There are various superficial connections between Elvis Presley and the writers of the Beat Generation. Although he was much younger than his Beat peers, his sudden rise to fame occurred at around the same time. He signed his first management contract in 1955, the year that Ginsberg first read “Howl” and then shot to number #1 in the charts in 1956, the year that Howl and Other Poems was published. In fact, as the Beats captivated the youth of America, giving rise to the Beatniks, Elvis was pretty much never out of the top ten. To the squares who looked on in horror, they must have seemed one and the same – a frightening challenge to middle-class conformity.


In 1959, Lawrence Lipton even wrote that Beat poetry readings were attended by “huge throngs of youngsters […] carrying on like Elvis Presley fans at a Rock and Roll binge, shouting, stamping, whistling, doing snake dances in the aisles.”[1] Both borrowed from (or appropriated) black culture, becoming infamous before fading away in the sixties, supplanted by a new generation of weirdos – the hippies. Steve Turner, in Angelheaded Hipster, noted that “Both Elvis Presley and Jack Kerouac lived long enough to be bemused by the social revolution which they had been credited in part with starting.”[2] Barry Miles has commented upon the similarities in their final years, saying that Kerouac went through his own “’fat Elvis’ period” and that they had similar diets.[3] One can even see similarities in the early deaths of Presley and Kerouac (42 and 47, respectively).

The purpose of this article, though, isn’t to draw obvious thematic or chronological connections. It is, rather, to look at what the Beats thought of Elvis, this cultural phenomenon whose career loosely paralleled that of the Beat Generation.

We shall start with Gregory Corso. The youngest of the Beats, he was closer than the others to Elvis and, despite his notorious acerbity, he was oddly enthusiastic about Elvis during the singer’s rapid ascent. In October 1956, he wrote to Randall Jarrell (who at that time occupied a position today equivalent to U.S. Poet Laureate) to write about a poetry reading he and Ginsberg had given. He wrote:

I wanted to cause rebellion. I wanted to wake them up, even if my song was impractical and somewhat silly. No wonder the youth of today has for their spokesmen Elvis Presley, James Dean. These two are of the generation, they are crying and fighting against all that youth is fighting. They are singing a song all youth understands. How sad it has to be a Presley or dead movie actor bringing all this out. It should be the poet.[4]

It seems, then, that Corso viewed Elvis as a brother-in-arms. Although there is a slight disparagement there, or at least a statement of belief in poetry as a higher calling than music, it seems that Corso has some respect for Elvis. Indeed, this is confirmed by Corso’s entry in i.e. several months later, which says:

Gregory Corso’s Cambridge friends will be glad to know that he has been giving ‘Elvis Presley type poetry readings’ in San Francisco and Los Angeles…[5]

Corso later said that he and Kerouac had watched Elvis’ infamous September 1956 performance on The Ed Sullivan Show. “We liked Elvis,” he said. “We identified with the sexual wiggling of his body.”[6]

Gerald Nicosia reports that “Jack and Gregory watched [Elvis] with great excitement.” He claims that “Jack and his friends applauded the giant crack the singer was making in the wall of fifties’ sexual and social hypocrisy.”[7] He was even able to leverage some of Presley’s lyrics to impress Helen Weaver, according to Nicosia.[8] Weaver, in her memoir, The Awakener, claimed “my real hero was Elvis,”[9] and recalls Kerouac buying his nephew Paul an Elvis record one Christmas.[10] Nicosia claims that Kerouac was “repelled” by Presley’s tough-guy image, which he saw as a hindrance to the wider acceptance of youth and countercultural values.[11] This makes sense, but Kerouac, “at the instigation of” Helen Weaver and another friend, was prompted to write a short piece called “America’s New Trinity of Love: Dean, Brando, Presley.”

Up to now the American Hero has always been on the defensive: he killed Indians and villains and beat up his rivals and surled. He has been good-looking but never compassionate except at odd moments and only in stock situations. Now the new American hero, as represented by the trinity of James Dean, Marlon Brando and Elvis Presley, is the image of compassion in itself. And this makes him more beautiful than ever. It is as though Christ and Buddha were about to come again with masculine love for the woman at last. All gone are the barriers of asceticism and the barriers of ancient anti-womanism that go deep into primitive religion. It is a Revolution of Love and it will become a Religion of Love.

What was most interesting to me was the fact that Kerouac wrote to his agent, Sterling Lord, prior to the publication of On the Road, suggesting that the book’s title be changed to capitalise upon Elvis’ success. “[M]aybe it would double the sales to change the title to Rock and Roll Road or at least to invent a similar subtitle.”[12]

(You can learn more about connections between Kerouac and Elvis here. There’s nothing about what either man thought of the other, but there are some interesting links.)

