October 25, 2011
The Beat Generation: A Brief Look at Their History,
Philosophy, and Literary Themes
The general public who know of the Beats, or “beatniks” as they were derogatorily called,
usually place the period of the Beat Generation as the early 1960s or late 1950s. Actually, the
movement began in the late 1940s—just after the conclusion of the Second World War, and during
the tensions of the rising atomic age and impending Cold War that was to lead to America’s
involvement in Korea in 1950.
The Beats began in New York City as a literary movement started by Jack Kerouac, Allen
Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and Gregory Corso—the novelist John Clellon Holmes was also
included as a peripheral member of this group. Then, due in part to Kerouac’s frequent crosscountry sojourns, the Beat philosophy arose on the west coast as the New York Beats made the
acquaintance of the writers and painters of the San Francisco Renaissance movement headed by
The poet/playwright Michael McClure was one of these San Francisco artists, and he notes
that the 1950s were emerging as a “bitter gray decade”:
San Francisco was a special place. Rexroth said it was to the arts what Barcelona
was to Spanish Anarchism. Still, there was no way, even in San Francisco, to escape
the pressures of the war culture. We were locked in the Cold War and the first Asian
debacle—the Korean War. (12)
This pervasive atmosphere of war gave the bohemians of the time a great sense of
melancholy centered on existential thought in a war-filled atmosphere; and this melancholy was an
intrinsic part of Beat life—as Holmes points out in “The Philosophy of the Beat Generation”:
Everyone who has lived through a war, any sort of war, knows that Beat means not
so much weariness, as rawness of the nerves; not so much being “filled up to here,”
as being emptied out. It describes a state of mind from which all unessentials have
been stripped, leaving it receptive to everything around it, but impatient with trivial
obstructions. To be Beat is to be at the bottom of your personality, looking up; to be
existential in the Kierkegaard, rather than the Jean-Paul Sartre, sense. (368)
It was World War II that initially brought the Beats to this raw existential condition with
Europe lying in ruins, and pools of molten flesh flowing through the streets of Hiroshima and
Nagasaki—heralding the advent of the atomic age with the apocalyptic abilities of The Bomb. This
milieu led to the emergence of the Beats and dictated their philosophy as the first bohemian
movement to appear beneath the shadow of the mushroom cloud.
Paul Boyer’s notes in “The Beginning of the End” that, initially, most American’s wholeheartedly embraced the atomic bomb in their ignorance of what it portended. This ignorant embrace
is evident from an August 1945 Gallup Poll which showed that 76.2% of Americans believed the
U.S. did the right thing in dropping the two bombs on Japan, with nearly a third of that percentage
going on further to say the U.S. should have used more bombs to completely obliterate all of Japan
before the country had a chance to surrender (14).
By the 1950s, America’s embrace of the bomb slowly turned to fearful dread as the Soviet
Union developed its own atomic arsenal. With the Soviets viewed as a threat—and imagined
conspiracies running rampant through America, as evidenced by the Rosenbergs’ execution and
Joseph McCarthy riding the crest of an anti-communist wave—the atomic bomb was considered
necessary as a deterrent to atomic war, regardless of how contradictory that may sound.
The Beats arose as a symptom of this atomic terror and as a revolt against the conservative
values embodied in Eisenhower’s America. This reaction against American values included many,
but not all, of the institutions listed by Life magazine reporter Paul O’Neil in his scathing article on
[They] have raised their voices against virtually every aspect of current American
society: Mom, Dad, Politics, Marriage, the Savings Bank, Organized Religion,
Literary Elegance, Law, the Ivy League Suit and Higher Education, to say nothing
of the Automatic Dishwasher, the Cellophane-wrapped Soda Cracker, the SplitLevel House and the clean, or peace-provoking, H-bomb.
There they prance and gesture, living in poverty, in the Age of Supermarkets;
rejecting the goodies of the suburbs, in the Age of Togetherness; babbling of
marijuana and mescaline, in the Age of Vic Tanny; and howling about their souls,
misshapen as their souls appear to be. (115, 130)
O’Neil goes a bit too far in his list, but he does accurately observe that the Beats found fault in many
of America’s institutions. The list is useful only in defining just what conservative America
regarded as important values at the time—“the Cellophane-wrapped Soda Cracker” being
particularly revealing of O’Neil’s hyperbole.
A more accurate list of the Beats’ opposition to American morés is provided by Kerouac in
“The Origin of the Beat Generation” in which he forms his list as an apparent parallel to Jesus’
castigation of the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew 23:
woe unto those who think that the Beat Generation means crime, delinquency,
immorality, amorality . . . woe unto those who attack it on the grounds that they
simply don’t understand history and the yearnings of human souls . . . woe unto
those who don’t realize that America must, will, is changing now, for the better I
say. Woe unto those who believe in the atom bomb, who believe in hating mothers
and fathers, who deny the most important of the Ten Commandments, woe unto
those (though) who don’t believe in the unbelievable sweetness of sex love, woe
unto those who are standard-bearers of death, woe unto those who believe in conflict
and horror and violence and fill our books and screens and living rooms with all that
crap, woe in fact unto those who make evil movies about the Beat Generation where
innocent housewives are raped by beatniks! Woe unto those who are the real dreary
sinners that even God finds room to forgive . . . woe unto those who spit on the Beat
Generation, the wind’ll blow it back. (79)
The Beats’ rejection of conservative American morés is directly linked to a notion the Beats
hold that O’Neil fails to see at all—that America’s use of the atomic bomb forever invalidated the
concept of America as the Promised Land following a policy of Manifest Destiny. Warren Tallman
addresses this notion in “Kerouac’s Sound”:
It is always an implicit and frequently an explicit assumption of the Beat
writers that we live, if we do at all, in something like the ruins of our civilization.
