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Beat Generation

The Beat Generation was a literary movement that began after the Second World War and known for its liberal attitudes towards life.

The Beat Generation was influenced by American culture and was broadly popular in the 1950s. The movement rejected traditional narrative elements of novels, short stories, and poems, and materialism. The writers in this movement valued things like the clear and explicit portrayal of the human condition, sexual liberation, and more. 

Beat Generation pronunciation: beet gin-ur-ay-shun

Beat Generation movement definition


Definition and Explanation of Beat Generation 

The Beat Generation was a movement that was focused on rethinking the way that writers regarded contemporary culture, the past, and the future. The writing the came out of the Beat Generation explored, more freely than ever, the human condition. This meant writing openly about sex, love, and in addition to darker topics. The most important writers of the period were Herbert Huncke, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, and Lucien Carr. This group met one another around the Columbia University campus in New York City, an interesting origin considering that their work is broadly considered to be anti-academic. 

The group sought to write in an authentic style that was unfettered by poetic norms or academic expectations. Ginsberg used the following quote to describe their work: 

First thought, best thought. 

They were experimental with the construction of their poems, as well as their subject matter and how they approached it. They were influenced by the work of poets like William Blake, in addition to the music of the period, specifically jazz, surrealism, and Zen poetry. Drugs also played a role in their understanding of their art, as did a broader disillusionment with literature in the post-World War II period. 


Origin of the Name “Beat Generation” 

The name “Beat Generation” was introduced by Jack Kerouac, one of the original founders of the group. He used it as a way to allude to the perceptions of the group as underground and anti-conformist. The word “beat”, Kerouac said, was actually first used by Herbert Huncke and Kerouac appropriated it to mean “upbeat.” The group also liked the association with music. 


Beat Generation Characteristics

  • Sexual liberation and exploration. 
  • Portraying the human condition clearly.
  • Experimentation with psychedelic drugs. 
  • Rejection of materialism 
  • Exploring religion, Western and Eastern. 
  • Rejection of narrative. 
  • Non-conformity 
  • Spontaneous creativity. 


Examples of Writing from the Beat Generation 

‘Howl’ by Allen Ginsberg 

‘Howl’ is without a doubt Ginsberg’s best-known poem. It’s also known as ‘Howl for Carl Solomon,’ and was published in 1956 in Howl and Other Poems. The poem is separated into three parts and a footnote. The first part is the most commonly read. It was described as Ginsberg as “a lament for the Lamb in American with instances of remarkable lamb-like youths.” Ginsberg wanted the poem to express the pent-up frustrations of his generation and the artistic possibilities.  Here are a few lines from the first, and most famous, part of ‘Howl.’

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,

Ginsberg, like his contemporaries, ought to throw off academic and societal pressure, turning instead towards creative freedom and expression.

Read more poetry from Allen Ginsberg.


On the Road by Jack Kerouac 

On the Road is considered to be one of the great American novels. It was published in 1957 and is based on the writer’s travel with his friends across the United States. The novel is a defining work of the Beat Generation and has been ranked as one of the most important books of the 20th century. Here are two lines from the novel that help define it: 

I was surprised, as always, by how easy the act of leaving was, and how good it felt. The world was suddenly rich with possibility.


Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs 

Naked Lunch is a 1959 novel written by William S. Burroughs, one of the leading members of the Beat Generation. It is made out of vignettes and can be read in any order. The vignettes/chapters are taken from Burroughs’ personal experience. In the novel, readers will encounter passages about drug addiction, including heroin, morphine, and more. 

It has been included in several lists of the best novels of the 21st century. Here are a few lines from the book: 

I know this one pusher walks around humming a tune and everybody he passes takes it up. He is so grey and spectral and anonymous they don’t see him and think it is their own mind humming the tune.


Importance of the Beat Generation 

The Beat Generation is one of the defining movements of American poetry and one of the most important parts of the broader modernist movement. Its influence can be seen in the hippie movement of the following decades and the development of music, film, and visual arts. The Beat Generation is often cited as influential in the demystification of drugs, a broad American spiritual revival, a new respect for land, indigenous heritage, as well as a leading force in the sexual revolution. 


Related Literary Terms 

  • Lost Generation: a group of writers who came of age during World War I and dealt with the social changes the war brought.
  • Vignette: a short scene within a larger narrative. They are found in novels, short stories, poems, and films.
  • Novel: a long, written, fictional narrative that includes some amount of realism.
  • Imagism: a literary movement of the early 20th century. The proponents were interested in the use of precise imagery and clear language.
  • New Woman Movement: a feminist ideal that was profoundly influential on 19th and 20th-century literature, as well as broader feminist beliefs.


Other Resources 

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