Dharma Bums

Dharma Bums The Beat Generation

In the years after World War II, the term "beat" - often used by poor, under-appreciated black Americans - was used to mean "beat down" or worn-out. But by 1949 the term had taken on a different connotation, and perhaps even a desirable one, as it became attached to a literary counter-cultural movement humbly rooted in four young men who met in New York in the early 1940s. This "core group" of Beat Generation writers - Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, and William S. Burroughs - would soon achieve renown in the United States and help redefine "beat" to mean, in spokesman Kerouac's words, "members of [a] generation that...espouse mystical detachment and relaxation of social and sexual tensions."

True to Kerouac's definition, the Beat Generation - which soon expanded to include such authors as Herbert Huncke, Gary Snyder, and Philip Whalen - certainly had strikingly liberal ideas, many of which were carried over into the 1960s "hippie" movement. According to Allen Ginsberg, they supported the legalization of drugs, sexual liberation, and anti-industrialism. They were staunchly opposed to censorship, which is unsurprising considering that both Ginsberg's "Howl" and Burroughs' Naked Lunch faced obscenity trials (both of which ultimately helped loosen censorship regulations in the United States at the time). In keeping with their carefree spirit, Beat Generation writers embraced jazz - a loose, improvisational form of music. Some, especially Gary Snyder, were proponents of Buddhism.

The Beat Generation's existence was further crystallized in 1957 when a newspaper columnist wrote that these "beat" writers were as "far out" as Sputnik. Borrowing the space shuttle's suffix, the writer coined the term "beatnik," which spread rapidly into popular usage. To some, the beatniks were lazy bums and communistic rabble-rousers, valuable only insofar as they could be satirized in magazines. But others admired the beatniks for the same reason that they are admired today: for their refreshingly simple and unencumbered understanding of existence. For better or worse, Kerouac's classic On the Road, among other works, has been unshakably immortalized in American culture.