-class values and mores. Ginsberg’s Kaddish (1960), an elegy for his mother, and Reality Sandwiches (1963) were other important publications.

Other most famous writings of beat movement are Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Pictures of the Gone World (1955) and A Coney Island of the Mind (1958), Gregory Corso’s Gasoline (1958) and Bomb (1959), and Gary Snyder’s collection of work songs and haikus (q.v.) in Riprap (1959).

Jack Kerouac himself made memorable contributions to the Beat movement and literature with his prose works On the Road (1957), The Dharma Bums (1958), and Big Sur (1962). The novels of William Burroughs (e.g. Junkie, 1953, The Naked Lunch, 1959, Minutes to Go, 1960) and John Clellon Holmes (e.g. Go, 1952, The Horn, 1958 8) are also closely associated with the Beat movement, whose influence was to go far beyond the English-speaking world. It is discernible, for instance, in the work of the Russians Yevtushenko and Voznesensky. It created a cult and affected pop culture.