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. In the United States, personal tensions mounted as well, and some families constructed bomb shelters in their back yards while their children learned how to drop to the classroom floor and cover their heads in the event that bomb sirens sounded during school hours. In an attempt to improve relations, President Eisenhower and Khrushchev were to meet at a summit in Paris in 1959, but two weeks prior to the event, a U.S. spy plane was shot down over Russia. The summit still took place, but the Soviet leader stormed out before it was over, and another planned meeting between Khrushchev and Eisenhower in Moscow was canceled. Meanwhile, closer to home, Fidel Castro led a Communist revolution in Cuba and became that country’s ruler in 1959.
The Cold War and the threat of real war was a major impetus behind Eisenhower’s decision to launch the largest public works program in U.S. history—the construction of the Interstate Highway System, which would connect the nation coast to coast and provide emergency runways for military aircraft, as well as quicker evacuation...
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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 protected against what he and other experimental writers considered the confining boundaries of traditional word usage and standard grammar. The cut-up style was as much a rebellion against language control as a quirky creative impulse, and Burroughs claimed rebellion was the more important factor.
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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, and a variety of other objects to create their work. Even more outrageous, the abstract expressionists employed whatever material was convenient to incorporate into a piece of art—from broken glass and sand piles to toilet seats and garbage.
One major avant-garde artist of this period, Jackson Pollock, created “drip paintings” by literally holding a can of paint above a surface and letting it drip onto it. Pollock was also known for stepping back from a large canvas with his can in hand, then slinging it so that the paint splashed in wild streaks all over the surface. Robert Rauschenberg created what he called “combines,” or artworks that integrated three-dimensional objects such as umbrellas, stuffed toys, and tires with other material. And in 1959, Claes Oldenburg walked through the streets of New York City wearing a paper-mâché elephant mask, his first one-man art show. Later, he collaborated with Coosje van Bruggen, his wife, to design and build huge public artworks of common objects, such as a giant clothespin in Philadelphia, big shuttlecocks strewn across the museum lawn in Kansas City, and a large spoon with a cherry perched on it in Minneapolis.
When Cleveland disk jockey Alan Freed started using the term “rock and roll” in 1951, it was in reference to his radio show, “Moondog House Rock and Roll Party”; the music he was playing was rhythm and blues....
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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,...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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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...
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