March 12th marks the birthday of Jack Kerouac, one of the leading writers in the literary movement called the Beat Generation. But what, or who, exactly was the Beat Generation?
The Beat Generation was meant to echo in some ways the Lost Generation—the generation of post WWI writers and artists such as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. The Beat Generation explored American politics and culture in the post-war era of the 1950s, and was characterized by the anti-conformity of youth at the time.
The Beat Generation left a lasting mark on literature, and continues to influence art today. If you'd like to explore more of the rebellious, devil-may-care nature of the Beat Generation, here are 5 great books to get you started.
1. On the Road by Jack Kerouac
These days, On the Road is considered one of the best novels of all time, but back when it was released, Kerouac's semi-autobiographical book was met with a mix of shock and scorn.
On the Road is about exactly that: two young men embarking on a road trip around North America in search of life experience and knowledge. While the rambling, spontaneous style may be grating to some, it suits the nature of Kerouac's musings on the wild, freewheeling nature of the Beat Generation.
2. Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs
Burroughs was often referred to as the 'Godfather of Punk' and his uninhibited writing style closely mirrored the way he lived his life. Burroughs was a notorious drug addict and centered Naked Lunch around these life experiences.
Structured as a loose set of stories with no narrative order, the reader follows a junkie through various exploits as he travels from one place to the next. Naked Lunch is soaked through with a mix of paranoia and fantasy, often forcing the reader to walk a fine line between love and disgust.
3. Howl by Allen Ginsberg
If rebellion could be contained between the covers of a book, it'd be Howl by Allen Ginsberg. This poem is a wild and fierce diatribe against the evils of American capitalism and societal expectations.
Howl became notorious for its carefree and candid portrayal of homosexuality and drug use—both of which led it to become the source of a national obscenity trial. Howl embodies perfectly the Beat Generation's disregard for conformity and tradition.
4. A Coney Island of the Mind by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Ferlinghetti was a man with his finger firmly on the pulse of the Beat Generation. Known for co-founding the City Lights Bookstore, a hub of the Beat Movement, he also became rather infamous for his involvement, and eventual arrest, in Ginsberg's high-profile obscenity case.
Ferlinghetti went on to write the most popular collection of poetry in America, A Coney Island of the Mind. Described as a 'kind of circus of the soul', Ferlinghetti's poems continue to resonate heavily with modern culture. So much so, that the work has been translated into nine languages, and has sold over 1 million copies!
5. Minor Characters by Joyce Johnson
While the Beat Generation does seem largely dominated by vocal white men, it wouldn't be what it is without the brilliant women who helped form the literary movement. Joyce Johnson is one such woman. She spent a significant amount of time around the key figures of the Beat Movement, and was openly critical of the male-dominated aesthetic.
Her experiences (including two years of dating Jack Kerouac) led her to pen the memoir, Minor Characters, where she chronicled the lives and influences of the oft-forgotten women who lived just as wildely and forged the way for the Beat Generation.
Have you read books or poems from the Beat Generation?
Share what you thought in the comments below!