Beat writers, Beat Generation

The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018

Beat writers, Beat Generation

Beat writers, Beat Generation: A group of iconoclastic American writers, active in the 1940s and 1950s, particularly in New York and San Francisco, who viewed the dominant culture as complacent and materialistic; rejected prevailing social mores; and publicly advocated anti-intellectual, antipolitical, and antiestablishment views. Jack Kerouac, the leader of the Beat writers, is generally credited with coining the phrase Beat Generation, using beat to refer both to feelings of oppression (being “beaten down” or “beat up”) and to achieving a desired “beatific” state. Beat writers embraced sexual liberation and ecological awareness and sought to experience a higher consciousness through vehicles such as hallucinogens, jazz, meditation, and the practice of Buddhism. They tended to express their alternative values through the form of their writing, which, compared to more conventional modern works, has a very loose structure and uses a great deal of slang. Noted Beat writers aside from Kerouac included Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Neal Cassady, Gregory Corso, Diane di Prima, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Herbert Huncke, Gary Snyder, and Anne Waldman.

Beat Generation has also been used more broadly to refer to those who came of age just after World War II and who revolted against the staid and crew-cut conventions of the time. Beatnik, a portmanteau word coined in 1958 by San Francisco Chronicle writer Herb Caen, combines Beat Generation and Sputnik (the name of a Russian satellite) to refer to a member of the Beat Generation and was often used derogatorily. The Beat movement of the 1950s had considerable influence on the 1960s’ and 1970s’ idea of counterculture. During this later era, the connotations of Beat expanded to include not only oppression and ecstasy but also the rebellious rhythms of rock ’n’ roll (e.g., the Beatles).

EXAMPLES: John Clellon Holmes’s novel Go (1952); Kerouac’s On the Road (1957); the following lines from Ginsberg’s “Howl” (1956):

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,

dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,

angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night… .

The character played by James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) typifies the feeling of oppression experienced by the members of the Beat Generation.