Top Ten Beatniks

Top Ten Beatniks

  

       The Beat Generation is a group of American post-WWII writers who came to prominence in the 1950’s, as well as the cultural phenomena that they both documented and inspired. Central elements of “Beat” culture included experimentation with drugs and alternative forms of sexuality, an interest in Eastern religion, a rejection of materialism, and the idealizing of exuberant, unexpurgated means of expression and being. Allen Ginsberg’s Howl (1956), William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch (1959) and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957) are among the best known examples of Beat literature. Both Howl and Naked Lunch were the focus of obscenity trials that ultimately helped to liberalize publishing in the US. The members of the Beat Generation developed a reputation as new bohemian hedonists, who celebrated non-conformity and spontaneous creativity. The original “Beat Generation” writers met in New York. Later, the central figures (with the exception of Burroughs) ended up together in San Francisco in the mid-1950’s where they met and became friends with figures associated with the San Francisco Renaissance. In the 1960’s, elements of the expanding Beat movement were incorporated into the Hippie counterculture.

  1. Jack Kerouac (March 12, 1922 – October 21, 1969)

    Jean-Louis “Jack” Kerouac was an American novelist and poet. He is considered a literary iconoclast and, alongside William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, a pioneer of the Beat Generation. Kerouac is recognized for his spontaneous method of writing, covering topics such as Catholic spirituality, jazz, promiscuity, Buddhism, drugs, poverty and travel. His writings have inspired other writers, including Ken Kesey, Bob Dylan, Richard Brautigan, Thomas Pynchon, Lester Bangs, Tom Robbins, Will Clarke and Haruki Murakami among others. Kerouac became an underground celebrity and, with other beats, a progenitor of the Hippie movement, although he remained antagonistic toward it. Since his death Kerouac’s literary prestige has grown and several previously unseen works have been published. All of his books are in print today, among them: On the Road, Doctor Sax, The Dharma Bums, Mexico City Blues, The Subterraneans, Desolation Angels, Visions of Cody and Big Sur.
    Links: Top Ten Books by Jack Kerouac,
    Products: On the Road by Jack Kerouac (Book),
  2. William S. Burrough (February 5, 1914 – August 2, 1997)

    William Seward Burroughs II was an American novelist, poet, essayist and spoken word performer. Burroughs was a primary figure of the Beat Generation and a major postmodernist author who affected popular culture as well as literature. He is considered to be “one of the most politically trenchant, culturally influential, and innovative artists of the twentieth century.” Burroughs wrote eighteen novels and novellas, six collections of short stories and four collections of essays. Five books have been published of his interviews and correspondences. Burroughs also collaborated on projects and recordings with numerous performers and musicians, and made many appearances in films. Burroughs began writing essays and journals in early adolescence. He left home in 1932 to attend Harvard University, studying English and anthropology, but after being turned down by the Office of Strategic Services and US Navy to serve in WWII, dropped out and spent the next twenty years working a variety of jobs. In 1943 while living in New York City, he befriended Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, the mutually influential foundation of what became the countercultural movement of the Beat Generation, while becoming involved in the drug addiction that affected him for the rest of his life. Much of Burroughs’s work is semi-autobiographical, primarily drawn from his experiences as a heroin addict, as he lived throughout Mexico City, London, Paris, Berlin, the South American Amazon and Tangier in Morocco. Finding success with his confessional first novel, Junkie (1953), Burroughs is perhaps best known for his third novel Naked Lunch (1959), a work fraught with controversy that underwent a court case under the sodomy laws. With Brion Gysin, he also popularized the literary cut-up technique in works such as The Nova Trilogy (1961–64). In 1983, Burroughs was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and in 1984 was awarded the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by France. Jack Kerouac called Burroughs the “greatest satirical writer since Jonathan Swift,” a reputation he owes to his “lifelong subversion” of the moral, political and economic systems of modern American society, articulated in often darkly humorous sardonicism. J. G. Ballard considered Burroughs to be “the most important writer to emerge since the Second World War,” while Norman Mailer declared him “the only American writer who may be conceivably possessed by genius.” Burroughs had one child in 1947, William Seward Burroughs III, with his second wife Joan Vollmer, who died in 1951 in Mexico City after Burroughs accidentally shot her in the head while drunk, an event that deeply permeated all of his writings.
    Links: Top Ten Works by William Burroughs, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_S._Burroughs,
  3. Allen Ginsberg (June 3, 1926 – April 5, 1997)

