Study Guide

Beat Generation Literature Characteristics

  • Free Verse

    The Beat poets, particularly Allen Ginsberg, really dug Walt Whitman. Why? Not only was he generally a super-sweet poet, he was the Granddaddy of free verse. Free verse is poetry that throws regular rhyme and meter out the window.

    Lines can be very long and very short as they please. And words inside a line of free verse, rather than at the end of it, can rhyme with each other to create a unique, surprising sound (this technique is called internal rhyme). So it's not that "free verse" lacks any style at all.

    Instead, freeverse allows for poets to better get down with the rhythms of their own bad hearts, rather than sounding more like stuff that's been written before—like all those English sonnets, which are the lit tradition's version of The Hit Pop Song Formula.

    And you know what else the Beat writers loved? Jazz. Which, just like free verse, was characterized by breaking the "rules" of classical music. And by improvisation.

    This bit of on-the-fly magic inspired Beat authors, too. Many of 'em rarely edited their writing; they preferred to write stream-of-consciousness works—to improvise with words—and let their readers enjoy whatever came burning out of their souls.

    Chew on This:

    Allen Ginsberg's poem "Kaddish" is comprised of long, run-on sentences that have different lengths and no rhyme schemes. Classic free verse stylee, Shmoopers. But you might wonder: if it shirks the conventions of old-timey English verse forms, how do we know that it's actually poetry?

    Well, for one thing, it makes our hearts sing. Plus, it's full of other poetic devices. How many literary techniques can you find in the first thirty lines? And… Go.

    In "Bomb," rule-breaker Gregory Corso dismissed rhymes altogether. Even more exciting, he arranged the words on the page to form an atomic mushroom cloud. So the form mimics the content. Now that's seriously messing with convention. Rock.

  • Post-Modern

    Modernist literature is more openly emotional, confessional, and disjointed than the stodgy stuff that came out of the Victorian Era. It was spurred by the rapid development of new technologies during the 1900s, and the angst that World War I created.

    So, modernist writers gave readers their first tastes of real human scandal: sex, alienation, revolution, class struggles, racial tension, and more. Post-modernism lived those scandals.

    Post-modernists' work is unabashedly eccentric and experimental. Peeps like the Beats based their entire careers around a no-rules creative lifestyle, really—not just their art.

    You won't be surprised to learn, then, that a lot of the Beats were inspired by famous modernists. William Carlos Williams was Allen Ginsberg's mentor at Columbia University. T.S. Eliot, also a modernist, heavily influenced William Burroughs.

    See, the Beats danced all up on modernism, and turned it from a literary movement into just a movement—a fresh, new way of life.

    Chew on This:

    William Burroughs's Naked Lunch incorporates the post-modern technique of the cut-up, which is basically a fancy word for "collage." Originally the brain-child of visual artists like the Dadaists, this technique was taken up by Burroughs and applied to literature. Large portions of Naked Lunch are made from pieced-together sentences that Burroughs tore away from different works. Sweet.

    Post-modernism is also all about burning down the barriers between highbrow and lowbrow art. The thing is, Beat literature is no-brow. Beat authors wrote about anything and everything, but especially whatever was taboo. Allen Ginsberg didn't want to settle for being modern—he wanted to dismantle all of modern society. He wanted to talk about his queerness. And the madness of society's social constraints that were killing off his family and friends. His poem "Howl" just might be the grandest expression of "WTF?" ever written. In that piece, the narrator is all, This is modern society? Really? I don't want any [insert string of curse words here] part in it then, thanks. And here we are. Still doing a lot of the things the Beats were so riled up about, actually…

  • Transgression

    Well, this one's easy. Transgressive fiction and poetry is exactly what you think it is: literature that's dirty, down-low, obscene, shocking, illegal, or just plain strange. The Beats wanted a real revolution.

    And a revolution doesn't attempt to change the way things are slowly, bit by painful bit. Nope. So, these guys didn't quietly revise censorship practices. They tried to burn all the old conventions down as fast as they could. They wrote about whatever they wanted, and used a ton of profanity.