When the Second World War was bombed out of existence in that long-ago ‘45
summer, two cities were in literal fact demolished. But psychically, all cities fell.
And what the eye sees as intact is a lesser truth than what the psyche knows is
actually in ruins. (58)
This idea of the psychic falling of all cities is the theme of Jack Kerouac’s novel The
Subterraneans, and validates the book in a way which Warren French does not appreciate:
[The Subterraneans’s] credibility is immediately suspect because of the fact that,
although it parallels events that took place in New York’s Greenwich Village during
the summer of 1953, the novel is set in San Francisco. (46)
The credibility is suspect to French because he is attempting to address the book as an
autobiography rather than as an attempt on Kerouac’s part to create a work of fiction with literary
merit. It is this blind pursuit of the book as autobiography that leads French to his conclusion that
“The novel portrays a few days’ dalliance in the life of a totally narcissistic person, but there is no
evidence that the author has any insight into the story that he is telling” (51).
However, despite French’s claims to the contrary, there is evidence that Kerouac had
definite insight into the story he is telling. By setting the story in San Francisco, Kerouac supports
McClure’s assertion that there was “no way, even in San Francisco, to escape the pressures of the
war culture” (12)—and McClure’s statement about the 1950s emerging as a “bitter gray decade”
echoes a line in The Subterraneans where the protagonist Leo Percepied says, “There we were in all
gray San Francisco of the gray West” (26).
That the novel about Percepied’s love affair with a half black, half Native American woman
is set in San Francisco in 1953 also connects the story with the concept of America’s Manifest
Destiny. It was through the notion of Manifest Destiny that America attempted to rationalize its
western expansion and genocidal attitude toward the Native Americans who lived in the path of that
expansion. In 1953, San Francisco symbolized the end of expansionism as the most western of
America’s major cities. This representation of San Francisco as a partial refuge, and as the symbol
of the end of western expansion, seems reason enough for Kerouac to have set the novel in that city,
and criticism addressing the literary merits or defects in the novel will have to look beyond
addressing the work as mere autobiography.
Boyer, Paul. “The Beginning of the End.” Raw 7 (1986): 13-24. Print.
Paul Boyer examines the cultural effect of the use of the atomic bombs that the United
States dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He notes that most Americans initially
embraced the Bomb and the sense of moral superiority it evoked in the public. In
contrast, he argues that the eventual effect on American society was psychologically and
sociologically damaging, as the United States remains the only nation in the world to ever
use nuclear weapons to kill civilians—including women, children, and the elderly. This
work is useful in my paper as it cites Gallup Poll surveys that indicate what Americans
thought of nuclear weapons in the 1940s and 1950s—the time that the Beat writers were
working on their major works.
French, Warren. Jack Kerouac. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1986. Print.
Warren French examines various novels by Jack Kerouac and concludes that Kerouac
was not a skilled writer or craftsman. French evaluates Kerouac’s canon as
autobiographical novels that did not necessarily match the actual events in Kerouac’s life.
Because of such differences, French believes Kerouac did not have insight into his own
life nor an understanding of the events he chose to include in his novels. This work is
useful in my paper in that it provides a negative view of Kerouac’s work that I can
effectively argue against as I demonstrate why critics like French are wrong in their
evaluations of Kerouac’s canon and literary techniques.
Holmes, John Clellon. “The Philosophy of the Beat Generation.” Nothing More to Declare. New
York: The Sterling Lord Agency, 1958. Print.
John Clellon Holmes discusses the Beat attitude towards conservative American values
following World War II and the economic prosperity of the 1950s. This work is useful in
my paper because it is written by a close friend of the Beat writers who knew Jack
Kerouac personally, and who was in a position to know Kerouac’s attitudes, beliefs, and
ideologies as he and Kerouac conceived the notion of a “Beat Generation” during their
conversations in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Kerouac, Jack. “The Origin of the Beat Generation.” Playboy (June 1959): 31-32, 42, 79. Print.
Jack Kerouac discusses what the Beat Generation is and how it originated in the historic
values of American culture going back to the 1800s. He notes that the Beat Generation is
not antagonistic toward American values because the Beats are a continuation of the
traditional American values of individuality and self-reliance, and that it is the American
society of the 1950s that is actually “anti-American.” This work is useful in my paper in
that it is an essay written by Kerouac in which he argues that the Beats are not the aspect
of 1950s American culture that is “anti-American.” Rather, the anti-American segment of
society is the one that favored dropping atomic bombs that killed innocent civilians living
in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and that favors the post-World War II move toward
conformity and consumerism in American society.
