The Beat Generation was a social and literary movement of the 1950s, spearheaded by such esteemed writers and poets as Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and William S. Burroughs. The movement was a whirlwind of sex, drugs, and jazz, but at its core it was a philosophical rebellion against what the Beat writers saw as a lack of joy and purpose in modern society.
Both in prose and verse, the Beat writers sought to convey a new kind of immediacy in their work, in a search for enlightenment free from academic stuffiness and moral constraints. Needless to say, not everyone was happy about this. Many leaders of the movement clashed with authority figures and had runs-in with the law. But despite the controversy that often followed the Beat Generation, the movement had an enormous influence on American literature. It helped pave the way for more experimental writing, while at the same time inspiring a new generation of creators.
The influence of Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road, in particular, is hard to overstate. Not only did it embolden a whole generation of kids to take off and explore America and beyond, but it also inspired legendary artists such as Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, David Bowie, and Hunter S. Thompson. And while the movement faded with the onset of the 1960s, the voices of the Beats — wild, vibrant, and wise — live on to this day, in their novels, poems, letters, interviews, and famous quotes like these 12 below.
The Beat Generation, that was a vision that we had ... of a generation of crazy, illuminated hipsters suddenly rising and roaming America, serious, bumming and hitchhiking everywhere, ragged, beatific, beautiful in an ugly graceful new way…
— Jack Kerouac writing in "Esquire" in 1958. Kerouac picked up the term “beat” from writer Herbert Huncke, but it was Kerouac who developed the word, giving it multiple meanings including upbeat and beatific.
There is no intensity of love or feeling that does not involve the risk of crippling hurt. It is a duty to take this risk, to love and feel without defense or reserve.
― William S. Burroughs in a letter to Jack Kerouac. Burroughs was a major figure of the Beat Generation, most famous for his 1959 novel, "Naked Lunch."
Jack went to bed obscure and woke up famous.
— Joyce Johnson (Jack Kerouac’s then girlfriend) in a comment to a reporter after the success of "On the Road."
I do not wish to escape to myself, I wish to escape from myself. I wish to obliterate my consciousness and my knowledge of independent existence, my guilts, my secretiveness.
― Allen Ginsberg in a letter to Jack Kerouac. The two men wrote many letters to each other, in which they discussed their lives and their literary visions with passion and, at times, brutal honesty.
We are blind and live our blind lives out in blindness. Poets are damned but they are not blind, they see with the eyes of the angels.
― William Carlos Williams in his introduction to Allen Ginsberg’s seminal poem "Howl." Williams was a poet and a physician, and his work was an inspiration to the Beat Generation.
If you have a choice of two things and can't decide, take both.
— Gregory Corso, a Beat poet who was embraced by the movement after meeting Allen Ginsberg in a bar in Greenwich Village in 1950.
To rebel! That is the immediate objective of poets! We cannot wait and will not be held back by those individuals, who are the prisoners of the bourgeoisie, and who have not the courage to go on fighting in the name of the “idea!” The “poetic marvelous” and the “unconscious” are the true inspirers of rebels and poets!
— Philip Lamantia, an American poet who was involved with the Beat Generation and the U.S. Surrealist Movement.
In all of our memories no one had been so outspoken in poetry before — we had gone beyond a point of no return — and we were ready for it, for a point of no return... We wanted voice and we wanted vision.
— Michael McClure, recounting Allen Ginsberg’s first reading of "Howl" in 1955.
It’s more important to concentrate on what you want to say to yourself and your friends. Follow your inner moonlight; don’t hide the madness.
— Allen Ginsberg’s advice for aspiring writers.
The Beat literary movement came at exactly the right time and said something that millions of people of all nationalities all over the world were waiting to hear. You can't tell anybody anything he doesn't know already. The alienation, the restlessness, the dissatisfaction were already there waiting when Kerouac pointed out the road.
― William S. Burroughs
I have always held that when one writes, one should forget all rules, all literary styles, and other such pretensions as large words, lordly clauses… Rather, I think one should write, as nearly as possible, as if he were the first person on earth and was humbly and sincerely putting on paper that which he saw and experienced and loved and lost, what his passing thoughts were and his sorrows and desires.
— Neal Cassady in a letter to Jack Kerouac in 1947. Cassady was the inspiration for the character Dean Moriarty in "On the Road"; he also appeared in Allen Ginsberg's poems.
I got the idea for the spontaneous style of On the Road from seeing how good old Neal Cassady wrote his letters to me, all first person, fast, mad, confessional, completely serious, all detailed.
— Jack Kerouac in a 1968 interview with "The Paris Review."
Photo credit: Anthony Barboza/ Getty Images