The Beat Movement got its start in the late 1940s and began losing momentum by the early 1960s, but the entire decade in between was a bountiful time for Beats. The members of the movement, keenly aware of the realities of the time, were not lulled into the sentimentality commonly associated with the 1950s. There is a distinct irony about the decade that many Americans old enough to remember those years often overlook. The nostalgia that has become synonymous with it—convertibles and road trips, hula-hoops and Elvis, TV and the technology boom, and “I Like Ike” pins on the lapels of happy suburbanites— tends to blur other events of the period that suggest anything but merriment and complacency. The Cold War with the Soviet Union, back yard bomb shelters, “duck and cover” exercises in grade school classrooms, the Communist revolution in Cuba, McCarthyism at home, and increased racial tensions all tell the story of a United States quite different from the wistful, fond memories that some older Americans still hold.
Although the United States and the Soviet Union had been allies in World War II, the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953 resulted in Nikita Khrushchev’s rise to power and his eventual strengthening of Soviet political and military control over Eastern Europe. Both the United States and the Soviet Union had nuclear weapons capabilities, and as tensions between the two world powers escalated, so did the buildup of arsenals on both sides....
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The “Cut-Up” Technique
The “cut-up” technique of composing prose originated with Burroughs, and it was a spin-off of his unusual method of putting together his most famous novel, Naked Lunch, from snippets of notes he wrote down and then pieced together. His follow- up novels, The Soft Machine, The Ticket That Exploded, and Nova Express, were constructed from chunks of various writings which he had literally cut up and then randomly paired into a new work. In doing so, he came up with such lines as the following: “He rents an amphitheater with marble walls he is a stone painter you can dig can create a frieze while you wait” and “The knife fell—The Clerk in the bunk next to his bled blue silence—Put on a clean shirt and Martin’s pants— telling stories and exchanging smiles—dusty motors,” both from Nova Express. Once Burroughs introduced it, the cut-up style of writing became a hit with the Beats, and others experimented with it in poetry, essays, and even political speeches, just for fun. The typical method is to take a written page, cut it down the middle vertically, then cut each of those two pieces in half horizontally, so that there are four “chunks” of writing. Next, arrange the chunks in different pairs to see what new lines or phrases appear. Burroughs found the results refreshing, even when the pieced-together prose made little or no sense and could not be translated literally. This style...
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While Beat writers were having their heyday throughout the 1950s, visual artists were also struggling against social conformity and the restrictions they felt postwar society placed on them with its expectations about art. What arose was a kind of “Beat” painting and sculpture that took the name “Abstract Expressionism,” and its techniques and resulting works rocked the art world as much as Beat writing disturbed the literary scene.
A group of painters and sculptors known as the New York School led the Abstract Expressionism revolt by advocating individual emotions and the freedom to present those emotions with as little inhibition as possible. The idea was to make the art of the moment, just as Kerouac’s spontaneous prose made literature of the moment. And like the Beat writers, abstract expressionists welcomed confrontation with a complacent society trying to settle into a safe, benign, middle-class life after World War II. There should be no complacency, according to the artists, and they rebelled against the image of the lofty painter standing at his easel overlooking a serene meadow and capturing the pastoral landscape on his canvas. Abstract expressionists often used huge canvases, and many rejected that conventional surface altogether. They used paper- mâché and three-dimensional objects as surfaces, and, in place of common artists’ brushes and scrapers, they used spray cans, garden tools, sticks,...
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Compare and Contrast
1940s: The beginnings of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union create an uneasy current of fear and doubt in an otherwise hopeful and complacent post–World War II United States. The conflict involves massive arms buildup by both nations, including nuclear warheads—the most worrisome aspect of the Cold War.
Today: The United States and Russia are allies in the war on terrorism, although President George W. Bush’s decision to withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which forbids testing and deployment of a ballistic missile defense system, greatly concerns Russian officials.
1940s: In an effort to flee the crime and “unsavory” elements of the big city, many Americans head to the suburbs. In Long Island, New York, builders erect Levittown, a middle-class suburb with prefabricated housing materials, the first of its kind. Over the next decade, land values increase, sometimes up to 3000 percent, in prime suburban neighborhoods, where population increases by 44 percent.
Today: Many inner-city areas are little more than dilapidated slums with high crime rates and widespread drug trafficking. Sociologists largely blame the “white flight” of the 1940s and 1950s for the decline of the cities, although there are current efforts to restore many downtowns and historical areas of cities and to draw people of all races and economic levels back there to live.
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Topics for Further Study
In the 1950s, the Beat Movement touted frequent drug use, sexual freedom, disinterest in social and political issues, and disregard for law. How do you think a movement like this would fare at the beginning of the twenty-first century? Why would American society tolerate a new Beat Movement or why would it not?
Though few in number, all the original members of the Beat Generation were young, white males, yet women and African Americans were certainly affected by and involved in the movement. Do some research to find out more about the lesser-known Beats and write an essay on how their lives were similar to or different from the prominent ones.
Of the three main artistic facets of the Beat Movement—writing, visual art, and music— the writings were the most controversial and often least welcomed by mainstream Americans. Why do you think this was true? What was it about Beat literature that was so different from Abstract Expressionist art and bebop music?
