A product of questioning
It was in America in the 1950s when a new cultural and literary movement staked its claim on the nation’s consciousness. The Beat Generation was never a large movement in terms of sheer numbers, but in influence and cultural status they were more visible than any other. Just as the postwar economic boom was taking hold, students in universities were beginning to question the rampant materialism of their society. The Beat Generation was a product of this questioning and time has proven that the cultural impact of the Beat writers was far from short-lived, as the influence of their work continues to be widespread.
In addition to their dissatisfaction with consumer culture, the Beats, as they were called, railed against the stifling prudery of their parents’ generation. The taboos against frank discussions of sexuality were seen as unhealthy and possibly damaging to the psyche. In the world of literature and art, the Beats stood in opposition to the clean, almost antiseptic formalism of the early twentieth century Modernists. They fashioned a literature that was more bold, straightforward, and expressive than anything that had come before. Underground music styles like jazz were especially evocative for Beat writers, while threatening and sinister to the establishment.
The founders of the Beat Generation met at Columbia University in the early 1940s. Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg formed the core of this initial group, and they would remain bulwarks of the Beat sensibility for years to come. Despite their anti-establishment and anti-academy pretentions, the Beats were all well-educated and generally from middle class backgrounds. It was Kerouac who coined the term “Beat Generation,” and the name stuck. William S. Burroughs was another original Beat writer, though slightly older and more experienced than his contemporaries.
If William S. Burroughs had produced nothing else of note besides Naked Lunch, he would still be considered one of the preeminent Beat writers. Perhaps more than his contemporaries, Burroughs embodied the spirit of reckless abandon for which the Beat Generation was known. The publication of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl in1956 however marks a turning point in the history of Beat literature, not to mention American literature in general. The long-form poem is intended to be read aloud, almost chanted, a sort of return to an oral tradition that had been neglected in literature for a long time.
To me it will always be Jack Kerouac who offers me a glance at how the Beats won over the world. After reading On The Road in my early twenties and having been to the USA for my first time, memories and adulation are in place. No Beat Generation novelist garnered more attention than Kerouac, and none of their personal lives were more filled with conflict, confusion and crippling depression. Eventually dying from his alcoholism, Kerouac was never happy with the position that he attained as the spokesperson for his generation. Just like Dylan a decade later almost. On The Road made him immediately famous. In a sense, Jack Kerouac was the most fragile of all the Beat Generation writers. He succumbed to the pressure of fame and attention. While Ginsberg deflected the weight of expectation, Kerouac carried it on his shoulders, and it eventually crushed him.
For this reason and for this reason only we have selected a few must-reads for every literature-head out there. Have a look at our selection and prepare to be awed!