The author Jack Kerouac first started talking about a ‘Beat Generation’ in 1948. He used it to describe a group of people, including himself, who rejected the social and political systems of America, and lived unconventional non-materialistic lifestyles full of art, literature, travel, jazz, sex and drugs.
The word Beat combined the idea of being ‘trodden down’ or ‘worn out’ with that of being ‘beatific’; that is, feeling or expressing great happiness. ‘Beat’ came from underworld slang, the world of hustlers, drug addicts and petty thieves, where young writers looked for inspiration for their books. The word ‘beat’ also had a spiritual connotation as in ‘beatitude’, a religious term that also means ‘bliss’.
The Beat scene was centred on Greenwich Village in Manhattan, a bohemian place where many visual artists, musicians and even a queer community lived from before the 1930s. The Beat movement that emerged in the post-war period centred on literature, incorporating authors and poets such as William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, Phillip Whalen and Michael McClure. Of the few African-American beats, the poet, writer and music critic Amiri Baraka was a prominent figure.
While it believed itself to be avant-garde, the movement was rigidly masculine, with archetypal portrayals of women in its literature. For Beat men life could be tough, but for the women, betraying their conventional roles meant not just ‘hitting the road’ but mental hospitals, electro-shock treatment or being locked up at home. Nevertheless, influential women such as Joan Vollmer, Joyce Johnson, Diane di Prima and Edie Parker were central to the movement, though typically became recognised for chronicling the lives of the men with whom they were involved.
By 1958, the success of Beat literature and the scandal brought on by explicit Beat books, such as Ginsberg’s poetry collection Howl and Other Poems (1956) and William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch (1959), both condemned as obscene, had led to the term being adopted by the mainstream media, who exploited its notoriety. ‘Beatniks’, as they were mockingly called, were stereotyped as amoral pseudo-intellectual criminals with drug habits.
Kerouac distanced himself from the term ‘Beat’ and ‘Beatnik’ saying that they, betrayed the true principles of the movement. Others however, notably Burroughs, did seem to be living up to the poor reputation; a heroin addict, in 1951 he shot his wife dead in an apparent drunken game of William Tell.