In this essay, I discuss reasons why critics were hostile toward the Beat
The Beat Generation: Fact or Myth?
In the fifties, a cultural phenomenon swept the nation. Millions of youths began to call themselves "Beats," write poetry, and use drugs. They complained about conservative America and the dangers of conformity, and media regarded them as lazy drug addicts. Years later, when Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg published their works, critics and the media treated them as spawns of this counterculture. Critics and the nation looked down upon the Beat writers for their extravagant lifestyles, but few in their time recognized the great literature they were making and the impact they would have on American literature.
Years before the publication of Jack Kerouac's On the Road, the media was showering the nation with stories of the Beat Generation. When Kerouac emerged, he became the quintessential "beatnik," a word created by journalist Herb Caen as a play on the satellite Sputnik; Caen and others insisted that the Beat types were "equally far out" (qtd. in Watson 4). The media found their spokesperson and whipping boy in Kerouac and friends. Portrayed as mythic figures, Kerouac and other beats became the focus of newspapers and film. They pinned these writers with the beatnik archetype of goateed, bereted, bongo playing, marijuana smoking poets. Any females associated with Kerouac were portrayed as pale, leotard sporting whores (Watson 259).
Kerouac found the fame stifling, as he struggled to avoid the throngs of women who wanted him and the scores of men who despised him (Watson 254). According to Beat historian Steven Watson, Kerouac "dreamed of police chasing him through Lowell and endless ranks of children chanting his name" (254). He began drinking, partying, and womanizing more than ever to avoid the media (Watson 255). To journalists, Kerouac embodied the Beats, and they were hungry for his answers. Newspapers ran ads offering beatniks for rent, Mad magazine satirized them, critics bashed their writings, and thousands more jumped on the Beat bandwagon (Watson 258). Mistaking them for stereotypical beatniks, few knew the origins and motives of these writers.
The original Beat Generation consisted only of Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg. The three tirelessly devoted months on end to developing a truly original voice. They lived voluptuous lifestyles as well, drinking and womanizing. Each of the three felt horribly alienated from society and attempted to relieve this feeling through drugs. Kerouac was haunted by his brother's death at age seven (George-Warren 110) and guilt-ridden due to his mother's saying, "You should have died, not Gerard" (qtd. in Watson 21). Allen Ginsberg repressed feelings of homosexuality and fought schizophrenia throughout his life (Watson 26). Burroughs was teased for his homosexuality as a child and battled heroin addiction until his death (Naked Lunch xxxv). The three semi-neurotics were only concerned with putting thoughts on paper and controlling their negative feelings. Many critics focused on the extreme lifestyles they lived and never knew that they were troubled men. The Beats attempted to assuage their negative feelings through writing, and they simultaneously created great works of literature. However, their lives overshadowed their novels and poems.
Kerouac and Burroughs were equally prolific, and they used similar techniques, usually referred to as "spontaneous prose." Most critics paid little attention to the literary endeavors of the two, exchanging these for their sensational lifestyles. When critics did review their works, they saw them as superficial, rambling "guides for the superficially alienated" (qtd. in Foster xi). Once again, critics saw them as clones of the beatniks. Highbrow journals such as The Nation became forums for anti-beat critics (Watson 259). One critic, Norman Podhoretz, wrote, "Kerouac's motto is kill the intellectuals who can talk coherently, kill the people who can't sit still, kill those…who are capable of getting seriously involved with a woman, a job, a cause" (qtd. in Watson 259). The critics didn't realize that most of Kerouac's writing was fictional, and they mistook him for his characters, which were based on exaggerations of Kerouac's companions. Kerouac, Burroughs, and Ginsberg simply attempted to record their thoughts as they occured, and their characters mimic this in their fast, raw actions. Some lesser-known critics of the time valued spontaneous prose. As critic James T. Jones asserts, Kerouac's rapidity "parodied the consumer-goods overproduction of the '50's" (qtd. in Sterritt 195). Thus he may be seen as a socially motivated writer rather than a selfish drug addict.
Aside from the speed characteristic of Beat writings, Burroughs was very different from Kerouac and Ginsberg. The beatnik stereotype didn't fit Burroughs, for, despite his pernicious habits, he was a socially conscious, incredibly intelligent individual. Burroughs didn't receive the publicity that Kerouac did, for he was in Tangiers writing Naked Lunch (Watson 255). While Kerouac merely hinted at the state of society in the fifties, Burroughs blatantly attacked all that he saw as false. He criticized the selfishness of political leaders and prophesized the grim future resulting from industry. Burroughs saw a world void of individuality, a world where people cloned themselves and cannibalized and raped one another (Naked Lunch). After the novel's publication, it was banned in America due to its heavily sexual content. While only a few critics immediately recognized Kerouac's genius, many writers and critics defended the literary merit of Naked Lunch (Watson 281). However, while some critics recognized the unprecedented form of Burroughs' writing, most regarded it as "the foulest collection of printed filth" (qtd. in Watson 281). Due to this, every mainstream newspaper in America denounced the novel, and the Beats once again failed to receive the praise they deserved. When Burroughs accidentally shot and killed wife Joan Vollmer, critics and media were quick to regard him as a psychopath (Watson 153). Burroughs was guilt-ridden his entire life, and he found solace in drugs and writing. The media saw Vollmer's death as another reason to disregard the literary endeavors of the Beats. Despite the dozens of novels Burroughs wrote after Vollmer's death, few critics in his time would ever again praise him for his writing style.
