March 12 marks the birthday of poet and novelist Jack Kerouac, who was a leading figure in the literary movement known as the Beat Generation in the 1950's. The Beats, which included poet Allen Ginsberg and author William S. Burroughs, were iconoclastic writers, experimenting with form and depicting explicit subject matter such as sex, drugs, and hedonism, which made them highly controversial in their day. Forerunners of the counterculture movement of the 60's, the Beats have been widely read for decades and continue to influence the development of literature today. If you've yet to get into the novels and poetry produced by this band of literary rebels, here are a few selections to point you in the right direction:
On the Road, a semi-autobiographical novel about the road tripping adventures of Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, is definitely the place to start for anyone who wants to get to know the Beat Generation. The freewheeling, wild, and spontaneous style was shocking and revolutionary to many critics in 1957, and opinion over the book was sharply divided between praise and scorn. Today, Kerouac's novel is considered a classic of American fiction and the defining novel of the Beats.
If On the Road typifies Beat novels, then Allen Ginsberg's poem Howl (1955), a ferocious screed against the terrors of capitalism, war, and industrialized civilization, typifies Beat poetry. Howl was originally performed at the famous Six Gallery reading in San Francisco, a 1955 gathering that brought together Ginsberg and Kerouac with other future Beats Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, kicking off the Beat Generation movement and presaging the San Francisco Renaissance.
William S. Burroughs is known as the third major Beat alongside Kerouac and Ginsberg, and the 1959 novel Naked Lunch is his most acclaimed work. Told in a series of stories without narrative order, Naked Lunch narrates the exploits of William Lee (a fictionalized version of Burroughs, and also his pen name) a traveling drug addict. Like Howl, Naked Lunch was the subject of a high profile obscenity trial in Boston, where its ban was eventually repealed in a significant case that dealt a major blow to literary censorship.
Another semi-autobiographical Kerouac book, Big Sur follows Jack Duluoz, a famous author who slowly breaks down over the course of multiple visits to a friend's Big Sur cabin. The owner of the cabin, Lorenzo Monsanto, was based on real life figure Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the founder of City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco and the publisher of many volumes by Beat authors such as Allen Ginsberg, Bob Kaufman, and Gregory Corso.
Howl may be Allen Ginsberg's best known poem, but Kaddish (1959) is a masterpiece in its own right, with many scholars holding it equal to or even greater than Howl. Named for the traditional Jewish mourning prayer, Kaddish was inspired by the 1956 passing of Ginsberg's mother, who died after a long struggle with mental illness. The poem also explores Ginsberg's own estrangement from Judaism and his conflicted attitude towards religion, as well as his general meditations on life and death.
In addition to inspiring the character in Big Sur, Ferlinghetti was himself a published poet, and A Coney Island of the Mind is his most beloved volume. If you're looking for a volume of Beat poetry that's a little more off the beaten track, A Coney Island of the Mind showcases Ferlinghetti's unique voice and contains some of his most famous work, some of which was created for jazz accompaniment.
While this volume by Gary Snyder was published some time after the heyday of the Beat Generation, the poems collected here were originally published between 1956 and 1964, when Snyder was hobnobbing with Ginsberg and Kerouac in San Francisco in between trips to India and Japan. The Back Country, which is considered by some to be Snyder's masterpiece, was heavily inspired by Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, exemplifying the meld between Eastern and Western philosophy that was deeply valued by the Beats and later spiritual movements of the 1960's.
For another great volume of poetry by a member of the Beat Generation, check out Gasoline by Gregory Corso, which is available online at home with your library card along with The Vestal Lady on Brattle, his first book of poems. Corso was younger than the rest of the Beats, but he was an integral part of their inner circle through their travels from San Francisco to Paris to New York in the late 1950's.
Finally, check out this fictionalized account of Kerouac's friendship with Beat poet Gary Snyder, following them from parties and literary events in the city to hiking in the serene outdoors. The Dharma Bums frames this lifestyle as a Buddhist journey, in which the ultimate goal is inner peace; Kerouac's mystic exploration of consciousness had a big effect on the then-nascent hippie movement, which included Kerouac's close friend Neal Cassady, the inspiration for Dean Moriarty from On the Road.
To learn more about the Beat Generation and Jack Kerouac, look at the finding aid for our Jack Kerouac Archive online. If you want to visit the archive for research purposes, you can learn about access procedures for our special collections here.