Every generation has its own avant-garde movement, and the Beats were the avant-garde of the 1950s in the United States, providing an acerbic critique of what they believed was a bland, conformist, and frivolous society. The writers associated with the movement had a disproportionate influence for their numbers.
They worked outside traditional creative forms and behavior, placing immense value on personal freedom and spontaneity and viewing themselves as poets in a philistine nation. They used their immediate raw experience—sometimes drug fueled—as the basis for their writing, and used patterns of plain American speech but also adopted the rhythms of progressive jazz and bebop.
The movement began in 1945, when Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, students at Columbia University, met William S. Burroughs in New York City. The movement got its name from an article that John Clellon Brown, a novelist of the movement, wrote for the New York Times in 1952. In the article Brown talked of a “new vision” invented from the everyday surroundings of the writers that sustained their “perfect craving to believe” in the United States promise of freedom in the tense cold war years.
The movement made headlines in 1956 when Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a poet and the proprietor of San Francisco’s City Lights Bookstore, published Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems, which was promptly seized by a customs agent and became the basis for an obscenity trial.
Howl would sell 100,000 copies in the next 10 years. The same year, Kerouac’s On the Road, written in 1951 on teletype paper as a single 120-footlong paragraph, became a best seller. Burroughs published Naked Lunch in 1960. It had been impounded when published in serial form, but was declared not obscene a year later.
The Beat writers were not taken seriously by many outside observers. Critics in the print media—and there were many—called the group “beatniks,” a term created by San Francisco columnist Herb Caen, suggesting an unsavory connection to the Soviet Union’s shocking 1957 launch of Sputnik. Mainstream media portrayed them as hipsters and slackers: the men wearing goatees and sunglasses and carrying a book of poetry, the women with long straight hair and heavy eye makeup.
Although the principal figures of the movement had scattered by the early 1960s, Beat remained a fully realized subculture in urban areas like Greenwich Village and the Venice District of Los Angeles. In San Francisco, the Beat movement had left its haunts in North Beach and relocated to a multiracial working-class neighborhood farther west, called Haight-Ashbury, leading commentators to believe that the Beat ethos was responsible for the “hippie” movement of the late 1960s. The Beat movement did inform the politics of the New Left to a degree, and it can be credited with creating the atmosphere of freedom of expression in which the protest movements of the 1960s developed.