Jack Kerouac's hedonistic classic, On the Road, is 50. As exhibitions
mark that bohemian, freewheeling novel's birthday, we sort the good,
the bad and the ugly of the Beat legacy
November 16, 2008
To paraphrase Allen Ginsberg's most famous poem, Howl, I saw the best
minds of the Beat generation drunk, stoned, ranting and raving. I
saw these legends of American letters in verbal punch-ups and passed
out on my parents' living-room floor. I once saw an old and drunken
Beat poet chase a pretty young girl into the starry night, his
flaccid manhood exposed and flapping like a flag of surrender. My
parents are old bohemians who had known the leading figures of the
Beat generation in New York in the 1950s; Jack Kerouac and Neal
Cassady were their playmates. "Come and run away with me, I'm a poet
and I'm lonely," a drunken Kerouac once said to my mother and
probably every pretty girl in Greenwich Village.
The Beat generation were a small group of young writers and poets
(Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg), and their friends
(Neal Cassady, Herbert Hunke), who found fame in the 1950s for their
work and unconventional way of life. They were rebels with plenty of
causes: writing, drugs, jazz, women, sex and spirituality. They
challenged the stifling conformity and consumerism of middle-class
American life and planted the seeds of what became the counterculture
of the 1960s.
Today, when we think of the Beats, we think of the young and handsome
Kerouac and his crazy sidekick Cassady, zooming back and forth across
America a journey made famous by Kerouac's second novel, On the
Road. Back in the late 1950s, no sane person would have imagined the
Beats would still be a source of fascination in 2008. They were
condemned as "obscene" and "cultural barbarians" by literary critics.
Many commentators thought they were just another fad, the literary
equivalent of the Hula Hoop, and destined to be forgotten.
It's now 50 years since On the Road was published in Britain, and
interest in the Beats is stronger than ever, both here and in
America. A pulp crime novel co-authored by Kerouac and William
Burroughs, And the Hippos Were Boiled Alive in Their Tanks, has just
been published for the first time. Next month, the Royal Academy of
Art presents an exhibition of videos, photographs and paintings
called Burroughs Live, and the University of Birmingham is hosting a
two-day conference on Kerouac, the Beats and post-Beats. Its star
attraction will be a display of the 127ft typescript roll on which
Kerouac wrote On the Road, in just three weeks.
So, what exactly do we owe the Beats? Are they an important literary
movement that created the template of post-war youth rebellion and
modern bohemianism? Or just a bunch of overblown, macho mediocrities
with a talent for self-mythologising?
The Beats and literature
There's no doubt that the Beats brought to American literature a
welcome energy, experimental edge and openness about sex, drugs, race
and criminality. They gave a voice and a validation to that
alternative America of crazy, creative nonconformists, misfits and
bohemians who wanted something more than the security and material
comforts of suburban life.
That said, the number of great writers and great books produced by
the Beat generation is pretty small. (Even On the Road can be tough
going for today's young readers.) It's their lives, not the
literature, that fascinate their followers. Yet there's no denying
their influence on the literature of our time.
Good legacy: gonzo journalist Hunter S Thompson and novelists William
Gibson, Ken Kesey, Thomas Pynchon and Will Self.
Bad legacy: the belief that opening up your mind and letting rip a
stream of consciousness constitutes readable prose has produced works
of tedious, self-indulgent ramblings. See Kerouac's Visions of Cody.
The Beats and language
They were the ones who brought the lingo of jazz musicians dig,
groovy, split, man to young, white America, and thus to teen tribes
the world over.
Good Beat line: "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by
madness" Allen Ginsberg.
Bad Beat line: "Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the
night?" Jack Kerouac.
The Beats and cinema
There is a whole sub-genre known as Beat cinema made up of
documentaries (see Burroughs, The Movie), avant-garde films (see John
Cassavetes's Shadows) and "Beat exploitation films", featuring
sex-mad, pot-smoking beatniks looking for kicks (see Beat Girl, aka
Wild for Kicks).
For all its avant-garde aspirations, however, Beat Cinema's biggest
impact was on Hollywood. Two of its greatest stars James Dean and
Marlon Brando used the raw, rebellious primitivism of the Beats in
their performances. And without the Beats, we would never have had
the road movie.
Good legacy: Easy Rider, Wild at Heart, Thelma & Louise, Paris, Texas.
Bad legacy: Smokey and the Bandit, Barfly, The Sugarland Express.
