The Beat Generation


Jazz, Drugs and On The Road: Jingan Young explores The Beat Generation

One night in 1955 at the Six Gallery, 3119 Fillmore St., in “mad” San Francisco, in a country that had yet to wash its hands from two bloody wars, a country in fear of reds, of homosexuality, individualism, a couple of “down and out bums” – Lamantia, Whalen,  McClure, Ginsberg, Snyder and Ferlinghetti brought forth from the East and West of America – gathered together for a reading that came to define “The Beat Generation”.

We tend to forget the name also makes an explicit, if not self-conscious reference to their idiosyncratic style: pulsating, urgent, inebriated, doped-up rhythms that took on a life of their own, language rooted in jazz, Ford cars, suspicion and sex. Incidentally, Jack Kerouac, who was soon to become a bonafide celebrity for On The Road did not read that evening, opting instead to pass around copious amounts of wine in gallon-jugs before a drunk, then-unpublished Allen Ginsberg took to the stage to read part one of his epic poem Howl. “All that was missing was the orgy,” he commented afterwards.

The opening to Ginsberg’s Howl epitomises what The Beats proposed: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving/hysterical naked.” One could see their response, alongside artists and filmmakers of the period, attempt to subvert these constraints. The 1950s were full of conflict, as isolated suburban communities grew, racial segregation increased and to own a car, a house and white picket fence were the rules; the “other” was mocked and shunned. The obscenity trial in 1957 and subsequent win for the right to publish Howl proves the importance of the First Amendment, the authorial voice.

There is a darker side to these revolutionaries. Besides their semi-criminal dabblings,  depression and hard drug addiction, they notoriously mistreated women, less “muse”, more convenient bedfellow. Though women of The Beats were published, in fictionalized form they were usually depicted as submissive housewives. Carolyn Cassidy, Joyce Johnson and Edie Parker record thoughtfully in their biographies on the liberated time. Brenda Knight put the alternative: “being Beat was far more attractive than staying chained to a brand-new kitchen appliance.” The great irony is they eventually became all: mother, wife and keeper.

Publishers in our age market The Beats as iconclasts of early twentieth century America, spouting copy off such as “classic/must-read/poem of the century” or “the personification of America’s history and culture.” What would these men think of their highly marketable work today?  That we consume them as we consume oil, IKEA furniture, over-priced bottles of Bordeaux? But it is all in vain, for their resonance today merely enhances the incorruptible medium of the written word. That their words and actions still remain in our hearts and minds reminds us that we must fight for and retain our individuality, in our world particularly: a world of impersonal social networking, removal of identity, separating us from living. I on the other hand, like Kerouac’s Sal, will always choose the other for “the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk […] the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”