Saturday, June 12, 2010

History of the Beat Generation by Bill Morgan

I would compare the Beat Generation to a freight train, with Allen Ginsberg as the locomotive that pulled the others along like so many boxcars. It is really the story of this one man's desire to gather a circle of friends around him, people he loved and who could love him. What united these people was not only love of literature, but also Ginsberg's supportive character, a trait that often verged on obsession. It was their friendship that they shared, not any one common literary style, philosophy, or social theory. At the center of all those friendships was the strongly cohesive glue that was Allen Ginsberg.

Ginsberg was the unofficial literary agent of the whole crowd, supporting them when he could afford it, encouraging them to write and put their writings into publishable forms, promoting their works to established, independent and self-publishing enterprises, organized public readings and symposiums. The threat of government intervention and repression in the arts persisted well into the 1960s and this forced Ginsberg to take direct political action on a number of occasions. For this purpose, he founded the Committee on Poetry, to help pay legal fees in cases such as N.Y.C's attempt to ban poetry readings in the city's coffee houses. All the money Ginsberg received from his readings went directly into this non-profit foundation, while he supported himself on what little income was left. Later he decided to continue funding COP for the support of worthy causes and to fund individual poets in dire straits. Over the years, he was able to help dozens of down-and-out artists financially. The fund helped Lenny Bruce pay for his court battles; it also provided legal support to Ed Sanders when his Peace Eye Bookstore was raided by the police.

As the years went by and the decades passed, Ginsberg gained respectability and was asked to organize the poetics program at Naropa Institute in Boulder Colorado, which he named the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. He spent a part of every year teaching in Boulder at little or no pay but managed, at one point or another, to bring all his friends into the writing program there. In 1987 Ginsberg was hired by Brooklyn College to fill a chair in their English Department and shortly thereafter inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters where he worked to bring in several members of his own circle including Robert Creeley, William Burroughs, Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Amiri Baraka. Ginsberg rarely failed to support his friends even when they found it impossible to help themselves or turned their backs to him.

The biggest publicity break for the so-called Beat Generation of writers came with the publication of Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems. Published abroad and shipped to the U.S. It was temporarily seized by U.S. Customs, although the U.S. Attorney General subsequently decided not to prosecute the case. However, on June 3, 1957, The San Francisco Police Department raided the City Lights bookstore, grabbed the new U.S. Printed edition, and arrested the bookstore's manager. They claimed it was obscene and would be harmful if it fell into the hands of children. The courts had recently ruled that not everything in America had to be written for children, but the district attorney ignored that and pressed on, bringing the case to trial. From that moment on, the press covered the story in great detail and Americans became much more generally aware of the new spirit of artistic freedom and vitality that was growing in places like North Beach and Greenwich village.

The judge found that Howl was not obscene because it had “ some redeeming social value." The case set a precedent allowing many other important literary works like Lawrence's Lady Chatterly's Lover and Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer to be published without fear of censorship. Publishers and his writer friends began listening more carefully Ginsberg' entreaties.

Beat was a word in common usage during the late 1940s and familiar to most jazz musicians and hipsters around the seedier fringes of Times Square. The circle of Allen Ginsberg's friends had frequently heard people like Herbert Huncke using the word to refer to themselves and others who were tired of the status quo, maybe even tired of life in general and the continual frustration and despair that came with living in America in those times.

In the 1940s Jack Kerouac hung out with John Holmes; they spent many nights discussing their craft over quarts of beer. Together they enrolled in Elbert Lenrow's classes in literature at the New School of Social Research in Greenwich Village. One evening after class they had a philosophical conversation about their own generation. They compared it to Hemingway's “lost generation” but felt that the word lost didn't sum up their times. In the course of the conversation Holmes urged Kerouac to characterize the current situation, and Jack responded by saying that he felt their minds were furtive, chock-full of hidden motives, and that as a result it was a “beat” generation. After some reflection Holmes agreed that it was the best name for the young people who had come through World War II. They were weary, they had been beaten down by society, the war, the need to conform to the times, behind which lurked some sort of spiritual longing.

