Beat Generation  

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"The Bohemianism of the 1950s is [...] hostile to civilization; it worships primitivism, instinct, energy, "blood." To the extent that it has intellectual interests at all, they run to mystical doctrines, irrationalist philosophies, and left-wing Reichianism. The only art the new Bohemians have any use for is jazz, mainly of the cool variety. Their predilection for bop language is a way of demonstrating solidarity with the primitive vitality and spontaneity they find in jazz and of expressing contempt for coherent, rational discourse which, being a product of the mind, is in their view a form of death."--"The Know-Nothing Bohemians" (1958) by Norman Podhoretz

"The Beat Hotel was a small, run-down hotel at 9 Rue Git-le-Coeur in the Latin Quarter of Paris. It gained fame through the extended 'family' of beat writers and artists who stayed there from the late 1950s to the early 1960s in a ferment of creativity." --Sholem Stein

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The Beat Generation was a literary movement started by a group of authors whose work explored and influenced American culture and politics in the post-war era. The bulk of their work was published and popularized throughout the 1950s. The central elements of Beat culture are the rejection of standard narrative values, making a spiritual quest, the exploration of American and Eastern religions, the rejection of economic materialism, explicit portrayals of the human condition, experimentation with psychedelic drugs, and sexual liberation and exploration.

Allen Ginsberg's Howl (1956), William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch (1959), and Jack Kerouac's On the Road (1957) are among the best known examples of Beat literature. Both Howl and Naked Lunch were the focus of obscenity trials that ultimately helped to liberalize publishing in the United States. The members of the Beat Generation developed a reputation as new bohemian hedonists, who celebrated nonconformity and spontaneous creativity.

The core group of Beat Generation authors — Herbert Huncke, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Lucien Carr, and Kerouac — met in 1944 in and around the Columbia University campus in New York City. Later, in the mid-1950s, the central figures, with the exception of Burroughs and Carr, ended up together in San Francisco, where they met and became friends of figures associated with the San Francisco Renaissance.

In the 1960s, elements of the expanding Beat movement were incorporated into the hippie and larger counterculture movements. Neal Cassady, as the driver for Ken Kesey's bus Furthur, was the primary bridge between these two generations. Ginsberg's work also became an integral element of early 1960s hippie culture.


Cultural context

The postwar era was a time where the dominant culture was desperate for a reassuring planned order; but there was a strong intellectual undercurrent calling for spontaneity, an end to psychological repression; a romantic desire for a more chaotic, Dionysian existence. The Beats were a manifestation of this undercurrent, but they were not the only one.

Before Jack Kerouac embraced "spontaneous prose," there were other artists pursuing self-expression by abandoning control, notably the improvisational elements in jazz music. The bop form of jazz championed by Charlie Parker and others was one of the biggest influences on many of the Beats (the horn-rimmed glasses, goatee, and beret sported by the stereotypical beatnik was derived from the fashion of trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie).

There's a close analogy between Kerouac's approach and the action paintings of Jackson Pollock and the work of other Abstract Expressionists such as Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline. Many members of the New York School of Abstract Expressionism were friends with many members of the Beat Generation and were closely tied with parallel movements such as the New York School of poetry and the Black Mountain school.

The Black Mountain school was associated with some other artists who also rejected refined control, though often with the opposite intent of suppressing the ego, and avoiding self-expression; notably, the works of the composer/writer John Cage and the paintings and "assemblages" of Robert Rauschenberg. Cage's "chance operations" approach was very similar to the "cut-up" technique that Brion Gysin developed and that William Burroughs adopted (after publishing Naked Lunch). For example, in "Minutes to Go," a collaboration of Corso, Gysin and Burroughs, was constructed by clipping phrases from newspapers, mixing them in a bowl, picking them out at random, and pasting them in a poet form. Though an even more direct parallel can be drawn with the 1920s Dadaist/Surrealist poets, such as Tristan Tzara, who recommended putting cut-up words in a bag and pulling them out randomly to create a poem.

