The Beatnik or the Beat Generation defined the 1950’s and 1960’s American literature scene and it was also the precursor of the hippie movement which borrowed much from the philosophy that the Beatniks strived to express. Although Herbert Huncke was the first author to coin the term “beat”, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg gave to it a spiritual connotation and came up with the idea of naming their generation the Beat Generation. The beatnik culture was easily assimilated and accepted even from its shy beginnings, gaining more and more popularity amongst the American youth. Authors pertaining to this movement published novels, poetry and short stories which spread a philosophy based on anti-materialism and the need for spiritual introspection or soul searching. Some of the most prominent figures of the Beat Generation are lightly described below.
1. Ken Kesey
Ken Kesey confessed in a 1999 interview that he considers his literary work as building a bridge between the beatnik and the hippie movements because of the age he had at that time: “too young to be a beatnik, too old to be a hippie”. Thus, drawing on the influences of the beatnik philosophy on the one hand, and the psychoactive drug experiences characteristic to the hippies on the other hand, Ken Kesey initially wrote two novels that were never published. Actually, he is known for writing only one novel that was an immediate success, his third, entitled “One flew over the cuckoo’s nest”. The story behind the novel is quite interesting too: he got the idea to write it after having worked a night shift at a veterans’ hospital. Actually, he often volunteered to participate in experiments studying the effects of psychedelic drugs, and could be found on the hospital hallways talking to patients about his belief that people thought to be insane were really secluded by society because they did not fit the widely accepted and standard ideas of normality or of conventional behavior. His book explores this belief from the perspective of a human mind study, using first person narrative, numerous digressive flashbacks imitating memory, and introspection.
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2. Jack Kerouac
Although his best known literary achievement is the novel “On the road”, Jack Kerouac’s other writings have been all published after his death in 1969, lately gaining the public’s interest more than ever: The Dharma Bums, Visions of Cody, Doctor Sax, Mexico City Blues, and The Subterraneans. Together with Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, he pioneered the Beat Generation contributing to its formation by actively and publicly talking about its philosophy. “On the road” is regarded as a book dedicated to the beatnik lifestyle many youngsters aspired to, describing wild adventures and interesting conversations with people sharing the same ideas. Largely, the book is autobiographical and it relates Kerouac’s road-trip experiences since when he traveled across the United States and New Mexico together with Neal Cassidy.
3. Allen Ginsberg
Like Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg was a respected poet and author, and a leading figure of the Beat Generation. Perhaps, he is best remembered for his iconic poem “Howl”, in which he describes the lives and gifts of his fellow beatniks as being wasted by a society that revers conformity, and instead creates madness and chaos. Ginsberg drew his inspiration for this poem and for another long autobiographical poem entitled “Kaddish for Naomi Ginsberg (1894-1956)” from the experiences he had while growing up with his own mother suffering from a mental illness. However, Allen Ginsberg’s contribution to the Beat Generation culture is not confined to writing; he was often invited at hippie gatherings or during concerts to step on the stage and do poetry readings. Accompanied by a harmonium, and/or a guitarist, he would read from his writings or those of others, messages of peace and love, of sexual freedom and of spiritual awareness. Amongst other things, Ginsberg advocated for the legalization of marijuana and had an active role in the demystification process of LSD by promoting its use together with Timothy Leary. However, his views on smoking cigarettes can be easily deduced from the following lines: “Don’t smoke! Don’t Smoke! Nicotine, Nicotine, No! / No! Don’t smoke the official Dope Smoke Dope Dope.”