    Irwin Allen Ginsberg was an American poet who vigorously opposed militarism, materialism and sexual repression. In the 1950’s, Ginsberg was a leading figure of the Beat Generation. Ginsberg’s epic poem “Howl,” in which he celebrates his fellow “angel-headed hipsters” and harshly denounces what he saw as the destructive forces of capitalism and conformity in the US, is one of the classic poems of the Beat Generation. The poem, dedicated to writer Carl Solomon, has the opening: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix…” In October 1955, Ginsberg and five other unknown poets gave a free reading at an experimental art gallery in San Francisco. Ginsberg’s “Howl” electrified the audience. According to fellow poet Michael McClure, it was clear “that a barrier had been broken, that a human voice and body had been hurled against the harsh wall of America and its supporting armies and navies and academies and institutions and ownership systems and power support bases.” In 1957, “Howl” attracted widespread publicity when it became the subject of an obscenity trial in which a San Francisco prosecutor argued it contained “filthy, vulgar, obscene, and disgusting language.” The poem seemed especially outrageous in 1950’s America because it depicted both heterosexual and homosexual sex at a time when sodomy laws made homosexual acts a crime in every state. “Howl” reflected Ginsberg’s own homosexuality and his relationships with a number of men, including Peter Orlovsky, his lifelong partner. Judge Clayton W. Horn ruled that “Howl” was not obscene, adding, “Would there be any freedom of press or speech if one must reduce his vocabulary to vapid innocuous euphemisms?” In “Howl” and in his other poetry, Ginsberg drew inspiration from the epic, free verse style of the 19th century American poet Walt Whitman. Both wrote passionately about the promise (and betrayal) of American democracy, the central importance of erotic experience, and the spiritual quest for the truth of everyday existence. J. D. McClatchy, editor of the Yale Review called Ginsberg “the best-known American poet of his generation, as much a social force as a literary phenomenon.” McClatchy added that Ginsberg, like Whitman, “was a bard in the old manner – outsized, darkly prophetic, part exuberance, part prayer, part rant. His work is finally a history of our era’s psyche, with all its contradictory urges.” Ginsberg was a practicing Buddhist who studied Eastern religious disciplines extensively. One of his most influential teachers was the Tibetan Buddhist, the Venerable Chögyam Trungpa, founder of the Naropa Institute, now Naropa University at Boulder, Colorado. At Trungpa’s urging, Ginsberg and poet Anne Waldman started a poetry school there in 1974 which they called the “Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics.” In spite of his attraction to Eastern religions, the journalist Jane Kramer argues that Ginsberg, like Whitman, adhered to an “American brand of mysticism” that was, in her words, “rooted in humanism and in a romantic and visionary ideal of harmony among men.” Ginsberg’s political activism was consistent with his religious beliefs. He took part in decades of non-violent political protest against everything from the Vietnam War to the War on Drugs. The literary critic, Helen Vendler, described Ginsberg as “tirelessly persistent in protesting censorship, imperial politics, and persecution of the powerless.” His achievements as a writer as well as his notoriety as an activist gained him honors from established institutions. Ginsberg’s book of poems, The Fall of America, won the National Book Award for poetry in 1974. Other honors included the National Arts Club gold medal and his induction into the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, both in 1979. Ginsberg was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1995 for his book, Cosmopolitan Greetings: Poems 1986–1992.
    Links: Top Ten Allen Ginsberg Poems, Top Ten Poets, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allen_Ginsberg,
  4. John Clellon Holmes (March 12, 1926 – March 30, 1988)