Robert Lowell, who is credited with founding confessional poetry (a school of poetry which later included Lowell's students Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton), was reportedly inspired to become more personal and emotionally vulnerable in his poetry by interactions he had with Beats in San Francisco. This is significant because Lowell was close friends with New Critics such as Allen Tate; Lowell's transition away from the traditional forms championed by the New Critics toward the non-traditional poetry of the Beats framed a significant debate in the poetry world during the Beat Generation.


Dadaism and Surrealism had a direct impact on many of the Beats: Dadaism with its attack on the elitism of high culture and its celebration of spontaneity; Surrealism with its transformation of the Dadaist rebellion into positive social intentions and its focus on revelations from the subconscious. Both movements, in a sense, developed as a reaction to World War I, just as the Beat Generation was reacting to the environment of post-World War II America.

Carl Solomon introduced the work of Surrealist Antonin Artaud to Ginsberg. Artaud had a strong influence on many of the other Beats. The poetry of André Breton was also a direct influence (see for example Ginsberg's Kaddish.) Since Surrealism was still in many ways a vital movement in the 1950s, the Beats had interactions with many Surrealists and former Dadaists. Beat associates such as Rexroth, Ferlinghetti, and Ron Padgett were responsible for translating a lot of the poetry from French and introducing it to English-speaking audiences.

Several Beat associates, such as Ted Joans, were actual members of the Surrealist group; another example is Philip Lamantia who was close with Breton and was responsible for introducing a lot of Surrealist poetry to the other Beats. The poetry of Gregory Corso and Bob Kaufman show the clearest influence of Surrealist poetry (the dream-like images, the seemingly random juxtaposition of dissociated images, for example), though this influence can also be seen in more subtle ways in other poetry, Ginsberg's in particular. When in France the Beats met many Surrealists and former Dadaists. As the legend goes, when they met Marcel Duchamp, Ginsberg kissed his shoe and Corso cut off his tie. Many other French writers still active in the 1950s had a tremendous impact on the writing of the Beat Generation, writers such as Louis-Ferdinand Celine and Jean Genet. Older French writers rank high on the list of shared Beat influences: Apollinaire, for example. Beats also repeatedly invoke the spirit of Symbolists such as Arthur Rimbaud and Charles Baudelaire.

Romantic poets

Specific Romantic writers had a heavy influence on Beats: Gregory Corso, for example, worshiped Percy Shelley as a hero and was buried at the foot of Shelley's Grave in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome. Ginsberg mentions Shelley's Adonais at the beginning of Kaddish, and he cites it as a major influence on the composition of one of his most important poems. Michael McClure compared Ginsberg's Howl to Shelley's breakthrough poem Queen Mab. Ginsberg's most important Romantic influence was Blake, who was the subject of Ginsberg's self-defining auditory hallucination/revelation in 1948, and Ginsberg subsequently spent much of his life studying Blake. Blake was also a major influence on Michael McClure. The first conversation between McClure and Ginsberg was about Blake (McClure saw him as a revolutionary; Ginsberg saw him as a prophet). John Keats was also an influence on many of the Beats.

Of arguably equal importance to the British Romantics was what is often termed American Romanticism. Whether or not this term is accurate, many writers under this umbrella were important to the Beats: Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Herman Melville and especially Walt Whitman. Edgar Allan Poe is occasionally cited as an influence, as in the line from Howl "who studied Plotinus Poe St. John of the Cross telepathy and bop kaballah..." And, though the comparison might not seem obvious, Ginsberg even claimed Emily Dickinson was an influence on Beat poetry. The novel You Can't Win by Jack Black had a strong influence on Burroughs, as did the short stories of British author Denton Welch.


Though in ways the Beats were reacting against the tendency toward objective distancing and the focus on craft brought on by literary Modernism, (hence why the Beats are sometimes considered Postmodern) many modernist writers were major influences on the Beats: Marcel Proust, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams and H.D.. Pound was specifically important to poets such as Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, Charles Olson, and Robert Creeley. Pound was instrumental in introducing ideas of haiku and other Japanese and Chinese literary forms into Western literature. The Beats further adapted these ideas in their own work. William Carlos Williams was an influence on most of the Beats with his encouragement to speak with an American voice instead of imitating the European poetic voice and European forms. He specifically influenced Snyder, Whalen, and Welch when he came to lecture at Reed College. More importantly he personally mentored many important Beat figures: Charles Olson, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov, among others.

