Allen Ginsberg at the Human Be-In. ("Allen Ginsberg at the...")
The Beat Generation
This period includes poets such as Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, Joanne Kyger, Anne Waldman, and Ruth Weiss. The Beat Generation, from the late 1950s and lasted throughout the 1960s, was held together by a group of very diverse writers who were often referred to as “beatniks”. There styles included experimenting with drugs and denying the common American values that were so substantial during the 1950s post-war era. Walt Whitman and Edgar Allen Poe are said to have especially influenced some of the writers of the Beat Generation. Special focus in background information for both history and biographical information on the poets themselves will be based off of the Sixties Counterculture.


A Block ILA 9 Honors Beat Generation
~Nathan Kosmin: Allen Ginsberg
~Clay Ewell: Lawrence Ferlinghetti
~Jessica Adams: Anne Waldman
~Eric McGowan: Gregory Corso
~Amanda Dennis: Joanne Kyger


Jack Kerouac was the founder of the movement and name, “Beat Generation." He used the term to describe a new perspective of life that the beat followers, or beatniks persued. Kerouac was a novelist and a great poet throughout the 60’s. He wrote novels like On the Road, The Dharma Bums, and The Subterraneans which proved to be the foundation of the Beat Generation, along with Allen Ginsberg's Howl. “I am the originator of the term Beat Generation, and around it the term and the generation have
Jack Kerouac was one of the people who sparked the Beat movement. ("Jack Kerouac")

taken shape," Kerouac declared (Zott). When beat movement ideas expanded, Kerouac complained, “The Beat Generation was being taken up by everyone” (Zott). The press, TV, and Hollywood portrayed beatniks with various stereotypes. These stereotypes ranged from fools protesting professional baseball, to guys in jeans with snap knives, and swastikas tattooed on their under-arms. But Kerouac insisted that the phrase simply means “poor, down and out, dead beat, on the bum, or sad" (Zott). But these beat writers were very intelectual. Ginsberg and Kerouac met while attending Columbia University. Also, William Burroughs, another beatnik, attended Harvard University. The political history also played a signifigant role in the Origin of the Beat Generation. World War II, The Cold War, and other harsh times influenced the beatniks to attempt building a new society. The Beat Generation was also advertised by an 18 year old California girl who was consistently making it to the newspapers throughout the 50’s. The young lady was recognized while she was smoking marijuana and wanted to speak about it. While a reporter took down her thoughts, someone snapped a picture (Holmes 1). As her picture and her attitude spread through the media, the Beat Generation became an even bigger movement. In this girl's face, there was no hint of corruption, but there was a turning-point for a new Beat Generation (Holmes 1). This young lady's "leave us alone" outlook was the perfect voice for the Beat Generation.


The Beat Generation was based on liberation and the idea of expressing one's feelings through poetry. The philosophy of the Beat Generation was built on Enlightenment ideas. Allen Ginsberg focused on many Enlightenment topics such as sexual liberation, censorship, drugs, and respecting the earth. These topics were the foundation of the philosophy behind the Beat Generation. “'The so called Beat Generation was a whole bunch of people, of all different nationalities, who came to the conclusion that society sucked'” (qtd. in Silberman). This was quoted by Amiri Baracka. However, beatniks did not think society sucked; they had negativity towards it and wanted to change it. In addition to this idea of change was the issue regarding sexality. Allen Ginsberg was very open about his homosexuality, as were some other poets. In this generation, people had freedom to say what they wanted. Sexual freedom was considered an uncomfortable topic for the average man or woman, but during the Beat Generation, this topic was embraced by the Beats because it went against the prim mind-set of the standard American. Society rejected their ideas, but an important goal of the beatniks was to help society accept the unnatural rules of homosexuality and bisexuality. The contrasting ideas of society versus the views of beatniks can be seen in the book "Memoirs of a Beatnik." "A Night By the Fire: What You Would Like to Hear" and "A Night By the Fire: What Actually Happened" are two chapters that show the differing ideas. Another example of sexuality being depicted is in Jack Kerouac’s “On The Road.” In this writing, Kerouac demonstrates the distinction between sexual freedom and responsibility.
Another common portrayal of the Beat Generation’s philosophy is the spontaneity of the time. In the Beatniks’ lives, life was about naturalness. Spur-the-moment roadtrips, improvised jazz performances, and other social behaviors were not uncommon for the beatniks. Also, experimentations through sexuality and drugs were part of it as well. They saw these experiments as a way to escape the average American culture. The beatniks’ free-spirited behaviors were not only seen as a way to escape but also a form of protest against the formal etiquette of life and against the upcoming war (taking place in post WWII). The creative works in literature and art lay a visual trail on how the beatniks thought. As for literature, Jack Kerouac’s “Essentials of a Spontaneous Prose” and “Belief & Technique for Modern Prose” represent a great deal of the art of the Beat Generation.
Overall, the beatniks had their own life style. Their philosophy was based on spontaneity, enlightenment, and liberation. Whether it was written, spoken, or experimented, it was completely different and uncommon when it all was compared to the robotic lifestyle of the “regular” American.
Allen Ginsberg played a major role in the Beat Generation. ("Allen Ginsberg")

