The Beat poets were poets of the city. While several of the Beat writers, including Allen Ginsberg, wrote in the Romantic tradition, glorifying the natural world and pointing towards the redemption of creation and mankind apart from technological advancement, their context was decidedly urban. Ginsberg’s “Howl,” for example lamented the loss of natural innocence, yet did so in the context of the city, which both contributed to and sheltered this debauched life. Why did this connection exist?
Many factors, both artistic and social, were influential in establishing the urban context for the Beat poets. First, many of the Beat poets were sons of first or second generation American immigrants. These immigrant families flooded the Northeast United States in the nineteenth century and then again after World War II when Europe’s economy was in tatters. These immigrants came looking for jobs and better social conditions and many found their way to the factories and industrial centers of the region. Ginsberg’s family first moved to New York, then Newark and Patterson, New Jersey, the industrial silk production capital of the world. Jack Kerouac’s family ended up in Lowell, Massachusetts, the industrial center of New England during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. William S. Burroughs was originally from St. Louis where his parents owned businesses before attending Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Many children from immigrant families used the institutions of higher education to move up the social ladders of American culture and to enter the urban contexts in which many of these schools were found.
Another factor in the urbanization of literature, which the Beat poets personified in the middle of the twentieth century, was the general move of the middle and lower classes into cities and suburbs. For the first time in American history, more people began to live in cities than in rural farming environments. Urban areas like New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Denver saw an influx of people looking for work or for more opportunity in life than the rural farming context provided. Many of these were young people who saw no future in the farming industry that their parents had cultivated. Others simply saw the chance for social or intellectual mobility that their rural contexts could not provide.
This leads into one of the main factors in the urbanization of twentieth century literature, and that is the ability for artists and intellectuals to connect, network, and share in each other’s creative work. Until the growth of the city, such opportunities rarely existed for artists coming from lower or middle class backgrounds. Until then, artists and writers who lived and wrote in urban environments had largely been from the upper classes of American society - the sons or daughters of prominent business families or well known social or religious figures who could afford for their children to enter an artistic profession. The nineteenth century writer Henry James is one such example. James came from a prominent Boston family with deep ties in the Brahman culture of the day. He lived in Boston and wrote of the Brahman culture of that city. He was decidedly an urban writer.
The beginning of the twentieth century, marked by two great World Wars, saw much of the best in American literature remain rural. Faulkner wrote of Southern poverty and social crisis from his farm in Oxford, Mississippi. Hemingway, though famously a part of an ex-patriot cohort in Paris during the 1910’s, wrote much of his best known work in the context of the wilderness. Hemingway lived much of his later life secluded in Key West, Florida, a long way from a growing media industry that made him one of the most famous writers in America during his time. But many of these early twentieth century writers still held much in common with their nineteenth century forbears - namely they were often given the economic and social ability through their family to become artists without having to sacrifice their middle or upper class lifestyles. They felt no need to live in urban contexts unless this was where they were from originally.
This all changed with the Beat movement. Coming from lower and middle class backgrounds, the Beats gathered in cities like New York, San Francisco, and Denver largely because these places became a refuge for those seeking a lifestyle - artistic, sexual, social - that did not fit in their working class backgrounds. Many, like Ginsberg, were often ashamed for their families to see their writing, especially when it dealt with themes of sexuality or immorality that would not align with the religious or social values imparted to them from more conservative family members. For the first time, publishing became a way for an artist to support him or herself apart from family money. The cities - with their neighborhoods of outcasts, impoverished, and exiled - provided a place where these individuals could live lives with others like them. They could be free from the moral structures that they felt limited their expression. Jazz, for example, flourished in places like Harlem and Chicago’s South Side where it became a part of the African-American culture rejected by white middle class America. This refuge was also a result of the shifting of the focus on twentieth century literature away from the influence of sprawling Victorian social novels to a more personal and intimate literature. Only in the cities could these writers feel both isolated enough to write about such emotionally potent themes, yet connected enough to a community that would support their art.
This connection could be attributed to aspects of the cities themselves. It is notable for which cities became the epicenters of the Beat movement - New York, San Francisco, and Denver - and those which did not. One might argue that these cities were central to Beat literature because they provided the kind of structural environments that foster creativity and free expression. In her seminal work from 1961, The Life and Death of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs, a historian and visionary of city landscapes, argued that cities with high urban density that offered mixed use neighborhoods were more amenable to the arts, civic engagement and activism, political diversity, and racial acceptance. The difference between a city like Patterson, New Jersey, for example, and New York City was not only in the amount of people that each city supported but in the way that these cities were mapped out to support the people that lived within them. Patterson was an industrial town. It’s whole economic and social livelihood was dependent upon the industry that supplied the jobs to the families that kept the local economy running. If the industry left, so did the people, and such uniform purpose could never support the diversity and creativity that was needed for artistic expression. New York, on the other hand, was a dense city of neighborhoods. Those that lived in Greenwich Village, for instance would often work there, shop there, and hold their social connections within that neighborhood. For the Beats, cities that fostered this kind of economic and social connection were fertile ground for the free expression of internal emotion and activism that characterized the movement.
It is no coincidence, then, that the Beat writers first flocked to New York, then to San Francisco. Though many of these writers would return to more rural environments later in their careers, the genesis of their work would not have been possible without the the context of the city.