American Literature Beats
by
Charles Molesworth
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 September 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 August 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0041

Introduction

The “Beats” formed a literary movement with a strong social and cultural vision, but, equally important, they embodied a unique sensibility. They resembled other historical literary movements, such as the Harlem Renaissance or Regionalism, in that they possessed a fluid membership with developing aims. Though their stances were not as disputatious as other movements, the Beats did hold various positions on a variety of issues. But what united them can be established clearly—a strong commitment to literary experimentalism; a rejection of settled middle-class values; an attraction to Eastern philosophy, especially Buddhism; and a generally pacifist stance in the face of political forces and institutions. The mix of values and the tensions of the times—that is, from the early 1950s through the following three decades—resulted in contradictions. The Beats generally were willing to argue forcefully for their radical beliefs, but occasionally they succumbed to passivity and self-imposed marginalization. They voiced exalted spiritual desires while drawn to popular arts. They objected to bourgeois sentiments that fostered stability and acceptance of settled traditions, while advocating for the use of drugs that freed the imagination yet brought about addiction and quietism. Though at first their firm rejection by the average public equaled their disdain for middle-class respectability, the movement attracted widespread attention and soon enjoyed favor with a younger audience. Serious students of historic figures of the past, ranging from Shelley and Blake to Rimbaud and Hart Crane, the Beats were eventually recognized for their literary sophistication. Academic acceptance was secured in part as their younger readers went to college in increasing numbers in the 1960s. The loosening of cultural and social taboos during this period also encouraged the movement, expanding its influence into areas once considered sacrosanct. Rock and roll, opposition to the Vietnam War, a return to rural styles of life (such as communes), and a freer attitude toward sexual indulgence: all these phenomena formed the Beat sensibility. Eventually, the terminology shifted. Beat became Beatnik, some referred to the San Francisco Renaissance, others spoke of a “New American Poetry,” and the mass media were happy to employ the term “hippie.” Throughout it all, the major figures—Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, and William Burroughs—were joined by a host of others who continued to use experimental literature to express their beliefs and their fiercely embraced values. Less well-known writers among the Beats concentrated on poetry, though some contributed letters and diaries and occasional prose. Chief among these were Gregory Corso, Diane di Prima, Robert Duncan, Lawrence Ferlinghetti (also important as the founder and editor of City Lights Books), Michael McClure, Jack Spicer, Philip Whalen, and Lew Welch.

General Overviews

Much of the literary and social life of the Beats took place in San Francisco, as recounted in Davidson 1989 and Ferlinghetti and Peters 1980, but Morgan 2010 shows how the Beats were drawn to all aspects of the American scene. The Beat sensibility often joined drug experience, as in Johnston 2005, with religious visions, as in Lardas 2000. Phillips and Berger 1995 shows how the entire cultural milieu was involved in revolutionary challenges. Molesworth 2010 offers an overview that relates the Beats to the Objectivists and other figures, whereas Parkinson 1961 gathers a variety of materials to show the complexity of the Beat world.

  • Davidson, Michael. The San Francisco Renaissance: Poetics and Community at Mid-century. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511570391E-mail Citation »

    An important study of the San Francisco contingent of the Beat poets, exploring the key issues of their art and politics.

  • Ferlinghetti, Lawrence, and Nancy Joyce Peters. Literary San Francisco: A Pictorial History from Its Beginnings to the Present Day. San Francisco: City Lights / Harper & Row, 1980.

    E-mail Citation »

    This “guidebook” shows great details about the city that served as home for almost all the Beats and was the center of social, political, and literary innovation in the postwar era.

  • Johnston, Allan. “Consumption, Addiction, Vision, Energy: Political Economies and Utopian Visions in the Writings of the Beat Generation.” College Literature 32.2 (Spring 2005): 103–126.

    DOI: 10.1353/lit.2005.0028E-mail Citation »

    Using theories favored by William Burroughs and Kenneth Rexroth, the Beats developed a social critique that was influential in the cultural developments of the 1960s. Burroughs concentrated on the economics of “need,” and the way society manipulated it. Rexroth dealt with the “cash nexus.” Both ideas are linked to the themes of alienation and the negation of individualism.

  • Lardas, John. The Bop Apocalypse: The Religious Visions of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000.

    E-mail Citation »

    Of special interest for its use of literary and other forms of cultural expression, this wide-ranging study focuses on the Beats’ concern with religion, which it considers the most salient feature of the movement.

  • Molesworth, Charles. “From Objectivism to the Haight.” In A Companion to American Literature and Culture. Edited by Paul Lauter, 441–457. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781444320626E-mail Citation »

    This article creates an extended historical context for the Beats, tracing their literary roots in Imagism and Objectivism, and it characterizes the styles of Kenneth Rexroth and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, as well as Ginsberg, Diane di Prima, and Robert Creeley.

  • Morgan, Bill. The Typewriter Is Holy: The Complete, Uncensored History of the Beat Generation. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2010.

    E-mail Citation »

    Written by one of the foremost commentators of the Beat movement, this book is thorough, opinionated, and highly useful for arriving at a consistent view of how and why the Beats came to be who they were. The phrase in the title is taken from Ginsberg’s most famous poem, “Howl.”

  • Parkinson, Thomas Francis. A Casebook on the Beat. New York: Crowell, 1961.

    E-mail Citation »

    Written near in time to the events and developments it tries to explain, this study of the Beat movement was soon outdated as the movement became broader and eventually “legitimized.” Parkinson, an established professor at the University of California–Berkeley, was the first to treat the Beats with academic seriousness.

  • Phillips, Lisa, and Maurice Berger. Beat Culture and the New America, 1950–1965. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1995.

    E-mail Citation »

    Based on a museum exhibit curated by Lisa Phillips, this book shows the interconnections between Beat writers and visual artists, who shared not only a radical social awareness but also a distinct attitude toward spiritual and visionary approaches to life.

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