America, in the wake of the Second World War, suffered from the threat of a looming, yet unnoticed, crisis. A crisis which was not defined by the effect of the war on economic growth, or of the enormous casualties suffered during the war by its population, but one defined by its effect on individual identity. The advent of a ‘modern’ society, focused on increasing productivity and efficiency, and built on the foundations of consumerism and materialist gains, tried to create an ideal for everyone to strive towards, and to seek fulfilment by achieving that ideal. However, the modern society only bred alienation and withdrawal in the masses, especially among the youth, who were disillusioned with the idea of striving towards an ideal that seemed so devoid of any independent value, or meaning.
The disillusionment and the alienation gave rise to what we now know as the Beat Movement in the 1950s, a movement spearheaded by young thinkers and writers, who wanted to explore the meaning in their lives, seek new challenges and not be shackled by the reins of society. In a world that seemed to prioritise vague notions of ‘progress’ and ‘productivity’ over meaning, which bound everyone it encountered in a cage of formal interactions and pre-defined rules of existing, the Beat Generation brought a breath of fresh air.
At its heart, however, the Beat Generation was a literary movement. Ginsberg, Burroughs, Holmes, Kerouac – names that have become synonymous with the spontaneous and fast-paced prose which characterized the writings of the Beat Generation – were revolutionaries in the 50s. They represented the ethos of the curious and uninhibited spirit of the youth, and brought their relentless drive for exploration and self-discovery to their work. The Beat generation signified how the individual was frustrated, bewildered and just ‘beat’ in the aftermath of the war, and the uncertainties that lay ahead. But in the pursuit of finding the meaning in life’s experiences, and seeking to embrace the value which these experiences gave to their existence, the Beat generation found solace in the arms of religion. Kerouac even referred to himself as a ‘strange solitary crazy Catholic mystic’, and in his mind, the pursuit of discovering yourself through experience was akin to being in heaven, close to God. That, to his catholic mind, was the beatific vision which the ‘Beat’ generation epitomized.
It was Kerouac’s On the Road, written in 1957, which introduced the world to the risk-taking, carefree and full throttle life of Dean Moriarty, who became the face of the Beat generation. Moriarty was based on Kerouac’s close friend Neal Cassady, and soon became the heartthrob icon which gave the Beat generation, and Kerouac, immediate recognition.
[Sal] “Death will overtake us before heaven”. [Dean] “We only live once. We’re having a good time”.
His charming ways, his penchant for adventure and travel, but more than anything else, his unbridled passion for new and immersive experiences, which helped him embrace “now” better than anyone else, made Moriarty an emblem of all that the Beat Generation stood for. But while Kerouac was more the Sal Paradise to Cassady’s Moriarty, to the outside world, it was he who could unravel the mysterious yet exhilarating lifestyle of Dean, who could tell them about the Beat generation and what it was all about. Kerouac’s work suffered as a result of the massive publicity around On the Road, as did his health, which took a turn for the worse when he found a closer friend in alcohol than he did in his actual companions.
On the Road was in many ways a trailblazing work, one which Kerouac wrote on a single sheet of paper covering 36.6 metres, in a chaotic yet inspired frenzy of lucid thought and flowing ideas (Kerouac found the constant need to change sheets irritating, and felt that it broke the flow of his thought). While Truman Capote famously self-declared In Cold Blood to be the first non-fiction novel, that title is often given to On the Road for its roman-à-clef storytelling and real-life inspirations. Capote derided On the Road and the marathon length on which it had been carved by Kerouac, remarking “That’s not writing, that’s typing”.
On the Road encapsulated the style which the Beat Generation would be recognized by – riveting, break-free and spontaneous prose – with Holmes’ Go, Burrough’s Naked Lunch and Ginsberg’s masterpiece Howl illustrating not just similar literary traits, but even a commonality of themes. However, it was On the Road which brought the philosophy and ideas of the Beat Generation in the limelight (a lot of which was because of the coverage of the book and Kerouac’s book by mainstream media and literary outlets).
While the Beat movement is often labelled as a pre-cursor to the rise of the counterculture, and the Hippie Culture of the 70s (a claim Kerouac disapproved of, as he “despised” the Hippies), the focus of its pole bearers was very much on the here and now. The Beat movement did not intend to become an alternative to the existing political paradigm. Nor did it intend to be a revolution, challenging the prevailing social mores and creating a niche for itself.
All that the Beat generation writers strived for was a journey – a journey that would take them on pastures new, on roads they’d never been on, places they’d never seen or heard of – where they could push themselves, reinvent themselves, but most of all, discover themselves through experience, through being. They wanted to stop assuming that there is a correct way of writing, or of any expression. Their style was about letting their emotions flow, capture what they were feeling on their adventures, in every single moment, what they were experiencing. And that’s what we remember them by, even after so long.
Jack Kerouac, On the Road (1957).
Louis Menand, ‘Drive, He Wrote’ (The New Yorker) available at https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2007/10/01/drive-he-wrote
‘Sunday Reading: The Beat Generation’ (The New Yorker) available at https://www.newyorker.com/books/double-take/sunday-reading-the-beat-generation
Jordan Bates, ‘The Beat Generation worldview in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road’ (The Creativity Post) available at https://www.creativitypost.com/article/the_beat_generation_worldview_in_kerouacs_on_the_road
James Campbell, ‘Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs: celebrating the Beats in Paris’ (The Guardian) available at https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jul/09/beats-paris-pompidou-centre