The Literature Book (Big Ideas Simply Explained) (2016)

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IN CONTEXT

FOCUS

The Beat Generation

BEFORE

1926 Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises depicts modern Americans travelling through Europe on a quasi-spiritual journey.

1952 John Clellon Holmes’s novel Go includes the first use of the term “beat” to define the people of the Beat movement.

1953 Lawrence Ferlinghetti opens City Lights Bookshop in San Francisco; it becomes a haunt for the Beat writers.

1956 Allen Ginsberg’s first collection of poetry Howl and Other Poems is published, launching him as the leading Beat poet.

AFTER

1959 William S Burroughs’ Naked Lunch uses a radically disjointed, non-linear style extending the narrative form of the Beat Generation.

In the post-war United States, a generation of middle-class youth became increasingly reluctant to follow the societal pathways of their parents based on materialistic goals. Instead, they adopted a meandering, spontaneous form of existence in their quest to find true meaning in life. Some of them became known as “Beats”: a collective of poets and writers who sought kicks, spiritual refuge, and excess in drink, drugs, and sex; they also delighted in jazz. The term “beat” simultaneously held notions of being “beatific”; of being “beaten” by the punishing intensity of a hobo existence; and of a life lived to a jazz “beat”. In the 1950s, tales of the Beat movement’s free lifestyle and reckless ways shocked mainstream society, and their writings signalled a radical reinvigoration of US literature. The appearance of Jack Kerouac’s novel, On the Road, in 1957 framed him as the leading Beat novelist.

On the Road details a series of journeys that Kerouac took between 1947 and 1950. In the book they are narrated by Sal Paradise (identified with Kerouac himself) who is often accompanied on his travels by Dean Moriarty (the writer Neal Cassady). A number of other Beat Generation writers also appear in the book, disguised by name only, such as Allen Ginsberg (“Carlo Marx”) and William S Burroughs (“Old Bull Lee”).

The book has five parts. The first sees Sal Paradise setting off for San Francisco in July 1947. Sal meets Dean Moriarty and the two launch on a riotous road trip, hitchhiking and riding buses on a meandering adventure: partying, meeting friends, and looking for girls before finally returning to New York. The subsequent parts tell of a series of hedonistic charges through North America.

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Spontaneous prose

The narrative form of On the Road, which Kerouac referred to as “spontaneous prose”, was inspired by an 18-page typed letter that he received in December 1950 from his friend Neal Cassady. According to Kerouac, the key to the prose was to write swiftly and “without consciousness”, in a semi-trance, allowing the mind to flow freely, associating sights, sounds, and senses in a narrative of absolute immediacy. For example, as Sal and Dean reach Chicago, Kerouac writes “Screeching trolleys, newsboys, gals cutting by, the smell of fried food and beer in the air, neons winking – ‘We’re in the big town, Sal! Whooee!’” The long, fluid, descriptive sentences and stream-of-consciousness style mirrored the intensive pace of Sal’s alcohol-infused, vagrant existence, while imitating the improvisational character of jazz music. Kerouac wrote On the Road in a frenetic three-week period in April 1951, fuelled by caffeine and drugs. The result was a manuscript in wildly creative, original prose – or “spontaneous bop prosody”, as Ginsberg called it – that came to define the Beat Generation.

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Kerouac typed On the Road onto rolls of tracing paper that he had glued together to avoid having to change paper and interrupt his creative flow. The final manuscript was 120-foot long.

JACK KEROUAC

Jack Kerouac was born to French-Canadian parents in Lowell, Massachusetts, USA, in 1922. He attended Columbia University where he met Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, and William S Burroughs who would become fellow leading lights of the Beat Generation. Kerouac dropped out of university in his second year then joined the merchant navy, before turning to writing as a profession. From 1947, he became increasingly attracted to the whisky-drinking hobo lifestyle and began wandering across the USA and Mexico, often visiting various other Beat writers. Those voyages across the North American landscape were relayed in his various roman à clef writings, friends’ faces only thinly veiled as protagonists. Kerouac’s alcoholism led to cirrhosis and his death in 1969.

Other key works

1950 The Town and the City

1957 On the Road

1958 The Subterraneans

1958 The Dharma Bums

1972 Visions of Cody (published posthumously)

See also: The Red Room • The Catcher in the Rye • Howl and Other Poems • Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas