In the mid 1940s, a group of writers that would spawn one of the biggest cultural movements of the 20th century came together in New York City. Writing about drugs, homosexuality and alternative forms of spirituality, these Beat writers pushed the limits of what was socially acceptable in the conformist 40s and 50s.
The core group of these influential writers were Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady and William S. Burroughs.
Jack Kerouac was born Jean-Louis Kerouac on March 12, 1922 in Lowell, Massachusetts to French-Canadian parents, Léo-Alcide Kerouac and Gabrielle-Ange Lévesque.
As a young man, Kerouac won a football scholarship to Columbia University in New York, but soon dropped out. He started hanging around fellow Columbia students Allen Ginsberg and Lucien Carr in New York and soon met William S. Burroughs and Neal Cassady.
He spent much of the 50s roaming around the country, traveling from New York to San Francisco; these travels would become the inspiration for much of his work.
Kerouac coined the term ‘Beat Generation’ in 1948 during a conversation with fellow novelist John Clellon Holmes. It was a term used to describe a generation that was tired and beaten down, but also upbeat and beatific.
Although the novelist, poet and artist experienced little literary success during his lifetime, Kerouac is now considered one of America’s most important authors. His most famous novel, On the Road, was rejected for seven years, but was finally published in 1957, making Kerouac a Beat icon.
He died Oct. 21, 1969 at the age of 47 in St. Petersburg, Florida.
Kerouac’s works include, but are not limited to, The Town and the City, On the Road, Visions of Gerard, The Dharma Bums, Maggie, Cassidy, Big Sur, The Subterraneans, Satori in Paris, Doctor Sax, Lonesome Traveler, Desolation Angels, Pic, Tristessa, Visions of Cody, and Vanity of Duluoz.
Allen Ginsberg was born June 3, 1926 in Newark, New Jersey to Jewish parents Louis Ginsberg and Naomi Livergant.
After meeting Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady and William S. Burroughs, Ginsberg travelled to San Francisco, where he performed alongside other Beat writers like Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen at the now famous Six Gallery poetry reading in October, 1955. Ginsberg read his poem, Howl, a defiant critique of American culture, and immediately became an underground celebrity.
Around the same time, City Lights, a local bookstore, had just started its own publishing arm and released Ginsberg’s first book, Howl and Other Poems. Soon afterward, City Lights owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti was arrested on obscenity charges for selling the book, which portrayed homosexual content.
A judge would later rule that the book was not obscene, and the subsequent controversy would only fuel Ginsberg’s popularity and success. He is now said to be the greatest poet of the Beat movement and one of the most renowned American writers of the 20th century.
Throughout his career, Ginsberg continued to speak out publicly for such causes as drug liberalization and sexual freedom.
He died April 5, 1997 at the age of 70 in New York City.
Of Ginsberg’s extensive catalogue, his major works include Howl, America, A Supermarket in California, An Eastern Ballad, Sunflower Sutra, and Kaddish.
William S. Burroughs was born Feb. 5, 1914 in St. Louis, Missouri to Mortimer P. Burroughs and Laura Hammon Lee.
In the mid-1940s, Burroughs befriended Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac through Lucien Carr, a long-time family friend who had attended Columbia University with Ginsberg and Kerouac.
In 1959, Burroughs published Naked Lunch, which was completed after he was treated for drug addiction and is now revered as a modern classic.
Burroughs is said to be one of the most influential writers of the time. Much of his work was drawn from his experiences as a drug addict and, he said, motivated by a tragic event that involved Burroughs accidentally killing his wife, Joan Vollmer.
He died Aug. 2, 1997 at the age of 83 in Lawrence, Kansas.
Other works by Burroughs include Junkie, Queer, The Yage Letters, The Soft Machine, Nova Express, The Ticket that Exploded, Interzone, The Wild Boys, City of the Red Night, The Place of Dead Roads, and The Western Lands. In 2008, the manuscript And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, written by Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, was published for the first time.
Neal Cassady was born Feb. 8, 1926 in Salt Lake City, Utah to Maude Jean Scheuer and Neal Marshall Cassady.
When Cassady was 10, his mother passed away and he began to live on the streets of Denver, Colorado with his alcoholic father. He spent most of his youth on the streets or in reform school.
In 1947, Cassady moved to New York City, where he met Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg through Haldon Chase, a mutual friend who also attended Columbia University.
Cassady is said to be the real genius behind the Beat movement. He motivated and inspired Burroughs to write, Ginsberg dedicated his poem Howl to him, and he was the inspiration behind Kerouac’s On the Road.
He died Feb. 4, 1968 at the age of 41 in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Mexico.
Although he played a critical role in defining the Beat Generation, Cassady wasn’t considered one of the Beat writers, and only wrote a few things, including Pull My Daisy, a poem written with Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, and The First Third, his autobiography.
The most significant Beat writings include Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, and William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. Both Howl and Naked Lunch were thought to be too obscene for the public and went to trial. Both were eventually published, but the controversies spawned by each would help liberalize what could be legally published in the United States.