The Beat Generation made a lasting impact on the structure of modern American society that no other countercultural movement came close to achieving.
Origins of the Beat Generation in Swing Music
Our story begins at the end of the 1930s. This is the period known as the swing era, the period in which the big bands took over the pop world. Big band swing became the new mainstream. Whenever this happens to a musical genre, the original fans of the style always feel a split.
Suddenly, there are many artists out there who pretend to be part of the style, but the music they produce lacks the inner essence of it. The fans then make a distinction between music that they perceive as “real,” and music they perceive as a fake imitation.
What swing fans called “real” swing was a rhythmic style, in which the entire band would create an enormous forward drive, compelling your body to break out in an ecstatic dance. And the soloists, carried on the wings of this propulsion, would then improvise a solo that would lift your spirit to the heavens.
But among the general public, who didn’t understand the essence of swing, the most popular records did not share the quality from the early pioneers. They had formal similarities to swing, using the same instruments and melodies, but rather than being ruled by the swing feeling, the players would play in the traditional European way of following notes.
Sometimes they would try to imitate the fervor of the “real” swing bands. However because they lacked the inner essence of it, the outcome was crass and tasteless. Among swing fans and musicians, the prevailing feeling was that the music industry robbed their music and neutered it.
At the beginning of the 1940s, a number of black musicians assembled in Harlem, and started to look for a new way. The way they saw it, the white industry robbed the blacks of swing and of all the other black-made authentic jazz forms, so they needed to dive deeper into the logic of jazz and distill its essence.
Grouping in small bands of five or six members, they would begin playing a familiar pop song, but then ditch the melody in favor of improvisation, and set sail into the unknown. Leaving only the chord structure of the original song, the soloists would play with breathtaking speed and create a completely new tune.
A member of the band would take the lead and the other musicians would follow, and then another soloist would take his ideas and develop them in his way, with the other members reacting. Thus, a kind of collective consciousness was formed, which would produce an original musical piece.
This music could no longer be experienced in the traditional way of listening to a melody. To enjoy it, you had to immerse yourself in the music and feel yourself being regenerated with it.
This new style was termed bop or bebop. Bebop created a medium in which black consciousness could develop freely without meddling from the white establishment. The seeds that were sown in this musical style would produce rebellious generations of African-Americans for decades to come.
But there were also some white people who connected to bebop, whites whose soul was welded in the furnace of jazz and could, therefore, understand the new musical experience.
One of them was a young man named Jack Kerouac, who aspired to be a novelist and find a new form of literary expression. Kerouac, who lived near Harlem, had the chance to experience bebop during the early years and found it a source of inspiration.
He regarded the bebop musicians as spiritual guides. Artists who were paving a new spiritual way. Kerouac wanted to bring their spirit into literature, to write in the way that they played. But Kerouac could not find a way to do so, at least not until 1944, the year he met two people with which he could form his own jam session.
William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg were also young bohemians who were looking for another way. The three soon realized that they had a spiritual connection and decided that they represented the birth of a new consciousness.
In their eyes, Western civilization became a heartless technocracy, an industrial-militaristic-capitalistic society, which subjugates the humane side of man and enslaves it to the rational side. Man thus became an unhappy creature and to regain its happiness must liberate the human spirit from the shackles of this technocracy. Their goal was to find the path to freedom and liberate humanity.
William Burroughs, the elder of the bunch, became the mentor. Burroughs was born into a wealthy family and could have led a comfortable life. Instead, he decided to dedicate his life to the liberation of social conventions and lies, and search for a deeper truth about reality.
Burroughs believed that one way to do this was to drop out of conformed society, to live outside of the conventional mind. So he abandoned his bourgeois existence and lived in a sphere populated by criminals, junkies, prostitutes, and tramps.
Another way he believed was through the use of mind-altering drugs. Burroughs began experimenting with every known substance and every possible drug cocktail to see what they could teach him about his mind. He soon became a junkie, but for him, it was all part of the purgatory you had to go through to see existence for what it truly is.
In his dealings with the underworld, Burroughs learned their slang and in it, he found the term which he used to signify the state of existence that he was seeking.
The Beat Movement
The word ‘beat’ in their slang meant a state of losing everything and lying in the gutter. It meant that you were beaten by life. For Burroughs, being ‘beat’ signified exactly what he wanted, to lose all the baggage that society instilled in him and become free.
Burroughs shared this idea with his new friends. For Kerouac, who was a Catholic, the word ‘beat’ immediately linked the religious to the concept of Beatitude and thus became a meaning of holy blessedness.
And so the term ‘beat’ came to signify a state in which you beat your old identity and demolish it. Becoming liberated from the lies of society and becoming pure and real. The word would become the center of the new consciousness and the three friends would eventually call themselves the Beat Generation.