He published several of Ginsberg's letters to him in his epic poem Paterson and wrote an introduction to two of Ginsberg's books. And many of the Beats (Ginsberg specifically) helped promote Williams' poetry and his play Many Loves. Ferlinghetti's City Lights even published a volume of his poetry. Williams is occasionally classified as both an Imagist and an Objectivist. Kenneth Rexroth was also considered a member of the Objectivists. H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), one of the key Imagists, was another important influence on the Beats. Robert Duncan wrote a book-length study of her work. Gertrude Stein, another important modernist and a major influence on many of the Beats, was the subject of a book-length study by Lew Welch. Marcel Proust, specifically in his Remembrance of Things Past, had an influence on Kerouac's Duluoz Legend concept: a single epic/personal story in multiple volumes. Other important Kerouac influences (and by extension Beat influences) include: Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe.

Open-Form vs. Closed-Form Poetry

One way of understanding why the Beat Generation was considered radical, as well as measuring its impact on later writers, is to compare the literary establishment of the 1950s, especially as it involved poetry, with that of the 1960s to see how it had changed. Poetry in the 1950s was under the heavy influence of T. S. Eliot's often misinterpreted idea of poetry being an escape from self and the Modernist focus on objectivity. Similar to this, and perhaps an even more pervasive influence, were the ideas of the New Critics, including their conception of a poem as a perfectible object. In particular, the poetry of John Crowe Ransom and Robert Penn Warren was highly influential at this time. The focus of these poets on the formal aspects of poetry and their celebration of the short, ironic lyric led to a rise in formalist poetry and a preference for the short lyric. When the Beat poets came to prominence during this time, they were decried as sloppy libertines, and the Beat movement was characterized as at best only a passing fad which had been largely fueled by media-attention.

This antagonism between literary camps was framed by two rival anthologies. Three champions of formalist poetry, Louis Simpson, Donald Hall, and Robert Pack, were putting together an anthology of young poets called New Poets of England and America. Allen Ginsberg - who was a relentless promoter of the work of his friends and the work of those he admired - believing at the time that the Beat poets would be accepted by the literary establishment, brought Simpson, his old Columbia classmate, a packet of poetry including works by Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Robert Duncan, Ed Dorn, Robert Creeley, Philip Lamantia, Denise Levertov, Michael McClure, and Charles Olsen in hopes that these poets would be included in this new anthology. Simpson rejected every one of them. The introduction for the anthology was written by formalist hero Robert Frost. The anthology included poetry by Robert Bly, Donald Justice, James Merrill, W. S. Merwin, Howard Nemerov, Adrienne Rich, Richard Wilbur, and James Wright and many others. There is not a strict demarcation here between conservative and avant-garde poetry.

The anthology also included a number of English poets who were associated with a movement that, chronologically at least, ran parallel with the Beat Generation, the "Angry Young Men." These included poets such as Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin, and Thom Gunn. However, the anthology did set a trend for who would become poets acceptable to academia and the literary establishment. For example, Robert Lowell and W. D. Snodgrass would be seminal in the creation of what later became known as confessional poetry, which helped finally overturn the strict focus on objectivity (Lowell, according to some accounts, was inspired to write more personal poetry by Ginsberg and the Beats).

Donald Allen of Grove Press accepted many of the manuscripts Ginsberg gave him for his rival anthology The New American Poetry 1945-1960. Poets in that anthology included John Ashbery, Paul Blackburn, Ray Bremser, Gregory Corso, Robert Creeley, Ed Dorn, Kirby Doyle, Robert Duncan, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, LeRoi Jones, Jack Kerouac, Kenneth Koch, Philip Lamantia, Denise Levertov, Michael McClure, Frank O'Hara, Charles Olson, Joel Oppenheimer, Peter Orlovsky, James Schuyler, Gary Snyder, Jack Spicer, Lew Welch, Philip Whalen, John Wieners, and Jonathan Williams. Don Allen framed the debate as "Open Form" (his anthology) vs. "Closed Form" (the other anthology). Though seeing it as a rivalry is overly simplistic (for example, many poets in New Poets of England and America were not strict formalists or have since moved away from formalism), the development of U.S. poetry in the later half of the twentieth century is framed in these two anthologies.