In November 1952, the New York Times commissioned Holmes to write an article about the young writers of his generation. In that article, Holmes recalled the conversation he and Jack had had about it being a “beat generation.” The article became the first to use that phrase in print. Although Holmes credited Kerouac in his article, Jack himself sulked and pouted and even at one point refused to speak with Holmes. He wrote to John, “I have ask'd that my name be withdrawn from all yr. councils- I have my own new ideas about the generation, this isn't 1948, there's nothing beat about these sleek beasts & middleclass subterraneans.”

In spite of Ginsberg's continuing efforts to find a publisher for Jack's books, Kerouac was mad at Allen too. He was beginning to consider him part of a giant Jewish conspiracy that kept his books from being published while books in a like vein which he considered inferior, like Holmes' Go, found audiences. At the very first moment the public first heard about the Beat Generation, Kerouac, the man who coined the phrase and would become synonymous with it, was beginning to distance himself from the group and would continue to do so till the end of his life.

After the Howl trial in San Francisco, and the realization that the public was hungry for information and work by this “new” literary phenomena, editors at Viking press at last came to understand the commercial potential of On The Road: the story of a young man coming of age as he ricocheted back and forth across the country, “dreaming of the immensity of it”, with his inexhaustible friend, in search of kicks, atonement and redemption . And Kerouac had managed to employ a new spontaneous style, which he had first recognized in the letters of Neal Cassady, to craft a book original in both style and content. The basic story of people leaving their pasts behind and striking out on their own in search of something was not new but one of the longest traditions in literature, and Kerouac's genius was in writing a story in which the stated search for Dean Moriarity's father was not actually the true goal. Through his wanderings, he discovered that everyone he encountered along the way was a reflection of God. There are no villains in Jack's stories, only angels. The irony of the story is that Sal wants to settle down and give up the road. This struck a chord with millions of readers for nearly fifty years after its first publication.

Although On The Road got a good first review in the N.Y. Times harsh criticisms of Kerouac and the Beat Generation soon followed. Articles with titles like “The Know-Nothing Bohemians” and “The Cult of Unthink” ( Robert Brustein) began to appear regularly in the press. Even the few reporters who were more sensitive to the Beat writers wrote articles like “Here to Save Us, But Not Sure from What.” Even Al Capp's Li'l Abner comic strip featured a character named Ginzbird, “the most irritable unidentified flying object on earth.”

No one was more outspoken in his criticisms of the Beats than Norman Podhoretz who, ironically, was once a classmate and colleague of Ginsberg and Kerouac and knew them personally. In one of his first essays castigating the new group, he wrote, “this notion that to be hopped-up is the most desirable of all human conditions, lies at the heart of the Beat Generation ethos.” He criticized Kerouac for “his simple inability to express anything in words.” Podhoretz declared the Beats to be “young men who can't think straight and so hate anyone who can,” and believed that “the spirit of the Beat Generation is the same which animates the young savages in leather jackets who have been running amuck in the last few years with their switch-blades and zip guns.”

Critics defined who the Beats were and what they represented to suit their own agendas. For whatever reasons, they felt the need to pigeonhole everyone into a single category. And as if the harsh criticism wasn't enough, Herb Caen overheard Bob Kaufmann playfully invent the work beatnik and used it pejoratively in his Column in the San Francisco Chronicle. The term shortly became synonymous with juvenile delinquent, or other oddballs, troublemakers, weirdos and rebellious punks trying to avoid getting jobs. The character of Maynard G. Krebs in the television program The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis became , in the popular media, the quintessential beat (nik). The qualities that made Maynard memorable- laziness, insipience, sloppiness, lack of ambition, and a self-conscious jazz vocabulary – were a caricature that had little to do with the Beat Generation.

