The Beat Generation

Citation metadata

Publisher: Gale, part of Cengage Group
Document Type: Topic overview
Length: 866 words

Document controls

Main content


Ray Bremser
  • Poems of Madness (poetry) 1965
  • Angel (poetry) 1967
Chandler Brossard
  • Who Walk in Darkness (novel) 1952
William S. Burroughs
  • Junkie: Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict [as William Lee] (novel) 1953; also published as Junky, 1977
  • The Naked Lunch (novel) 1959
Neal Cassady
  • The First Third, and Other Writings (autobiography) 1971; revised and enlarged edition, 1981
  • As Ever: The Collected Correspondence of Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady [with Allen Ginsberg] (letters) 1977
Gregory Corso
  • In This Hung-Up Age (play) 1955
  • The Vestal Lady on Brattle, and Other Poems (poetry) 1955
  • Gasoline (poetry) 1958
  • The Happy Birthday of Death (poetry) 1960
Diane DiPrima
  • This Kind of Bird Flies Backward (poetry) 1960
  • Dinners and Nightmares (prose and poetry) 1961
  • Memoirs of a Beatnik (autobiography) 1969
Lawrence Ferlinghetti
  • Pictures of the Gone World (poetry) 1955
  • A Coney Island of the Mind (poetry) 1958; enlarged editions, 1959, 1968
Allen Ginsberg
  • Howl, and Other Poems (poetry) 1956
  • Empty Mirror (poetry) 1961
  • Kaddish, and Other Poems (poetry) 1961
  • Reality Sandwiches: 1953-1960 (poetry) 1963
John Clellon Holmes
  • Go (novel) 1952; also published as The Beat Boys, 1959
  • Nothing More to Declare (essays) 1967
Bob Kaufman
  • Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness (poetry) 1965
  • The Golden Sardine (poetry) 1967
Jack Kerouac
  • On the Road (novel) 1957
  • The Dharma Bums (novel) 1958
  • The Subterraneans (novel) 1958
  • Mexico City Blues (poetry) 1959
  • Big Sur (novel) 1962
  • Visions of Gerard (novel) 1963
  • Desolation Angels (novel) 1965
  • Vanity of Duluoz: An Adventurous Education, 1935-1946 (novel) 1968
  • Visions of Cody (novel) 1972
Michael McClure
  • Passage (poetry) 1956
  • Hymns to St. Geryon, and Other Poems (poetry) 1959
Jack Micheline
  • River of Red Wine (poetry) 1958
Gary Snyder
  • Riprap (poetry) 1959
  • Myths & Texts (poetry) 1960


The Beat Generation was a loosely affiliated group of American poets and novelists whose work is characterized by experimental narratives and metrical forms, the use of sexual language and imagery, and an unabashedly honest exploration of their personal experiences. Coming of age in the post-World War II period, these writers rejected the social and literary conventions of the early twentieth century and utilized original forms of personal and literary expression in order to convey their alienation and disaffection with the dominant culture. Inspired by the improvisational style of jazz musicians, the Beats began to experiment with narrative and poetic forms.

One of the best-known representations of Beat literature is Jack Kerouac's On the Road (1957), a fictionalized account of his adventurous travels with his friend, Neal Cassady, across the United States. The novel utilizes Kerouac's "spontaneous prose," which was his attempt to record events and thoughts as they came to mind in notebooks without concern for grammar or syntax. Another major Beat Generation writer, William S. Burroughs, experimented with a style that utilized what became known as the "cut-up" and "fold-in" techniques; Burroughs used these methods to randomly place passages of text together in order to form a narrative that would force the reader to approach and comprehend the text in an altered way.

Critical attention of Beat literature has focused heavily on the work of Kerouac and Burroughs, as well as the poets Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The key themes explored in Beat Generation literature include the oppressive conformity in postwar American society, the looming threat of nuclear annihilation, unconventional sexual and social mores, skepticism toward authority, acceptance of drug use, spiritual awakenings and attraction to Eastern philosophies, and the lure of the open road and abandonment of conventional society.

Kerouac is credited with first using the term "beat" to describe the jaded and disaffected attitude of a growing segment of his generation, which he considered both "beaten down" by the stifling nature of postwar society and driven by the "beatific" nature of their search to live free of those same oppressive social, sexual, and spiritual conventions. The Beat movement originated when Kerouac, Burroughs, and Ginsberg met each other at Columbia University in New York City in 1944; it gained notoriety, however, with a legendary poetry reading featuring Beat poets in San Francisco in 1955.

The following year Ginsberg's book of poetry, Howl, (1956) was published to wide critical acclaim and controversy. While some critics attacked Ginsberg's poetry as obscene, others recognized it as a bold and exciting work that managed to capture the zeitgeist of the era. Unsuccessful attempts to ban both Howl and Burroughs's Naked Lunch (1959) for obscenity later resulted in important legal precedents for works of literature and freedom of speech. The Beat Generation attracted a great deal of media scrutiny in the late 1950s and 1960s, as journalists were eager to cover Beat communities in New York City and San Francisco, often highlighting the group's liberal drug and alcohol use, sexual exploration, and sense of alienation from mainstream (and thus more conservative) culture.

Over the years the Beat movement attained an iconic status and served to influence many later social and literary movements. Although many early critics deemed Beat Generation literature to be virtually incoherent and pretentious, the appeal of Beat literature has remained strong in subsequent generations. Today it is recognized as a significant and influential period of American literature that has produced a number of noteworthy works of fiction and poetry.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1410002462