The literary movement known as the Beat Generation exploded into American consciousness with two books in the late 1950s. The first, Howl and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg, was published in 1956. The book achieved notoriety when poet and bookstore owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti went to trial for selling it in San Francisco. The second book had an even more profound cultural effect when it was published. Jack Kerouac's On the Road, published in 1957, was viewed as nothing less than a manifesto for the Beat Generation.
On the Road is the story of two young men, Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, who travel frantically back and forth across the American continent seeking thrills. The novel is actually a thinly veiled account of Kerouac's own life in the late 1940s, when he fell under the spell of a charismatic drifter named Neal Cassady (represented by Moriarty in the novel). Every episode in the novel was inspired by real-life events. The book, which would probably be considered rather tame today, shocked readers in 1957 with its depiction of drug use and promiscuous sex. Many critics attacked the work as evidence of the increasing immorality of American youth. Other critics saw it as a groundbreaking work of originality. American readers, fascinated with the bohemian lifestyle of the characters, turned the novel into a bestseller.
The Beat literary movement was short-lived. Most of the work Kerouac published in the 1960s had been written during his creative peak in the 1950s. Beat literature retains its popularity decades later because the writers of the Beat Generation must ultimately be judged by their work, not by any real or imagined influence on popular culture. Allen Ginsberg's poetry is still revered. The nightmarish visions of William Burroughs continue to influence post-Modern writers. Finally, Kerouac's On the Road is still a campus favorite, and continues to draw scholarly criticism.
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