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The so-called Beat Generation is a literary phenomenon that originated in the 1960’s and made a huge impact on culture and the way of thinking of the society. It is still debated whether these writers and poets triggered the new epoch to come or they were just on going with the flow that would appear, in any case. In any case, people, like Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Nick Cassidy, and Jack Kerouac, with a number of other authors, who joined them later, are considered to be founders of this new movement. Being innovative in their style and provocative in presentation of ideas, their works are united by similar messages that mostly referred to liberation of all kinds: from censorship of writing and speech to sexual and ethnic prejudices. These works also evoked interest in ecology, new way of religion and life of the native population in the United States and Canada.
The term “Beat Generation” was coined by Jack Kerouac to denote a group of friends, who had similar views on literature. Later on, when Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Kerouac moved to San Francisco, their circle broadened to include a larger group of writers and poets. Finally, the term “beat” applied to the whole generation became relevant because of the influence that their ideology had over that time’s society. Allen Ginsberg stated, “Nobody knows whether we were catalysts or invented something, or just the froth riding on a wave of its own. We were all three, I suppose” (Ginsberg n.p.). As the researchers point out, there are two distinct phrases in the life of the Beat Generation. The first one, the underground period, which lasted from 1944 to 1956; and the second phrase, the public period (1956-1962 (Stephenson 2). Although all the writers are united under the same name, it would be wrong to say that the movement had a clear-cut ideology; if they had similar ideas, it was rather accidental or a sign of Zeitgeist. Each of them has had his individual face, so is worth an individual treatment.
Allen Ginsberg is one of the most famous representatives of the Beat Generation. Known as a poet, he made the main contribution to literature with his poem “Howl”. In its form, the poem is largely based on the pattern that Walt Whitman introduced. It is close to narration, while being quite emotionally expressive. As Ginsberg had eccentric views of life, he saw society as an oppressing unit – a trait that is typical for most Beat authors. He was not far from being right because his unconventional views of controversial issues, like race and sexuality, could not be easily accepted by society. In its tone, the work reflects its name “Howl” and is, in fact, quite an angry writing that condemns modern civilization for being a cold anti-human machine that breaks a person’s individuality and prevents him/her from expressing the real self. Although it is provocative in its message, the poem signifies the feeling of desperation that people have. As other Beat poetry and prose, it reveals the feeling of loneliness that their representatives had. They felt marginalized and outcast by society because of the views and lifestyle, so their rage is only a way to defend themselves and hide their despair and solitude. Richard Eberhart referred to the poem as “a powerful work, cutting through to dynamic meaning… It is a howl against everything in our mechanistic civilization which kills the spirit… Its positive force and energy come from a redemptive quality of love.”(Poetry Foundation n.p.).
Despite the bohemian lifestyle and the overt sexuality of his poetry, they were not the major focus of Ginsberg. He is definitely a social and political figure, because he paid a lot of attention to the issues of society. Thus, he supported anti-war demonstrations, while Vietnam operation was on the way. He was imprisoned after one of the protest meetings against Nixon’s administration. Besides, ecological issues were first openly raised by the Beat generation, including Ginsberg. He and his partner were arrested for participation in the demonstration, aimed at stopping a train of radioactive waste. The time has shown that the efforts of activists were not vain, as the society was gradually changing under the pressure of those who aimed to transform it.
Another significant figure that shaped the Beat movement was Jack Kerouac, who worked in the genre of prose. His novel “On the Road” is considered to be the manifesto of the movement and its most outstanding work. The text describes the travel of the writer across America in the company of his friend, Neil Cassidy, so it is autobiographical to a large extent. Being an ideological vagabond, he spent most of his life in such kind of traveling, which was a way of his protest to society that had a predetermined set of rules for a person about how he/she should leave. By his life and his works, Kerouac aimed to demonstrate his freedom and independence of social clichés and public opinion. This spiritual search was complicated for him, he referred to different methods starting from drugs and ending with Buddhism to find his own way on the road of life.
The issue of spirituality is one of the key ones in the heritage of Kerouac, despite the fact that it can look controversial in terms of morals. In the novel The Town and the City, the author describes the way the spiritual background is formed by parents and society, so that it is hard for a person to resist this influence:
Throughout the novel, Kerouac presents the human condition in its physical, spiritual, and moral bearing. Behind such manifestations of life, one feels the expansive force of a mysterious presence tugging at the souls of the characters and spiritualizing their very existence. There is a Catholic religious aura that envelopes the story that is more personalist than official and hierarchical. While the mother teaches the "legend" of the Catholic faith, offering her children various degrees of formal involvement in the religion, the father argues with an old priest against the hypocrisy of the church, stating his preference for no earthly go-between (Giamo 3).
Thus, the road of Kerouac is an attempt to find a way to a new type of spirituality that would allow free existence and self-expression, instead of repressing a person and their creative impulses.
Speaking about the Beat Generation, William Burroughs is worth mentioning. He was definitely among the founders of the movement. The researchers point to the three main themes in his literary work: drugs, control (in various senses), and homosexuality. It is an open secret that the Beat authors experimented with drugs because they were looking for new ways of consciousness that would help creativity and liberation. Burroughs was not an exception, so his prose has reflections of the theme. However, drug addiction is also treated by the author as a social issue, for he openly criticizes the method of treatment applied by medical institutions. In his works, he demonstrates that these methods are able to break a personality. Besides, he believed that the drugs, used to treat addiction, were more dangerous and toxic than the drugs themselves, and gave no result. He raised a social issue that is still relevant today: medicine is a huge business that makes profit at the expense of people who are ill, so the official medicine is aimed at keeping people sick and addicted. Even in the 1960s, he noticed that corporations started to exploit the theme of drug addiction for their own advantage and turned it into business.
The theme of control was also significant in his novels, as he, like his predecessors, George Orwell and Aldous Huxley, believed that the state is a cold machine that turns people into slaves. Such issues as racism, religious intolerance, hypocritical morals, and drugs are named by him as the most serious vices of the American society. His scandalous book Naked Lunch can be called dystopian because of his vision of society as a destructive force:
Policemen, scientists, politicians, preachers, and other representatives of public power are consistently portrayed as villains whose goal is to persecute anyone who differs from the official norm and thereby to extinguish all individualism and genuine creativity. Burroughs's addicts and gays are thus constantly brutalized and oppressed by the system that has supposedly been set up to help them--with the implication that social and political institutions in general work to the detriment of individual liberty. (Booker 100)
In his book, the writer unveils the hidden decay that most social institutions have, instead of helping a person to progress.
Overall, the role of the Beat Generation is outstanding not only in terms of literary innovation but in the impact that they had on society. They boosted further liberation in various spheres, including sex, race, career, and marriage. Although many researchers consider their heritage to be provocative and controversial, their protest had a reason to emerge. In this form of destruction and self-assertion, the Beat movement authors aimed to ruin the rotten basis of social institutions and suggest a new form of human existence.