Fine, we admit it: for a while there, American poetry was pretty stuffy. You might've read a poem from the 1930s and thought, "Man, that stanza really needs to take off its tie, unbutton its top button. Let loose a little, you know?"
Enter: the rule-breakin', capitalism-hatin', drug-and-sex-adorin' Beats.
When these guys wrote—and by guys, we really mean guys—they let their fingers fly over their keyboards. And then most of them refused to even edit what they wrote. Surely, all that fast and furious writing had a lasting impact on literature.
But that's not all. The fire lit by the Beats burned so brightly it influenced almost all of that era's pop culture. The Beatles (notice how they spell their name), Bob Dylan, The Doors, Bono and U2, R.E.M., The Clash and Kurt Cobain all claim to be influenced by the Beat authors.
Their time in the spotlight was very short, though. If you're watching a video that goes through all the major literary movements in the U.S., don't blink—you might miss the Beats. This may very well be the shortest literary movement with the fewest number of authors in the entire history of the written word.
But let's dig in.
A frenzy of publications that lasted from 1955 to 1962.
Likely because its primary authors were all highly involved in leading a cultural revolution that extended way beyond producing literature. So, Beat authors ended up out in the world fighting for sexual liberation, studying in Buddhist monasteries, doing a lot of drugs… and then burning out, killing themselves, battling serious addictions, or reinventing themselves anew.
The whole thrust behind the idea of the Beat movement was to treat our most authentic, uncensored human thoughts and desires as high art. And let those stuffy academics and old-school social mores be damned.
Fighting for such revolutionary values proved so demanding that the Beat authors didn't have a ton of time to publish books, to be honest. They were busy strong-arming America into a new period of openness and activism.
He's also credited with helping to inspire the gay rights movement. All in all, Mr. G. was one serious artistic and political force of nature.
Kerouac, on the other hand, has been elevated to idol-status by successive generations of white guys who didn't want to be just like their fathers. Who detested the war-weary, 9-5-job-idealizing country their fathers created.
Yes. The careers of the Beat writers came in two flavors. First, there was the New York phase of the Beat Movement, which began at Columbia University in the late 40s. This was the wild-n'-wacky phase that included sex in parks, an extra helping of substance abuse, and even murder. Just like that movie taught you.
Then these young men went West. And the more chill, hey brother, come sit with me for a while, San Francisco phase of the movement was born. This is the real publishing blitz that we referenced before, which lasted from 1956 through the early sixties.
How these guys managed to wrest themselves from their beginnings—living in rat-infested hotels and questionably engaging in homicide—to practicing Buddhist meditation is one crazy, impossible journey. And that journey speaks to the essence of Beat literature, which asks the question: how do we find some peace of mind in such a wild world?
Ever write a Facebook post about how it's cool to be weird? Or tweet that you're the best man at a wedding between two men and you're super happy for their love? Or write a paper on sexual abuse in the military?
Or just say whatever comes into your head and call it art? Well, you can thank the Beat generation for the freedom to do so.
The Beats killed censorship dead. Okay, we may be exaggerating a bit here. Censorship never completely goes away. But because of these guys and their in-your-face works, all of us would-be writers and literary scholars can really let loose.
We're allowed to examine all aspects of human expression without the threat of being arrested—at least in the U.S. of A. (Usually.)
See, Beat authors were all about doing whatever they were told they weren't supposed to be doing. At the time, that meant taking free-wheelin' road trips and having a lot of sex and not working office or hard labor jobs and, instead, spending all their time hanging out in underground, smoky poetry cafes.
While there, they wore the black berets. They did acid. They told the ugly truth about a society addicted to consumerism.
They also wanted mainstream America to see that queer people and African Americans and their own nutty artists were just as much a part of the American "family" as white politicians, CEOs, baseball players, and bankers.
And so we salute these cool cats for much of the free speech privileges we enjoy today.
The Beat Goes On
The Beat Museum website has all things Beat—right on down to the t-shirts.
Going Deep with the Beats
Here, you can find an exhaustive list of Beat authors. And anyone else from the time period who came into contact with those writers, or were influenced by them. As you'll see, anyone who got close, but didn't quite make it into the inner circle, got burned.
The American Novel
A great place to investigate just how Beat authors fit into the American literary tradition.
Get your Beat literary kicks.
Excerpts, pictures, stories, and funny drawings to help you humanize the Beat Movement. This one's supposed to be fun, Shmoopers. Go, play.