Arguably, these poets have had equal impact on literature, and it can be said that Beat literature has changed the establishment so that academia is now more open to more radical forms of literature. For example, of the poets listed in this section, ten from New Poets of England and America and nine from The New American Poetry have been included in the Norton Anthology of American Literature. But Jack Kerouac, despite his impact on American culture and his status as an American icon, has only just been included in the 7th Edition of the Norton. Also, three poets from New Poets of England and America have served as Poets Laureate of the U.S. No Beat poet has ever served as Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress.

The "Beatnik" era

The term "Beatnik" was coined by Herb Caen of the San Francisco Chronicle on 2 April 1958, a play on the name of the recent Russian satellite Sputnik. Caen's coining of this term appeared to suggest that beatniks were (1) "far out of the mainstream of society" and (2) "possibly pro-Communist". His column reads as follows: "...Look magazine, preparing a picture spread on S.F.'s Beat Generation (oh, no, not AGAIN!), hosted a party in a No. Beach house for 50 Beatniks, and by the time word got around the sour grapevine, over 250 bearded cats and kits were on hand, slopping up Mike Cowles' free booze. They're only Beat, y'know, when it comes to work ..." Caen's new term stuck and became the popular label associated with a new stereotype of men with goatees and berets playing bongos while free-spirited women wearing black leotards dance.

An early example of playing up to the "beatnik stereotype" occurred in Vesuvio's (a bar in North Beach) which employed the artist Wally Hedrick to sit in the window dressed in full beard, turtleneck, and sandals and create improvisational drawings and paintings; by 1958 tourists to San Francisco could take bus tours to view the North Beach Beat scene. A variety of other small businesses also sprang up exploiting (and/or satirizing) the new craze. In 1959, Fred McDarrah started a "Rent-a-Beatnik" service in New York, taking out ads in The Village Voice and sending Ted Joans and friends out on calls to read poetry. The image of the beatnik appeared in many cartoons, movies, and TV shows of the time, perhaps the most famous being Bob Denver's character Maynard G. Krebs in The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. (1959-63)

While some of the original Beats embraced the beatniks, or at least found the parodies humorous (Ginsberg, for example, appreciated the parody in Pogo) others criticized the beatniks as inauthentic posers. Kerouac feared that the spiritual aspect of his message had been lost and that many were using the Beat Generation as an excuse to be senselessly wild.

But for many young people, the popular image of the beatnik was their first contact with the subject. As Glenn O'Brien put it, "Maynard was sloppy, lazy, and did not respond to the mainstream of varsity culture. Maynard was post-romantic, a dreaming realist. I didn't know what a bohemian was, but I knew one when I saw one. As a preteen, I sensed that a beatnik was what I wanted to be. Maynard G. Krebs was a satire on beatniks, but that didn't matter because beatness shone through." Beat literature and the beatnik stereotype both had an influence on high school and college students during the late 1950s and very early 1960s.

"Hippie" era

Some time during the 1960s, the rapidly expanding Beat culture underwent a transformation: the Beat Generation gave way to The Sixties Counterculture, which was accompanied by a shift in public terminology from "beatnik" to "hippie." This was in many respects a gradual transition. Many of the original Beats remained active participants, notably Allen Ginsberg, who became a fixture of the anti-war movement - though equally notably, Kerouac did not remain active on the scene: he broke with Ginsberg and criticized the 60s protest movements as "new excuses for spitefulness." According to Ed Sanders the change in the public label from beatnik to hippie happened after the 1967 Human Be-In in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park (where Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder and Michael McClure were leading the crowd in chanting "Om"). There were certainly some stylistic differences between beatniks and hippies - somber colors, dark shades, and goatees gave way to colorful psychedelic clothing and long hair. The beats were known for "playing it cool" (keeping a low profile) but the hippies became known for "being cool" (displaying their individuality).