While Kerouac and Burroughs preferred prose, Ginsberg wrote poetry. He read his epic Howl in a San Francisco bar, and the legions of Beat followers soon followed suit. Critics soon became unable to identify Ginsberg's unprecedented style amidst the many imposters. They concluded that the Beats were a part of the San Francisco Renaissance, further obscuring the truth about the Beats (Foster 2). Beat-bashing critics used this as another reason for insulting the Beats, insisting that they weren't "a true alternative to the status quo…but another cleverly disguised reflection of it" (Sterritt 103). However, poet William Carlos Williams realized that Howl was unique in its style and simplicity. Attracted to the sympathy expressed in Ginsberg's writing, Williams became a mentor for the Beats, encouraging them to continue their zestful writing (Watson 127).
The Beat writers were not, of course, akin to the beatnik models associated with them. Neither of the three wore berets or goatees. They were artists, not superficial poseurs like the media believed. The media misconceived who the real Beats were, because, at the time of the publication of the principal Beat works, the Beat phenomena had already exploded on America. Before Kerouac or Burroughs published their novels, their lifestyle was already popularized by journals such as Jay Landesman's Neurotica (Foster 12). Friends of Kerouac, Burroughs, and Ginsberg, such as John Clellon Holmes, wrote numerous articles on Beat life. Thousands of disillusioned individuals formed a Beat Generation dissimilar to the one started by the founders. These second-generation Beats did often fit the stereotype and often lived shallow, commercial lives. These pseudo-Beats seemed to condemn society for no apparent reason other than to be "hip," and critics assumed that Kerouac and Burroughs were mere spawns of these coffeehouse denizens. According to publisher Edward Foster, the Beat writers were individuals, and the rest of the Beat phenomena was "nothing but a journalist's or critic's fantasy" (4).
The Beat writers were the avant-garde creators of the ideals that became severely muddled by their generation. The three talked of a "New Vision," an overhaul of modern ideals (Foster 5). Rather than live comforting lives and conforming to society's norms, the Beats sought to capture the spirit of America by living with junkies, thieves, and outcasts (Foster 5). These people lived insecure, fast lives, and Kerouac and Burroughs modeled not only their characters, but also their form after them. They felt that the individual had no place in America in the fifties, and their sympathy for humanity is reflected in their works. The beats, especially Kerouac, felt that America no longer valued "wild self-believing individuality" (Foster 7). According to Foster, they longed for "frontier America," where the working-class man wasn't "impersonal and unemotional" (8). They wanted America to share their longing for the heroism of which America was bankrupt.
The Beats wanted to express themselves in a constructive manner. All three felt stifled by intellectualism. According to Holmes, society eagerly blamed their problems on childhood or society, with Freud's and Marx's theories, respectively (Foster 18). The Beats felt that these were no longer acceptable ways of confronting society's problems. They were optimistic and attempted to breathe life into an America they perceived as crumbling. Critics, however, weren't ready for this optimism. Most preferred "objective," rather than "expressive" prose, and conservative critics shunned the underground portrayed by the Beats (Foster 18).
With the help of many writers who supported the Beats, they overcame criticism and became part of the canon of American literature. Despite the resistance from authority figures, the ban on Naked Lunch was repealed in 1966 (Naked Lunch ix). Norman Mailer and Henry Miller insisted that Burroughs was one of their biggest influences (Watson 283). Kerouac's On the Road became a cult classic, and universities began to teach courses in Beat literature. The response to such courses, according to Beat literature professor John Tytell, has been outstanding, as students quickly enroll (Lawlor 2).
Even in the time of the Beats' lives, some liberal professors taught Beat literature. These men saw the merit of their writings, and soon the literary establishment couldn't afford to ignore the Beats due to the professors and writers in favor of them. Burroughs and Ginsberg became members of the American Academy of Arts and Letters (Lawlor 2). The three Beat writers achieved several prestigious awards, including the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award (Lawlor 2). Thus the Beats can be credited with shifting American prose from "objective" to "subjective."
Beat writings have survived obstacles created by critics and have gained worldwide popularity. Although critics sought to smother Beat writings with scandalous stories of excessive behavior, the three Beat writers are enjoyed today all over the world. The fact that Kerouac, Burroughs, and Ginsberg are still being read in Japan and Europe testifies to the profound impact they have had on countless individuals (Lawlor 2). In addition to this personal significance, Beat works have impacted American society. The Naked Lunch and Howl trials have helped fight censorship and have helped create current standards for publication (Lawlor 3). One cannot deny the similarities between the Beats and counterculture phenomena of the sixties and seventies. The ideals of the "hippies" stem mainly from the Beats. The social transformations these groups caused, including denouncing racism and promoting human rights, are often considered Beat in origin (Lawlor 3).
Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg are now considered some of the best writers of the twentieth century. Now that Beat works are read before stories of the authors' lives, readers and critics can form an unbiased opinion of their quality. Readers who refuse to allow the writers' vices to impact personal opinion will testify that the hopeful, joyous messages conveyed in the writings are timeless. It is this timelessness that ensures the Beats will touch each generation and inspire people to enjoy life, have fun, and transcend the "beatness" of day-to-day life.
Burroughs, William. Naked Lunch. New York: Grove, 1992.
Foster, Edward Halsey. Understanding the Beats. Columbia: S. Carolina, 1992.
George-Warren, Holly, ed. The Rolling Stone Book of the Beats. New York: Hyperion, 1999.
Lawlor, William. The Beat Generation. The Magill Bib. Series. Lanham: Scarecrow, 1998.
Sterritt, David. Mad to be Saved: the Beats, the 50’s, and Film. Carbondale: S. Illinois, 1998.
Watson, Steven. The Birth of the Beat Generation: Visionaries, Rebels, and Hipsters, 1944-1960. New York: Pantheon, 1995.
I highly reccommend all of these books if you are interested in the Beat Generation.