Beat Movement

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Themes

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Disillusionment
At the end of World War II, Americans enjoyed a period of blissful relief and charged-up happiness unlike any realized before. Although an odd mixture of pride and sorrow over the dropping of atomic bombs left many people uneasy about the path to victory, it did not waylay the renewed spirit of optimism and drive for prosperity that swept the country at a feverish pace. The latter part of the 1940s and most of the 1950s have been called times of innocent fun, social quietude, and old-fashioned family values. The end of the war turned Rosie the Riverter into June Cleaver, as most women gave up their wartime jobs to raise the first of the baby boomers while dads worked as the sole breadwinners in the family. But, not everyone welcomed a neatly prescribed life with the perfect spouse, two kids, and a white picket fence around a well-manicured lawn. Some people were disillusioned with postwar complacency and protested social norms that smelled more like social control than simply a style of living. A faction of those people became self-identified members of the Beat Generation.

Disillusionment may be considered the “core” theme of the Beat Movement, for it encompasses the basic reason for the split from mainstream society that the original Beats desired. Although the foundations of the movement may be traced to the four kindred personalities of Kerouac, Burroughs, Corso, and Ginsberg, there is little doubt that countless other Americans were experiencing a shift in feelings in the wake of a war with unsurpassed technological destruction. To have the nation responsible then settle into an era of homeland peace, frivolity, and abundance was too much for some to swallow. People attracted to what would become the Beat lifestyle turned in that direction because of an initial distrust of America’s renewed sense of pride and accomplishment, many fearing that a gratified soci- ety was a vulnerable one, left open to greater governmental and social control. Rather than be mollified by the quaintness of the average happy family in the average happy neighborhood, the disillusioned Beats struck out against such expected contentment in favor of being intentionally discontented.

Social Nonconformity
If disillusionment is a core theme of the Beat Movement, social nonconformity is another motif that directly resulted from it. Looking solely at the four major originators, one may assume that only criminals and drug addicts were true members of the Beat Generation. But, as tempting as it seems, that assumption is an unfair generalization of the entire group. Surely, most Beats visibly and vocally pronounced themselves social outsiders, but, for some, being different meant wearing a particular style of clothing, listening to jazz music improvisations, using hip language, and showing complete disinterest in social and political concerns. For others, nonconformity did entail a more reckless lifestyle; from heavy use of alcohol and other drugs to theft, homicide, and gangster involvement, many took life to a steep extreme, and some, of course, fell over the edge.

The most common responses of nonconformity shared by both moderate and extremist Beats were a rejection of materialism, scoffing at traditional American values, and complete indifference toward social activism. At the same time, individual expression and personal enlightenment were highly regarded, and the pursuit of self-awareness often translated into free-spirited, spur-of-the-moment adventures across town or across the country. Obviously, some members of the Beat Generation had to maintain steady jobs, but mobility was key to staying clear of social constraints and circumscribed behavior. Perhaps the strongest statement of nonconformity expressed by this generation was to accept and, indeed, celebrate its description as “beat.” The...

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term essentially pointed a finger in society’s face and said, “Look what you’ve done to us.”

Spontaneity
While spontaneity is more an action than an idea, it has been called the primary virtue and a oneword summary of the Beat Movement. This theme more than any other speaks to the frenzied, intense emotional states that many Beats found both exhilarating and necessary. Moreover, it embodies the tendency not to think twice about hopping into a car and taking off for unknown destinations just for the thrill of adventure and the prospect of discovering something new about oneself and life in general. To be impulsive was not to be cautious. For the Beats, caution was a symptom of social conformity, and living off the cuff was an openly defiant response to such careful, regimented existence.

While living life as an unbridled, impetuous free spirit may seem harmless enough—even attractive, though most citizens would not admit it— spontaneity often manifested itself in dangerous activities for the Beat Generation that not only changed the rapid-fire lives of many, but also ended some. Indiscriminate sexual encounters with numerous partners, often strangers, were common among Beat followers, and these spontaneous acts occasionally led to unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. Physical pleasure also came in liquid form—whether whiskey to drink or heroin to inject, drugs flowed freely among the Beats, and the desire for an immediate rush far outweighed any concern about overdosing or even dying. The abuse of cigarettes and marijuana helped maintain a moderate high in between heavier drug trips, and the continuous search for sensory experiences was considered a justifiable reason for remaining open to spontaneous urges.

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