What is Beat?

“Three writers does not a generation make.” — Gregory Corso

It’s tough to define the Beat Generation. Questions like “What is Beat?” and “Who were the Beats?” will all elicit different answers from different people, and there are numerous ways of looking at their legacy.

Some people will sometimes tell you that the Beat Generation was indeed a group of three: Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and William S. Burroughs. It may seem absurd to label three men as a generation unto themselves, but there’s more to it than that. Their work is taken as representative of the thoughts and style of their peers, as well as in a more extended net to encompass their whole generation.

Which then, of course, suggests that either the Beat Generation was purely a literary movement, or that it comprised of an entire generation of people, or the friends and colleagues of the three most famous Beats.

The most obvious answer is that the Beat Generation was simply a literary movement, and that Beats were writers who published stories during a certain time frame in history, on certain themes and with a certain style. But then these stories so often concerned the actions and thoughts of others who were not necessarily writers, but whom inspired and informed as more than mere muses.

If it was more than a literary movement and if we are to view the Beat Generation as a group of people then it limits us to time and events, rather than themes and styles. It rules out later writers and artists who are often called “Beat.” We are also forced into considering people who were privy to the action, but who didn’t necessarily consider themselves “Beat” or even part of “the New Vision,” but who simply kept in the same circles. If indeed the Beats were a generation, then in considering them we are considering millions of people who probably led lives diametrically opposed to those we consider “Beat”…

Therefore, perhaps it is most fitting to label as the Beat Generation a group of writers and thinkers surrounding Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs during the forties and fifties. The problem there, though, is that we are admitting that one could be Beat without having been a part of the Beat Generation by virtue of age or location.

Which then begs the question: What is Beat?

In 1945, young Kerouac and Ginsberg were heavily influenced by the Romantics, and began debating something called “the New Vision”, inspired by William Butler Yeats’ A Vision. At the time both Ginsberg and Kerouac were exploring new areas of literature and life, and began formulating some of the ideas that are now often associated with the Beat Generation.

Ginsberg described their point of view:

Everybody [is] lost in a dream world of their own making. That was the basis of the Beat Generation. That was the primary perception. The idea of transience of phenomenon – the poignant Kewpie-doll dearness of personages vanishing in time. Not a morbid interest in death but a realization of the mortal turn.

It seems that being Beat – even before the term was first used – meant being an outsider. It meant thinking differently and acting differently.

There are varying reports on the coining of the phrase “Beat Generation” but regardless of which story is accurate, the meaning of the word “Beat” is rarely debated. It was probably Herbert Huncke who first used the word “Beat” in the presence of Kerouac and co, and he used it to describe himself. He believed he was beat.

Huncke was an odd figure of curiosity and near worship for Kerouac’s Columbia group of friends and he was influential among them. His use of the word caught on, and came to describe these disaffected writers, artists, bohemians and criminals. These outsiders shared a sense of dissatisfaction with the world, yet strove not to change it, but to carve out their own little space in the face of a crushing conformity.

It then makes sense that being Beat was not necessarily a generational thing. There might have been a generation of Beats… but then there were generations before that were Beat, and generations since. We are today as much a Beat Generation as ever before, facing the same problems and looking always to the past for answers.

Perhaps Amiri Baraka said it best:

The so-called Beat Generation was a whole bunch of people, of all different nationalities, who came to the conclusion that society sucked.