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William Burroughs, Junkie (1953)
"Forgive me, America: I am a junkie." That's basically what this book is about. And you know our obsessions with people confessing their deepest, darkest secrets to a public audience may have started with this novel. Here, Burroughs uses his own experience with drug addiction as an allegory for the addictive nature of American capitalism.
Allen Ginsberg, Howl and Other Poems, (1956)
This is the piece that started it all. It was lewd, crude, and exhaustively truthful. By exposing his own emotional core to the world in this poem, Ginsberg inspired many other artists—and much of society in general—to do the same. Well, not exactly the same; most of us kept our clothes on.
Gary Snyder, Mountains and Rivers Without End (1956-1996)
Yes, it took forty years to write this American epic. And you thought Homer went big. Snyder proved he could outlast all of his burn-out buddies in the Beat Movement with Mountains and Rivers. It is simple, but expansive; it engages with nature and human consciousness. And that's not the work's only complexity. While blunt and challenging, the book is also kind and full of a generous spirit. No wonder it took so long to write. All in all, it's just the kind of poetic expression the Beat boys were after.
Jack Kerouac, On the Road (1957)
With this book, the great American road trip was born. On the Road has inspired so many other novels and films about life in American cars on American highways. But Kerouac started it all. His essential creed was keep moving. He didn't believe you needed a destination or a direction—just energy and unexplored country… and maybe a change of underwear.
Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums (1958)
What happens when you put a New York rebel together with a California Buddhist? No, not a Bruce Lee movie. You get a novel that desperately wants to bring Eastern philosophy to America. Along the way, we're treated to some sex scenes, some partying, and a lot of big, wide-open spaces.
Gregory Corso, Gasoline and Vestal Lady of Brattle (1958)
Corso was the little brother of the Beat Movement. Poor guy had to work extra hard to get attention. So, he did what many little brothers do; he became the class clown. The poems rip apart marriage, nuclear weapons, and capitalism—all the typical Beat, life-sucks-then-you-die topics. But his work is known for its particularly stinging wit. In fact, he's been called misogynistic and flip. That second part would have pleased the other Beats very much. And while the class clown doesn't always get taken seriously, a lot of the political satire of the 1960s and 1970s began with this kid. Watch out.
Jack Kerouac, The Subterraneans (1958)
This book catalogues Kerouac's love affair with Alene Lee, an African American woman he characterizes as Mardou Fox. The novel's been heavily criticized for its naiveté; it very clearly reveals the limitations of white guys' attempts to write about race relations in America. It's a step in the right direction, we guess, but it's a baby step.
William Burroughs, Naked Lunch (1959)
Burroughs might not have been a real looker, but at least he wore cool hats. More importantly, however, this novel is the poster-child of American post-modernism. It's truly a wild literary ride. The work is a surreal and shocking political satire, but that's not all. It's told through fragmented sentences, the narrative shifts back and forth in time, and the happenings often appear a little bit random. And that's because they are. Burroughs wrote this book by chopping up his original sentences and rearranging them in a random order. Wowza.
Allen Ginsberg, Kaddish and Other Poems (1961)
This is Ginsberg's eulogy for his mentally-ill mother. But trust us, it is not some tabloid tell-all. The poem is truly heart-breaking stuff. In it, Ginsberg tells us how madness is not just an individual disease. Mental illnesses are bred by sick societies. Many consider this work to be Ginsberg's masterpiece.
William Burroughs, The Soft Machine (1961)
A secret agent who can morph bodies by using a secret substance makes a time machine. And then he gets into fights with Mayan priests in order to control the minds of slaves who harvest maize. Say what? Yeah, you read that right. But all of this wackiness is supposed to serve as an allegory for how addiction invaded Burroughs's own "soft machine"—a.k.a., his body. Um. There is truly no one else like William Burroughs, folks.
Philip Whalen, Like I Say (1961)
Whalen was a Zen master in tennis shoes—the epitome of what San Fran did for the Beat movement. Like, you know, totally chill it out, dude. Whalen also brought the art of the Haiku into focus for American poets with this collection. It's cool and easy, and full of humor and natural imagery. Plus, it tries to coax us into getting rid of our egos. Clearly, the work was heavily inspired by Buddhism and other Eastern traditions.
Allen Ginsberg, The Fall of America (1971)
This collection sums up the whole Beat generation, pretty much. This is Ginsberg's National Book Award-winning collection of poems that he wrote during the years 1965-1971. These pieces follow Ginsberg's travels all over the world, as he visits his old Beat boy buddies. By this time, they've all kind of gone their separate ways. Ginsberg was with the hippies; Kerouac was killing himself with alcohol; Snyder was in Japan; and Burroughs was God knows where. So you could say that this collection was Ginsberg's eulogy to his friends, and what they attempted to do in the Beat Movement.
Allen Ginsberg, Beat Memories, The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg (1943-1968)
The revolution will be photographed. Because these guys were such tight buddies in the beginning, there are plenty of photos of them bumming around together. And besides, it only makes sense that the Beats' hyper-intimate writing style be paired with personal images.
John Clellon Holmes, This is the Beat Generation (1952)
This is the article that brought the term Beat into the American zeitgeist. It was a kind of manifesto that laid out the Beat ideals… or at least the former American ideals the Beats were aiming to destroy.
Allen Ginsberg, "The Art of Poetry No. 8" (1966)
In this interview, Ginsberg explains why he can't really explain how he writes poetry. His chat with Thomas Clark is refreshingly un-academic, while still providing us with some nice insight into his writing. And his life.