The Beat Generation, the Original Beats

Jack Kerouac was born Jean Louis Kerouac in 1922, in Lowell Massachusetts. He was a French Canadian and was raised Catholic. He adored his mother whom he called Memere. Jack was a football star in high school. Neal Cassidy was born in Denver Colorado in 1926 and was raised on skid row by his alcoholic father. He had stolen over 500 cars by his own account before he turned 19. Allen Ginsberg was born in 1926 in Patterson New Jersey. His father was a Jewish teacher, a socialist, and a published poet, and his mother was a communist nudist. William Buroughs was the grandson of the man who invented the Burroughs adding machine. He was born into the upper class and hit the streets looking for violence, drug addiction and crime. These were the Beats.

All four met in uptown Manhattan in the mid 1940’s. Kerouac and Ginsberg were enrolled in Columbia University. Burroughs influenced them both to write. Kerouac dropped out of Columbia, and Ginsberg was suspended. Ginsberg helped Kerouac publish his first novel, The Town and the City. Cassidy and Kerouac went on the road, headed to San Francisco, beginning the legendary journey. Burroughs had been in town investigating and living, the dark side of life. He hit the streets deliberately to become a drug addict and live a life of crime. This lifestyle and its attendant violence would occupy his writing for the rest of his life. Burroughs eventually went to Mexico where drugs were cheaper and easier to get, and ‘accidently’ shot his wife, while acting out William Tell. He then moved to Tangiers. Kerouac and Ginsberg visited him there, where he had been writing profusely, and helped him to type up the papers strewn about the floor. This became Naked Lunch, one of Burroughs most well known novels.

The 1950’s was the ‘On the Road’ period, for Kerouac, where he kept writing manuscripts, and kept getting denied. At the Six Gallery Poetry Reading in San Francisco in 1955, Ginsberg gave his legendary performance of ‘Howl’. Two years later On the Road was published. Soon after, all of Jacks manuscripts were published, but he did no more writing. As the 1960’s hit, Ginsberg and Leary were involved in a mutation of the Beat movement which had ended. It was now the hippie scene and LSD had replaced booze and Marijuana. Kerouac wanted nothing to do with this new incarnation, although it was popularly attributed to him. Kerouac stated “In actuality there was only a handful of real hip swinging cats and what there was vanished mighty swiftly during the Korean War, when a sinister new kind of efficiency appeared in America… the generation itself was short lived, and small in number.” In 1961 Lawrence Ferlinghetti let Kerouac use his cabin in Big Sur, California. Jack went there to return to nature, renounce alcohol, and relax. But nature crept in on him; he had a mental breakdown, and returned to the city to get drunk. Kerouac returned to his mother’s house to live the last eight years of his life. Neal Cassidy passes out in February 1968 on the side of a Mexican rail line, and dies days after. The next year in October, Jack died.

But as Kerouac is popularly and mistakenly recognized as the father of the beats, Ginsberg recognizes him as “the best of all of us”. Kerouac views Cassidy as the real hero and genius, Charles Bukowski views Ginsberg to be the best writer of the beats. In a strange way it was all encompassed with the birth and death of Burroughs who was all but absent for most of it, this is strange because he was looked at by his peers, as “the secret agent, the man behind the scenes”

Despite the beat stereotype, Kerouac was a political conservative and supported the Vietnam War, while Ginsberg spoke against the war, and for all oppressed people and minorities. The term beat came about as Herbert Hunke, a poet, thief, and a junkie, would say “Man I’m beat.” And it didn’t mean anything more than just that. Hunke was a guy who had nothing, but didn’t care. When Kerouac met Hunke, he saw an inner light in him, despite his situation. He understood that beat didn’t mean beaten, or worn out, worn down, and certainly not ready to give up. He found that it could mean worn out, but more importantly being blessed because of being worn a little. This meaning was in contrast to the initial appearance of one who is beat, and that although many view beat as being the opposite of a capitalistic, material addicted culture, Jack always put a positive, spiritual spin on its intended meaning, associating it with Buddhist and Catholic Beatitudes. In a 1948 interview with John Clellon Holmes, Holmes asked Kerouac to explain the term, to which Kerouac replied, “I guess you could say, we’re a beat generation.”

To discover the true beat values, we must start with Walt Whitman, some call him the first beat. Whitman was born on Long Island on May 31, 1819. Whitman was self taught and trained as a printer, later worked as a teacher and a journalist. Whitman published Leaves of Grass first in 1855. There would be seven more editions and a few other publications. With the outbreak of the Civil War, Whitman vowed to live a purged and cleansed life. He helped attend the wounded of the war and was much affected by the suffering. Whitman’s poems contain a love of nature, and compassion in which Whitman can be seen as quite the Buddhist.

Buddhism, and Zen, a Japanese offshoot based on Buddhism but quite different, were explored by the Beats, along with Whitman’s poetry. Buddhism states there are four noble truths;

life is suffering
suffering is caused by desire
to eliminate suffering, one must eliminate desire
to eliminate desire on must follow the noble eight fold path

On top of this, Zen also holds that there are three poisons to be aware of:


To remain relatively unattached to material things, to therefore not suffer for them or because of them, to not be deluded about your needs and wants, knowledge, skill abilities and desires, to affirm the importance and spirituality of living in harmony with nature, these were the incredible insights, and the ‘New Vision’, that Kerouac and Ginsberg were working towards. This is the true meaning of the Beat Generation. It has come around again in the current generation of Millennial’s, who in working for a living, want to know what’s in it for them, for their family, for their balanced life. Also, the work over the past thirty years in establishing the US Green Building Council, and all Green Building Councils in nations of the world, in changing how we manufacture, and build our indoor environments; The current legislation that is being passed in Europe over the regulation of chemical production and registration; and how several city governments in the US will now only allow Green Buildings to be built for their government buildings; these are all remnants, or returns to Buddhist, Zen, Whitman, and Beat values. And this new vision will continue, and expand.


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