The Beats were, in many ways, an international literary movement. Although in defining the Beat Generation, we tend to look at a core of three writers, expanding out to include others like Gregory Corso and “second generation Beats” like Diane di Prima, and they are all American. Sure, there were British artists inspired by the Beats, and India’s Hungry Generation, and all across the world youths writing poetry like Ginsberg… but in the end, the Beat Generation was an American movement. Only it wasn’t purely American: it was a bunch of Americans inspired by the outside world.
The Beats looked out from Post-War America at a big wide world and they took influence from it and sought refuge in it. Although the Beat Generation eventually spread their own gospel to the world, with kids reading Kerouac even as far away as China, initially it was the world that inspired these young writers. From Europe the Romantic poets and Renaissance artists provided inspiration, and from Asia came ancient and mysterious wisdom. Eventually, when curiosity drove the Beats to explore, they looked back upon their homeland with eyes now fully open. It gave them a valuable new perspective on America. For more on this topic, see John Tytell’s Beat Transnationalism.
Allen Ginsberg was by far the best-travelled of the Beats, visiting more than sixty countries, yet he was not the first to take off for parts unknown. In fact, his later world wanderings were heavily influenced by his older friends. William S. Burroughs and Lawrence Ferlinghetti had seen much of the world a decade both Allen ever set off. Somehow, Jack Kerouac became the symbol for youthful wanderlust, although his journeys were never as extensive as the others, and in fact he often got homesick. Gregory Corso, Alan Ansen, Ted Joans, Amiri Baraka, Joanne Kyger… for all of them, travel was incredibly significant.
Let’s take a look at some important travel destinations for the Beat Generation:
Tangier, now a part of Morocco, was once an international zone governed by various nations. It was a place where laws existed but weren’t enforced very strictly. You could buy drugs easily, as well as prostitutes. Young male prostitutes were in particular abundance, making it a haven for gay writers like William S. Burroughs. Paul Bowles had been living there long before the Beats ever set their eyes on the city, and acted as a sort of father-figure to the younger writers who passed through. Allen Ginsberg spent time in Tangier in 1957 and 1961, and returned for a final, nostalgic trip in 1991. The first two visits were longer stays to visit Burroughs, who had chosen Tangier as his home for much of the fifties. Jack Kerouac also stopped by for a visit, helping Burroughs piece together the chaotic manuscript that eventually became Naked Lunch. Other Beat writers who visited Tangier were Corso, Ferlinghetti, Peter Orlovsky, Philip Lamantia, John Giorno, and Ted Joans.
Although many of the Beat writers visited Tangier, it was only really of significance in the writing of William S. Burroughs. It was Mexico that was the truly important Beat destination. For a start, its proximity to the United States made travel there rather easy. One could just hop a bus or drive a car over the border and explore the country to the south. Yet getting to Tangier required a long boat journey across the Atlantic Ocean. Ginsberg once told John Tytell “that [he] would never fully understand the members of [Ginsberg’s] generation until [he] first experienced Mexico.” It was in Mexico that Ginsberg developed the poetic voice necessary to write “Howl”. It was Mexico where Kerouac wrote Mexico City Blues and where Burroughs shot Joan and then turned to writing as a form of recovery. Just about every Beat and post-Beat writer made some sort of trip south of the border, taking advantage of Mexico’s plentiful supplies of drugs, tequila, and prostitutes, as well as, of course, drinking in the scenery, the culture, and the history. Ginsberg in particular was enamored of the ancient ruins he found there, and spent months pretending to be an archaeologist.
In the 1960s, travelling to India became a sort of hippie rite of passage. The Beatles did it; even Steve Jobs did it. Yet in 1965, at the tail end of a massive, multi-year world tour, Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky trekked through the vast subcontinent. For Allen, this was probably the most important time in his life, and he was never the same afterwards. On his way home (a trip that took him through Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Japan, and Canada) he wrote a poem called “The Change” that expressed just how important his Indian experience had been. The bearded, bead-wearing, peace-and-love Allen of the sixties, who was seen chanting OMMMM at peace rallies was born in India that year, after countless meetings with holy men… including even the Dalai Lama. But it was not just Ginsberg. Orlovsky was there with him, and they travelled for a few months with Gary Snyder and Joanne Kyger. Anne Waldman visited later, too.
The capital of France is better associated with the Lost Generation than the Beat Generation, yet its literary allure proved too much for the Beats to resist, and it was visited by pretty much all the Beat writers. Most famously, the Beat Hotel was home to Burroughs, Ginsberg, Corso, and others. There was also the Mistral Bookshop, owned by George Whitman, where writers with nowhere to stay and no money to eat could sleep over for free. Most of the visiting Beats took advantage of Whitman’s hospitality at some point. Burroughs wrote and published some of his greatest work in Paris, and Ginsberg began writing “Kaddish” here. Corso spent longer in Paris than any other Beat writer, and Ferlinghetti probably visited earliest, while Kerouac visited just twice. Many other important Beat-affiliated writers and publishers lived or worked in Paris at some point, including Brion Gysin, Maurice Girodias, Carl Solomon, and Harold Norse.