The movement of writers known as the Beat Generation influenced all the important literary and musical movements in America that came after them, from the hippies of the 1960s to the punks of the 1970s to the grunge movement of the 1990s. The word “beat” refers to the musical term, as the Beats were highly influenced by music and improvisational jazz in particular, the idea of being beaten or worn down, and the concept of something beatific or holy. The Beats lived and wrote in the 1940s and ’50s and their writing was characterized by embracing jazz-influenced improvisation with words, spontaneity, and documenting their rebellious lifestyle. The Beats in particular have had a lasting influence on rock and roll music, with musicians including Jim Morrison, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, Kurt Cobain, and many others naming Beat authors as key influences on their music.
Novelist and poet Jack Kerouac, poet Allen Ginsberg, and science fiction innovator William Burroughs are the three key members of the Beat generation. Their styles are each incredibly different, but the three men influenced each other through their friendships and editing each other’s works. Their open disdain for cultural norms and decision to embrace controversial things like illegal drugs, homosexuality, Eastern religions, jazz music, and hard travelin’ was a catalyst and a practical how-to guide for the 1960s counterculture.
The Beat Generation is undeniably one of the most important American literary movements ever. Here’s a list of the movement’s most important texts to help you get in touch with your inner poetic rebel and read some great American writers.
On the Road, Jack Kerouac
On the Road is probably the most canonical text of the Beat generation. Kerouac’s novel is basically a non-fiction account of his travels around the country with fellow writer and Beat generation muse Neal Cassady, with Ginsberg and Burroughs appearing as well. The original scroll version of the book has all the people’s real names, but the published version had their names changed. The tales told, though, were real events that took place between 1947 and 1950 when Kerouac’s life was essentially a giant cross-country road trip. The book has inspired many to make similar treks across the continent between the Beat capitals of New York City and San Francisco. The book also lays out Beat ethos to a T, explaining who they were, how they lived, and what they valued.
Naked Lunch, William Burroughs
Burroughs was like an older mentor to many of the Beats and his prose embraced a bizarre science fiction fantasy world that isn’t seen in the others of his generation, though it has influenced every science fiction dystopia created in literature or film after him. Naked Lunch is Burroughs’ most famous book, a semi-autobiographical account of a junkie named William Lee and his experiences drifting around America, Mexico, and Tangier before ending up in the fantasy world of Interzone. The book was banned in many locations after its 1959 publication due to extremely explicit content regarding sex and drug abuse. The plot of the novel is difficult to describe, with the character Lee taking on a variety of aliases and moving between locations and scenes without much explanation. In the introduction, Burroughs credits Kerouac with giving him the title, saying that naked lunch is “a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.” The book is a terrifying piece of science fiction not for the faint of heart.
Howl, Allen Ginsberg
Ginsberg’s landmark 1956 poem Howl is considered one of the great American poems. Ginsberg meant for the poem to be a performance piece and the first reading of it at Six Gallery in San Francisco in 1955 is considered to be the moment that marked the beginning of the Beat movement. Though the members of that movement had been living its ethos and writing for years, Howl was the first major Beat work to be published.
Howl is dedicated to the writer Carl Solomon, who Ginsberg met during a brief stint in a mental institution in New York. The long, free-form poem was written in long lines that Ginsberg said were the length of his breath so that he could stop to breathe only between lines when reading it aloud. The poem’s writing was influenced by Kerouac’s insistence that Ginsberg experiment with being more spontaneous in his writing as well as reading the poetry of William Carlos Williams. Howl was famously the subject of an obscenity trial against publisher City Lights Books, but the judge ended up ruling that the poem was not obscene.
A Coney Island of the Mind, Lawrence Ferlinghetti
The Beat generation saw their works published by fellow writer Lawrence Ferlinghetti and his bookstore-publishing house City Lights in San Francisco. City Lights Books is still synonymous with the Beat generation and the store is a mecca for Beat fans to this day. Ferlinghetti stood trial on obscenity charges for publishing and selling Howl, a trial that was of landmark importance for all future literature considered to be controversial but having artistic or social value. The bookstore was the headquarters for the Beats when they were in San Francisco.
Ferlinghetti was a writer himself and his most famous collection of poetry, A Coney Island of the Mind, is one of the most popular poetry collections ever published. While his style is very different from other Beat writers, Ferlinghetti was also very influenced by jazz music and wrote many of the poems in the collection with the purpose of being read to jazz accompaniment.
The Dharma Bums, Jack Kerouac
One of the most important philosophical aspects of the Beat generation was their interest in Eastern philosophies and religions like Taoism and Buddhism. The Dharma Bums is, like On the Road, a semi-fictional account of Kerouac’s life including some key characters involved in the Beat generation, most notably poet and essayist Gary Snyder, who was responsible for introducing Kerouac to Buddhism.
Dharma Bums is about the time after Kerouac published On the Road to great success and was dubbed the voice of his generation. During that period, he took many sojourns into the woods in an attempt to get closer to nature and some sort of spiritual truth guided by Snyder, who had been practicing Zen Buddhism for years. Just as On the Road influenced people to live fast and hard and explore America on road trips, The Dharma Bums introduced a generation to the ideas of Zen Buddhism and inspired many a long, spiritual camping getaway.