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literature

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Beat Generation  

Like the "Lost Generation" of the 1920s, the American "Beat Generation" of the 1950s names both a literary current and a broader cultural phenomenon or mood. Rejecting the conformism and stress on "normality" of the Truman and Eisenhower years, the Beats emphasized an openness to varieties of experience beyond the limits of middle-class society; they explored the cultural "underground" of bebop jazz, drug use, "polymorphous perverse" sexuality, and non-Western religions.

The central Beat writers--William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac--were gay or bisexual. So were several minor Beat literary figures, including Neal Cassidy, Herbert Huncke, Peter Orlovsky, and Carl Solomon. This loose network of friends became nationally famous thanks to Allen Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems (1956) and the obscenity trial that followed its publication.

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This publicity opened the way for the appearance of Kerouac's On the Road (1957) and Burroughs's Naked Lunch (1959) after years when no commercial publisher would consider them. By the late 1950s, the term beatniks (coined by a disapproving journalist) entered common usage to describe the subculture of bohemians inspired by the Beat writers.

The original Beat cohort formed in the late 1940s; it consisted of a group of writers, young and for the most part unpublished, living in New York and San Francisco. Besides their enthusiasm for jazz and drugs, the group around Burroughs, Ginsberg, and Kerouac shared an interest in literary experimentation. Their work stressed spontaneous and uncensored writing, often based on their own experiences among small-time criminals and drifters.

Although explicitly rejecting what they saw as a domestication of the modernist avant garde by the New Critics and other academics, the Beats had a strong sense of working in a literary tradition of demotic and colloquial expression, ranging from Archilochus to Villon, Whitman, and Celine.

A complex pattern of sexual relations emerged among the men--which, in a rather self-consciously literary fashion, they sometimes regarded as resembling the affair of Rimbaud and Verlaine. Like Rimbaud, they endorsed "the systematic derangement of the senses"--through intoxicants, meditation, and other forms of intense experience ("kicks")--as a means to reach states of expanded awareness.

Kerouac, who coined the expression Beat, insisted that it meant not simply "beat down" or exhausted, but also "beatific." And indeed, when writing about their pursuit of extreme experience, Kerouac and Ginsberg sometimes employed a mystical vocabulary--drawing on imagery of divine madness, the wise fool, and the holy sinner. Besides encouraging a sympathetic (if often sentimental) treatment of the lower depths of society, such religious language permitted the Beats to practice the jeremiad: a prophetic denunciation of the soul-less, bureaucratized, and consumerist ethos of Cold War society.

This embrace of marginality and denunciation of "square" conformity emerged primarily from an interest in African-American culture, particularly jazz. But it also extended to homosexuals--or at least to gay men since Beat writing showed little awareness of lesbians.

There was some contact between Beat circles and gay literary figures such as Frank O'Hara, Robert Duncan, Paul Bowles, and John Rechy. Though the sexual preference of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassidy was primarily heterosexual, their writings acknowledged that they had had other sorts of encounters as well.

Hubert Selby's Beat-influenced novel, Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964), included a powerful and sympathetic portrait of a drag queen. And Seymour Krim, an essayist associated with the Beats, wrote "The Revolt of the Homosexual" (1958), an imaginary conversation between a defensive "straight guy" and an outspoken homosexual man. Even though Krim was himself heterosexual, the dialogue is unambiguously pro-gay rights: Every prejudiced remark uttered by the "straight guy" in the exchange is answered decisively.

But perhaps the most profound impact of Beat writing came, not through such programmatic endorsements of gay rights (significant though that was), but rather through its insistence that the writer should refuse inhibition and self-censorship. Or as Kerouac put it, in his aesthetic credo: "Believe in the holy contour of life. Struggle to sketch the flow that exists intact in the mind. . . . No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge." This did not always yield great literature, of course.

Inspired by the Beat example, countless writers charted "the flow that exists intact in the mind"--which turned out, often enough, to sound like an imitation of Kerouac, Ginsberg, or Burroughs. Yet the Beats represented a struggle to accept the facts of experience and identity, and to convey them in literature, which considerably broadened the universe of public discourse in the post-World War II era.

A very large biographical, critical, and memoiristic literature has grown up around the major Beat writers. Gerald Nicosia's book on Jack Kerouac discusses in considerable detail the sexual relations within the group--which are also recorded in various collections of letters among Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Orlovsky, and Cassidy.

