(I obviously can’t control what happens with this but hopefully, nobody gets this)
Good afternoon, everyone. I’m
K. P. and today, I will be talking about the Beat Generation. Now, one of the recurring stereotypes presented by media today is the so-called “hipster”. Usually, a hipster is characterized as someone who enjoys clothing, music and activities that are obscure or not considered to be mainstream. They are portrayed by media to be heavily interested in alternative culture, independent films, vintage fashion and diet of vegetarian food. But how did this stereotype come to be? Where did the notion of being a hipster come from? Some of you might think that it originated from the hippie movement of the 1970s but it was actually derived from the Beat Generation in the 1950s. In this presentation, I will be talking about the origin of the Beat Generation, its central elements and impact on American culture and society.
To begin with the first point, the Beat Generation was composed of a group of friends who first met at Colombia University in New York. They bonded over their vision to counter their professors’ conservative, conformist and rigid literary ideals. Jack Kerouac, a founding member, used the term “beat” to emphasize their beatific and sympathetic qualities. Kerouac, together with Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, formed the literary movement later known as the Beat Generation.
The first founding member is Allen Ginsberg who was nicknamed to be the “Heart of the Beats”. According to Nathan Carter, Ginsberg had a romantic writing style that featured social commentary and a desperate need for social acceptance, which in fact, is a reference to his sexuality. His most noted work is a poem entitled “Howl” which underwent a heavily publicized trial, to be further discussed later.
Second, Jack Kerouac is characterized to be the most vulnerable Beat writer, being an unfortunate subject to harsh criticism during his literary career. He unwillingly became the de facto spokesperson of the Beats. His most noted work is a novel entitled “On the Road”, which Josh Rahn described in his biographical essay as a, “philosophical travel narrative which blends stream of consciousness, drug vision, and profound observation into a generational statement that resonates to this day.”
The last founding member is William S. Burroughs who is described to be the “embodiment of the spirit of reckless abandon for which the Beat Generation was known for.” In Bill Morgan’s biography entitled “The Typewriter is Holy”, Burroughs continuously struggled with alcohol and several drug addictions. His most noted works are “Naked Lunch” and “Junkie”, both of which are quite interesting to readers for his style, use of language and innovation.
My second point talks about the central elements of the Beat movement. First, we have the rejection of materialism. We have to remember that the Beats lived during WWII and the economic boom that resulted after the war prompted the rampant rise of materialism among Americans. The Beats questioned the growing importance and dependence on material objects. They believed that capitalism was destructive to the human spirit and conflicting with social equality. Second, majority of the Beat writers, like Ginsberg and Burroughs, identified as homosexuals or bisexuals. Their literary works included many references to homosexuality and were typically self-portraits of the writers, which meant they challenged social prejudices against homosexuality. Third, the Beats rallied against the established conservative literary tradition. Beat literature was more straightforward and expressive which stood in stark contrast with the clean formalism of early 20th century Modernists. Lastly, Beat writers experimented with different drugs, such as marijuana, LSD, heroin and peyote, mainly to explore alternate states of consciousness. According to Bill Morgan, the Beats would try to document their experiences with drugs and some of their noted works, like On the Road, Junkie and Naked Lunch, were actually written under the influence of drugs.
Despite being viewed by American society as a bunch of reckless, drug-addled and hedonist delinquents, the Beats did have positive impact on American culture and society. As I mentioned earlier, Ginsberg’s controversial poem entitled “Howl” became the subject of a heavily publicized obscenity trial in 1956 and this actually became a turning point in American literature. The poem featured the underside of America, like drug addicts, prostitutes, robbers, etc., foul language and references to the use of illegal drugs and sexual practices. Ginsberg won the trial and this somehow ensured that literature would be immune to the kind of censorship that hung over other forms of art. As a result of this trial, the scope of literary standards was broadened immensely. The Beats also contributed to the widespread awareness of environmental concerns into the mainstream population. Support for gay liberation was also one of the advocacies the Beats fought for. During their time, homosexuality was considered a mental illness and through the rise in popularity of Beat literature, this helped gay communities shift their label from mentally ill to nonconformists. Ginsberg was the foremost Beat writer who actively participated in several gay rights movements. Finally, the Beats served as the voice of the younger generation that is plagued with the choice of whether or not to conform to society and are on the road to self-discovery. Travelling and other seemingly hedonistic and spontaneous activities became immensely popular among teenagers as they tried to emulate the Beat lifestyle. The Beats promoted the spirit of writing through sympathy, social commentary and vision of freedom.
To summarize, the Beat Generation was truly a unique time in American history, filled with writers that promoted freedom of expression and creativity and rejected conformity to society’s prejudices and materialism. Although the Beats started out mainly as a literary movement, they had a huge influence on American culture and society through their open support for social issues that were once considered taboo and overlooked like gay rights and environmental consciousness. Going back to the “hipster” stereotype, although an off-set of the Beat Generation, it lacks the intellectual backing and resolve that the Beats once had and were known for.