---. The Subterraneans. New York: Grove Press, 1981. Print.
Jack Kerouac’s novel is based on the affair he had with a woman whose father was a
Native American and whose mother was an African American. While Kerouac’s actual
affair with the woman took place in New York, the novel is set in San Francisco. It
explores the racial prejudices in America in the 1950s and fall of the “American Empire”
due to the racism and other unethical and immoral aspects of American culture following
World War II. The novel is written in a style that blends stream-of-consciousness
narrative with bebop jazz improvisational techniques.
McClure, Michael. Scratching the Beat Surface. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1982. Print.
This essay by the Beat poet Michael McClure discusses the Beat attitude towards
conservative American values during the economic prosperity of the 1950s. It is useful in
my paper because it offers another perspective of a Beat writer toward the conformity and
consumerism of American society following World War II.
O’Neil, Paul. “The Only Rebellion Around.” Life 47.22 (1959): 115-130. Print.
This article by Life magazine reporter Paul O’Neil is a negative evaluation of the Beat
Generation and the youth movement (the “beatniks”) that the Beat writers inspired. It is
useful for my paper in that it presents the point of view of the contemporary American
values that the Beats opposed, as O’Neil defends such things as the atom bomb and a culture
of conformity and consumerism.
Tallman, Warren. “Kerouac’s Sound.” Tamarack Review 11 (1959): 58-62, 64-74. Print.
Warren Tallman was the first literary critic to evaluate Jack Kerouac’s narrative
technique and show how Kerouac constructed his sentences in relation to the structure of
improvisation bebop jazz compositions. It is useful in my paper in that it indicates that
some academics in the 1950s understood what Kerouac was attempting to achieve in the
narrative technique that so many people found to be “artless.” While Tallman does not
demonstrate a thorough understanding of Kerouac’s art in his essay, the work is
important as it laid the foundation for all subsequent studies that have treated Kerouac as
a serious artist rather than as a pop-culture celebrity figure.
Final Research Paper Assignment and Annotated Bibliography
Use a minimum of 10 valid research sources from academic books and/or journals that you have
accessed from the Montgomery College Library catalog and/or databases. You may also use one
or two chapters from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World Revisited as one or two of your
Use your ten research sources to help you form and support a thesis for your chosen topic.
In your essay you must integrate quotes and/or ideas from the ten sources into your paper. The
research sources you include must be properly cited according to MLA guidelines and must be
listed in your “Annotated Bibliography” that is also formatted correctly in accordance with the
MLA style guide.
You can learn more about the MLA guidelines and annotated bibliographies by visiting the
Website for the Purdue Online Writing Lab (Purdue OWL) at the following URLs:
MLA Guidelines: https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/747/01/
Annotated Bibliography: https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/614/01/
Your research paper must be an argument that focusses on the social effects of one of the
Digital technologies (computers, tablets, smart phones, video game systems, et cetera)
Not counting your Annotated Bibliography, your research paper must be a minimum of 2,000
words in length, which is approximately six and a half pages using the template that has been
provided on Blackboard.
Two hard copies (printed) of your research paper are due on Wednesday, May 3 to exchange
with two of your classmates for peer review.
The final versions of the research paper and annotated bibliography must be uploaded to
Blackboard before midnight on Sunday, May 14.
Send me a Remind.com text or e-mail me if you have any questions—including having me look
at your intended thesis and research sources.
The research paper is worth 200 points and the annotated bibliography is worth 150 points.
Together, they comprise 35% of your semester grade. See the rubrics below for more details.
EN-102 Research Paper Grade Sheet (2000 Words)
Writer's Name _______________________________________________________________
1. A stated or implied thesis. (20 points)
2. Title that indicates the thesis. (10 points)
3. Adequate support of the thesis. (30 points)
4. Use of the 10 research sources. (40 points)
5. Effectively and/or logically organized. (10 points)
6. A minimum of 2,000 words. (20 points)
7. A proper conclusion that presents a decision based on facts that gives us the final
outcome of a rhetorical situation—possibly by deducing something from the
evidence. (20 points)
8. Errors in mechanics, grammar, spelling, and/or formatting. (50 points)
EN-102 Annotated Bibliography Grade Sheet
Writer's Name ________________________________________________
1. Properly formatted document (Up to 15 points):
a. Times New Roman
b. Font size 12
c. Double spaced
d. Hanging Indents
e. Arranged in alphabetical order
2. At least ten properly formatted citations in the bibliography (Up to 45 points—up to
three points each for the following three items for each of the five citations):
a. Last name, first name, middle initial (if any), additional authors (if any)
b. Title of article in quotation marks—and/or journal and or book in italics
c. Appropriate publishing information—such as volume, issue, year, page numbers
for journal, or publisher and date if a book, et cetera
3. Depth of thought and/or consideration of the topic in the ten annotations (Up to 40
4. Correct mechanics, grammar, and usage (Up to 50 points)
Dr. Thom Young
Title of Your Paper: For Essays, the Title Should Indicate Your Thesis
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