Beat Literature

The Beat Culture

The Beat culture manifested itself as social protest and alternative life style in the immediate post-war years. However, its role as artistic revolt was as important. It had its roots in the radical American tradition from Walt Whitman and the so-called nineteenth century Transcendentalists, yet we also see clear links to European culture (Romanticism, the Bohemians, Dada and Surrealism) as well as to non–western cultural traditions (Native American culture and Oriental wisdom). The Beat culture blossomed in the colourful Bohemian quarters of New York’s Greenwich Village and San Francisco’s North Beach in the 1940s and 50s. It mainly consisted of an informal network of young people linked by personal friendship, common artistic aspirations and the awareness of belonging to a post-war generation, just as the “Lost Generation” had experienced in the years following World War I. Though the Beat culture was never an organised movement, it has a distinctive history with landmarks such as Allen Ginsberg’s first public reading of the poem ”Howl” in Six Gallery in San Francisco on 13 October, 1955, the trial of the publishers of ”Howl” in 1957, the publication of Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road that year, the Beat poetry reading at Columbia University in the spring of 1959, and the publication of William Burroughs’ novel Naked Lunch in Paris that same year resulting in a trial in Boston.

The name itself goes back to the Afro-American drug and jazz scene and was first used about the Beat culture by Jack Kerouac in 1948. The term embraced a feeling of being poor, excluded, and vulnerable with a conviction that this outsider status gave access to deeper existential and spiritual insight. Thus the Beat artists compared themselves to all those named “blessed” by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. In ”Howl” these visionaries are called ”naked angels”.

First and foremost the Beat culture was a reaction to a time of global warfare, nuclear threat, cold war and an American post-war society where the freedom of the individual was under siege from a ”control state” dominated by consumerism and materialism, large organisations, public bureaucracies and the growth of the military combined with social conformity, puritan morality and chauvinism. Against all this the Beat generation proposed an anti-authoritarian life style and a democratic aesthetic of spontaneity. Life was to be lived ”authentically” in material simplicity, open to the senses and to visionary or ecstatic experiences with or without the help of consciousness-expanding substances. The sources of this alternative art and life style were sought in ethnic, social, and sexual minority cultures, Zen Buddhism, bebop jazz and other subversive music, art and literature.