Beat Generation Rejects Mainstream Values Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Beat generation, a loose confederacy of cultural rebels, emerged as a vital force in the early 1950’s, rejecting the conventional and academic in literature. Its outlaw art and outrageous pronouncements energized the antinomian movements of the 1960’s.

Summary of Event

The writers of the Beat generation were almost exclusively white men, but they nevertheless represented an impressive and sometimes troublesome variety of experiences and accomplishments. They were generally literate and well-read (Lawrence Ferlinghetti earned a doctorate in art history from the Sorbonne, and Gary Snyder became a knowledgeable student of Zen Buddhism); some were lovers of jazz music; William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg were determined experimenters with drugs; several who were gay or lesbian were quite open about it; and several Beat writers included petty criminals among their friends and even had their own rap sheets. Collectively, they constituted a talented bohemia. Beat generation Literary movements;Beat generation [kw]Beat Generation Rejects Mainstream Values (1950’s) [kw]Generation Rejects Mainstream Values, Beat (1950’s) [kw]Mainstream Values, Beat Generation Rejects (1950’s) Beat generation Literary movements;Beat generation [g]North America;1950’s: Beat Generation Rejects Mainstream Values[03070] [g]United States;1950’s: Beat Generation Rejects Mainstream Values[03070] [c]Literature;1950’s: Beat Generation Rejects Mainstream Values[03070] [c]Arts;1950’s: Beat Generation Rejects Mainstream Values[03070] Ginsberg, Allen Kerouac, Jack Corso, Gregory Burroughs, William S. Ferlinghetti, Lawrence Snyder, Gary

The Beat writers emerged in the early 1950’s (the term “Beat generation” was used by John Clellon Holmes Holmes, John Clellon to describe Jack Kerouac and his companion Neal Cassady in Holmes’s 1952 novel Go) Go (Cassady) , with 1955 being perhaps the most significant date. In that year, Ginsberg and Snyder met at the University of California, Berkeley, and Ginsberg launched the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance with a reading of Howl "Howl" (Ginsberg)[Howl (Ginsberg)] at San Francisco’s Six Gallery Six Gallery on October 7.

Ginsberg described the Six Gallery as “a run down second rate experimental art gallery in the Negro section of San Francisco.” The program that famous evening of October began with readings by Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, and Philip Whalen; Ginsberg came on about 11:00 p.m.

The audience was stunned by Ginsberg’s power and the intensity of his own feelings and began chanting “Go! Go! Go!” McClure remembered it this way:

In all of our memories no one had been so outspoken in poetry before—we had gone beyond the point of no return—and we were ready for it, for a point of no return. None of us wanted to go back to the gray, chill, militaristic silence, to the intellectual void—to the land without poetry—to the spiritual drabness.

Gary Snyder followed Ginsberg with a much-appreciated reading of his own, but Ginsberg had begun an era in American cultural and literary history.

In 1956, Ferlinghetti published Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems, Howl and Other Poems (Ginsberg) and in June, 1957, Ferlinghetti was arrested for selling obscene literature. The American Civil Liberties Union provided bail, and the case came before Judge Clayton Horn Horn, Clayton in municipal court three months later. Of the expert witnesses called, Professor Mark Schorer Schorer, Mark proved most influential in Ferlinghetti’s defense. The publication and sale of Howl was approved by Judge Horn, who provided this summation of the work:

The first part of Howl presents a picture of a nightmare world; the second part is an indictment of those elements in modern society destructive of the best qualities of human nature; such elements are predominantly identified as materialism, conformity, and mechanization leading toward war. The third part presents a picture of an individual who is a specific representation of what the author conceives as a general condition.

Just a few weeks before Judge Horn’s ruling, another significant Beat work was published: Kerouac’s novel On the Road. On the Road (Kerouac) Kerouac was from Lowell, Massachusetts, and had played football at Columbia University. He invented a character named Sal Paradise to tell his story, and his real-life friend Neal Cassady was transformed into Sal Paradise’s fictional sidekick Dean Moriarty. On the Road is a heedless epic journey of male companionship, a search for self in the midst of national diversity, and a celebration of Dionysian submission to impulse. On the Road became widely popular and found its way onto college reading lists as the major representation of Beat fiction.

Ferlinghetti opened City Lights Books City Lights Books in 1953, and the store immediately became a center of left-wing cultural activity. In 1955, he began publishing his Pocket Poets series, which eventually included the work of poets Denise Levertov, Gregory Corso, Frank O’Hara, Robert Duncan, Kenneth Patchen, and Ginsberg. These achievements made Ferlinghetti a powerful force in mid-twentieth century American literature.