Political History

During the early 1950’s to the mid 1960’s there were various important things occuring in government and politics, not only in the United States, but all over the world. There were wars being waged, presidents being assassinated, minorities fighting for their rights, and politicians acting what would today be considered immoral. These events helped spark the Beat Generation. Because of these issues many people were opposed to the actions being taken by the United States government. Some people expressed their feelings regarding this commotion through the poetry. These poets wrote prominent poems that were controversial and are still read today. They laid the foundation for Beat Generation.
John F. Kennedy, one of America’s most famous presidents, served his time in office during the later half of the Beat Generation. He was the youngest and the only Roman Catholic president ever to be elected in the United States ("John F. Kennedy" 1). JFK ran against Richard Nixon in the 1960 election and his religion played a major role. People had suspicions that when major decisions needed to be made as president, he would draw his answer strictly on his religious beliefs. Allen Ginsberg touches on this issue in his poem, “America” when he mentions, “My ambition is to be President despite the fact that I’m a Catholic” (Ginsberg). However, Kennedy won the election by a slim margin. Although Kennedy is known as one of the better presidents, he has gone under criticism because he had said he would do one thing and then do another many times. For instance, he stated that he was against sending American troops to Southeast Asia, but he later contradicted himself by slowly sending more and more soldiers over to Asia ("John F. Kennedy" 1). In 1961 there was conflict between Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader, and Kennedy. Nikita was threatening to draw up a peace treaty with East Germany and then demanded that there be a wall built dividing East and West Germany. This is when Kennedy acted by sending military forces and spending more money on defenses. Nikita’s knees buckled and he didn’t sign the treaty ("John F. Kennedy" 2).
John F. Kennedy (Jewish Climate Initiative)

After the 1961 incident with Nikita Khrushchev, another larger confrontation arose in 1962. It was discovered that the Soviets were building missile-launching bases in Cuba, capable of reaching the United States. This is when Kennedy strongly stood up and told Khrushchev that these kinds of actions wouldn not be tolerated. Kennedy proceeded to surround Cuba with American naval ships to deny any Soviet advances. Days passed, and people waited to see what Khrushchev would do. He responded by loading Soviet ships with missiles and other artillery and sent them off towards Cuba. However, this was only a bluff, the ships turned around and there was never any confrontation ("John F. Kennedy" 2). Later, the United States and the Soviets worked out an agreement and both sides settled down.
The Beat Generation came at a time of racial discrimination as well as other injustices. The most prominent figure who fought discrimination was Martin Luther King Jr.. He and other protestors forced Kennedy to make decisions that changed the face of America forever. In 1962, while all of the problems with the Soviets were occurring, Kennedy ordered the end of racial discrimination in federal funded housing. He also gave African Americans the right to vote; this led to other African Americans being appointed to office ("John F. Kennedy" 2). Kennedy’s actions undoubtedly changed America in a major way. John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, in Dallas, Texas. It was found that Lee Harvey Oswald was the killer although many Americans questioned that Oswald, himself, was really behind murdering Kennedy ("John F. Kennedy" 2). Their disbelief could easily have been linked back to discrimination.
Nikita Kruschchev, former Soviet leader (Nikita Kruchchev).
One figure who opposed rights being expanded to African Americans was George Wallace. Wallace was a state court judge from 1953 to 1959, who strongly opposed the integration of African Americans into white schools. Controversy arose when Wallace refused to show voting records in 1956. There was suspicion that he had discriminated black voters, and the Civil Rights Commission investigated the matter. Wallace was later elected governor in 1962 primarily because he promised to forbid the integration of schools in Alabama. His maxim was, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever” ("George Wallace" 1). This speaks for the level of discrimination present in America during the Beat Generation.

