The roots of the Beat literary movement go back to 1944 when Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs met at Columbia University in New York. It was not until the 1950s that these writers and other “Beats” would be recognized as a movement and as a generation of post-World War II youths whose attitudes and lifestyles were far removed from typical Americana. Kerouac used the term “beat” to describe both the negatives of his world and the positives of his responses to it. On one hand, “beat” implied weariness and disinterest in social or political activity, and on the other it was reminiscent of the Beatitudes of Jesus—declarations of blessedness and happiness uttered during the Sermon on the Mount. While certain measures of blissfulness—often drug-induced—may have applied to followers of the Beat Movement, so would feelings of disillusionment, bitterness, and an overwhelming desire to be free of social constraints.
The work of Beat writers is characterized by experimental styles and subjects, including spontaneous writing without regard for grammar, sexually explicit language, uninhibited discussion of personal experiences, and themes ranging from a rejection of American values and fear of nuclear war to sexual escapades and road trips. Representative works of the movement are Kerouac’s novel On the Road, Burroughs’s novel Naked Lunch, and poems such as Ginsberg’s “Howl” and Gregory Corso’s “BOMB.” None of these works appeared on American bookshelves until nearly a decade after Kerouac first used the word “beat” to signify an outlook on writing and an outlook on life. What had begun as a small cluster of rebellious outcasts in New York City soon grew into a larger group based in San Francisco and eventually spread its influences across the country. Beats appeared everywhere in the 1950s, paving the way for the hippies of the following decade.
William Burroughs (1914–1997)
William Burroughs was born February 5, 1914, in St. Louis, to well-to-do parents with a family history of successful business ventures. But even as a youth, Burroughs did not fit in with his upper-class, Midwestern background, for he was a bookish boy with homosexual tendencies and a fascination with guns and lawlessness. Burroughs was a top student and eventually earned a degree from Harvard, though he never lost his attraction to crime. In 1943, Burroughs moved to New York to become involved in the city’s gangster underworld, which led to his experimentation with heroin and several run-ins with the law. There, Burroughs also met Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, two members of a small group of social nonconformists at Columbia University who would become major players in the Beat Movement. Also at Columbia, Burroughs met Joan Vollmer, who became his common-law wife, gave birth to their son, and found herself on the wrong end of one of Burroughs’s pistols.
Although he was usually surrounded by literary types, Burroughs did not start writing until 1950 when he decided to write a semi-autobiographical story, Junkie. Without finishing the first novel, he began another in 1951, this one also somewhat autobiographical, titled Queer. By this time, he had moved his family to Mexico to escape drug charges. It was there that he accidentally killed his wife by attempting to shoot a glass off her head, William Tell-style. Later, Burroughs confessed that it was Joan’s death that gave him the incentive to pursue writing seriously.
Throughout the 1950s, Burroughs continued to write, but his material was generally considered too obscene for print. Finally, in 1959, his most famous book, The Naked Lunch, was published in Paris. Three years later, it was published in the United States as simply Naked Lunch. This book brought celebrity to Burroughs, though mostly among the underground, and he went on to write several more books, plays, and film scripts and to receive an American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters Award in 1975. Although many do not consider him one of the original Beat writers, he is now often called one of the most popular. Both his writing style and lifestyle were undeniably characteristic of the movement, but his work has found an even greater audience in more recent decades. Burroughs died in Lawrence, Kansas, August 2, 1997.
Neal Cassady (1926–1968)
Neal Cassady was born February 8, 1926, in Salt Lake City and grew up in a poor section of Denver with an alcoholic father. Cassady learned quickly how to fight and how to steal, and, perhaps most importantly, how to charm people while he was doing it. After years in and out of reform schools and juvenile prisons, Cassady developed the instincts of a con artist and the rebellion of a freespirited, fun-loving bum who wanted only to travel, ramble on in stream-of-consciousness conversations, and have sex with whomever seemed the most beneficial partner at the moment. Essentially, it was Cassady’s personality that was his major contribution to the Beat Movement. Though his autobiography was published in 1971 followed by some collections of letters, he never produced a single book while the Beat Movement was in full swing.
Cassady wound up in New York in 1946 where, through a friend at Columbia, he met Ginsberg and Kerouac. Ginsberg was promptly captivated by his western ruggedness and cowboy nature, and the two became lovers even while Cassady carried on various affairs with women, whom he claimed to prefer. But, it was his relationship with Kerouac that made Cassady one of the most influential instigators of the Beat Generation. In the late 1940s, the two went on a series of car trips across the United States, and these often harrowing, always riotous adventures became the basis for...
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