    John Clellon Holmes, born in Holyoke, Massachusetts, was an author, poet and professor, best known for his 1952 novel Go. Considered the first “Beat” novel, Go depicted events in his life with his friends Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady and Allen Ginsberg. He was often referred to as the “quiet Beat” and was one of Kerouac’s closest friends. Holmes also wrote what is considered the definitive jazz novel of the Beat Generation, The Horn. Holmes was more an observer and documenter of beat characters like Ginsberg, Cassady and Kerouac than one of them. He asked Ginsberg for “any and all information on your poetry and your visions” (shortly before Ginsberg’s admission into hospital) saying that “I am interested in knowing also anything you may wish to tell…about Neal, Huncke, Lucien in relation to you…” (referring to Herbert Huncke and Lucien Carr), to which Ginsberg replied with an 11-page letter detailing, as completely as he could, the nature of his “divine vision.” The origin of the term beat being applied to a generation was conceived by Jack Kerouac who told Holmes, “You know, this is really a beat generation.” The term later became part of common parlance when Holmes published an article in The New York Times Magazine entitled “This Is the Beat Generation” on November 16, 1952. In the article, Holmes attributes the term to Kerouac, who had acquired the idea from Herbert Huncke. Holmes came to the conclusion that the values and ambitions of the Beat Generation were symbolic of something bigger, which was the inspiration for Go. Later in life, Holmes taught at the University of Arkansas, lectured at Yale and gave workshops at Brown University.
    Links: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Clellon_Holmes,
  5. Neal Cassady (February 8, 1926 – February 4, 1968)

    Neal Leon Cassady was a major figure of the Beat Generation of the 1950’s and the psychedelic movement of the 1960’s, perhaps best known for being characterized as Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouacs novel On the Road.
    Links: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neal_Cassady,
  6. Gregory Corso (March 26, 1930 – January 17, 2001)

    Gregory Nunzio Corso was an American poet, youngest of the inner circle of Beat Generation writers (with Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs). He was beloved by the other “Beats.” According to Jack Kerouac “… a tough young kid from the Lower East Side who rose like an angel over the roof tops and sang Italian song as sweet as Caruso and Sinatra, but in words…Amazing and beautiful, Gregory Corso, the one and only Gregory, the Herald.” And in the words of Allen Ginsberg “Corso’s a poet’s Poet, a poet much superior to me. Pure velvet…whose wild fame’s extended for decades around the world from France to China, World Poet.” William S. Burroughs commented about Gregory, “Gregory’s voice echoes through a precarious future…His vitality and resilience always shine through, with a light this is more than human: the immortal light of his Muse…Gregory is indeed one of the Daddies.”
    Links: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gregory_Corso,
  7. Herbert Huncke (January 9, 1915 – August 8, 1996)

    Herbert Edwin Huncke was a sub-culture icon, writer and poet, and active participant in a number of emerging cultural, social and aesthetic movements of the 20th century in America. He was a member of the Beat Generation and is reputed to have coined the term.
    Links: Top Ten Works by Herbert Huncke, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herbert_Huncke,
  8. Carolyn Robinson (April 28, 1923-)

    Carolyn Elizabeth Robinson Cassady is an American writer associated with the Beat Generation through her marriage to Neal Cassady and her friendships with Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and other prominent Beat figures. She became a frequent character in the works of Jack Kerouac, who wrote extensively about Neal Cassady.
    Links: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carolyn_Cassady,
  9. Alan Watts (6 January 1915 – 16 November 1973)

    Alan Wilson Watts was a British philosopher, writer and speaker, best known as an interpreter and popularizer of Eastern philosophy for a Western audience. Born in Chislehurst, he moved to the US in 1938 and began Zen training in New York. Pursuing a career, he attended Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, where he received a master’s degree in theology. Watts became an Episcopal priest but left the ministry in 1950 and moved to California where he joined the faculty of the American Academy of Asian Studies. Living on the West Coast, Watts gained a large following in the San Francisco Bay Area while working as a volunteer programmer at KPFA, a Pacifica Radio station in Berkeley. Watts wrote more than 25 books and articles on subjects important to Eastern and Western religion, introducing the then-burgeoning youth culture to The Way of Zen (1957), one of the first bestselling books on Buddhism. In Psychotherapy East and West (1961), Watts proposed that Buddhism could be best thought of as a form of psychotherapy, not just a religion. Like Aldous Huxley before him, he explored human consciousness in the essay, “The New Alchemy” (1958), and in the book, The Joyous Cosmology (1962). His legacy has been kept alive with the help of his son, Mark Watts, and many of his recorded talks and lectures have found new life on the Internet. Critic Erik Davis notes the freshness, longevity and continuing relevance of Watts’s work today, observing that his “writings and recorded talks still shimmer with a profound and galvanizing lucidity.”
    Links: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alan_Watts,
  10. Links: Books, Poetry,

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