Segregation issues pressed on and in 1963 Martin Luther King Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference lead a campaign to end segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. They did this using only non-violent protests. Birmingham police responded to these protests with extreme force and violence. They unleashed vicious police dogs and sprayed the protestors with powerful hoses. These appalling actions, supported by Wallace, were seen on television screens across America. Later, Wallace tried to prevent two African American students from trying to enroll at the University of Alabama. John F. Kennedy, president at the time, heard of this and acted justly, by sending federal units to assure the enrollment of the students ("George Wallace" 1). Wallace quickly backed down and the African American students registered.
Along with segregation, the Vietnam War was one of the biggest issues of the Beat Generation. Communism in North Vietnam threatened to spread to South Vietnam, which the United States did not approve of ("Vietnam War" 1). The United States got involved because they wanted to put the spread of Communism to an end. In the midst of making important decisions, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated and Lyndon B. Johnson took over. Things progressed and tensions grew between the United States and Northern Vietnam when there was a Northern Vietnamese attack on the USS Maddox ("Vietnam War" 3). Later in 1965, the United States made the first pivotal move and deployed ground combat forces to the war in Vietnam. This action aroused strong feelings in the Beats, where they are reflected in their poems. The war lasted almost a decade longer, and the United States was somewhat defeated ("Vietnam War" 1).
With all of these turning points in America and all over the world, people had strong emotions and voiced their opinions with a sense of urgency and purpose. Musicians like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez showed the way they felt through music. Regular citizens held protests regarding the Vietnam War, Civil Rights, and other issues. However, a special group of people spoke their voices through strong words and rhetoric that are not forgotten to this day. These were the poets who formed the Beat Generation.

Cultural Events

The 1950s and 60s, the time period of the Beat Generation, were a time of much cultural change in America. World War II had ended and the country was somewhat peaceful. America began to move to the suburbs. Many Americans wanted to settle down and build a family. There was the ideal of the white, middle-class family, a husband, wife and children, all living a good life in the suburbs (Hamilton 48). Conformity was the order of the day. However, during the fifties and sixties, a “counterculture” sprang up that threatened the status quo. One of the most well-known threats was rock n’ roll music, which evolved from African-American blues and R&B. It became popular with youth living in the suburbs through artists such as Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, and many others. Rock n' roll was considered a bad influence on teens. Parents and the music industry tried to censor the music due to references to sex, drugs and violence in many songs and stage mannerisms of the artists (Nuzum). Despite the disapproval of parents, teenagers listened to rock music and its popularity bloomed. This rebellion and rejection of the status quo was echoed in beatnik writing and ideals (Hamilton 49). Rock became ever more popular in the sixties, with artists like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, and the Who helping to spread its popularity, and giving parents even more reasons to be frightened.
Woodstock was a famous music festival that occurred in 1969. ("Sounds of The Sixties")
Rock’s popularity and ideals would prove to be the intertwined with many of the elements of the counterculture of the fifties and sixties.

Another element of the counterculture was drug use. There were drug references in rock music, and many artists used drugs. Teens and beatniks viewed drug use as another means of rebelling against the way things were (Holmes 1-3). LSD and marijuana were particularly popular. The drug culture was popularized by beatniks, or followers of the beat movement, many of whom openly smoked pot or utilized LSD and referenced it in their poetry, such as Allen Ginsberg did in his poem “America." "America I smoke marijuana every chance I get" (Ginsberg). This was one of his lines in the poem. Hippies also publicized drug culture. Hippies were a group of people during the 1960s who shared some of the ideals of the Beat Generation and were focussed on the use of drugs (Hamilton 104). The changes throughout America in the 1950s and 60s encouraged freedom, rebellion, and the rejection of the conformist American values, all of which were ideals central to the Beat movement.