In addition to the stylistic changes, there were some changes in substance: the beats tended to be essentially apolitical, but the hippies became actively engaged with the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement. To quote Gary Snyder in a 1974 interview:

... the next key point was Castro taking over Cuba. The apolitical quality of Beat thought changed with that. It sparked quite a discussion and quite a dialogue; many people had been basic pacifists with considerable disillusion with Marxian revolutionary rhetoric. At the time of Castro's victory, it had to be rethought again. Here was a revolution that had used violence and that was apparently a good thing. Many people abandoned the pacifist position at that time or at least began to give more thought to it. In any case, many people began to look to politics again as having possibilities. From that follows, at least on some levels, the beginning of civil rights activism, which leads through our one whole chain of events: the Movement.

We had little confidence in our power to make any long range or significant changes. That was the 50s, you see. It seemed that bleak. So that our choices seemed entirely personal existential lifetime choices that there was no guarantee that we would have any audience, or anybody would listen to us; but it was a moral decision, a moral poetic decision. Then Castro changed things, then Martin Luther King changed things ...

Connections Between Beats and "Hippies"

The Beats in general were a large influence on members of the new "counterculture", for example, in the case of Bob Dylan who became a close friend of Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg as early as 1960 became close friends with 60's icon Timothy Leary and helped him in distributing LSD to influential people (including Robert Lowell) in order to demystify drug paranoia. In 1963 Ginsberg lived in San Francisco with Neal Cassady and Charles Plymell at 1403 Gough St. Shortly after that Ginsberg connected with Ken Kesey's group who was doing LSD testing at Stanford, and Plymell, which publishing the first issue of R. Crumb's Zap Comix on his printing press a few years later then moved to Ginsberg's commune in Cherry Valley, NY in the early 1970s. (The Plymells never lived at the Farm, just visited there; although they remained in Cherry Valley.)

Cassady was the bus driver for an important early Hippie group, Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters, which included several members of the Grateful Dead. A sign of Kerouac's break with this new direction in counterculture occurred when the Merry Pranksters, with Cassady's insistence, attempted to recruit Kerouac. Kerouac angrily rejected their invitation and accused them of attempting to destroy the American culture he celebrated. In addition to the "Human Be-In," Ginsberg was also present at another important event in Hippie culture: the protest at the 1968 Democratic Convention, and was friends with Abbie Hoffman and other members of the "Chicago Seven."

Influences on Western Culture

While many authors claim to be directly influenced by the beats, the Beat Generation phenomenon itself has had a huge influence on Western Culture more broadly. In many ways, the Beats can be taken as the first subculture (here meaning a cultural subdivision on lifestyle/political grounds, rather than on any obvious difference in ethnic or religious backgrounds). During the very conformist post-World War II era they were one of the forces engaged in a questioning of traditional values which produced a break with the mainstream culture that to this day people react to – or against. The Beats produced a great deal of interest in lifestyle experimentation (notably in regards to sex and drugs); and they had a large intellectual effect in encouraging the questioning of authority (a force behind the anti-war movement); and many of them were very active in popularizing interest in Zen Buddhism in the West.

In Allen Ginsberg's A Definition of the Beat Generation: he characterized some of the essential effects of Beat Generation artistic movement as including spiritual liberation, sexual "revolution" or "liberation,"(e.g., gay liberation, somewhat catalyzing women's liberation, black liberation, Gray Panther activism); liberation of the word from censorship, and demystification and/or decriminalization of cannabis and other drugs. Ginsberg claimed that the Beat Generation began to view rock and roll as a high art form, as evidenced by the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and other popular musicians influenced in the later fifties and sixties by Beat generation poets' and writers' works. It also included the spread of ecological consciousness, emphasized early on by Gary Snyder and Michael McClure, the notion of a "Fresh Planet" and opposition to the military-industrial machine civilization, as emphasized in writings of Burroughs, Huncke, Ginsberg, and Kerouac. There was increasing respect for land and indigenous peoples and creatures, as proclaimed by Kerouac in his slogan from On the Road: "The Earth is an Indian thing." As well, Beats paid more attention to what Kerouac called (after Spengler) a "second religiousness" developing within an advanced civilization, and there was a return to an appreciation of idiosyncrasy as opposed to state regimentation.

