The beat generation was one of the largest cultural movements of the 20th century. What started off as a literary phenomenon soon progressed to a life-changing attitude for thousands of people around the world. It embraced originality and individuality in the way people thought and acted, throwing out the old rules of literature, music, sex and religion. The effects are still felt in the world today.
Most people regard the writer Jack Kerouac as the king of the beats. It was Kerouac who coined the phrase beat, by proclaiming that his was a Beat Generation. There are a few notions available about what inspired Kerouac to use this particular phrase, but beat refers at least in part to beatific and beautiful. Kerouac and poet Allen Ginsberg, along with the writer William Burroughs, formed the nucleus of the movement — a group of people who broke the mold and changed writing forever.
Kerouac and his group scoured Times Square in New York, looking for new experiences. They sought out drugs, sex, booze, crazy people and crazy situations. Kerouac was the author of the bible of the generation, On the Road, published in 1957, the tale of two free spirits seeking adventure while riding across, and questioning, the heart of America. It was his spontaneous prose that turned the book into a breathless roller coaster ride that still inspires people.
The ethos of the movement had influence across all of the arts. It seemed as if, at the time, the young were breaking free of the old constraints. Marlon Brando and James Dean were ripping through film screens. Jazz musicians such as Charlie Parker and Dizzie Gillespie were playing their music without barriers. Lenny Bruce was questioning racism and sexuality through his comedy routines. Artists such as Jackson Pollock were exploding onto the canvas and ripping apart the Old Masters.
The beat generation was really a response to World War II, which had just ended. Questions arose about the old way of life and social rules that people were supposed to adhere to. A lot of the questions that the beats asked were greeted with court trials and the attempted banning of their material. Ginsberg’s and Burrough’s literature was subject to bans, and one of Ginsberg’s most famous poems, Howl, still cannot be played on daytime American radio.
The movement was not about questioning society, authority, and its rules just for the sake of it. As Dylan sang, the times they are a changing, and people were crying out for something new. There was a new sense of freedom after the war, and the beat generation led the way in exploring it.
By the late 1960s, the movement had all but imploded. Stick-on beatnik beards were being sold in shops, and the hippies had arrived to take on the mantle of change. Kerouac died in 1969 after disassociating himself from the beats. Ginsberg, Burroughs, Neal Cassady, Gregory Corso and many other writers and leading lights, male and female, from the era are gone.
The legacy that the beat generation gave to the world is not just found in books. On the Road is still one of the most popular books of all time, but it is the free thinking, always questioning credo that the beats will be remembered for. If one person is still questioning an unfair rule or daring to create an original thought, that is where the spirit of the generation lives on.