The Beat Generation: Members, Ideology, and Influences

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Neal Cassady (and the love of that year) photographed by Allen Ginsberg

“Nobody knows whether we were just catalysts or invented something, or just the froth riding on a wave of its own. We were all three, I suppose,” writes Allen Ginsberg, who along with William Burroughs, and Jack Kerouac, was one of the core founders of the Beat Generation, a literary movement inspired by politics and culture of the post-WWII American society. Coming to fruition in the 1950s, the movement coalesced around poets and polemicists in San Francisco and Berkley, California, and in New York City. The members of this movement were considered counterculture and rejected standard poetic and societal norms.

The shared values of Beat Generation authors include rejection of materialism, exploitation of Eastern religions, psychedelic experimentation, explicit and raw illustrations of the human condition, and sexual liberation. To reach a heightened state of sensory awareness, the Beat Generation advocated for Zen Buddism, drugs, sex, and jazz and bebop music. Common themes within Beat Generation writings include the demystification/decriminalization of marijuana, opposition to the military-industrial ‘machine civilization,’ and sexual freedom. 

Though the movement faded by the 1960s, the effects of these great writers continue to be longstanding. The openness and raw emotion of the Beat writers helped break down barriers in the artistic and literary worlds. Great later writers who were influenced by the Beat Generation include Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, and Gary Snyder. Similarly, the Beat Generation influenced the notable Andy Warhol, an abstract pop artist who also went against artistic norms to create his paintings. After the world was introduced to Beat Generation writing, poetry become more free-form and unconventional. Overall, the Beat Generation created a more abstract and unapologetic generation of writers and artists.

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William Burroughs photographed by Allen Ginsberg

The greatest works of the Beat Generation, which still influence writing today, have changed my perspective on the medium itself. My favorite Beat Generation works include “Howl” and “A Supermarket in California” by Allen Ginsberg; “Old Angel Midnight” and On The Road by Jack Kerouac, The Soft Machine and And the Hippos Were Boiled in their Tanks by William Burroughs; “An Exercise in Love” by Diane Di Prima; and the crowning piece of the entire Beat Generation- “America” by Allen Ginsberg. 

Allen Ginsberg’s “America” is a heart-wrenching, angry, and enigmatic poem about the infrastructure and operations of the mechanized, militaristic, capitalist society of America in the 1950s. In the wake of WWII, Ginsburg discusses the political unrest that has stained the American soil. He discusses the Cold War foreign policy positions the United States embroils itself in and his contempt with the nation’s handling of these situations at stake. Within “America” Ginsberg discusses themes such as the creation and threat of nuclear bombs, organized religion, drug use, and the fight against communism. Ginsberg is ranting to the omniscient America so as much as he is rambling to himself, and his ebullient, frustrated, radical declarations are both political and vulgar. Ginsberg’s impenetrable tenacity and fierce argumentation raise skepticism about the world around us; especially within such the highly advanced and praised democracy that America broadcasts. To exemplify this, below is the first stanza of Allen Ginsberg’s “America.”

 

America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing.
America two dollars and twentyseven cents January 17, 1956.   
I can’t stand my own mind.
America when will we end the human war?
Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb.
I don’t feel good don’t bother me.
I won’t write my poem till I’m in my right mind.
America when will you be angelic?
When will you take off your clothes?
When will you look at yourself through the grave?
When will you be worthy of your million Trotskyites?
America why are your libraries full of tears?
America when will you send your eggs to India?
I’m sick of your insane demands.
When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks?

 

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William Burroughs photographed by Allen Ginsberg

 

To read the rest of “America”, please visit: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/49305/america-56d22b41f119f

Post written by Emily Bunn

 

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