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The Beat Generation

Many documents have been shot, many books written and many words said about the phenomenon of the beat generation. What are the main causes of adoring the beat generation all around the world by people of all races and nationalities? Does the name correspond to the main idea of the movement? Are their ideas valid 50 years later? Is it possible to live like they did?

The beat generation was undoubtedly one of the most significant literary movements of the last century. Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso and Lawrence Ferlinghetti have become almost mythical personalities in minds of many people. They were the symbols and representatives of nonconformist attitude to life and literature. But times have changed and the values admired in the 50’s are exposed to prove if they are still valid.

Why “beat” generation?
The term “beat” has been discussed by many scholastics but also the writers and “members” of this group. Jack Kerouac, the most significant personality in the literary world of the 50’s, defined the word “beat” as “sympathetic” in Steve Allen’s Show. The other definitions talk about the connection between “beat” and “beaten” which has actually three meanings: 1) to hit or strike repeatedly 2) to move or sound rhythmically (this reminds of an inspiration from jazz) 3) to be in ecstasy. The first man who said this word was Herbert Huncke – “Man, I’m beat”. It was in the Joan Adam’s flat and Jack Kerouac felt that it was the characteristic of people who were beaten and pushed to the edge of society. This word brought him together with black people in Virginia, loafers and fools in New York and all this laid foundations for the leading topic of the beat writing. All the meanings are surely perfectly related to the lifestyle of the beatniks. Norman Mailer in his article Hipster and Beatnik puts forward the thesis that
“beatnik came into existence a year later, in the summer or fall of 1958, the word coined by a San Francisco columnist, Herb Caen. The addition of ‘nik’ however – ‘nik’ being a pejorative diminutive in Yiddish – gave a sense of condescension to the word which proved agreeable to the newspaper mentality.”

In the 50’s, most people felt more sure when they belong to certain social milieu, but the society forgot emotions, young people were feeling estranged and so that’s why they were looking for a kind of escape from the reality. According to William S.

Burroughs young people from towns were feeling limited and therefore they started to move to San Francisco, New York and New Orleans and they began to live a bohemian life there. Jack Kerouac described the feelings from New York in his novella Pic:
“When I seed New York was from that bus, and Slim poked me up from the seat and said ‘Here we are in New York’ and I looked and the sun was red all over, […] I jess could barely see a whole heap of walls and lanky steeples way, way off yonder all cloudy inside the smoke...”
At the end of 1948, the first version of On the Road was written but it didn’t find its publisher until 1957. This book became something like the Bible of the beat generation and even for young people who wanted somehow to revolt. James Dean, Elvis Presley and Jack Kerouac represented the destroying of commonplaces about sex, family, race, rationalism and faith. This gave a new sense for freedom and independence. Sal Paradise expresses it in the introduction to On the Road: “I was young writer and I wanted to take off. Somewhere along the line I knew there’d be girls, visions, everything; somewhere along the line the pearl would be handed to me” The heroes refuse to submit to the traditional values, career, marriage and properties. In short, On the Road is about looking for a soul in America.
The next guru of the beat generation was Allen Ginsberg. Together with Kerouac, they became the symbols of liberators of America because they were interested in ecology, old civilizations, freedom of speech and homosexual orientation. On the other hand, “the adversaries of beatniks opposed that this is the beginning of demoralizing process which leads to drug addiction, AIDS, promiscuity, disintegration of family, sectarianism, increase of criminality, pornography and contempt for authorities.”

This significant movement has influenced many people who have been trying to live like the beatniks. The most famous of them is Bob Dylan, the friend of Allen Ginsberg who introduced him the work of Arthur Rimbaud. For some people it may be surprising that the Beatles played at a poetry party of the London poet Royston Ellis and some literary scientists claim that the name Beatles comes exactly from the beatniks because John Lennon was a big fan of them. Naturally, the rebels of nowadays confess that the beat generation and their thoughts have influenced them. Maybe the most popular person, who declares his support for beatniks, is Johnny Depp, the famous actor. In the year 1994, he bought the old Kerouac’s coat for $10 000.

He also wrote an article to the “Rolling Stone” magazine called The Night I Met Allen Ginsberg (An appreciation of Kerouac, Burroughs, Cassady and the other bastards who ruined my life). He describes here his first acquaintance with Kerouac. “One day [my brother] gave me a book that was to become like a Koran for me […] On The Road, written by some goofball with a strange frog name that was almost unpronounceable for my teenage tongue, had found its way from big brother’s shelf and into my greedy little paws […] On The Road was life-changing for me, in the same way that my life had been metamorphosed when [my brother] put Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks onto the turntable that day.”
Johnny Depp knew what he was writing about because he has gone through many jobs like beatniks did and his youth was copied-like from On the Road.