The existence that Kerouac espoused was based on the ideal of the bebop musicians. A purely spontaneous existence where you recreate your life in each and every moment instead of following any pre-existing pattern.
When a jazz instrumentalist gets carried on the wings of the music, it takes over him, and the musical ideas spring from his subconscious without thought. The thought comes later when he develops these ideas further, but they are initialized in a spontaneous way.
This is how Kerouac wanted to live. He intended to document his existence autobiographically in print and create literary bop. But his nature was that of an intellect and novelist. A man whose existence is mired in preexistent patterns and hence was caught in a bind. To experience the existence he wanted and create the literature he imagined, he had to give up on his identity as a novelist and essentially give up on his dream.
The only way out of the bind was to find spiritual guides who would lead him. Ginsberg and Burroughs took him part of the way, but to get to where he wanted, he needed a different kind of guide. And fortunately, he met him shortly after.
On the Road
Neal Cassady was a truly unique individual. A hyperactive young man who couldn’t rest for one moment and was driven by an insatiable lust to swallow as much life as his body physically could. Cassady was always in motion, always talking, always randomly bringing up new ideas and taking his line of thought to strange places, always looking for new adventures, always hunting for new sexual conquests.
He seemed to be living on a different level from most people, a level that is much more intense. Neal Cassady was the essence of the spontaneous existence that Kerouac championed, a perfect model to follow. He also loved stealing cars and going on long road trips across America, dragging Kerouac with him.
Between the years of 1947 and 1951, Cassady and Kerouac crisscrossed America from top to bottom and side to side, never staying in one place for more than a few weeks. They lived from temporary jobs, went to jazz performances whenever they had the chance, and experienced all kinds of adventure.
At the end of this period, Kerouac sat down and wrote a book documenting their travels. This became one of the components of Kerouac’s new literary style. Real-life experiences preceding the writing.
Just like a bebop musician creates the music on the spot and doesn’t read from paper, the novelist should first live the story and later write it down. Unlike writers of fiction who make up their stories, Kerouac’s books were autobiographical.
were novelists who preceded him in that, such as Marcel Proust who was one of
his influences, but what exemplified Kerouac was that his writing style was
also inspired by bop.
To write the book, he bought a big roll of paper and stuck it in his typewriter so he wouldn’t need to stop and change pages. Over the course of a few weeks, he poured everything onto paper in the order that the words came into his mind. Never stopping to think and never rewriting.
There are places in the book where you can see Kerouac riding an inspirational wave, producing a long sentence in which the flowing stream of words flourishes and creates a kind of literary jazz.
Here’s one of the segments that best represent his rhythmic and spontaneous style of writing. Telling about the time when he introduced Allen Ginsberg to Neal Cassady and how the two immediately clicked:
“They danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars…” – Jack Kerouac, On the Road
We learn a few interesting things from this paragraph. First, the belief that the only true existence is a burning existence. In philosophy, this worldview is identified with the Greek philosopher Heraclitus. He claimed that fire is the foundation of all existence and that there is nothing stable in existence, but everything is inflow.
According to the worldview presented here by Kerouac, a life that is lived on the basis of steady and established principles distances you from the real existence, and to be real you must burn in the fire of an existence that is regenerating at every moment.
We are introduced to the idealization of madness. The belief that mad people are people who burn. People who experience a more genuine existence than the people who are called “normative” and “sane” by society.
Lastly, we see that Kerouac feels that he himself is not a burning man but a writer shackled by words. Existing always a step behind real existence. All he can do is follow the real people and try to capture them in his writing. This way his art will get as close as possible to portraying real existence.
The central character of the novel, therefore, is Cassady and the book tries to capture his flame. The book is called On the Road and it was meant to represent the new consciousness of the Beat movement. But Kerouac couldn’t find anyone who would publish it.
The other character in the segment is Allen Ginsberg, who is also described as a burning madman. But Ginsberg, unlike Cassady, also had a normative side that wanted to become part of society and be a respected academic and poet.
Following an incident in which his involvement with Burroughs’ criminal friends got him in trouble with the law, Ginsberg decided to “go straight” and committed himself to a psychiatric ward. This was the very thing that the Beat Generation consciousness was against.
The psychiatric ward in the 1950s was a notorious manifestation of the technocratic society. The prevailing belief in those years was that rational thought can decipher everything in the world. The human mind was also perceived as something that can be completely outlined in mathematical means and science, therefore was seen as being able to understand and cure any mental illness.