Author Gertrude Stein coined the term “Lost Generation” in the 1920s as a label for the intellectuals, poets, artists, and writers who fled to France after World War I. What did Stein mean by this term and how was the Lost Generation different from or similar to the Beat Generation?
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Corso’s most famous poem, “BOMB,” was originally published as a “broadside,” a single large sheet of paper printed on one side, by City Lights Books in 1958. It then appeared in Corso’s 1960 collection, The Happy Birthday of Death. Arranged in the shape of a mushroom cloud, the poem is Corso’s ironic attempt to mitigate the destruction of an atomic war by portraying the bomb-drop as a Christlike second coming. Essentially, the explosion marks the end of human history and the beginning of heavenly eternity. Although the theme is dark and chilling, Corso presents it in typical Beat style with a rush of fragmented images, raw language, and a wry sense of humor. It is primarily the latter attribute that turned off many wouldbe supporters. With lines such as, “I sing thee Bomb Death’s extravagance Death’s jubilee / . . . to die by cobra is not to die by bad pork,” Corso offended members of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament when he read the poem at New College in Oxford in 1958. The crowd heckled him. Some reviewers were kinder, however, expressing appreciation for the extraordinary imagery in “BOMB” and declaring the bizarre humor right on target with the Beat attitude. Critics on either side would have to admit that the poem brought Corso to the front of the Beat literary movement, although his work is probably least remembered.
A Coney Island of the Mind
A Coney Island of the Mind...
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The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg, directed by Jerry Aronson and released in 1994, is a comprehensive, affectionate documentary on the poet’s life. It runs eighty-three minutes and includes accounts of Ginsberg’s troubled childhood, his fame as a Beat and, later, as a hippie, and as a compassionate, still active, older poet.
John Antonelli’s documentary Kerouac was released in 1995. The film begins and ends with Kerouac reading excerpts from On the Road and uses an actor to portray some of the scenes from the Beat writer’s life. Actual footage of Kerouac includes TV clips, one showing his appearance on the William F. Buckley Show, in which he insults Ferlinghetti and declares himself a Catholic.
In 1997, writer and director Stephen Kay released The Last Time I Committed Suicide, a visual adaptation of actual letters written by Cassady and sent to Kerouac. The movie chronicles Cassady’s life as an oversexed young man in Denver and features rich, excellent detail of postwar American culture.
The four-CD set Howls, Raps and Roars: Recordings from the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance, produced by Fantasy Records, was released in 1993. It includes fifty-four minutes of Allen Ginsberg reading “Howl,” “Footnote to Howl,” and “Supermarket in California,” among other poems, as well as readings by Kenneth Rexroth, Ferlinghetti, Corso, and others.
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What Do I Read Next?
In 2000, literary historian Thomas Newhouse published The Beat Generation and the Popular Novel in the United States, 1945–1970. Newhouse provides history and criticism on popular American novels in chapters covering “The War at Home: The Novel of Juvenile Delinquency,” “Hipsters, Beats, and Supermen,” “Breaking the Last Taboo: The Gay Novel,” and “Which Way Is Up? The Drug Novel.”
Thomas Owens provides a thorough look at the innovative and controversial style of jazz that came alive in the 1940s and 1950s in Bebop: The Music and Its Players (1995). Focusing on the roots of bebop and moving into a study of its major players, including Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, Owens presents a readable, yet studious, account of the music and the techniques of the musicians. Serious jazz lovers will enjoy this work.
In Michael Leja’s 1993 book Reframing Abstract Expressionism: Subjectivity and Painting in the 1940s, the author suggests that Abstract Expressionist artists were part of a culture-wide initiative to “re-imagine the self.” Incorporating the works and interests of other personalities of the period, Leja compares such artists as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Willem de Kooning to contemporary essayists, Hollywood filmmakers, journalists, and popular philosophers.
In 1997, Yale professor John Lewis Gaddis published We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History. An expert on this...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Burroughs, William S., Nova Express, Grove Press, Inc., 1964, pp. 25, 134.
Corso, Gregory, “Bomb,” in Happy Birthday of Death, New Directions, 1960.
Foster, Edward Halsey, Understanding the Beats, University of South Carolina Press, 1992, p. 197.
Ginsberg, Allen, “Howl,” in Howl and Other Poems, City Lights, 1956.
Watson, Steven, Birth of the Beat Generation: Visionaries, Rebels, and Hipsters, 1944–1960, Pantheon Books, 1995.
Charters, Ann, Kerouac, Straight Arrow Books, 1973. This book is regarded as one of the most honest portrayals of both Kerouac and the Beats in general. Here, Charters thoroughly chronicles the life of the man that some consider “king” of the Beats. In the final section of the book, her description of a visit she made to Kerouac’s home in 1966 and the condition in which she found Kerouac himself implies anything but royalty.
Knight, Brenda, Women of the Beat Generation: The Writers, Artists, and Muses at the Heart of a Revolution, Conari Press, 1996. This book profiles forty members of the Beat Generation who are often overlooked—the women of the movement. Although their exploits and accomplishments are not as well publicized as those of their male counterparts, female Beats wrote poetry, took drugs, went on the road, listened to jazz, and lived on the...
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