The Beats don't have the greatest reputation today. Their movement can seem like a bunch of media hype. The term 'beatnik' labeled a generation and a time, and any label, 'beatnik' or 'hippie' or 'slacker,' is a phony generalization.
Also, the individual Beat writers, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, and many other writers and poets and associates, have plenty wrong with them. They include a high proportion of drug addicts, alcoholics, car thieves and petty vandals (look at Kerouac's 'The Subterraneans,' which shows the great writers we are supposed to revere entertaining themselves by stealing a pushcart and riding in it all over town). And not all their crimes were petty: both Lucien Carr and Burroughs committed manslaughter during their lives.
Their attitudes towards women were mostly revolting, and the list of Beat writers is shamefully homogenous by gender (a long way of saying they're all guys). Then there is the fact that Kerouac, late in his life, liked to shock people by displaying the bigoted attitude he'd inherited from his parents. He said things to offend blacks and Jews, and I don't tend to forgive that kind of thing easily. But Kerouac had fallen into a horrifying state of moral decline by this time, and since most of his hatred was directed at himself, it would be wrong to extract a few of his obnoxious remarks from their context and judge him too harshly by them. In fact, middle-age had left Kerouac an extremely unhappy and insecure person, and he used any ammunition he could to attack the friends he had left. Ginsberg, who grew older with all the dignity that Kerouac found none of, finally figured out a great way to respond when Kerouac tried to bait him for being a Jew: he would shut him up with obscene sexual remarks about the beloved Mother Kerouac.
While we're listing all the Beat writers' faults, let's not forget the fact that a lot of the actual writing, well ... as Beavis and Butthead would say, a lot of it sucked. Try chewing on some of Kerouac's books about his childhood in Lowell, for instance. Ugh. Like trying to masticate a piece of cardboard. (Shut up, Beavis, I said masticate.) Or try to find some reason other than sentimental tenderness or a nice picture on the cover to buy a recent volume of poetry by one of several legendary voices of the fifties and sixties who haven't broken any new ground since then.
So why do I like the Beats? Well, they stood for non-conformity, and that's the main thing. There's not much that all the Beats have in common, but this is one: they believed in shocking people and stirring things up, and they stormed and looted the impenetrable citadel of serious literature.
Through history, groups of artists and writers and musicians have created movements against conformity of thought. Think of the Renaissance artists of Florence calling for an end to the stifling influence of Christendom over fine art. Think of the 18th Century French philosophes turning upside down the tenets that Europeans had forever taken for granted, or of the Romantic poets, Byron and Shelley and Keats, rebelling against the conformity of pure reason. Or think of the French Impressionists in 1850's Paris, the group most similar to the Beats in my opinion, uniting to invent the Salon Des Refuses because the Salon kept rejecting their works.
By the early fifties, in fact, non-conformity was exploding all over the world. There were literary movements similar to the Beat movement in Europe, like the Angry Young Men in England or Jean-Paul Sartre's crowd of existentialists in Paris. In New York the Abstract Expressionist artists even shared a drinking spot, the Cedar Tavern in Greenwich Village, with the Beats. James Dean was in the movies, and Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley were on the radio. The Sixties were about to happen, and the Beats were the avant-garde, which means 'advance guard.'
That's my socio-historical reason for liking the Beats, but I also have a personal reason. I became interested in the Beats only a few years ago, after learning of their involvement with Buddhism, which I've been involved with much longer. I immediately liked the way they pursued enlightenment with no organized methodology, but simply and intuitively through confrontation with normalcy and openness to experience. Like the New England Transcendentalists of the previous century, the Beats represented an attempt to bring an Eastern spiritual consciousness to America. And in my opinion America badly needs an Eastern spiritual consciousness.
By reading the Beats, I remind myself to keep my mind open. When I attend a Ginsberg poetry reading, I remember how free we all are to express ourselves any way we want, and to be anything we want. Maybe these guys had faults; maybe even the Beats failed to be as open-minded and free-thinking as they should have been. But where they were closed-minded, like in their attitudes towards women, they were not being essentially Beat, if you view Beat-ness as an ideal. So I hold the ideal close to me and keep the reality at arm's distance. Hey, I have to do that with a lot of things in my life.
So that is why I like the Beats. Also they wrote a couple of cool stories and poems.
by Levi Asher