Like the French Impressionist artists of Paris, the Beat writers were a small group of close friends first, and a movement later. The term “Beat Generation” gradually came to represent an entire period in time, but the entire original Beat Generation in literature was small enough to have fit into a couple of cars (at times this nearly happened).
The core group consisted of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady and William S. Burroughs, who met in the neighborhood surrounding Columbia University in uptown Manhattan in the mid-40’s. They picked up Gregory Corso in Greenwich Village and found Herbert Huncke hanging around Times Square. They then migrated to San Francisco where they expanded their group consciousness by meeting Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen and Lew Welch.
Most of them struggled for years to get published, and it is inspiring to learn how they managed to keep each other from giving up hope when it seemed their writings would never be understood. Their moment of fame began with a legendary poetry reading at the Six Gallery in San Francisco.
After the first wave of Beat writers became famous, a second wave followed. Some later arrivals to the crowd include Bob Kaufman, Diane DiPrima, Ed Sanders, Anne Waldman, Ray Bremser and Ted Joans. The “latter day beats” added some much needed cultural diversity, as well as an infusion of new ideas and talent, to the core of white male friends that were the “classic beats”. The ranks of legendary Beat poets continues to slowly evolve; recently more attention has been paid to other talented writers who had gathered at the fringes of earlier Beat scenes, including Charles Plymell, Jack Micheline, Herschel Silverman, Marty Matz, Ron Whitehead, Jim Carroll, Janine Pommy-Vega and countless others.
It is not likely that today’s generation-defining machinery will ever again allocate so much “cultural influence” to such a small and odd group of individuals. Defining generations is big business these days, and you’ve got to look good on Total Request Live to even have a chance. If today’s “Generation X” (or “Gen Y” or whatever it’s called) is like Woodstock, the Beat Generation was like a small dark tavern at two in the morning, with a bunch of old jazz musicians jamming on stage and Jack Kerouac buying rounds at the bar.
The phrase “Beat Generation” was invented by Jack Kerouac in 1948 (for a discussion of the origin of this and other labels, check out Lost, Beat and Hip). The phrase was introduced to the general public in 1952 when Kerouac’s friend John Clellon Holmes wrote an article, ‘This is the Beat Generation,’ for the New York Times Magazine (click here to read the complete original text).
Literary Kicks will hopefully evolve in many directions in the future, but the site began as a series of pages on the Beat Generation and this legacy will always provide the site’s guiding spirit. I did not experience the Beat era firsthand, and would probably find it less fascinating if I had. If you’d like to know why I care about the whole mess, here’s something I wrote about it, Why I Like The Beats.
And here’s an intriguing article by Don Carpenter about a significant poetry reading he arranged in 1964 at the Longshoreman’s Hall in San Francisco.
The photo at the top of this page was taken by Diana Church at the Cafe Trieste in North Beach in 1975. Guests at the table include Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Minelte Le Blanc, Peter Le Blanc, Allen Ginsberg, Harold Norse, Jack Hirschman & Bob Kaufman.