Beat Movement

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Critical Overview

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Criticism of the Beat Movement was initially almost as divided as the Beats themselves were from mainstream American society. While there was little disagreement that the Beat Generation had indeed caused a stir with its literature, art, and music, supporters and detractors argued mostly about the true artistic value of the methods and the results. The prevalent negative critique claimed, simply, that their writings were not literature. Beat writers were attacked for their disregard for proper grammar and their often incoherent, rambling prose that seemed accessible only to its authors. Supporters, however, found the strange styles and shocking subjects refreshing and justified the creative techniques as valid reactions to a humdrum, conservative mainstream. Decades after their fading away—and after the beatniks and hippies of the 1960s, disco freaks of the 1970s, and “me” generation of the 1980s— a more objective criticism emerged.

Recent Beat Movement reviewers have largely put aside the debate over what was real writing talent and what was not in order to concentrate on why the movement began in the first place and what influence it had on its own generation and those that followed. In his 1992 publication of Understanding the Beats, author Edward Halsey Foster claims that “writing was for the Beats a means through which the self might be redeemed, or at the very least a place where its redemption might be recorded.” Foster went on to rationalize the unorthodox writing style as “a literature through which the individual could flourish beyond all factionalism, all ideologies.” This philosophical contention echoes many critics’ hindsight summaries of what the Beat Movement was all about. Most now agree that there was merit after all in its writings and other artistic expressions. Perhaps Steven Watson says it best in his response to Kerouac’s historical definition of the Beat Generation as those who “espouse mystical detachment and relaxation of social and sexual tensions,” a description the Beat icon provided for Random House Dictionary. In The Birth of the Beat Generation, published in 1995, Watson says that “As the twentieth century draws to a close, the Beat Generation has outlived that historical moment, surviving notoriety and media blitz to become classic literature for succeeding generations.”

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Essays and Criticism