Study Guide

Beat Generation Literature Top Authors

  • Allen Ginsberg

    Long before Oprah made on-screen confession a thing, there was the O.G. confessional artist: Allen Ginsberg. And who was he?

    A young, gay Jewish man. But that's not all, of course. He was raised by a mentally ill mother, which ended up having a pretty big influence on his social philosophies—clearly, modern life drove people mad.

    And, perhaps most importantly, Ginsberg was the flame that lit the fuse of the American cultural revolution. What he revealed to the world doesn't seem that shocking today. Because after the Beats came the 1960s.

    We now know that some men have sex and fall in love with other men—big whoop. We know that government can be oppressive. And many of us know that singing and dancing and writing poetry and sitting still to watch a rainstorm are activities that're good for your soul.

    Ginsberg was just the ultimate self-help guru… long before anybody realized they needed some self-helpin'.

    But that's not all. Ginny was a jack-of-all-trades, really. For example: the dude totally reinvented epic poetry. "Howl" and "Kaddish" may not be Paradise Lost or The Iliad, but these poems cover a lot of ground. And of course, they take the reader on an adventure it will never forget.

    Where'd he get the ideas for all of these adventures? Well, Ginsberg's hero was Walt Whitman—the most epic of American poets who also happened to have similar romantic interests. In his work, Whitman often explored basic topics: ordinary life, death, eating, swimming, hugging, laughing, crying.

    So, while it may seem counterintuitive, Whitman's writing inspired Ginsberg to talk about what Whitman never did: people's dark sides. You know, the nastier human desires that lurk inside all of us. And he riffed off Whitman's innovative style to do it; he used free verse.

    And Ginsberg was so not afraid of The Dark Side. Some of his material gets pretty spooky. The topics of mental illness, oppression, alternative sexuality, personal meditation and acceptance are all broached, in that signature Whitmanesque, no-holds-barred style.

    Whitman's free verse told it like it was. No meter, rhyme, or reason required. Capital letters? Maybe, if he was in the mood. And, like him, the Beat poets understood the rules of poetry. But Ginsberg and his crew discovered that breaking the rules led to an overflow of creativity.

    Perhaps even an explosion of creativity. You might say we've been picking up—and rearranging—the pieces of American poetry ever since.

    "Howl"

    This poem touches on skeletons, sex in public, drug-induced hallucinations, and potato salad thrown during a lecture on Dadaism.

    As for us, we'd like to think it's essentially the story of one man who barks at the moon to warn post-war America trouble is brewing. Long before Larry Flint and his pornography trials, Ginsberg's "Howl" was tried for obscenity.

    Ginny won. And as a result, freedom of speech got a wild boost of energy in the good ole U.S. of A. Live how you want, and write what you live, Shmoopers.

    "Kaddish"

    This epic poem is all about living with a mother who's going mad. Guess who lived with a mom who was going mad? Yep, boyhood Ginsberg himself. Not exactly material for a Hallmark Mother's Day card.

    But Ginsberg was into that sort of thing. He was one of the pioneers of confessional poetry. You know, poetry that gets into the down and dirty parts of life. And then makes those parts art.

    Even as he describes the scene of his naked mother, Naomi—she's obese and scarred, vomiting blood into a toilet—he transforms the horror of mental illness into a heart-rending tale of human struggle. The catharsis in this poem rivals the best of Greek tragedy.

    Move over Oedipus. Naomi's our new tragic heroine.

    Chew on This:

    Many consider Ginsberg the one true guru of the counter-cultural revolution of the 1960s. Next time you read "Howl"—and we know you will—look for the poetic expressions that laid the groundwork for what was to come: the free lovin', cool and groovy shenanigans that characterized hippie culture.

    Ginsberg got political. Generally speaking, that was something that the Beats didn't want to concern themselves with. Most of the Beat authors thought all of American society was degraded and beyond repair. But Ginny was more complicated than that. Now, go ahead and read The Fall of America, his National Book Award-winning collection. What type of political persuasion would he fall into? (Hint: we're guessing, if you zoom out to include his whole career, you'll see Ginsberg wore many political hats.)

  • Jack Kerouac

    Write whatever's in your head, Ole Jackie might say. See, that's what the Beat generation was all about, and author-poet-extraordinaire Jack Kerouac led by example.

    But hold up: what does "Beat"mean, anyway? This is the term that Kerouac and street hustler Herbert Huncke appropriated for their movement, and they used it because it had a whole host o' possible interpretations. The Beats were beaten down by the man and tired of modern society, but upbeat and beatific at the same time.

    Now that that's out of the way, let's talk about the man—not just the movement. In 1922, Kerouac was born in Massachusetts. His parents were French Canadian. He had an average American upbringing for those days, except he spoke more French than English for a while there.

    He turned out to be a really good running back, which landed him a scholarship at Columbia. While there, he played a bunch of football, partied a lot, and made it clear to his professors that he didn't like being told what to do.

    To the surprise of no one (except probably his parents), he ended up dropping out of college.

