Jack Kerouac created an entire generation; an explosion of new thinking, freewheeling and experimentation and exploration. Kerouac’s classic fifties novel On The Road defined the iconic and captivating beat generation of writers and poets and singers. Jack Kerouac introduced the phrase “Beat Generation” to characterise a perceived underground, anti conformist youth movement in America. Many thought that the use of the adjective beat reflected the tired and beaten feelings of the younger generation, but Kerouac expanded the meaning to include the undertones of upbeat, beatific and the musical association with being on the beat.
Central elements of the cultural phenomena included experimentation with drugs, exploring sexual orientation, an interest in Eastern religion, a rejection of materialism and the idealising of exuberant, unexpurgated means of expression and being, all of which were documented and inspired many of the artistic interpretations that developed from the Beat Generation.
As well as On the Road (1957), William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch (1959) and Allen Ginsberg’s Howl (1956) are among the best known examples of Beat Literature. Both Howl and Naked Lunch were the focus of obscenity trials that ultimately led to the liberation of publishing in the USA.
The members of the Beat Generation developed a reputation as new bohemian hedonists who celebrated and thrived off spontaneous creativity.
In the mid 1950’s the original Beat Generation writers who met in New York, ended up together in San Fran Cisco where they became friends with members of the poignant San Fran Cisco Renaissance. Then, in the 1960’s elements of the expanding Beat movement were incorporated into the Hippie counterculture.
Now it has been given the Hollywood treatment bringing the beat into the 21st century, inspiring a new wave of beat. Kerouac originally wanted Marlon Brando to play the leading man, and wrote a letter asking him to take on the role. However, Brando didn’t respond and Kerouac died before seeing his masterpiece adapted to the screen. In the seventies, Francis Ford Coppola bought the rights to the film, and over the years there has been a great speculation to which actor will play the lead. Now, fifty-five years after it was published, On The Road has finally been adapted to the big screen by Brazilian director Walter Salles. Starring Sam Riley as Sal and Garrett Hedlund as Dean Moriarty, the film is reintroducing the beat to a new generation.
Today’s beat artists include Patti Smith, Gabby Young and Beth Jeans Houghton and the Hooves of Destiny all inspired by original beat member Janis Joplin.
Museums are also paying homage to the beat, with Andy Warhol and Richard Avedon – a fashion photographer who documented the Beat Generation – displays in museums across the world.
So strum that guitar, dust of your Dylan record and open your mind. The beat is back!