The 1950s is usually remembered for its strict societal mores: the white picket fence, dad working and mom makes supper. But in Manhattan, especially in the area surrounding Columbia University, the beginnings of a new, defiant generation were emerging. The Beat Generation was made up of free-wheeling intellectuals that would gather at dimly lit bars, philosophizing while writing poems and prose. The Beats defied societal rules, opting to live a life full of joblessness, drug use and sexual freedom. They cultivated their own standard of life, by reimagining what it meant to live.
Here are 7 key figures that were integral to the creation and legacy of the Beat Generation:
• Jack Kerouac
The most recognizable figure of the Beat Generation, Kerouac is the epitome of an Americana beatnik. A young intellectual at Columbia University, his natural freewheeling attitude helped him pioneer the Beat style of “spontaneous” prose writing. Kerouac’s novel, “On the Road,” follows Kerouac as he travels stateside and through Mexico.“On the Road” specifically created certain mysticism around Kerouac as the main leader of the Beats, making him the epitome of a new rebellious spirit.
• Allen Ginsberg
Ginsberg and Kerouac were both masters of their styles. While Kerouac wrote descriptive novels, Ginsberg was a poet. His collective poem book, “Howl,” describes life as a Beat, with the infamous first line: “I saw the greatest minds of my generation destroyed by madness.” Ginsberg was also openly gay, which was extremely controversial during the 1950s, further showcasing the discrepancy between the Beats and regular society. The Beats were unabashedly themselves, while regular society shied away from “otherness.”
• William S. Burroughs
Grittier in his depiction of Beat life, Burroughs’ works focus on such topics as extreme drug addiction and homosexuality. Burroughs shows the cold, rough side of Beat life. Older in age than many of his fellow Beats, his outrageous lifestyle as a full-fledged drug addict is seen in his two most famous novels, “Junky” and “Naked Lunch.”
• Gregory Corso
Corso became a member of the Beat Generation in a unique way. Sitting alone at a bar, Allen Ginsberg took an interest in Corso, attempting to pursue him as a romantic partner. Corso was not gay, but a friendship between the two poets quickly emerged, placing Corso within the inner circle of Beats. Corso has been referred to as a “poet’s poet,” and his influence, as described by his close friend Kerouac, in the introduction to his novel “Gasoline,” states he was “a tough young kid from the Lower East Side who rose like an angel.”
• Lucien Carr
Also a student at Columbia University, Ginsberg notably said that, “Lou was the glue,” for Carr was the one that originally introduced Kerouac and Ginsberg to each other. Carr also created a normative construct for the Beat way of life: “1) Naked self-expression is the seed of creativity. 2) The artist’s consciousness is expanded by derangement of the senses. 3) Art eludes conventional morality.”
• Neal Cassady
Cassady did not attend Columbia, but during a trip to visit a friend that was a student, Cassady met Kerouac, where they quickly became friends. Cassady’s persona is immortalized in “On the Road,” under the pseudonym of Dean Moriarty.
• Herbert Huncke
In the late 1930s, Huncke hitchhiked to New York City, finding himself at 42nd Street, placing him in a geographical location that helped him become a key member of the Beats. Beat lore states that Huncke himself created the titular name for the Beats, as he used the term “beat” to describe being “tired” or to refer to a person that was a type of loser. Kerouac was vying to find a name to call their new movement, and Beat fit the bill perfectly.
A final consideration: You may be left wondering, what about women Beats? There were women involved, although the sexism of the time period did affect their success. Arguably the most successful woman beat was Joyce Johnson (“Door Wide Open: A Beat Love Affair in Letters”), but other women Beats did exist, including Diane di Prima (“Memoirs of a Beatnik”). Additionally, and unfortunately, the other women Beats are notable because of their relationships: Edie Parker being Kerouac’s first wife and Joan Vollmer being Burroughs’ wife (whom he infamously killed in a game of William Tell).