It is sure that the beat generation could originate only in the USA in the 50’s because in Europe it could not be simply possible. The USA and Europe were actually different in their development after WWII. Whereas Europe had to deal somehow with the war and arts and literature found their topics in that sad period of history, the USA did not start anything; they continued in fast developing and they did not want to hear much about the war. The very important fact is that the USA did not meet the war in their own territory. They did not have the immediate feeling of the war; of course there were many victims but the Americans never had to face such terrible facts like concentration camps, holocaust and degradation of human principles. In Europe people had to restore their homes and cities at first and they were more focused on everyday problems which had to be solved immediately. In the cultural field, the artists and writers simply had to express their feelings, personal tragedies and sorrows. Although the old continent has its angry young men, these rebels still do not somehow represent the real revolt. The angry young men were too reserved and serious and they did not express the real defiance of the generation. The Czech readers knew the poetry of the beat generation at the end of the 50’s thanks to the translator Jan Zábrana. The beat generation was the symbol of freedom that has no borders and people were grateful for every possibility to read them. Therefore many young people (and the Secret police, of course) were excited by the visit of Allen Ginsberg in 1965. Ginsberg was elected the king of the rag day (the students’ celebration called ‘majáles’ in Czech) but also expelled from Czechoslovakia.

The consequences were that the beat generation has had a great proportion of the origin of the Czech underground. The second (1993) and third visit (1996, together with a musician Philip Glass) proved that poet’s thoughts are still valid. The music group The Plastic People of the Universe with its representatives Ivan Magor Jirous and Mejla Hlavsa characterize the Czech underground together with the group Psí vojáci (Dog Soldiers). The regime did not like them, of course, and that was the next major reason why were the beatniks here so much adored. In 1998, Lawrence Ferlinghetti came for a visit to Prague. He thought he could walk through Prague incognito but “he was very surprised that every newspaper wrote about him on the front page and he was recognized by people of all generations, not only Czechs but also tourists.” He did not expect that he could be known by a wide range of people in the little country called the Czech Republic. But his friends explained him that the situation in democratic and totalitarian

The beat generation is certainly a movement which has influenced millions of people – artists still find an inspiration in it to introduce it in their novels or poems, the musicians in their lyrical songs and painters in their pictures or statues. The people love the books by Kerouac, Ginsberg and other rebels but for the majority of the readers is the lifestyle of the beat generation not acceptable. The best solution would be to talk to them, but not to live with them. The conditions for originating of the beatniks were the best in the USA. This is a broad country with kilometers of railways and limitless possibilities of traveling.
Living according to the beat generation is and was not acceptable either in the 50’s or the 21st century. Unfortunately, most of people must work, pay taxes and health insurance and he or she is tied to the society. There are possibly many 9-to-5 working people who would like to try the beat generation lifestyle – to hitchhike, to sit somewhere in the nature, be under the influence of drugs and alcohol, to talk with Kerouac, Cassady and others about art, literature and Zen Buddhism. But that is an idealized situation. Where do they get money from? It is a common knowledge that beatniks got money from their parents and when they accidentally work, they spent all their money for alcohol and drugs.
On the other hand, there is a big admiration for the beat generation because most of the people envy them the freedom. People need some kind of order and they are afraid of freedom.

Therefore these 9-to-5 working people have chosen a kind of escape from the reality; they read the books by Kerouac, Ginsberg and their friends which help them, at least for a while, forget their problems with a mortgage of their house or an unpleasant boss. They imagine themselves as one of the heroes of these books but in the morning they become perfect caring fathers and star subordinates again.
Every movement swallows up itself one day and in the end, the young revolting intellectuals who claimed they would never be like the ordinary people, if they do not die from overdosing from drugs and alcohol, usually change into grandmas and grandpas who dig in the garden and tell their grandchildren about their stormy youth. For instance, Carolyn Cassady who was the wife of Kerouac’s angel Neal Cassady lives her peaceful life at a farm and she writes memoirs. Conclusion & Contribution
Johnny Depp expressed the contribution of the beat generation in his Rolling Stone article: “Without On the Road, Howl or Naked Lunch, for example, would we have been blessed with the likes of Hunter S, Thompson and Bob Dylan? Or countless other writers and poets of that caliber who were born in the Fifties or Sixties? Where would we be without modern classics like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or The Times They Are A-Changing? … In the end, what can anyone…scholar, professor, student or biographer…really say about these angels and devils who once walked among us, though maybe just a bit higher off the ground?”.

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