The Beat Movement

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    Nov 01, 2013
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Jack Kerouac Novels
Jack Kerouac Novels
Photo by ToGa Wanderings

During the 1950s, a new, original, cultural and literary movement appeared in America. It was the Beat Movement.  This movement represents   an important period in the history of literature and American society. After the World War II, young American intellectuals started to criticize their society`s widespread materialism. Their similar views on society gave them a warm sense of community. They made some people realize that such worldly circumstances of the materialistic, greedy world drove the rebels and the artists to lead lives of depression and unhappy madness. Their lives were chaotic and they were shunned from mainstream society. Their pervasive themes were drug addiction, alcoholism, violence, sexuality, homosexuality, the inner probing of a lost person in the corrupt, materialistic world of the 20th century and the inescapable loneliness of human condition.

Combining influences such as jazz, art, literature, philosophy and religion, the beat writers created a new vision of contemporary life. The Beats expressed every aspect of their life honestly. They broke down the barriers of traditional literature. They invented the writing style which was followed in the future. The Beats tried to write poetry the way a person hears speech – without rhyming and without structure.  They also changed the way a generation of people had seen the world. This generation is now aging, but the message of the beat generation is still alive.  The Beats have changed the nature of American literature. They failed to adjust to the worldly norms and they offered an escape from the dull world we live in.  Many authors point out that ``they became the spokesmen for people rejected by the mainstream, whether drug addicts, homosexuals, the emotionally disposed, or mentally ill``.  (Charters, 1992: 4). 

The Beats combined various materials to create their unique vision of literature and culture. Romantic poets, such as Percy Bysshe Shelley and William Blake are often mentioned as very influential on enrichment of Beat Literature. Besides, Transcendental Movement during the 19th century inspired the rebellious Beats` politics. Henry David Thoreau was remarkably appreciated as a symbol of a protest. 

There are many writers whose work contributed to the literature of the beat movement. They were young men dresses in black, hanging out at coffee shops, protesting against wars and reading their latest poetry. They were all sailing in their separate small boats made of dreams and words, but they were constantly in touch. Some of them   survived and some of them haven`t.  It was sometimes a matter of what`s called luck and sometimes a matter of having or not having the gift to endure and the will to.  However, Jack Keroauc, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsburg and Gregory Corso were the most famous beat writers.

These writers formed lifelong friendships that survived despite their dispersion as a group in the early 1950s. As the historian Alferd Kazin understood, the Beats created a new kind of bohemian community. They were a ``family of friends``, to use Kazin`s term, which found the strenght like any family through their bonds of affection and common interests to withstand the indifference and hostility of the larger society around them. Over the years they lived in various rooms and apartments scattered throughout New York, first around Columbia University and Times Square, then on the Lower East Side, Brooklyn, Harlem, the Bronx, and Lexington Avenue. Greenwich Village was rarely in the picture. Its heyday as a center for radical literary and political activity has passed with the area`s gentrification in the early 1940s. There was no radical bohemian tradition in New York to sustain the early Beats. (Charters, 1992: 2).   

Jack Keroauc is probably the best beat writer of his generation. When he was a teenager , he used to read a lot. Some authors point out that ``Jack was an autodidact who had read assidiously since high school.`` (Pekar, 2009: 5).  His literature is an example of the changes that were happening at the time. Keroauc wrote many famous works and  his major theme was simply America. The first novel that he published was “The Town and the City”. The book was about a young man who was struggling with being young and living a wild life, and at the same time sticking to his old family values.

The book was written during pre-beat-era. Nevertheless, beat themes are already obvious. The protagonist wants to explore life but his family values prevent him to do so.  This story reflects Kerouac`s childhood. He left his small town to enroll in Columbia University. He wanted to become a lawyer, so he could be a rich man and support his parents. But Kerouac gave up on his dreams and became a wild young man. The result was his dropping out of college altogether. The novel has gained him some recognition as a writer, but it has never brought him fame. He became very famous in 1957 when his book “On the Road” was published.

“On the Road” is the story of two beat thinkers Kerouac and Neal Cassady who travel across the country. They steal for their food and drink and party with jazz musicians in the clubs they visit. Kerouac discussed many controversial themes. For example, they go to Mexico to buy marijuana. Then later in the day, they go to a bar where they spend the evening buying drinks and prostitutes. Kerouac tried to find himself. This was not the last time Kerouac wrote about controversial themes; he also explored inter-racial relationships and Buddhism.

William Burroughs was older than other beats and he frequently gave them wise advices. He was a drug addict and he never thought of himself as a writer. However, his friend suggested to him to write a novel that would describe his experiences with drugs. His most influential book, ``Junkie``, is celebrated for making society become aware of the drug culture. This book is an autobiographical and touching story of a young man`s suffering from drug addiction. The author wanted to demonstrate young people what horrors they will have to face if the follow the same path.


Burroughs continued to write. He wrote a book with a title `` Essay Desposition: Testimony Concerning a Sickness``. This book is about the method of experimental cure from heroin addiction which was available only in England. Burroughs went to England to cure himself. Nowadays, this method is known as the methadone treatment and it is used all over the world.   When he stopped using drugs, Burroughs wrote ``The Naked Lunch``, which is the best example of his talent. This book consists of the group of short scenes, or various episodes. It includes vivid and poetic descriptions of hallucinations and withdrawal from heroin. Burroughs had a great influence on literary world. If he had written only ``Naked Lunch``, he would still be considered as one of the leading Beat writers. ``Naked Lunch`` is difficult and sometimes horrifying novel. Nevertheless, readers continue to be attracted to it because of its unusual style, use of language and originality. 

Allen Ginsberg is the most popular beat poet. He had a hard childhood, trying to be a normal boy, although he was aware of the fact that he wasn`t so normal. He did his best to hide his romantic feelings for boys. He loved his mother very much. However, when he was a young boy, she was sent to a mental institution and she never returned. Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs became his friends because they felt the same about the world as he did. His literary career started when he had a spiritual encounter with his favorite poet, William Blake. Ginsberg thought that he had found God and he devoted his life to poetry. His poem ``Howl`` became legendary. This poem celebrates non-conformity.

The poem ``Kaddish`` is also highly acclaimed. This poem is devoted to his beloved mother. Ginsberg followed spontaneous writing.  He thought that poems should be written right away, without revision.  Ginsberg`s poetry was astonishing, shocking, touching and well-known. He inspired the next generation with his passion and belief in the greatness of human spirit.  After the beat generation had passed, Ginsberg joined the hippie movement. He didn`t stop his search for non-conformity and personal freedom. Gregory Corso used to be a mischief-maker as teenager. He was already in prison at the age of 16 and he wrote several poems there. Corso met Ginsberg in a bar and read his poems to him. Ginsberg was moved by them and he helped Corso to publish a book and to continue writing poetry.

Like Ginsberg, Corso also followed spontaneous writing. His famous poem is ``BOMB``.  It is a love poem to an atomic bomb, written in the shape of a mushroom cloud. His most famous poem is ``Marriage``. Corso has acquired a rising affirmation over the years. Nowadays, he is considered as legendary as Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs.  A lot of people didn`t respect beat writers. They thought that their art was just provocation. Nevertheless, time has proven that beat literature was long-lived and that it is still influential all over the world. They are now recognized as innovators of the new American literature after the end of the World War II.

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