Ferlinghetti’s own writing, too, is noteworthy, especially the poems collected in A Coney Island of the Mind Coney Island of the Mind, A (Ferlinghetti) (1958). Most evident in his work is the depiction of American culture as materialistic, hypocritical, and susceptible to bouts of mindless patriotism. His hatred for these elements in American life culminated in Tyrannus Nix? Tyrannus Nix? (Ferlinghetti) (1969), a ranting demonization of President Richard M. Nixon. If there was little aesthetic merit in Ferlinghetti’s political screeds, they nevertheless spoke for a considerable number of less-articulate people who shared his rage at what they saw as an oppressive establishment.

After Ginsberg, the two most talented of the Beat poets were Snyder and Corso. Snyder studied Asian languages, Zen Buddhism, and anthropology and combined these interests with a vigorous outdoor life—logging, working for the U.S. Forest Service, going to sea—to create a fresh voice. His best work can be found in Riprap Riprap (Snyder) (1959), Riprap, and Cold Mountain Poems Riprap, and Cold Mountain Poems (Snyder) (1965), and Myths and Texts Myths and Texts (Snyder) (1960). Corso’s milieu complemented Synder’s in many ways. Whereas Snyder studied at Berkeley and Indiana University, the orphaned Corso was educated on the streets of New York City and endured his first prison detention when he was twelve. What Zen meant to Snyder, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley represented to Corso, whose hope and idealism emerge in the titles of Long Live Man Long Live Man (Corso) (1962) and Herald of the Autochthonic Spirit Herald of the Autochthonic Spirit (Corso) (1981). Corso’s quick wit and love of words are at their best in his much-anthologized poem “Marriage” "Marriage" (Corso)[Marriage (Corso)] (1960).


The Beats’ reputation—and their identity as a group—had grown enough by 1957 that Kenneth Rexroth Rexroth, Kenneth could say in “Disengagement: The Art of the Beat Generation” that “as an old war horse of the revolution of the word, things have never looked better from where I sit.” Rexroth compared Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg, Snyder, and other Beat writers to the avant-garde poets Robert Creeley, Levertov, Charles Olson, and Duncan, and he praised them all for having made poetry “an actual social force.” Rexroth contrasted the work of such poets with that of T. S. Eliot, John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Randall Jarrell, whom he condemned as having inspired academic “policemen” who had “produced dull academic poets.” Rexroth’s remarks were prescient; the Eliot-Ransom-Tate school had to make way in the academy for some loud voices, and the East Coast had to surrender part of its cultural hegemony to the West.

John P. Sisk Sisk, John P. , writing in Commonweal (April 17, 1959), put the Beats in an American tradition as old as Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, “that antinomian daughter of the inner light who today might be quite at home in a San Francisco pad.” The Transcendentalists were more recent forebears, especially the figure of Walt Whitman, who was a major influence on Ginsberg. Sisk stressed the importance of a subversive bohemia engaged in dialectic with a society sometimes seen as hostile to its creativity: “Each is with respect to the other a control . . . against potentially destructive excesses.”

If for Sisk bohemians were essential figures in American public life, for Norman Podhoretz Podhoretz, Norman they were “The Know-Nothing Bohemians,” as he titled a telling attack on Beat values in the Partisan Review in the spring of 1958. Podhoretz argued that an audience bored by the respectability of postwar poetry helped create the Beats, and he wrote of suburbs “filled to overflowing with men and women who uneasily think of themselves as conformists and of Bohemianism as the heroic road.” The free spirits in Kerouac’s On the Road who hitchhiked around the country smoking marijuana, listening to jazz, and living hand-to-mouth were living out suburban myths, in Podhoretz’s understanding of the Beats’ appeal.

Podhoretz cited Kerouac’s romantic depiction of a Nebraska farmer (“It was the spirit of the West sitting right next to me”) as an example of “a kind of know-nothing populist sentiment.” Middle-class workers, chained to their daily rounds, suffered from spiritual death in the Beats’ vision, which resembled Henry David Thoreau’s view that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Despite Thoreau, Podhoretz found the Beats unique.

This tremendous emphasis on emotional intensity, this notion that to be hopped-up is the most desirable of all human conditions, lies at the heart of the Beat Generation ethos and distinguishes it radically from the Bohemianism of the past.

