The Beat Generation centered around writers whose poetry and fiction explored and influenced American culture post-World War II. Throughout the 1950s, their work was published and popularized. Beat culture’s defining characteristics are a rejection of standard narrative structures, the spiritual quest and exploration of Eastern religions and mysticism, rejection of American materialistic values, graphic depictions of the human condition, drug experimentation, and sexual liberation. The Beat Generation had a reputation as bohemian hedonists who celebrated non-conformity and spontaneous creativity. They laid the groundwork for the hippie revolution a decade later.
The most well-known examples of Beat literature are Allen Ginsberg’s Howl (1956), William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch (1959), and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957). Both Howl and Naked Lunch were the subject of obscenity trials, which eventually led to the liberalization of publishing in the United States.
Kerouac’s book On the Road is a tribute to throwing off the shackles of conventional culture and committing to self-discovery by taking to the hi-ways and byways of America. It was written in an improvised style, emulating jazz’s improvisational freedom. Kerouac typed it on a 120-foot roll of paper, specially constructed for that purpose, to capture the uninterrupted narrative arc.
On the Road is a thinly veiled fictionalized bromance between Kerouac and his buddy Neal Cassady, called Dean Moriarty in the book. It made a cult hero of Neal Cassady as a major figure of the Beat Generation. Cassady’s freestyle wordplay is one of spontaneous, jazz-inspired rapping roots that became associated with beatniks. Cassady’s free-flowing style impressed Kerouac and greatly influenced his improvisational literary style. You can see the artistic parallels in the evolution of jazz styles and Miles’ rejection of the Juilliard School of Music as too conservative and formalistic; too “white.”
In the 1960s, the counterculture absorbed aspects of the Beats into the hippie movement. As the driver for Ken Kesey’s bus, Further, and pal of the Grateful Dead, Neal Cassady was a major link between these two generations. Beat writers and artists flocked to Greenwich Village in New York City in the late 1950s because of low rent and the neighborhood’s ‘small town’ element. Burroughs, Ginsberg, Kerouac, and other poets frequented many bars in the area, including the Five Spot.
Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, and other abstract expressionists were also frequent visitors and collaborators of the beats. The term “Beatnik” was coined as a portmanteau on the name of the recent Russian satellite Sputnik and Beat Generation.
Various enterprises sprang up exploiting or satirizing the new craze. Beatniks appeared in many cartoons, movies, and TV shows of the time, the most famous being the character Maynard G. Krebs in The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, which aired from 1959 to 1963.
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