    Dropping out gave him lots of time to work odd jobs and hang out with New York City street people… many of whom would later become famous. He was also obsessed with chilling in jazz clubs. His love of that musical tradition, as well as his disdain for the strict social codes of post-war America, inspired him to develop a new type of prose.

    Dude was so, so tired of all the old literary traditions. And all of their boring rules. So he started writing improvisational prose. His work reads like a jazzier, darker, crazier form of the stream of consciousness works authored by modernist writers.

    Plus, there would be no Easy Rider or Thelma and Louise without Kerouac's Beat scripture, On the Road. Really, Kerouac was the first person to publicize the tradition of the great American road trip.

    He believed the best way to free yourself from the oppression of society was to get in a car and drive. Don't worry about where you're going. Just drive.

    Kerouac believed in other ways of freeing yourself, too. Like drug use. And all kinds of sex, evading the law, sanctioning homosexuality, and searching madly for the ultimate spiritual release.

    You might say Jack Kerouac was the Beats' Pied Piper. He led a group o' nutty guys on a journey—down the road and into themselves.

    Sadly, his brief turn to Buddhism quickly gave way to alcoholism. That excessive drinkin' eventually led to his early death. But many of the effects of this spiritual experimentation can been seen in his novel The Dharma Bums and his biography of Siddhartha Gautama.

    Phewf. We're tired just writing about all the things Kerouac did, and who he was to his peers. Guess we won't be taking any epic road trips anytime soon… unless you drive.

    On The Road

    This book follows the adventures of Kerouac and fellow Beat writer Neal Cassady. The two travelled together in an old car. Together, they explored the American West, and Kerouac turned that trip into experimental prose.

    He taped long sheets of tracing paper together, forming a scroll 120 feet long, and then typed continuously for four days. Didn't he have to eat and go to the bathroom, you ask?

    Well, yes. But we're told he lived on pea soup and coffee. And took really quick bathroom breaks. And when he was done, the whole novel ended up on that one, long piece of paper. It didn't have chapter breaks or page numbers.

    But it was chock full of love and excitement.

    The Dharma Bums

    This time Kerouac's adventuring buddy is Gary Snyder, a true convert to Buddhism. Kerouac met the dude in San Francisco. And while Kerouac's still partying in this one—no strict life of asceticism for him—he now combines the wild life with a longing for inner peace.

    You can hear the tenets of Buddhist philosophy all over his writing here. Oh, and this book gives us an account of the raucous public event that started it all, that Six Gallery reading with "Howl." How could you not want to dig into it?

    Chew on This:

    The Six Gallery Reading took place on a fateful day in October, 1955. The guest list was more than impressive. It included Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, and Philip Whalen, as well as William Carlos Williams, an old modernist. This was quite literally a passing of the torch. Luckily the lit-torch didn't get anywhere near Kerouac—he was too drunk to read. Dude would've taken that thing in his hands and lit his whole body on fire. Anyway, we were wondering: how did this event—most notable for Ginsberg's reading of "Howl"—help the Beat writers establish their own movement? Be specific.

    A while after his wacky road trip comes to an end, Kerouac arrives at Buddhism. The religion has a profound effect on him. He ends up infusing many of its tenets into the musings of Ray Smith, his protagonist for The Dharma Bums. Clearly, this Ray guy is a version of Kerouac himself. Ray's buddy Japhy Ryder, who's based on Gary Snyder, is the character with the big mind. What's that? We're so glad you asked. It's a Buddhist concept that helps a person think less about the party and more about what happens when the party's over. Check out the critics of Kerouac's "Beat Zen" and think about how and why the Beat writers incorporated this far-out, Far East religion into their work.

  • William Burroughs

    All right, buckle up. Ginsberg and Kerouac were both a little out there. But now it's time for the real crazy train: William Burroughs.

    William was the son of a wealthy Chicago couple. He was a Harvard graduate, a European vagabond, an army reject, and of seriously questionable mental stability. He even cut off the tip of his left pinky down to the first knuckle to impress a guy he was infatuated with.

    Now, if that isn't post-modern behavior—you know, weird, disjointed (pun intendend), intimate—nothing is.

    Anyway, like Ginsberg, Burroughs was also gay. But Burroughs was much more troubled by his sexuality than Allen. Maybe because he was older, he had internalized more of the bigotry of Ginsberg's father's era.

    Writing Naked Lunch seemed to be one way for him to work toward accepting his romantic and sexual interest in men.

    The book did, and was, a lot more than that, though. In it, Burroughs goes beyond the typical confessional style beloved of the Beats. He uses an even more intense post-modern style, and does basically everything he can to make his language seem strange and discomfiting.

    One great way he upped his post-modern quota was to use the cut-up technique. This technique was introduced to him by Dadaists, who were a group of modernist artists who were bummin' around in the 1920s.

    The technique is exactly what it sounds like: you make new stories by cutting up your original paragraphs, and even your original sentences, and arranging these bits in a random order. See, before all of those boisterous rounds of Mad Libs at your family gatherings, William Burroughs was cutting and pasting his way to literary infamy. Bam.

    It wasn't easy, though. Naked Lunch was such an intellectually challenging work, and so unconventional in form, that Burroughs had trouble writing it. He started producing the book in Morocco. Then he tore it apart and reassembled it in Paris. Then he had trouble selling it to a publisher.