Even though Kerouac was the original icon and King of the Beat Generation he found it hard to deal the criticism and mockery . He wanted to be accepted as the serious and important writer that he considered himself to be. In many interviews he tried to clarify the Beat Generation phenomena as he saw it to be but his views were ignored or dismissed by the press. He continued to drink heavily and bitterly distance himself from his former friends. Allen Ginsberg, using his early experience as an ad and public relations man, transformed himself into an icon of counter-culture and continued to use every opportunity fame presented to promote the literary works of his friends.


  1. “The Typewriter Is Holy; The Complete, Uncensored History of The Beat Generation” By Bill Morgan; Simon & Schuster, 2010

    Over and over – refrain- of the Hospitals – still haven't written your
    history – leave it abstract – a few images

    run thru the mind – like the saxophone chorus of houses and years -
    remembrance of electrical shocks.

    By long night as a child in Paterson apartment, watching over your
    nervousness – you were fat – your next move -

    By that afternoon I stayed home from school to take care of you -
    once and for all – when I vowed forever that once man disagreed with my
    opinion of the cosmos, I was lost -

    By my later burden – vow to illuminate mankind – this release of
    particulars -( mad as you) - ( sanity a trick of agreement) -

    But you stared out the window on the Broadway Church corner, and
    spied a mystical assassin from Newark.

    “ Kaddish” by Allen Ginsberg

  2. "Chickenshit" is a very useful concept when it comes to explaining the stance of the Beat Generation. At one point near the end of the war, Kerouac, finding himself broke, signed up for another tour in the merchant marine but when he arrived at the docks for his assignment found that that his boss was chickenshit and so walked away. Ginsberg was expelled from Columbia on chickenshit grounds. Living in his own apartment he often allowed friends like Herbert Huncke "run amok" with their petty thieving and drug dealings because of his refusal to engage in chickenshit. For a long time in his youth Allen was convinced that his homosexuality was a symptom of mental disorder but when he agreed to be hospitalized he didn't get any serious therapy, just chickenshit. William Burroughs was one of the chief chickenshit haters of all time and as a consequence lived in exile most of his life. Gary Snyder and Gregory Corso also spent years living away from chickenshit America.

    Although some inroads have been made into American chickenshit in the last 50 years, it gets recycled a lot. "Political correctness" is definitely chickenshit as are most of the complaints of the "Tea Party". Contemporary conservative thought, for which Norman Podhoretz is still a leading figure, is chickenshit. American foreign policy could easily be characterized as chickenshit in its entirety. As large portion of what passes as journalism and even literary criticism is chickenshit. Objecting to the use of the term "chickenshit" is chickenshit. This might be a good criticism of Morgan's book- failure take on the chickenshit factor more directly.

  3. "...Who can travel to many places when the complexity of each pool (a plethora of detail in each joint of society) sucks up one's attention like a carnivorous flower?

    Yet a turn in the other direction, into the world of Self, is not less difficult. An intellectual structure which is debilitating to the instinct of the novelist inhabits the crossroads of the inner mind-psychoanalysis.

    An artist must not explore into himself with language given by another. A vocabulary of experts is a vocabulary greased out and sweated in committee and so is inimical to a private eye. One loses what is new by confusing it with what may be common to others. The essential ideas of psychoanalysis are reductive and put a dead weight on the confidence of the venture. If guilt, for example, is neurotic, a clumsy part in the functioning of a graceful machine, then one does not feel like a hero studying his manacles or a tragic victim regarding his just sentence but instead is a skilled mechanic trying to fix his tool. Brutally, simply, mass man cannot initiate an inner voyage unless it is conducted by an expert graduated by an institution.

    Yet the difficulty goes beyond the country of psychoanalysis. There are hills beyond that hill. The highest faces an abyss...

    The Spooky Art ; Some Thoughts on Writing by Norman Mailer; The Argument Reinvigorated by Norman Mailer