Literary legacy

Many novelists who emerged in the 1960s and 70s, many labeled postmodernists, were closely connected with older Beats and considered latter day Beats themselves, most notably Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) and Terry Southern (Dr. Strangelove.) Other postmodern novelists, Thomas Pynchon (Gravity's Rainbow) and Tom Robbins (Even Cowgirls Get the Blues) for example, considered the Beats to be major influences though they had no direct connection. William S. Burroughs is considered by some a forefather of postmodern literature; he inspired many later postmodernists and novelists in the cyberpunk genre. Inspired by the Beat Generation's focus on free speech and egalitarianism, Amiri Baraka went on to found the Black Arts movement which focused more specifically on issues in the African American community. Other notable writers associated with this movement include Gwendolyn Brooks, Maya Angelou, and Nikki Giovanni.

Since there was such a heavy focus on live performance among the Beats, many Slam poets have been influenced by the Beats. Saul Williams, for example, cites Allen Ginsberg, Amiri Baraka, and Bob Kaufman as major influences.

The Postbeat Poets are a direct out-growth of the Beat Generation. Their association with or tutelage under Ginsberg at The Naropa University's Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics and later at Brooklyn College not only carried on the activist social justice legacy of the Beats, but also created its own body of experimental and culturally-influencing literature by Anne Waldman, Antler (poet), Andy Clausen, David Cope, Eileen Myles, Eliot Katz, Paul Beatty, Sapphire (author), Lesléa Newman, Jim Cohn, Sharon Mesmer, Randy Roark and others.

Rock and roll connections

The Beats had a large influence on rock and roll including major figures such as the Beatles, Bob Dylan and Jim Morrison. The image of the rebellious rock star is in many ways analogous to the Beat images such as Dean Moriarty in On the Road. The Beatles spelled their name with an "a" because John Lennon was a fan of Kerouac. Ginsberg later met and became friends with members of the Beatles. Paul McCartney played guitar on Ginsberg's album Ballad of the Skeletons. Ginsberg was close friends with Bob Dylan and toured with him on the Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975. Dylan cites Ginsberg and Kerouac as major influences. Jim Morrison cites Kerouac as one of his biggest influences. He also studied poetry briefly with Jack Hirschman. Michael McClure was also friends with members of The Doors, at one point touring with keyboardist Ray Manzarek. Ginsberg was friends with, and Cassady was a member of, Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters, a group that also included members of the Grateful Dead. In the 1970s, Burroughs was friends with Mick Jagger, Lou Reed, and Patti Smith. Singer-songwriter Tom Waits, a Beat fan, wrote "Jack and Neal" about Kerouac and Cassady, and recorded "On the Road" (a song written by Kerouac after finishing the novel) with Primus. He also wrote the dark, ominous music for Burroughs' theatrical work The Black Rider.

Ginsberg has worked with The Clash. Burroughs worked with Sonic Youth, R.E.M., Kurt Cobain, and Ministry, amongst others. Bono of U2 cites Burroughs as a major influence, and Burroughs appeared briefly in a U2 video. Experimental musician and performance artist Laurie Anderson featured Burroughs on her 1984 album Mister Heartbreak and in her 1986 concert film, Home of the Brave. The British progressive rock band Soft Machine is named after Burroughs' The Soft Machine. The Beats are referenced in songs by artists such as: The Beastie Boys, Rage Against the Machine, 10,000 Maniacs, They Might Be Giants, Van Morrison, The Clean, Ani Difranco, Bad Religion, and King Crimson.


One prominent critic of the Beats was Norman Podhoretz, a fellow student at Columbia who knew Ginsberg and Kerouac (some of his poetry was published by Ginsberg before their falling-out). In 1958, Partisan Review published his article "The Know-Nothing Bohemians," an attack on The Beats largely based on Kerouac's first two published books, On the Road and The Subterraneans, as well as, to a lesser extent, Ginsberg's Howl. The essay also reacts to an unidentified Norman Mailer piece (possibly "The White Negro").

