MOST OBSERVERS of the post War literary/art/music movement known as the Beat Generation agree that it is a state of mind. That is to say, you cannot become a 'beat' - it is either embedded in your personality or it isn't. This is true enough, although the essential message espoused by that small coterie of New York writers has had an evergreen appeal to the young (and once young) and a far reaching influence on contemporary American culture.
In 1995, the Whitney Museum of Art kicked off a wide ranging survey exhibition Beat Culture and the New America 1950-1965 which would attempt to refocus the importance of a small group of non-academic writers on a whole generation and drew on numerous personal reminiscences from players on the scene, many now dead. An excellent catalogue was produced for the touring show, co-published by Flammarion and edited by Lisa Phillips. It offered a long overdue look at how the Beat psychology infiltrated other creative arts, especially film and music. One reason the Beatles spell their name with an ‘a’ is that John Lennon was a fan of Jack Kerouac.
Primarily a literary movement (although there was a defined relationship with Jazz and painting) the philosophical keystones of the Beat Generation were written works: Allen Ginsberg's poem, Howl (1956); William S. Burroughs's Naked Lunch (1959); and Jack Kerouac's On the Road (1957). Of these, it is Kerouac’s anthem for the spiritual freedom of youth and the disregard for the strictures of society norms that repeatedly strikes a contemporary tone.
The circumstances that created the Beat sensibility are worth noting. All the major participants had first hand knowledge of the American Depression years, closely followed by WWII - Jack Kerouac, born 1922; Allen Ginsberg (1926); William Burroughs (1914); John Clellon Holmes (1926) and Neal Cassady (1926). The rigour of being at War and the economic boom that resulted - and extended into the 1950s - ran parallel with a ‘military’ mentality and conservatism. Any ‘counter culture’ activity was easily subdued by the rampant ‘Reds under the bed’ political paranoia and Cold War claustrophobia. To be young and free thinking was to swim against the tide of a mythical (recently victorious) square jawed, clean cut, national identity.
This group was comprised of neither wasters nor drop outs. Their assimilation took place in the highly academic environs of Columbia University, although actually Kerouac attended on a sports scholarship. The dynamics within this coterie of friends is also interesting to observe. Burroughs, a Harvard graduate, the slightly older man with clear homosexual tendencies, financially secure on a lifelong stipend from a family trust fund; Ginsberg, a romantic closet gay, immersed in American literature and soon to fall hopelessly in love with Neal Cassady; and Kerouac, a womanising football player, with rugged matinee idol looks and an ex-merchant marine. Burroughs’ addictive and disturbed personality was the bridge to the New York streets, an underworld of drugs and petty crime, in the form of Herbert Huncke (a degenerate from an affluent background). Because of the War, students were obliged to lodge ‘off campus’ for the first time in Columbia‘s history and the middle class boys were thrilled to make these connections to another, dangerous ‘reality’, despite getting tangled up with law enforcement because of it. When Neal Cassady appeared on the scene in 1947, Ginsberg became obsessed with him and they carried on an affair for the next 20 years, briefly reciprocated by Cassady. As ‘Dean Moriarty’, Cassady became immortal as the anti-hero of Kerouac’s On the Road.
The seminal work of the Beat Generation is undoubtedly On the Road. It suggests a pattern of male behaviour that still has echoes today, with retirees buying up Harley-Davidson motor cycles and young persons off on the eponymous ’Gap Year’. The novel was actually written in 1951 - shortly after John Clellon Holmes’ Go, and the article This is the Beat Generation - but only published in 1957. It covered events that had taken place in the late '40s and, though many people thought it reflected the late '50s era, actually documented that period ten years earlier.
How On the Road was written is equally legendary. High on Benzedrine and coffee, 35 year old Kerouac typed manically on a continuous scroll of telegraph-paper - to avoid having to break his chain of thought at the end of each sheet of standard paper. Although Kerouac claimed he wrote the book in one mad three-week burst, it is known he had written several earlier drafts and had been contemplating the novel for years. Also, there were many changes between the ‘scroll’ manuscript and the published version. Whatever, the author became - literally - an overnight sensation.
September 2007 marked the half centenary of this milestone in American literature. The British publisher (writer and Jazz musician) Mike Evans, has tackled the emotive and complex evolution of the Beats in a timely revision subtitled From Kerouac to Kesey: an illustrated journey through the Beat Generation. It is a glorious photo-fest of portraits, intimate snaps and ephemera from this ground breaking, youthful revolution, where literature, art and music were hi-jacked in an intellectual coup d’état that was to have lasting ramifications on contemporary cultural mores. Evans brings to the text a personal knowledge of - and association with - the main players in the Beat canon, especially Allen Ginsberg and Carolyn, Mrs Neal Cassady (now 85 and living in Berkshire, England).
Evans has the ‘beat’ sensibility and this imbues the book with an informed and authoritative voice, yet still providing a text that is accessible to anyone new to the genre. He tracks the convoluted relationships (hetro, homo and switch) of the nucleus of New Yorkers whose influence extended out to San Francisco and to the Black Mountain (art) school. The ideology that was taken, bastardised and recycled, through the Beatniks, to the Hippies, and on to the Punks and Travellers, losing, at each turn, the authenticity - and intellectual and spiritual rigour - of the original concept.
Beat is a state of mind. Many tried to imitate the seemingly irresponsible lifestyle - only to crash and burn without the necessary self discipline. The heroes of the Beat Generation were also casualties themselves - but of an intellectual nature. Kerouac became rapidly disillusioned with the corruption of the sincere apophthegm contained in On the Road and the lost youth it recalled. Twelve years later, he was dead of cirrhosis of the liver (1969) following years of alcohol abuse. Neal Cassady was found lying in a coma on a railway line in Mexico and died hours later (1968) after 10 years of playing up to being ‘Dean Moriarty’ in real life. Only Ginsberg, a dedicated Buddhist, lived on long enough to appreciate the true impact and longevity of their collective work, and to see it being reassessed as a major 20th literary form. His death in 1997 was marked by genuine grief across the global world of literature. Curiously, William Burroughs death the same year at 83 was greeted more prosaically. Mike Evans and the Running Press do full justice to their memory and to a movement that embraced drugs, sexual liberation, murder, celebrity and dreams.