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Beat Generation
Shown clockwise from left: Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Lafcadio Orlovsky, and Gregory Corso in 1956. The Beat movement was characterized by a rejection of the materialism, militarism, consumerism, and conformity of the 1950s, in favor of individual freedom and spontaneity.

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Literary group, also known as the Beats or the Beat generation, that flourished from the mid-1950s until the early 1960s. Its most prominent members were the novelists John Clellon Holmes (1926-88) and Jack Kerouac (1922-69), and the poets Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti (b. 1919), Philip Whalen (b. 1923), Gary Snyder (b. 1930), and Gregory Corso (1930-2001). William Burroughs (1914-97) was loosely associated with the group, which was mainly located in San Francisco and in Greenwich Village, New York City. Much Beat poetry was published by Ferlinghetti's "City Lights" imprint, and his "City Lights" bookstore in San Francisco was an important meeting-place for the group. Gregory Stephenson has suggested that the Beat movement had two distinct phases: the "underground," from 1944 to 1956, and the public, 1956-62.

Holmes introduced the term "Beat generation" in a 1952 essay on his novel GO (1952), and later Kerouac suggested that "Beat" meant being socially marginalized and exhausted ("beaten down") and blessed ("beatific"). There are also musical connotations to the name as many members were jazz enthusiasts. Socially the Beats, many of whom were homosexual or bisexual, extolled individual freedom and attacked what they saw as the materialism, militarism, consumerism, and conformity of the 1950s; "America, where everyone is always doing what they ought," as Kerouac put it in one of Beat's defining works, the novel ON THE ROAD (1957). To this end they affected nonconformist styles of dress and speech and, avowedly antimaterialist, they cultivated mystical experiences by the use of drugs or by meditation -- many members developed an interest in forms of mysticism and in Zen Buddhism. The Beats were politically radical, and to some degree their anti-authoritarian attitudes were taken up by activists in the 1960s. In their writing they encouraged direct and frank communication and, rejecting the formalist, impersonal writing encouraged by the New Criticism, they cultivated styles that gave the impression of spontaneity and improvisation. Much Beat poetry was performance orientated (often read in public with jazz accompaniment). Although they have been much parodied and satirized, the Beats brought fresh energies to American writing and their influence has been significant.

Further Reading:
THIS IS THE BEAT GENERATION (1999) by James Campbell; BEAT DOWN TO YOUR SOUL (2001), edited by Ann Charters; THE BEAT GENERATION WRITERS (1996), edited by A. Robert Lee; A DIFFERENT BEAT: WRITINGS BY WOMEN OF THE BEAT GENERATION (1997), edited by Richard Peabody, and THE DAYBREAK BOYS (1990) by Gregory Stephenson.

From THE ESSENTIAL GLOSSARY: AMERICAN LITERATURE by Stephen Matterson. © 2003 Stephen Matterson. Reprinted by permission of the author.


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