    Let's put it this way: if the internet had been around when the Beat boys were blowing up, their stuff would've been labeled NSFW, kiddos. Perhaps even NSFL: Not Safe For Life.

    Chew on This:

    Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" is a complex, epic piece of poetry. And it did just what the title suggests—it made a lot of noise. Why? Because it discussed "naughty" things. Like gay sex. And poverty. And drugs. These things were not to be talked about in super-uptight 1950s America. But Ginsberg thought it was ludicrous that his country expected him not to talk about the kinds of sex and love that were a part of his own life. Kind of crazy, huh? So, he let the revolution begin with him. Way to go, Ginny.

    Naked Lunch is like a long laundry list of transgressions. In it, William S. Burroughs's characters do drugs, kill cops, organize orgies, commit other various crimes, and write from different time periods and hallucinations. Published in 1959, the novel was quickly banned in the U.S. And when it finally got an American debut, it was slapped with an obscenity lawsuit. Like "Howl" before it, Naked Lunch challenged what it meant to be obscene—and the very definition of literature.

  • Alienation

    A lot of people write about alienation because they feel alienated by others. Like, that nameless narrator in Invisible Man. But most of the Beats were white guys from privileged backgrounds. What they believed in was voluntarily alienating themselves.

    As in: just go. Hop a train. Get away from it all, man. They thought this kind of solitude was good for the soul, much like the American Transcendentalists, though the Beats were more urban oriented than those other beardy, woodsy white guys.

    Anyways, during their solo ventures, the Beats sought personal release—by any means necessary, from illegal drugs to sex to indifference to social causes to generally "opting out" of mainstream American society.

    Chew on This:

    Philip Whalen was a bit of a goofball. He also had a rosier outlook on life than some of his Beat counterparts. You might say he was like the class clown of the Beat Generation. His choice comedic routine? Poetry. To him, poetry was the best way to free yourself from society. His work, Like I Say, is literature to help you laugh your way through intense loneliness. If Ginsberg howled about feeling out of place, Whalen smiled and giggled his way through the pain. Same post-war cultural malaise, different cures.

    Our boy Jack Kerouac thought the best way to alienate yourself is to jump into a convertible and hit the road. He did this several times and wrote about it in On the Road, which is his most famous work. In his mind, choosing separation was the only way to transcend the control of Big Brother. Driving a car on an open road is a sort of religion to many Americans, especially of that era. Which we guess makes Kerouac The Road Religion's high priest. Excellent. He was a spiritual dude, after all…

  • Buddhism

    When people say Californians are chill, they ain't lyin'. After the Beats escape New York and end up in San Francisco, they all catch the Buddhism bug. Eastern religious studies were all the rage at Berkeley during that time. And when that Original Trio o' Beats was introduced to Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen, they formed the Buddha Vibe Tribe. Goodbye ego, hello big mind.

    Chew on This:

    Gary Snyder was a real-deal Buddhist. He lived alone, away from the spotlight, and wrote extensively about the importance of preserving nature. Plus, he wasn't much of a partier—you can pick your jaw back up off the floor now—so he didn't burn out as quickly as the others. He read "The Berry Feast" at the famous Six Gallery Reading, where Ginsberg read the more explosive "Howl" for the first time. Snyder was very Zen about the event. He didn't mind being the wallflower to Ginsberg's Prom King.

    Jack Kerouac's The Dharma Bums introduced the Buddhist concept of the big mind to mainstream American audiences. Not everyone loved the idea. In order to become part of this universal force, one needed to give up the nice home, the latest hot-rod, and hair gel. Not an easy sell for your typical 1950s greaser.

  • Anarchy

    The Beats were going to be their own men no matter the cost. You might say they marched to the beat of their own drum (haha, we're hilarious). And then turned the drum upside down and planted tomatoes inside it. In other words, they didn't follow anyone else's rules.

