“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked…”
(Ginsberg, Howl, 1955)
Post-war America’s authoritative, self-promoting optimism was severely challenged by the threat of Communism and the Cold War. The hopelessness and destruction pouring out of politics and dropped bombs resulted in the pillars of American society losing their meaning; fear and uncertainty infiltrated life’s daily grind. Despite these effects, or perhaps to retain some control through dominance of beliefs, America was still a conservative country, housing sexist, racist and homophobic views on a large scale.
In 1944 two students at Columbia University, Allen Ginsberg and Lucian Carr, conceived of ‘New Vision’ of literature, one which took risks and flew its flag on the fringes of society. These two students soon joined forces with another named Jack Kerouac, and the older, more erudite William S. Burroughs. These four men, as well as Neal Cassady (Kerouac’s muse and Ginsberg’s lover), were the original protagonists in the cultural revolution that became the Beat Generation.
These bohemian writers and poets took the introspective complacency of Dostoevsky and extended it into frantic, spontaneous prose steeped in hope and hopelessness, love and lust, ecstasy and despair. The Beats were completely aware of their own existence; they were absorbed in it. They broke moral and legal limits in their search for life without boundaries or restrictions. And whilst America silently hovered on the brink of destruction, the Beats faced it with a vibrant and free fire in their belly, questing affirmation and experience.
Allen Ginsberg, Photograph, 1979, Michiel Hendryckx
Burroughs’ literature is submerged in addiction, not only in the form of narcotics, but in addiction to politics, to love, and to religion. Frank autobiographical honesty, which they all subscribed to, resides in gritty and foul accounts of drug-use and the ripples of its powder-driven dependence. The poetry of Allen Ginsberg takes a more pointedly political stance. In 1957, the publication of the notorious poem “Howl” was the centre of an obscenity trial due to its explicit homosexual content. Written in dedication to Carl Solomon, who he met whilst in Rockland psychiatric hospital, “Howl” illustrates ultimate, crazy despair in the saddest overlooked alleys of society, wherein the most dejected acts paint a bleak underbelly on America’s powerful eagle of strength. Ginsberg rocked the boat of literature and culture. He brought life to words in poetry readings
of passionate love and anguish of his own, and his friends’ experiences in bars and coffee-houses of fellow minded intellectuals immersed in the same ugly beautiful time and space.
Jack Kerouac is the saddest Romantic. His most famous work, “On the Road” was written in 1951 over a period of three weeks on a 120-foot scroll, expressing accounts from the several years of his life that he spent travelling across America. His use of spontaneous prose slashes and clutches to the heart with handsomely agonising honesty. Kerouac’s works are focused on a more spiritual path, constantly grasping for belief and soul.
Nevertheless the Beats cannot be easily boxed into nihilism or existentialism; their lives and written words cannot be contained by any category or limit, partially because of their sheer madness and hysteria, but predominantly because they throb with life. It is the combination of this enthusiasm with unspoken, yet unbelievably haunting and all-consuming desperation that affords a connection so great between text and reader. Their vibrancy and their spirit possess utterly human notions of futility, uncertainty and confusion. The works of the Beat Generation live beyond their historical context, they are the epitome of “the raggedy madness and riot of our actual lives, our actual night, the hell of it, the senseless emptiness” (Kerouac, On the Road, 1951).