Who Were the Beats?
So many people were killed in World War II that no one knows the exact number. Officials estimated that 50 million military and civilian deaths were directly caused by the war and another 20 million died as a result of famine and war-related diseases. According to the U.S. Congressional Research Service, World War II cost the United States nearly $300 billion. Brittanica says the money spent on World War II “Cannot represent the human misery, deprivation, and suffering, the dislocation of peoples and of economic life, or the sheer physical destruction of property caused by the war.”
Historians say the original Beats were shaped by the tragic effects of World War II, the Cold War and its threat of instant nuclear holocaust, and the Civil Rights movement. Beat writers were influenced by jazz music, surrealism, Zen poetry, and drugs. Collectively, they were known as the Beat Generation, a literary subculture movement that was known for its liberal attitudes, restlessness, and rebellion against the times. The most prominent among them were Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg.
The Beat Generation
The Beat Generation was the antithesis of suburban conformity and rejected the traditional narrative elements of novels. The New York Times said the Beat Generation was a “bizarre Bohemian phenomenon” spawned in New York and San Francisco before spilling over into the general culture at large. The Beat Generation was also the defining influence for the beatniks and the counterculture of the 1960s.
Beatniks were a youth culture with an aversion to social norms
Their attitudes, values, and behaviors were unconventional and their clothing was non-conformist. Beatniks lived anti-materialistic lifestyles, rejecting mainstream consumerism and conformity, a movement that came out of the Beats. Columnist Herb Caen coined the term beatnik as a portmanteau word that combined Beats with Sputnik, the biggest phenomenon of 1958. Speaking at the 1960 Republic Convention, J. Edgar Hoover proclaimed that the country’s greatest enemies were “Communists, Eggheads, and Beatniks.”
The unconventional becomes conventional
The beatnik style became all the rage, with bearded poets wearing sandals, sweatshirts, sunglasses and berets while pounding on bongos in basement coffeehouses . Maynard G. Krebs, from The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis was television’s favorite beatnik. And yes, the Beat Generation led to the Beatniks and the Beatniks led to the Hippies of the 1960s.
After serving in the Merchant Marines and the U.S. Naval Reserves during World War II, Kerouac was discharged after military doctors concluded that he suffered from a personality disorder that was characterized by secretiveness, detachment, and apathy.
In New York City, Kerouac met and befriended Neal Cassady. Together, Kerouac and Cassady bummed around the country in a 1949 Hudson, taking several cross-country road trips that were filled with drugs, sex, and jazz. Using those experiences, Kerouac wrote a novel in three weeks, on a 120-foot-long paper scroll.* He spent the next six years revising it after it had been rejected by several publishers because of its explicit descriptions of sex and drug use.
Kerouac described his writing style as a writer’s version of jazz improvisation and called it “spontaneous prose,” which sounds a lot like stream of consciousness. Kerouac later said he modeled his writing style on a letter Cassady sent him in 1950. Some say the letter was 16,000 words long while other sources say it was 40,000.
Kerouac called his barely fictionalized and mostly autobiographical novel On the Road
The New York Times book reviewer predicted that On the Road would come to be known as the exemplification of the Beat Generation. The book sold nearly 4 million copies in the U.S. alone, mostly to rebellious anti-establishment youths. The fame Kerouac achieved led to a life of drunkenness and drug abuse and he died at the age of 47.
Truman Capote was a writer (Breakfast at Tiffany’s) and socialite, well-known as a sniffy poseur and a notorious embroider of the truth. Never at a loss for an unkind word, he said “None of the Beat writers had anything interesting to say, and none of them can write, not even Mr. Kerouac. It isn’t writing at all – it’s typing.”
As a boy in Denver, Colorado, Cassady was in and out of reform school. His first arrest for car theft came when he was 14. When he was 18, he was convicted of possession of stolen goods and served a year in prison. Four years later, he sold a small amount of marijuana to an undercover agent and spent the next two years in San Quentin State Prison.
Cassady wasn’t a writer, but a muse for the Beats and one of the most prominent figures of the Beat Generation
As he described himself, “Sometimes I sits and thinks. Other times I sits and drinks, but mostly I just sits.”
