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.