    It was rejected by City Lights Books, a popular publisher of Beat work, and Olympia Press. But he put together a new final draft with help from Kerouac and Ginsberg, and sent it out again.

    Today, it's viewed as a crown jewel of both Beat literature and American post-modernism. See what happens when you keep at it? You get by with a little help from your friends.

    Junkie

    This novel's about a guy who's addicted to heroin. He sells the stuff, too. And gets into all kinds of nasty pickles while doing that.

    All in all, Junky is the kind of over-the-top, spill-your-guts story that the Beat writers loved. We see drugs, violence, and personal evil everywhere on television nowadays, from Breaking Bad to The Wire. It's simply not shocking anymore.

    But in 1959, Junky was a radical departure from the traditional Ozzie and Harriet content that most Americans were used to. To be honest, Burroughs's work scared the bejesus out of them.

    Naked Lunch

    What do you dream about? And when you're just letting your mind wander, what kind of crazy, random thoughts go through your head? Would you ever consider making a novel out of those dreams and thoughts, so that everyone in the world knew what was inside of you?

    Probably not. But Burroughs was more than happy to let us into his head. And it's one wild ride.

    This book is lewd, crude, and full of drug addicts, prostitutes, and talking typewriters. Not to mention some strange CIA-type agents who are hunting William Lee, the main character. But we never know why.

    If that plot doesn't make much sense to you, remember that Burroughs literally chopped up his sentences and swapped the pieces around. And he believed that this cut-up technique had prophetic powers. The rearranging of words in a random order seemed to him to reveal limitless levels of meanings hiding in ordinary words.

    Which meanings did you get out of Naked Lunch? Or did you just get stuck and find that you had trouble finishing it? We don't blame you, Shmoopers. It's a tough read.

    Still, Naked Lunch changed traditional narrative structure forever. The book is considered one of the greatest works of American fiction… Aside from being one of the strangest collections of sentences you'll ever read.

    Chew on This:

    Burroughs intended the chapters in Naked Lunch to be read in any order. Not only did he use the cut-up technique to write the novel, the reader is encouraged to use a cut-up technique to read it. How does this non-linear reading practice help define post-modernism? (Big fat question, right?) What does it mean for literature when novels don't have a clearly defined beginning middle and end?

    Junky was published as a graphic novel by Ace Books—a publisher who also published crime novels that included material thought unworthy of critical analysis. Junky was largely ignored by critics until many years after its publication date. Later on, as we know, Burroughs's work was elevated to Pro (Killing It) Status. So we think the graphic novels of today owe a debt to Burroughs for drawing critics' attention to books with pictures. Now how, precisely, does a novel like Junky fit into the discussion of what's high art and what's low art? How do literary critics decide what content is permissible, and what content is unfit for analysis? How should they decide?

  • Gary Snyder

    If Burroughs and Kerouac were the wild men of the Beat movement, Snyder was one of its steady, guiding lights. The other boys made names for themselves by writing about the underbelly of society. Snyder wrote about berries, trees, and the ordinary activities of daily life.

    His poem "A Berry Feast" was read at the famous Six Gallery Reading. And we've gotta say, it was a welcome relief after "Howl," which slapped everyone in the room up-side the head.

    Snyder was also the kind of O.G., real deal Buddhist. He wasn't just some urban malcontent who used religious principles to sell books (a criticism leveled at both Kerouac and Ginsberg), or some guy who hopped on the bandwagon when this stuff started getting really popular in the states.

    He lived for extended periods in Japan from 1956 to 1969. Then he'd travel back to California, where he and Ginsberg bought land in the wilds of the Sierra Mountains. (We're a little jealous.) The San Francisco Renaissance of the Beat Movement was his bread and butter.

    But his long and illustrious career logs a lot of personal growth. After starting out as a Beat poet, he became a Buddhist monk. Next, he survived the 1960s without overdosing or succumbing to capitalist rebranding. All this while writing some of the most engaging poetry of the 20th Century.

    Oh, and winning both the Pulitzer Prize for poetry and the National Book Award. No big deal.

    Mountains and Rivers Without End

    Zen patience indeed. This masterpiece Mountains and Rivers Without End was forty years in the making. It's Snyder's epic poem that he began while he hung out with Ginsberg in India and lived in a wilderness cabin with Kerouac. It's not prototypical of Beat writing. But its anti-capitalistic ethos has stood the test of time.

    Chew on This:

    The Beat movement exploded, burned brightly, then quickly burned out. Arguably, it lasted only a decade before being absorbed into other movements. Check out Snyder's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Turtle Island, written in 1974. This work develops some of the saner, quieter ideas of the Beats. How are Buddhism and anti-capitalism, which were hallmarks of Beat literature, touched on in Snyder's later work?

    Snyder was also a remarkable essayist. He wrote about many issues that are now part of the environmental movement. The Practice of the Wild reads like the literature that is included in the Ecocriticism movement. How does Snyder's work help fulfill many of the Beat generation's goals of overthrowing societal norms? What elements of environmentalism were born in Beat literature?