Thus Podhoretz rejected Sisk’s identification of the Beats with a subversive tradition in American letters, and he perhaps overstated his case. In addition to their ties to Thoreau, and to Whitman and his “barbaric yawp,” the Beats had affinities with other American writers; John Steinbeck’s characters in Sweet Thursday (1954) and Cannery Row (1945) in some ways resemble Kerouac’s drifters, as do the outcasts of Bret Harte’s Poker Flats.

For Podhoretz, though, American bohemianism of the Greenwich Village variety in the 1920’s and 1930’s was imbued with lofty—and civilized—ideals. Writers of the 1920’s rebelled against the suffocation of American society, and the radical writers of the 1930’s had humanitarian political goals. Podhoretz may have been correct in these observations, but the figures he cited—F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Sinclair Lewis—would not likely suggest bohemianism to most readers. In sum, the Beats were not the lost generation, but they were not without roots, either.

Poet and critic John Ciardi Ciardi, John , writing in Saturday Review, February 6, 1960, shared some of Podhoretz’s scorn for the Beats’ reliance on the intuitive. Ciardi wrote, “I hope the next time the young go out for an intellectual rebellion, they will think to try the library. It’s still the most subversive building in town, and it’s still human headquarters.” Ciardi, though, was much more generous and not without fine literary discriminations. He identified Ginsberg and Burroughs (now safely domesticated with seats in the American Academy of Arts and Letters) as the most talented, a judgment that seems to become sounder year by year. Although Ciardi did not think Burroughs was a true Beat, he praised Naked Lunch for its passion, which he viewed as having been “suffered rather than theorized.”

The Beats’ legacy is considerable. Although they are now no more threatening than Hutchinson and Whitman, their rowdy voices invigorated the cultural chorus—at least one section of it—and spoke for many who, though alienated from the academy and traditional literary modes, were nevertheless vitally interested in poetry and fiction. Decades after their beginning, the Beats lived on to an extent in the ideals of the Naropa Institute, a colony established in Boulder, Colorado, in 1973 by the Tibetan lama Chogyam Trungpa. Ginsberg and Anne Waldman, a poet and director of the St. Mark’s Poetry Project in Greenwich Village, organized the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa in 1975. In 1982, the Naropa Institute marked a high point with an enthusiastic celebration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication of On the Road. Beat generation Literary movements;Beat generation

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Charters, Ann, ed. The Beats: Literary Bohemians in Postwar America. Detroit, Mich.: Gale, 1983. An exceptional bibliography both of the Beats—sixty-eight individuals are discussed—and of works about them. Critical essays treat individual writers, and Jennie Skerl has compiled a chronology of twenty-five years of Beat history. An invaluable resource.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Foster, Edward Halsey. Understanding the Beats. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1992. A study of Kerouac, Burroughs, Ginsberg, and Corso that stresses their rebellion against conformity and materialism. They were also genuine writers for whom language and aesthetics were of paramount concern, and Foster examines their influence on other writers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">French, Warren. The San Francisco Poetry Renaissance, 1955-1960. Boston: Twayne, 1991. An admiring and perceptive study that is good on the Beat sensibility, the women in the movement, Beats and the American tradition, and the people on the fringes. Includes a valuable annotated bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Myrsiades, Kostas. Beat Generation: Critical Essays. New York: Peter Lang, 2002. Fourteen essays analyze the Beat generation writers and their place in literature.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Parkinson, Thomas, ed. A Casebook on the Beat. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1961. An excellent anthology of Beat writing and some of the very best of the early critical commentary; includes a critical essay by the editor. In addition to essays by Kenneth Rexroth, John Sisk, Norman Podhoretz, and John Ciardi, there are pieces by Dorothy Van Ghent, Warren Tallman, Henry Miller, Paul O’Neil, Herbert Gold, Carolyn Gaiser, and Lawrence Lipton.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Raskin, Jonah. American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and the Making of the Beat Generation. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. Examines Ginsberg’s role in the Beat generation, his association with other Beat writers, and the nexus of literature and politics in the 1950’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stephenson, Gregory. The Daybreak Boys: Essays on the Literature of the Beat Generation. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1990. Major essays on Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Corso, John Clellon Holmes, Michael McClure, and “The Literary Legend of Neal Cassady.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Theado, Matt, ed. The Beats: A Documentary Volume. Detroit, Mich.: Gale, 2001. Part of the Dictionary of Literary Biography series. A 508-page biographical “dictionary” on the Beat writers.

“Angry Young Men” Express Working-Class Views

Rise of the New Novel

Categories: History