Like several people who have more money than I do, The Beat Generation had two homes, one in New York and one on the San Francisco Bay. The Beat movement originated in New York City, but San Francisco’s West Coast ways helped to mellow the hard-edged New York Beats — they came away converted to Buddhism and aware of nature. San Francisco benefited from the association as well: the thriving acid-flavored San Francisco music scene of the 1960’s originated with Ken Kesey‘s merry Beat-inspired escapades.
San Francisco first shows up in Beat history as one of several mystical destinations for Sal Paradise, Jack Kerouac’s altar ego in ‘On The Road.’ He heads for ‘Frisco’ (I was later told that people in San Francisco do not actually call the city ‘Frisco’), imagining scenes from the books of Jack London and Adam Saroyan, hoping to find ecstatic freedom from the spiritual oppressiveness of his own East Coast. He doesn’t fully find it there, or anywhere else (except in a few isolated, unplanned moments that leave him more disconcerted than enlightened).
All of Kerouac’s friends were wandering over to the Bay Area, though. Neal Cassady settled down in San Jose, on the South Bay, and worked there as a brakeman on the Southern Pacific Railroad. Visiting him, New Jersey native Allen Ginsberg made an important connection by showing up at Kenneth Rexroth‘s door with a letter of introduction from William Carlos Williams. Rexroth had already gathered together a vibrant community of San Francisco area poets and writers, which included Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure and two poets from Reed College in Oregon, Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen. In October 1955, several of these poets joined to present a now legendary poetry reading at the Six Gallery at Union and Fillmore. This period became known as the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance, and is also generally thought of as the kickoff point for the Beat Movement in literature.
Geography of the Bay Area
The huge and peaceful San Francisco Bay provides all reference points for the area’s geography. Some regions include:
Northwestern side of the Bay
Marin County, including Sausalito and an impressive nature preserve, Muir Woods. In the late 70’s I read a great satirical book about Marin County’s ultra-mellow (but ultimately shallow) social scene, ‘The Serial’ by Cyra McFadden (which was unfortunately made into a hokey and condescending movie that you should not bother seeing).
Southwestern side of the Bay
San Francisco proper, including North Beach, which was sort of like a Beatnik Times Square in the 50’s and 60’s, and where Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights bookstore can still be found at the corner of Broadway and Columbus. Southwest of North Beach, near Golden Gate Park, is the legendary Haight-Ashbury, the hippie nirvana of the late Sixties. This neighborhood is still cool to visit and has a lot of great book and music shops, although I think Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue scene is more happening.
Jerry Garcia dissed the East Bay (he explained keyboardist Brent Mydland’s death in a ‘Rolling Stone’ interview by explaining that Brent was from the East Bay, which meant he had no cultural points of reference and couldn’t get it together). But Berkeley is on the East Bay, and there’s plenty of culture there. Oakland, birthplace of Gertrude Stein and home to Jack London, has a large African-American population and a good blues scene.
San Jose and Palo Alto
Stanford University and Silicon Valley are here. Kesey and his Merry Pranksters emerged from La Honda, a little woodsy community in the shadow of Stanford, and the Grateful Dead formed in these neighborhoods as well. Despite this extraordinary legacy, though, the whole area is best known as the inspiration for the Dionne Warwick song “Do You Know The Way To San Jose?”
Farther south is Monterey, Carmel-by-the-Sea (where Clint Eastwood used to be mayor) and the mountainous coastline known as Big Sur, where Jack Kerouac, ultimately an East-Coaster, overdosed on nature and solitude in 1961. (He wrote a book about it.)