Even if you don't know what a "Beatnik" is, odds are that you could identify one based on a few cultural cues. A 1950s-era Beatnik stereotype would include a black turtleneck and goatee, a beret, a cigarette dangling from two fingers, and an attitude of exasperation about why you don't appropriately appreciate some obscure work of literature, underground music reference, or recent artistic breakthrough.
The Beatniks' attitude was characterized by a general sense of pre-countercultural angst, "a vague feeling of cultural and emotional displacement, dissatisfaction, and yearning," according to Professor Ray Carney of Boston University. And nowhere was this sentiment better characterized than in the shining examples set by two of the Beat movement's predominant founders – Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac.
ALLEN GINSBERG AND "HOWL"
Ginsberg was the author of "Howl", a three-part poem that runs the gauntlet from the author's personal experiences with his community of poet and artist friends, to radical political statements, to graphic details about his homosexual activity and prolific drug use. The work itself is gritty and raw, and reads like a simultaneous affirmation and rallying cry. The rhythm of the words are reminiscent of jazz, built as it was on a bebop-style beat.
Ginsberg introduced the poem during a late-night, booze-fueled reading at the Six Gallery in San Francisco. Jack Kerouac described the scene (using different names) in his book The Dharma Bums:
"I followed the whole gang of howling poets to the reading at Gallery Six (Six Gallery) that night, which was, among other important things, the night of the birth of the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance. Everyone was there. It was a mad night. And I was the one who got things jumping by going around collecting dimes and quarters from the rather stiff audience standing around in the gallery and coming back with three huge gallon jugs of California Burgundy and getting them all piffed so that by eleven o'clock when Alvah Goldbrook (Ginsberg) was reading his, wailing poem "Wail" (Howl) drunk with arms outspread everybody was yelling "Go! Go! Go!" (like a jam session)..."
Among the attendees of this first reading was Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a poet and founder of City Lights Books in San Francisco. He reached out to Ginsberg the next day and offered to publish "Howl" and a few other poems as the fourth book in City Lights' Pocket Poet series. The limited run of 1,000 sold well enough that an order was placed for more editions.
But on March 25, 1957, U.S. Customs confiscated 520 copies of the book as it was being transported from its printing house in England on grounds of obscenity due to its graphic depictions of drug use and homosexual sex. Ferlinghetti was forced to turn himself into police for knowingly selling an "obscene book". The ACLU paid his bail and contested the legality of the book's seizure even as the scandal made the book both popular and infamous – a third edition was ordered, to be printed in the U.S.
A judge soon ruled that "Howl" possessed social and artistic value, and granted it protection under the First Amendment. This court decision would eventually set the stage for more "risqué" works to be published in the U.S., including the previously-censored Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller and D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterly's Lover.
Following the arrest of its owner and the contentious trial that followed, City Lights bookstore never stopped selling the book.
JACK KEROUAC AND ON THE ROAD
A year after Ginsberg had published "Howl", his friend, Jack Kerouac, decided it was time to get serious about converting his thoughts, anecdotes and stories about his travels with his friend Neal Cassidy into something that was publishable. To that end, he created a 120-foot long typewriter scroll and feverishly wrote the first draft of what would become On the Road in almost three weeks.
There is no shortage of hedonism in On the Road, as the autobiographical narrator (Sal Paradise) and his handsome, care-free friend Dean Moriarty, (the real-life Neal Cassidy) take off on multiple cross-country road trips fueled by sex, drugs, jazz, and the promise of a good time at their next destination.
But inevitably, real-world responsibilities always find a way to cramp the guys' style. Money is always an issue, because jobs inevitably stifle their free-spirited travels. Relationship fidelity, pregnancies, and the demands of "settling down" are rejected again and again by Dean Moriarty, who as the book goes on seems to be looking less for adventure and more for an escape from his previous life choices.
Yet the book is also beautifully-written in a frenetic, "bop spontaneous prose" style that (for me at least) is exhilarating to read. It's served as inspiration to countless other artists, including California-based Ed Ruscha, who printed and illustrated his own edition of the book with photographs of 1950's era cars and other images of the time period. And in my opinion, On the Road is a major influence on the final season of AMC's Mad Men.
This is because, at its heart, On the Road is about the reckless search for the American ideal, and how some people tend to equate that ideal with the achievement of happiness. It's a quest for meaning and self-discovery that reflects a constant, compulsive need to move on to the next thing, perpetually chasing an idea that is always glistening on the far horizon.
Kerouac/Sal Paradise's journeys with Cassidy/Dean Moriarty take them from San Francisco to Denver, from New York to New Orleans, from Chicago to Detroit, from Los Angeles to Mexico, and everywhere in between. But – much like Don Draper – they somehow always find themselves back in California, seeking enlightenment and gaining perspective.
The critical reception to On the Road was mixed. Reviewers rightly noted that the main characters were two self-absorbed white guys carousing through life without many repercussions, and that their story ultimately doesn't lead much of anywhere. But the written style of the book was hailed as historic. Gillbert Minstein of the New York Times claimed "there are sections of On the Road in which the writing is of a beauty almost breathtaking...there is some writing on jazz that has never been equaled in American fiction, either for insight, style, or technical virtuosity."
And in that sense, both Kerouac's On the Road and Ginsberg's "Howl" became, if not the voice of a generation, the voice of a movement: the literary embodiment of counter-culture ideals that would go on to define 1960's culture in America.