The Beat Generation: Parents of the Flower Child

Written by  //  September 27, 2010  //  Media & Popular Culture  //  4 Comments

After a perceptive insight on Dabangg, a seamless switch to the Beat Generation and the meaning of freedom, by Shreyas Rajagopal.

The 1960s was a whirlpool of ideas – frenzied and frothing as a new world order seemed to take shape in front of the very eyes of the men and women caught in it.

The only parallel in our experience (assuming most of the audience here is in the 20-30 age group) is the dissemination of the internet and the subsequent grassroot democratisation of information. For something that seemingly “boomed” a decade ago, only now are we seeing this promise somewhat delivered. It is easy for us to contrast the before and after images of education, business, entertainment and social interaction.  This is the Information Revolution and we are still in the middle of it watching it change the world around us.

The similar idea revolution occurred in the 1960s America defining the entirety of American society and culture over the next 50 years, elements of which have trickled down and influenced societies all over the world. The decade went beyond simply Woodstock, eastern spiritual philosophy, Volkswagens and drug use. Inherent in all of these trends was a fundamental questioning of the status quo by an entire society which has not been repeated since.

In retrospect right wing media around the world have colored it to be simply “tantrums” of the first world elite. In a sense they are correct – this was primarily an “intellectual” revolution. They no longer had to fight to survive, so they could afford to fight for a better way to live

The seeds of the 1960s counterculture are hidden a decade before in a lesser known literary phenomenon called Beat. (link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beat_Generation ) Arising in turn as a reaction to the post-war conformist 1940s and 1950s USA – Beat literature incorporated sex (both homosexual and heterosexual), recreational drug use, rampant hedonism with a largeness of spirit and an insatiable hunger for life.

To talk about the Beat is to talk about the Beatniks.

The principal Beat writers were – Allan Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs. They were part of an extended circle of artists and hobos focussed on pushing their own lives far out the boundaries of conventional living. It was primarily a lifestyle movement (much like the 1960s hippie movement it spawned) which then showed expression in their work.

In many senses, the Beat movement was a sentimental throwback to the pioneering spirit of early America. To the freedom of having no set road but an entire horizon to explore. These same dreamers, these same adventurers, this grand spirit which built their country no longer had a place in it. It was too large, too spontaneous, too alive to be controlled in any form and thus was relegated to the edges of polite society.

One man above all embodied this pioneering spirit –  Neal Cassady.

Though himself not amongst the creative members of the Beat, he was a muse to all of them and an influence to the whole movement. He is the “secret hero” of all their work and is immortalised in stories by Tom Wolfe, Jack Kerouac, Ken Kesey and even a Grateful Dead song.

Kerouac writes about Neal Cassady, and thus the Beatnik, in On The Road:

“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow Roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars, and in the middle, you see the blue center-light pop, and everybody goes ahh..”

This same maddening energy is seen and revered in Allan Ginsberg’s epic poem Howl – (link: http://sprayberry.tripod.com/poems/howl.txt). Howl was written and performed by Ginsberg in 1955 and over the next 5 decades is recognised as a cultural tour-de-force and perhaps the most important poem of the 20th century.

Describing how the Beatniks saw themselves: the opening lines are included below:

“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix;
Angel-headed
hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection
to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night”

The ideas expressed by the Beatniks were revolutionary in their time – many works were banned giving ways to now landmark obscenity and censorship trials. Their ideas found places in all writings, poetry, music and other art over the next decades forming the intellectual bedrock – the foundation for the Hippie Movement. They were the parents of the flower children.

They redefined what it meant to be culturally significant.

More importantly they questioned what it meant to be free.

4 Comments on "The Beat Generation: Parents of the Flower Child"

  1. Anirudh Wadhwa October 1, 2010 at 1:20 pm ·

    Shreyas, this is an excellent and thought provoking post. You can add the name of Gregory Corso (described as the “D’Artagnan”) with the three primary Beat writers (Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs) .
    On another note I find some contradictions in this movement particularly interesting – while the Beats represented an anti-establishment culture, their origins can be traced to the highly academic environs of Columbia University. Also for a movement that has grandly defined a “generation” there has typically been very little mention about women of this group.

  2. Shreyas October 1, 2010 at 2:18 pm ·

    I agree on his inclusion – his not being here was a bit of an oversight since I am not yet personally familiar with his work.

    The Beats came from decent backgrounds and their more spontaneous living was always a lifestyle choice… and also the rejection of establishment came from the inside.

    The women are not in the conventional limelight – in fact I remember reading phenomenal graphic novel specially mentioning some of the luminaries. But yes, this does seem male dominated.

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