Influences on Society

In the world of Americans in the 1950s, there was a certain way of living which was the only way that society seemed to accept. It was a life based on materialism where families lived in the suburbs. Women were stay-at-home mothers who nurtured their children while cooking and cleaning in the residence. They were dressed in aprons and dresses with neatly done hair. It was a time of bobby socks and poodle skirts, and televisions were becoming very popular among families. Men worked at nine-to-five occupations in business suits and "brought home the bacon” (Lawlor 2). Those who differed from society were referred to as having a “communist behavior” because it was during a time where there was fear of communism, although it was irrational in most cases (Lawlor 2). Within this materialistic world there were those who differed from the ordinary way of life. During the Beat Generation some people opposed the life of the “regular Americans” and sought to change the way things were to a more individualistic mind-set (Lawlor 2). Society didn’t accept these radical ideas right away, but they started to alter their traditions following the great influences of people, events, and the media involved in the Beat movement.
First and foremost, there were many people who impacted the public during the Beat movement. Writers including Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, William Burroughs, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and many more used different types of language with no specific structure of writing, which greatly affected the populace of America because it was different from the usual way of writing. Allen Ginsberg took great interest in Buddhism and travelled to India to meditate, do yoga, and learn the Indian culture. He brought back to America the style of beards, moustaches, and loose-fitted clothes. This sparked the hippie generation of baggy clothes, psychedelic designs, meditation, peace, and furthermore, the opposition of government reactions to civil rights and foreign policy. People began to take other religions and cultures from the Eastern world. They observed Zen, Chinese, and Japanese cultures as well. Also, women like Hettie Jones, a writer who was against the usual American wife, influenced the 1960s feminist ideas that contrasted to the regular housewife of makeup and trendy hair styles, and brought casual dress to women. This gave additional time for writing and thinking in women’s lives (Lawlor 2 ). Moreover, people of the Beat Generation like Dr. Timothy Leary influenced people of society to use L.S.D. Timothy Leary was a teacher at Harvard University who experimented with the use of drugs for psychotherapy and even involved students in this promotion of drug utilization for “spiritual nirvana” (Zott). He was later fired from the university, but continued to persuade people to get involved with drugs including hippies and churches which centered their beliefs on drugs and psychedelic ideals (Holmes).
Along with beatniks, huge events led so many people to get involved in the Beat movement in the 1960s. In 1969 at Woodstock, where “3 days of peace and music” took place, five-hundred thousand people came to watch Joan Baez, Santana, Jimi Hendrix, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and more perform in the music and art fair. Only 50,000 were anticipated to arrive. Those who came wanted harmony, change, and a new society. They appeared with their fringed jackets, their sandals and beads, and took interest in the music of the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and the Grateful Dead ("Hippies and the Counterculture"). Although so many gathered at Woodstock, there was no violence which greatly influenced people. The ideas of environmental protection and equality of women and minorities were no longer radical dreams. In society there were establishments to end poverty, injustice, and homelessness, and meditation and Eastern cultures were accepted and respected ("Hippies and the Counterculture").
In addition, there was a lot of gossip about the Beats within the media that had an affect on the society. John Clellon Homes wrote a positive view about the movement in “This is the Beat Generation” in the New York Times Magazine of 1952. In “West Coast Rhythms” of the New York Times book review by Richard Eberharts, beatniks like Allen Ginsberg, Philip Whalen, and Gary Snyder were concerned. Other magazines such as Life put the Beat movement down by describing them as “foolish, inartistic rebels,” (Lawlor 1) but this only caused people to think unkindly about the nasty writers of these degrading magazines. These “beatniks” were also given the stereotypes of people with long hair and thin men who had beards or goatees. Women were said to be frail with black clothes and sunglasses, hitting bongo drums. And television shows like The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis showed a man of the Beat Generation who detested working, had a goatee, and was a scat singer wearing a ripped sweatshirt. Additionally, in movies such as Hairspray, there was a representation of a Beat couple with straight hair, who painted, sang, played the drums, and used the phrase “cool cat” (Lawlor 1). In other movies such as The Wild One in 1954, Rebel Without a Cause in 1955, The Beat Generation in 1959, and more, there were presentations of the Beat movement that were hackneyed and mistaken with terrible acting. There were also television shows that increased the popularity of the Beats, too. For instance, “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and “The Twilight Zone” show bars and coffeehouses with beatniks performing their pieces. Whether these medias signified the Beat movement in a negative or positive way they all made the Beat Generation more fashionable and had an impact on the society (Lawlor 1).
All in all, people, events, and the media in the Beat Generation greatly predisposed society to drift away from the typical business suits, clean haircuts, and stay-at-home housewives, and lean more towards flannel jackets, straight hair, and women with careers. A person could decide to be whoever they wanted with a sense of uniqueness and individuality (Holmes). Poetry of the Beat movement showed people that there was more to life than televisions and materialistic ideals. And thus, the society began to change their mainstream American ways to more relaxed and peaceful means of living.


The "Summer of Love" was a couterculture movement in 1967. (Hippies Celebrate in San Fransisco)
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