What of Allen Ginsberg? Robert Duncan once said that Ginsberg was the Elvis Presley of the Beat Generation[13] but Jonah Raskin writes that “Elvis Presley wasn’t his heartthrob—Elvis was too white and too Southern for Allen.”[14] Oddly, I cannot find any references to Elvis in Ginsberg’s letters, lectures, or interviews. In a 1968 interview, Michael Alrich noted that Elvis “revolutionized white music” but Ginsberg ignored this comment, moving the conversation on to how Kerouac had applied Charlie Parker’s musical stylings to his writing.[15] He says that Kerouac “does give credit there,” hinting that perhaps Ginsberg viewed Elvis as stealing from black musicians and Kerouac as being inspired by them.

While there does not appear to be any public statement by Ginsberg on the matter of Elvis, the singer is namechecked in several poems. Neither the poems nor the individual lines, however, are of much interest. The only other reference I can find is a memory by Victor Bockris of Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs briefly singing an unnamed Elvis song whilst spending time with Jean-Michel Basquiat.[16] That would be an interesting recording!

Connections between Burroughs and Elvis are even less obvious and I can find no examples of the former discussing the latter, but it is notable that in 1985 Burroughs collaborated with Gus Van Sant on an album called Burroughs: The Elvis of Letters.

I mentioned in the introduction that both the Beats and Elvis borrowed or appropriated from black culture, something that understandably did not escape Amiri Baraka’s notice. His poem, “In the Funk World” asks, “If Elvis Presley / is King / Who is James Brown, / God?”[17] Elvis pops up time and again in Baraka’s work. In one representative example, he refers to “Elvis Presley’s larcenous corporate clowning as ‘King’ of thieves.”[18]

Another Beat poet (well, a Beat-affiliated poet) who referenced Elvis was Lawrence Ferlinghetti. In “I Am Waiting,” he wrote:

I am seriously waiting

for Billy Graham and Elvis Presley

to exchange roles seriously

Joanne Kyger, meanwhile, made various references to Elvis in her Japan and India Journals. In Japan, she tries to read The Subterraneans and then goes to bed and dreams of Elvis.

One More: Hunter S. Thompson

Ok, so Hunter Thompson was definitely not a Beat writer. We all know that, but he was perhaps what we might term “post-Beat” or at least loosely affiliated as a countercultural figure of that era and a personal friend of Ginsberg. Besides, his comments on Elvis are too amusing to ignore…

As a young man, Thompson enlisted in the Air Force and was quickly appointed sports editor of the Command Courier, the base publication at Eglin AFB in Florida. Here, he attempted to turn the dull sports page into an exciting and witty collection of columns and reports. He made various efforts at disparaging Elvis, who was going through his first wave of popularity at the time.

On October 4th, 1956, Thompson wrote a piece called “Blame it on Elvis.” After describing the decline of baseball, he asked, “Then who can we blame it on? I cast my vote for Elvis Presley; if we can get enough people to blame him for the ruination of the National Pastime, maybe he’ll go away. Seriously, something has to be done about that man.”

Just a few weeks later, on October 25th, in yet another article ostensibly about sports, he quipped “if Elvis Presley can learn to make a fortune by yowling and bellowing into a microphone – then nothing is impossible.”

Perhaps he changed his mind about Elvis. He flip-flopped on Kerouac, as we explained in this article on HST and the Beats.

[1] Lipton, Lawrence, Holy Barbarians, p.193

[2] Turner, Steve, Angelheaded Hipster, p.17

[3] Miles, Barry, Jack Kerouac: King of the Beats, p.xiv; 217

[4] An Accidental Autobiography: The Selected Letters of Gregory Corso, p.12

[5] Qtd in Hemmer, Kurt, “My Bohemian Fling Is Over” in Beatdom #23, 2023, p. 109.

[6] Qtd in Gilmore, Mikal, Stories Done, p.19

[7] Nicosia, Gerald, Memory Babe, p.530

[8] Memory Babe, p.541

[9] Weaver, Helen, The Awakener, p.32

[10] The Awakener, p.73

[11] Memory Babe, p.530

[12] Qtd in Maher, Paul, I Am the Revolutionary: Young Jack Kerouac, p.480

[13] Baker, Deborah, A Blue Hand, p.52

[14] Raskin, Jonah, American Scream, p.126

[15] Spontaneous Mind: Selected Interviews 1958-1996, p.146

[16] Bockris, Victor, With William Burroughs: A Report from the Bunker, p.239

[17] Baraka, Amiri, S.O.S. Poems, unpaginated

[18] Baraka, Amiri, The LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader, p.571