Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1585
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 Kerouac’s most famous book, On the Road. Kerouac captured Cassady’s “voice” in the novel, essentially writing it the way Cassady talked: fast, off the cuff, without any hesitation or self-consciousness. The two travelers eventually parted, but Cassady continued his road adventures, winding up in Mexico in the late 1960s. There, after a night of too much alcohol, Cassady wandered out into the cold and rain and passed out. He slipped into a coma and died the following day, February 4, 1968.
Gregory Corso (1930–2001)
Gregory Corso was born March 26, 1930, in New York City. Of the writers who became famous among the Beats, Corso had one of the most natural poetic talents: he was capable of producing powerful lyric verse in an expressive, yet genuine voice, as well as bawdy, poetic ramblings, typically uninhibited and sexually explicit—hallmarks of Beat writing. Corso published his first volume of poetry, The Vestal Lady on Brattle and Other Poems, in 1955 and his second, Gasoline, in 1958. Also in 1958, Corso published a broadside of one of his most famous poems, “BOMB,” which was a love poem to the atomic weapon, written in the shape of a mushroom cloud. He became immediately popular with fellow Beat writers and with mainstream readers as well, but the popularity he enjoyed in the 1950s and 1960s dwindled over the decades. Still, he continued to write and publish and received the Jean Stein Award for Poetry from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1986. His most recent publication was Mindfield: New and Selected Poems, published in 1989 and reprinted in 1998. Corso died from prostate cancer in Minneapolis on January 17, 2001.
Allen Ginsberg (1926–1997)
Allen Ginsberg was born June 3, 1926, in Paterson, New Jersey, and grew up a shy, sensitive boy in a highly chaotic household. His father was a poet, teacher, and Jewish Socialist, and his mother was a radical Communist and unconstrained nudist with symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia. Her bouts with mental illness weighed heavily on the young Ginsberg, as he was often the only one she trusted when the rest of the world was, in her mind, plotting against her. But Ginsberg had another struggle with which to contend—his sexual orientation to boys was another issue he faced.
Ginsberg took his father’s advice to study labor law at Columbia. Although he had shown an interest in poetry previously, it was not until he met fellow student Kerouac and nonstudents Burroughs and Cassady that he turned his attention to literary pursuits. His friendship with these three and others among the rebel crowd had other influences as well: drugs, crime, and opportunities to express his homosexuality freely. Ginsberg was eventually suspended from Columbia. By then he was writing poetry profusely though not publishing much. His break came in 1955 when he joined other Beat poets for a public reading in San Francisco and delivered a resounding performance of what became his trademark poem, “Howl.” Just as Kerouac’s On the Road was the symbolic novel of the Beats, “Howl” was—and probably still is—the symbolic poem. Ginsberg’s popularity was almost instantaneous after this reading, and his first collection, Howl and Other Poems, was published in 1956. Other books followed in a relatively short period, and Ginsberg’s fame and infamy grew. Despite an obscenity trial for “Howl,” (which was eventually declared not obscene), he found recognition among the prestigious literary mainstream and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1963. In 1969, he received a grant from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, and, in 1974, a National Book Award for Fall of America. Ginsberg published poetry collections throughout the 1980s and 1990s, most recently Cosmopolitan Greetings: Poems, 1986–1992 and Selected Poems 1947–1995. Ginsberg died of a heart attack while suffering from liver cancer, April 5, 1997, in New York City.
Jack Kerouac (1922–1969)
Jack Kerouac was born March 12, 1922, in Lowell, Massachusetts. His father was a successful printer in Lowell, but by the mid-1920s, the economy of the city began to collapse, and the older Kerouac turned to gambling in hopes of supplementing his income. Young Jack was already interested in creating stories, inspired by radio talk shows, but he was also a star player on his high school football team. When Kerouac was awarded a football scholarship to play at Columbia, his family moved to New York with him. But at the university, Kerouac fell in with the renegade crowd, including Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Cassady, and he had a fight with his coach who, afterwards, refused to let him play. Eventually, he dropped out of Columbia, bitterly disappointing his family.
As a student, Kerouac had begun writing a novel, and his new friends praised his work. With Ginsberg’s promotional help, Kerouac’s first book, The Town and the City, was published in 1950, gaining him respect as a writer but not bringing him fame. Throughout the 1950s, Kerouac wrote novels that went unpublished for a time, including Dr. Sax and The Subterraneans, interspersed with his cross-country adventures with Cassady. But, one book that resulted from those travels put him on the map as one of the most—if not the most—significant writer of the Beat Movement: On the Road, published in 1957, was an immediate success. It was Kerouac who had coined the term “beat” to reflect both the downtrodden, world-weary attitudes of the post-World War II generation and, at the same time, the optimistic, “beatific” will to live unconstrained by social conventions. His own life certainly reflected these definitions, particularly the former, and he had difficulty tolerating his sudden stardom. He turned to alcohol for consolation and escape but was never able to control the drinking and manage a writing career at the same time. His last somewhat successful novel, Big Sur, was published in 1962. His health destroyed by alcohol, Kerouac died of a stomach hemorrhage in St. Petersburg, Florida, October 21, 1969.
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