The main thrust of his attack is that the Beat embrace of spontaneity is bound up in an anti-intellectual worship of the primitive directly opposed to civilization and can easily turn toward mindless violence.

Podhoretz asserted that there was a link between the beats and the delinquents:

I happen to believe that there is a direct connection between the flabbiness of American middle-class life and the spread of juvenile crime in the 1950s, but I also believe that the juvenile crime can be explained partly in terms of the same resentment against normal feeling and the attempt to cope with the world through intelligence that lies behind Kerouac and Ginsberg. Even the relatively mild ethos of Kerouac's books can spill over easily into brutality, for there is a suppressed cry in those books: Kill the intellectuals who can talk coherently, kill the people who can sit still for five minutes at a time, kill those incomprehensible characters who are capable of getting seriously involved with a woman, a job, a cause.

Podhoretz echoes the then-current characterization of delinquents as "rebels without a cause.":

The hipsters and hipster lovers of the Beat Generation are rebels, all right, but not against anything so sociological and historical as the middle class or capitalism or even respectability. This is the revolt of the spiritually underprivileged and the crippled of soul—young men who can't think straight and so hate anyone who can; [...]

The Bohemianism of the 1950s is [...] hostile to civilization; it worships primitivism, instinct, energy, "blood." To the extent that it has intellectual interests at all, they run to mystical doctrines, irrationalist philosophies, and left-wing Reichianism. The only art the new Bohemians have any use for is jazz, mainly of the cool variety. Their predilection for bop language is a way of demonstrating solidarity with the primitive vitality and spontaneity they find in jazz and of expressing contempt for coherent, rational discourse which, being a product of the mind, is in their view a form of death.

According to Podhoretz, Kerouac's anti-intellectualism was shown by his impoverished vocabulary:

Kerouac, however, manages to remain true to the spirit of hipster slang while making forays into enemy territory (i.e., the English language) by his simple inability to express anything in words. The only method he has of describing an object is to summon up the same half-dozen adjectives over and over again: "greatest," "tremendous," "crazy," "mad," "wild," and perhaps one or two others. When it's more than just mad or crazy or wild, it becomes "really mad" or "really crazy" or "really wild." (All quantities in excess of three, incidentally, are subsumed under the rubric "innumerable," a word used innumerable times in On the Road but not so innumerably in The Subterraneans.)

Podhoretz also criticizes Kerouac's racial attitudes:

[...] Kerouac's love for Negroes and other dark-skinned groups is tied up with his worship of primitivism, not with any radical social attitudes. Ironically enough, in fact, to see the Negro as more elemental than the white man, as Ned Polsky has acutely remarked, is "an inverted form of keeping the nigger in his place."

Ginsberg responded in a 1958 interview with The Village Voice (collected in Spontaneous Mind), specifically addressing the charge that the Beats destroyed "the distinction between life and literature.":

The novel is not an imaginary situation of imaginary truths—it is an expression of what one feels. Podhoretz doesn't write prose, he doesn't know how to write prose, and he isn't interested in the technical problems of prose or poetry. His criticism of Jack's spontaneous bop prosody shows that he can't tell the difference between words as rhythm and words as in diction ... The bit about anti-intellectualism is a piece of vanity, we had the same education, went to the same school, you know there are 'Intellectuals' and there are intellectuals. Podhoretz is just out of touch with twentieth-century literature, he's writing for the eighteenth-century mind. We have a personal literature now—Proust, Wolfe, Faulkner, Joyce.

Internal criticism

Gary Snyder in a 1974 interview, comments on the subject of "casualties" of the Beat Generation:

Kerouac was a casualty too. And there were many other casualties that most people have never heard of, but were genuine casualties. Just as, in the 60s, when Allen and I for a period there were almost publicly recommending people to take acid. When I look back on that now I realize there were many casualties, responsibilities to bear.

Other critics

Bruce Conner stated: "I don’t know any artist that would call himself a beat artist... If somebody did, you’d consider him a fake, a fraud running a scam."


See also

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