Psychiatrists were regarded as almost all-knowing. In the 1950s, anyone who suffered from a mental problem meant someone who deviated from social norms. They were sent to psychiatrists to get fixed using techniques such as electric shocks to the brain or in more severe cases lobotomy.
Ginsberg willfully submitted himself to this institute, but it was there, in the belly of the beast, that he found his mentor, the man who helped him discover his artistic path. His name was Carl Solomon and he too committed himself, but not because he wanted to become normative.
Solomon was marked at an early age as a very gifted person. But he believed he would never be able to realize his full potential as long as his rational side controlled him. Hence, he started acting like a madman and when he was brought before the psychiatrists he demanded to be lobotomized. He believed this would finally free his spirit from the rational side of his mind.
But the doctors did not oblige and instead kept him in the ward trying different methods. But in that, they put him in the right place to influence the great poet of the Beat Generation and consequently the course of history.
Ginsberg realized that Solomon was another manifestation of beat consciousness, a man who aspired to liberate the irrational side of the human spirit, and thus someone that could direct him.
Inspired by Solomon, he gave up on his plan to conform to society’s norms and instead left the ward and moved to San Francisco, the capital state of non-conformity, to become part of the poet community.
San Francisco Beat Movement
On October 7th, 1955, the poet Kenneth Rexroth organized a poetry reading in San Francisco, providing a stage for new poets to present their work before the local bohemia. Young poets such as Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, and Gary Snyder got up to read their poems, presenting a new sensibility that combined ecological consciousness, Zen Buddhist influences, and other things.
But the show was stolen by Allen Ginsberg, whose poem “Howl” dazzled its listeners. The three-part poem is dedicated to Carl Solomon, but stylistically it is inspired by Kerouac, carefully articulating the philosophy of the Beat Generation.
The first part opens with the assertion that he saw the best minds of his generation destroyed by madness. It proceeds with a flowing, rhythmic, and mesmerizing portrayal of everything that the owners of these minds did to themselves in the past decade.
Going through self-beating, hobo life, drug abuse, sexual perversion, crime, bop ecstasy, intentional insanity, electric shocks, mythical quests and more, describing it as a desperate and heroic search for salvation.
The second part opens with the question of what made them be like this, and replies Moloch! Moloch, the old god, is used here to symbolize the industrial-capitalist-militarist system. The poem describes how it controls our minds, crushes our spirit, and twists our consciousness.
The third part poses the model of Carl Solomon as the man who found the way to take us to the other side and save our spirit. The song is tremendously powerful, but again, the words themselves are not the entire story, but also the way in which the song was performed.
Egged on by Kerouac who was sitting in the crowd, Ginsberg entered a seemingly trance state, melting into the flow of his words and washing over the crowd with wave after wave. His electric performance so exhilarated the poet community that many of them decided to adopt Beat as the center of their art. The new consciousness of the Beat Generation was beginning to spread.
What Defines the Beat Generation?
The aspiration of the Beat Generation was to liberate the spiritual side of man which they claimed was being repressed by a society ruled by a cold technocratic rationality. This society constructs our minds and determines our identity. To be free we must first of all smash everything that this society instilled in us.
There are several ways to do so, such as vagrant life, which prevents you from being attached to one place; lawless life, outside of established society, exposure to electric shocks to the brain, and of course mind-altering drugs.
In that way you become free, and being free means letting your subconscious spontaneously guide you, employing rational thought only as an aid. When everyone operates like that, they let their unique inner self express itself, and then they feed each other with ideas, just like in a bebop jam session.
This is the ideal that the San Francisco Beat community aspired to. They would sit in coffee shops, smoke cannabis, listen to poets read their poetry to a jazz backup, and embroil themselves in philosophical contemplations of existence.
By 1957, the pioneers of the Beat Generation’s influence were beginning to be felt. Kerouac’s book finally got published and became a hit with the youngsters, a book that defined a generation.
In 1957, the first newspaper article on the Beat movement in San Francisco was published. The author decided to name its members “Beatniks,” basing it on the new Soviet satellite Sputnik, claiming that they were both equally far out.
As a result of this fame, the scene was joined by many other youngsters, who lacked the inner understanding of the Beat Generation but imitated the way of life.
A typical beatnik look emerged, kind of a hybrid of the looks of European existentialist and African-American bebop artists: shoulder-length hair, goatee, and shabby clothing. In conformed society, “Beatnik” became a synonym for anyone who didn’t want to fit in the system. They were seen as bums who are only into sex and drugs.
With its spread into the mainstream, those who did have an inner understanding of the Beat Generation felt that the original spirit of the community had died. Over time, they began to disperse all over the country and started to look for new paths.
By the 1960s, the Beat Generation had disbanded with certain aspects of it incorporated into the new hippie counterculture movement.