Ann Charter's Portable Beat Reader offers an extremely intelligent and deeply informed selection of poetry, fiction, and essays by more than three dozen writers in and around Beat circles--including work by important figures such as Diana Di Prima, Bob Kaufmann, and LeRoi Jones, who do not fit the Beats' primarily white, male profile.

A cycle of stories about the bohemia created in the wake of the Beats' emergence, Ed Sanders's Tales of Beatnik Glory has little to say about the movement's impact on pre-Stonewall gay life. Even so, it can be recommended as a humorous fictional treatment of that American countercultural species, the beatnik, circa 1962.

Scott McLemee

     

 
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   Related Entries
  
literature >> Overview:  American Literature: Gay Male, 1900-1969

Although largely invisible to the general public, a large body of twentieth-century gay male literature by American authors was published prior to Stonewall, some of it positive but most of it tinged with misery or bleakness as the price of being published and disseminated.

literature >> Bowles, Paul

Gay American expatriate composer, writer, and translator Paul Bowles liked to examine sexuality from a dispassionate perspective for its psychological suggestiveness.

literature >> Burroughs, William S.

Both in his life and his novels, American writer William S. Burroughs was an outlaw and a provocateur, focusing on sexual repression as the fundamental element of social control and writing in a surrealistic and bitterly satirical mode.

literature >> Duncan, Robert

Robert Duncan wrote a remarkable series of poems that deal directly with the love of men for other men.

literature >> Overview:  Gay and Lesbian Bookstores

The network of independent gay and lesbian bookstores that arose in the 1970s served as incubators for the literary and cultural development of the modern gay rights movement in the United States and abroad.

literature >> Ginsberg, Allen

The forthrightly gay Allen Ginsberg is probably the best-known American poet to emerge in the post-World War II period.

literature >> Kerouac, Jack

The bisexual Jack Kerouac omitted references to his homosexuality from his otherwise autobiographical works.

literature >> Norse, Harold

Often categorized as a Beat writer, poet and memoirist Harold Norse created a body of work that uses everyday language and images to explore and celebrate both the commonplace and the exotic.

literature >> O'Hara, Frank

The influential poet Frank O'Hara wrote works informed by both modern art and the world of urban gay male culture.

literature >> Rechy, John

In his novels about hustling, preeminently City of Night and Numbers, John Rechy moves from the world of homosexual behavior into the world of gay identity.

literature >> Rimbaud, Arthur

Because his writing stresses liberation, the French "boy-poet" Arthur Rimbaud, whose art is based solely on his individual creativity, is a progenitor of modern gay poetics.

arts >> Rivers, Larry

One of the pioneers of Pop Art, Larry Rivers was a prolific artist, sculptor, and jazz musician; although he did not identify as a bisexual, the twice-married artist had significant same-sex sexual experience.

literature >> Verlaine, Paul

The poetry of Paul Verlaine celebrates both heterosexual and homosexual activity, including lesbian relationships.

literature >> Whitman, Walt

Celebrating an ideal of manly love in both its spiritual and physical aspects, Walt Whitman has exerted a profound and enduring influence on gay literature.


    Bibliography
   

Charters, Ann, ed. The Portable Beat Reader. New York: Viking, 1992.

French, Warren. The San Francisco Poetry Renaissance, 1955-60. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1991.

George, Paul S., and Jerold M. Starr. "Beat Politics: New Left and Hippie Beginnings in the Postwar Counterculture." Cultural Politics: Radical Movements in Modern History. Jerold M. Starr, ed. New York: Praeger, 1985. 189-233.

Krim, Seymour. "The Revolt of the Homosexual." Views of a Nearsighted Cannoneer. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1968.

Nicosia, Gerald. Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac. New York: Grove Press, 1983.

Sanders, Ed. Tales of Beatnik Glory: Volumes I and II. New York: Citadel Underground, 1990.

Stimpson, Catherine R. "The Beat Generation and the Trials of Homosexual Liberation." Salmagundi 58-59 (1982-1983): 373-392.

Tytell, John. Naked Angels: The Lives and Literature of the Beat Generation. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976.

Watson, Steven. Birth of the Beat Generation: Visionaries, Rebels and Hipsters, 1944-1960. New York: Pantheon, 1995.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: McLemee, Scott  
    Entry Title: Beat Generation  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated November 8, 2007  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/beat_gen.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  
 

 

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