The Merry Pranksters
In 1963, Neil Cassady met Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and together they drove their Magic Bus** around the country with a dozen LSD-tripping friends who called themselves The Merry Pranksters. This group of friends shared a philosophy that rejected The Establishment’s politicians, government agencies, and corporations that exercised power and control over the country, especially those that supported the status quo.
The first line of a letter Cassady wrote to Kerouac
“Well it’s about time you wrote, I was fearing you farted out on top that mean mountain or slid under while pissing in Pismo, beach of flowers, food and foolishness, but I knew the fear was ill-founded for balancing it in my thoughts of you, much stronger and valid if you weren’t dead, was a realization of the experiences you would be having down there, rail, home, and the most important, climate, by a remembrance of my own feelings and thoughts (former low, or more exactly, nostalgic and unreal; latter hi) as, for example, I too seemed to spend time looking out upper floor windows at sparse, especially nighttimes, traffic in females—old or young.”
The New Yorker called Cassady’s style rough, impulsive, and effusive, presaging the gonzo*** style of journalism seen in the writings of Hunter S. Thompson. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was a book about two men on a road trip, perpetually drunk and ripped on psychedelics.
Born into a wealthy family, Burroughs studied English as an undergraduate and Anthropology as a postgraduate, both at Harvard University. He enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1942, but was released from active duty when it was decided that he was mentally unstable and never should have been allowed to enlist.
Bumming around Columbia University in New York City with a loose collection of Beats, Burroughs became friends with Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. While on a trip to Mexico, he and his friends were drunk in a bar. Burroughs later told authorities that he had wanted to show off his new pistol and marksmanship at a party with friends. His common-law wife put a glass on her head in a game called William Tell, but with a pistol instead of a bow and a shot glass instead of an apple. Burroughs was so drunk he didn’t realize that he shot her in the head, killing her.
Most of Burroughs’ writings were autobiographical and based upon his experience as a heroin addict and sexual adventurer
His writing style was closely related to stream of consciousness. Burroughs’ best known novel was Naked Lunch, which he described as “automatic writing gone wrong.” The book was deliberately and zealously obscene, containing scenes of castration, sodomy, pederasty, and sadomasochism.
While a student at Columbia University, Ginsberg became friends with Kerouac and Burroughs. These three friends were known for their unconventional views and their heavy use of alcohol and drugs. To avoid imprisonment for possession of stolen goods, Ginsberg entered an insanity plea and was sent to a mental institution. Wikipedia says in 1948 “Ginsberg experienced an auditory hallucination while simultaneously masturbating and reading the poetry of William Blake.”
In 1956, Howl was published
In his most famous work, Howl and Other Poems, Ginsberg wrote about Cassady “Whoring through Colorado in myriad stolen night-cars, N.C., secret hero of these poems, cocksman and Adonis of Denver—joy to the memory of his innumerable lays of girls in empty lots & diner backyards, movie houses’ rickety rows, on mountaintops in caves or with gaunt waitresses in familiar roadside lonely petticoat upliftings & especially secret gas-station solipsisms of johns, & hometown alleys too.”
The Poetry Foundation described Ginsberg’s Howl as “an outcry of rage and despair against a destructive and abusive society.”
*In 2001, Jim Irsay, the owner of the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts, paid $2.4 million for Kerouac’s scroll.
**Pete Townshend wrote the psychedelic rock song Magic Bus and The Who performed it. Magic referred to the LSD they were all tripping on and the psychedelic paint job reinforced the image.
***Gonzo journalism is an unconventional and subjective style of reporting where the writer is at the center of the story, relating facts subjectively, satirically, and often in a shocking way.
If the notion of two guys aimlessly driving around the country in search of experiences sounds familiar, you may be thinking of the television show Route 66. Tod (sic) Stiles and Buz (sic) Murdock spent five years criss-crossing America in their Corvette, restless youths experiencing life, searching for meaning, and finding adventures. Stiles’ character was a sanitized version of Cassady and Murdock was chosen to intentionally resemble Kerouac.