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The Beat Generation in San Francisco

The History of America's Most Influencial Subculture Movement

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The Beat Generation in San Francisco

Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Michael Stroud/Getty Images
The Beatniks were America's first counter-cultural movement and they led directly to the hippies, punks and all other American subcultures yet to come. Although many of the major beat poets and thinkers had already begun collaborating in New York City, it wasn't until they migrated west and mixed things up with the already blossoming San Francisco Renaissance literary scene that the Beat movement really found its footing. It soon exploded into a potent anti-establishment creative force - a complete "disaffiliation" from mainstream America, in the words of poet Allen Ginsberg.

Be Sure to Visit the Beat Museum in San Francisco

The Roots of the Beat Movement

The Beat Movement can really be seen as the first organized rejection of American society from within it's middle class. Although the Beats did create new literary forms and were wildly innovative, it was really the influence of other cultures - most of which were long established in their traditions - that really gave the Beat movement its underlying power and made it a long-lasting and far-reaching movement.

For the first time in American history Eastern Philosophies, African-American Music, Native-American traditions and mystical European poetic and spiritual traditions were all fused together towards an alternative to the violent American culture that dropped atomic bombs on Japan, hunted commies at home and spread mass psychological unrest and environmental destruction through its suburban growth model.

Major Works of the Beat Movement

  • Howl and other Poems: Allen Ginsberg's groundbreaking epic poem was a battle-cry for the emerging mass dissatisfaction with the status quo in America. Upon publication in 1956 it faced obscenity charges that almost landed Ginsberg in prison but ended up being his greatest publicity as well as a monumental victory against censorship when a California Supreme Court Judge ruled that the poem contained "redeeming social importance".
    Compare Prices on Howl and other books by Allen Ginsberg

  • On the Road: Jack Kerouac's novel-length documentation of the chaotic bohemian lifestyle of the Beats is seen by most literary critics as the defining work of the movement. The story of two best friends driving around the country haphazardly was turned into a hollywood film of the same name in 2012.
    Compare Prices on On the Road and other books by Jack Kerouac

  • Naked Lunch: This 1959 novel by William Burroughs was brought to the big screen back in 1991 by David Cronenburg. The non-linear plot of the book describes the author's drug addiction and the novel also faced obscenity charges and was actually banned for years in Los Angeles and Boston.
    Compare Prices on Naked Lunch and other books by William Burroughs
Although these authors and works are considered seminal to the beat movement, other writers and thinkers involved with the beats actually did more to bring alternative thoughts to mainstream America.

Gary Snyder, a bay area poet who spent years in Japan studying Zen Buddhism, began writing about environmental issues and is widely known as the "Poet Laureate of Deep Ecology".
Compare Prices on books by Gary Snyder

Allan Watts, who also studied Zen Buddhism, published over 25 books on Eastern thought and is probably the most prominent populiser of Asian philosophy in western culture.
Compare Prices on books by Alan Watts

The Beat Movement in San Francisco

The Beat Movement really became a powerful social force when poets and intellectuals from New York, Europe and California gathered together in San Francisco's North Beach and began publishing their works. Much of this happened at the legendary City Lights Bookstore, which is still owned and operated by prominent beat poet in his own right Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The Beats also performed poetry live, often accompanied by jazz music, and brought San Francisco a cafe scene which is unrivaled outside of Europe. Several historic North Beach bars were also favorite Beatnik hangouts, including the landmark Vesuvio Cafe (just across Jack Kerouc Alley from City Lights) and Specs Museum Cafe.

What Exactly is a Beatnik?

The word "Beat" was originally somewhat derogatory, as it referred to someone that was down and out as in "tired and beat". This label was applied to the movement because the original beats did drop out of society, long before the hippie movement that was yet to come took dropping out to epic proportions. The original beats were actually mostly middle-class college students and intellectuals however, although one of their defining characteristics was that they mixed openly with street people and the poor. Jack Kerouc adopted the term to the movement but infused with some more positive connotations like "on the beat", as the movement is heavily influenced by jazz.

The Legacy of the Beat Generation

By the 1960s the fast growing countercultural movement in San Francisco had morphed into what would be known worldwide as the hippies.

Read my Article: The Hippies of San Francisco

But the seeds sown by the beat movement reach much further than the "Summer of Love". The beats experimentation with Eastern philosophies and thought were the gate through which yoga, meditation and other formerly alien practices infiltrated America. Furthermore, the beats investigation of psychedelic substances, including a trip to the Colombian Amazon to try Ayahausca - published as the book "The Yage Letters" by William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg - continues to influence the resurgence of worldwide interest in shamanism and the creative and sacred potential of altered states.

Rock music was also heavily influenced by the Beat generation, and in fact the generally rebellious nature of American counter-culture (now simply known as pop culture) owes much to this group of bohemians who were the first to break away from the "waking nightmare" of the American Dream.

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