    Sometimes that meant freedom. Sometimes that meant doing stupid things they thought expressed their individuality, but really just caused a scene. Free verse doesn't hurt anybody.

    But anarchy can become sketchy when a dude shoots his wife in the face and then runs away without taking any responsibility for his actions. (That lovely episode is brought to you courtesy of William Burroughs, everybody. Eek. Scary mind, that one.)

    Chew on This:

    Only two political philosophies existed to William Burroughs: anarchy or fascism. In Naked Lunch, the rival political parties—the "liquifactionists," "senders," and "divisionists"—are all after the same thing: control. They only difference is how they go about acquiring it. Burroughs believed anarchy was the way to go. And boy, does his prose embody anarchy.

    Ever wonder what would happen if religion married politics… and together, they made a beautiful baby? Well, wonder no longer, Shmoopers. Buddhist Anarchism, by Gary Snyder, is that baby. In it, Snyder says that because there is no true self, there is no rightful political structure that can control the self. Yeehaw. So, um, do what comes naturally (again, except shooting your wife in the face). If someone wants to shut down your individual expression, Snyder suggests we find a pretty patch of grass, sit on it, and protest. Peacefully.

  • Sexuality

    When it came to sex, the question is: what didn't the Beats do? Well, have "vanilla," monogamous sex with their married, forever-wives, we guess. In other words, there were no nuclear families anywhere in sight for these dudes.

    Polyamory, bisexuality, homosexuality or lesbianism or gayness or queerness, threesomes, foursomes, and moresomes—the van was rockin' and people kept knockin'. But it wasn't all fun and games for these guys. Experimental sexuality was a path to enlightenment for the Beats.

    At least, they believed it to be. Sometimes, we're guessing it led to a lot of jealousy and some crazy Jerry Springer situations. What do you think, dear readers? How much is sexual liberation intertwined with other kinds of social liberation in a society?

    Chew on This:

    In 1953, few adults were likely to sit around, chillin', talking about anal sex between men. Then "Howl" came to town. And people gasped 'round the country. Ginsberg discussed this type of sex explicitly for at least two reasons. The first was to talk, in a symbolic way, about the damaging exploitation of capitalism. But he was also providing insight into his own sex life. Ginsberg not only came out of the closet, he obliterated it. And long before Harvey Milk or Ellen DeGeneres.

    In The Dharma Bums, Kerouac uses scenes of sexual experimentation—like orgies and sex with young girls—to confront society's misguided attempts to control people's behaviors. Having sex that isn't sanctioned by society helps free the mind, he thought. So some free lovin' in a convertible on the open road would be like high communion in the church of Kerouac.

  • Interracial/Cross Cultural

    After World War II and the Korean War, Americans were pretty biased against people in East Asia. The Beats hated this prejudice. They championed eastern Buddhist thought not just because they found it groovy, but also because it pissed off a lot of powerful white people.

    Chew on This:

    Beat bros Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen followed fairly strict Buddhist lives. But Buddhism wasn't the only element of Eastern culture they integrated into their lives. They were also heavily influenced by the haiku. This handy little form helped these American writers simplify their poetry. Simplify your poetry, simplify your life, dude.

    In On the Road, Kerouac idolizes minority communities. Why? Because he believed they possessed a rich artistic tradition that we could all learn a lot from. In particular, Kerouac admired black writers like Langston Hughes, and strove to emulate the jazz poetry of the Harlem Renaissance. Kerouac was the ultimate jazz music groupie—and Renaissance man.

  • Jazz

    Take a look at our "Top 10" for more deets on jazz. For now, take a look at some of the authors and texts associated with it.

  • Obscenity

    Take a look at our "Top 10" for more deets on obscenity in Beat literature. For now, take a look at some of the authors and texts associated with it.

  • Confessional

    Take a look at our "Top 10" for more deets on the confessional in Beat literature. For now, take a look at some of the authors and texts associated with it.