The Beats and fashion
One crucial reason why the Beats still hold such an important place
in the iconography of youth culture is that they just look so damn
cool in old photographs. Kerouac and Cassady in their jeans and
sweatshirts, Burroughs in his sharp, stylish suits these are
timeless looks that companies such as Gap have been keen to exploit.
Good legacy: blue jeans, shades and berets.
Bad legacy: goatee beards, sandals and polo neck jumpers.
The Beats and music
Think Beat and music, and what comes to mind is some speed-freak
lunatic banging away on bongos all night. But the Beats loved jazz
and tried to capture its rhythms and improvisational style in their
work. Often, they read poetry to live jazz music. But their influence
has been on the post-jazz generation.
Good legacy: Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Tom Waits, Kurt Cobain and Bono.
Bad legacy: Ginsberg singing "Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Hare
The Beats and drugs
The flourishing drug culture of the 1960s can be traced back to the
influence of the Beats. They believed that pot, speed, peyote and
mescaline offered a one-way ticket to spiritual enlightenment and a
sure way of finishing that damn novel. Unfortunately, the Beats had a
strong link to heroin. Once at a party, Ginsberg asked Dame Edith
Sitwell if she would like some; she reputedly declined on the grounds
that it gave her spots.
Good legacy: On the Road finished in three weeks, thanks to plenty
of Benzedrine inhalers.
Bad legacy: the idea, perpetuated by Burroughs and others, that there
was something cool about being a junkie.
The Beats and the road
For the Beats, hitting the road, by car or hitchhiking, offered all
the freedom and fun a young person could want. In our age of the
internet, when young people "surf the information highway", it might
seem that the road has lost its romance. (Few people actually
hitchhike any more.) The idea of taking the Kerouac drive across
America, however, is still alive and well.
Just last month, Peaches Geldof described her journey in America as
her "Jack Kerouac trip".
Good legacy: help to save the planet, pick up a hitchhiker if you
can find one.
Bad legacy: two years ago, Russell Brand followed in the footsteps of
his hero, Kerouac, and went on the road in America. Plenty of verbal
car crashes ensued.
The Beats and outsiders
The Beats were the ones who really championed the idea of
nonconformity; they never met an outsider they didn't love. Their
most favoured group were blacks. Kerouac suffered from a kind of
colour envy. He writes of walking through the "colored" section of
Denver, "wishing I was a negro. . . wishing I could exchange worlds
with the happy, true-hearted ecstatic negroes of America".
Naturally, that was before Obama.
The Beats were also prone to see criminals in a romantic light, as if
living outside the law gave you a kind of authenticity. Many of the
Beats went in for criminal acts themselves: Burroughs would rob
drunks to feed his drug habit,
Cassady was a car thief, and even sweet Kerouac helped to cover up
the murder of a gay man (David Kammerer) by his friend Lucien Carr.
Good legacy: helped to promote a more tolerant, inclusive America.
Bad legacy: helped to create the terrible idea that criminals were
The Beats and women
While the Beats had plenty of time for junkies, car thieves,
murderers and con men, they didn't want to spend much time with women
especially their wives. Women were expected to sit quietly and
listen to the men, laugh, be sympathetic, cook and take care of the
children. Men who wrote, drank and screwed everything with a pulse,
such as Neal Cassady, were heroes; women who tried it were sluts and
tramps. Burroughs even managed to kill his own common-law wife, Joan
Vollmer, while cavalierly using her as a prop in his re-enactment of
William Tell aiming for the apple. (He missed.) Yet the Beats, for
all their chauvinism, begat the Beat chick, who later gave birth to
the rock chick.
Good legacy: Marianne Faithfull, Patti Smith, Chrissie Hynde.
Bad legacy: Courtney Love, Kate Moss and Nancy Spungen, the
girlfriend of Sid Vicious.
The Beats today
Do we have a modern equivalent of the Beat generation? Some would
argue we're all a little bit Beat nowadays, having absorbed plenty of
the liberal attitudes and hedonistic ways they pioneered. That Beat
mix of hedonism, self-destruction and art is alive in the likes of
Amy Winehouse and Pete Doherty. And you could say the blog is the
perfect Beat mode of communication: a chance to pour out your
feelings and thoughts without stopping for reflection.
Yet most contemporary poets and writers have put away the bottle.
Their lives may not fascinate generations to come, but I suspect they
will be a lot more readable.
And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks is published by Penguin
Classics at £20; Kerouac's On the Road scroll is at the Barber
Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham, from December 3; Burroughs Live
is at the Royal Academy, W1, from December 16