The Beat Generation

The "San Francisco Renaissance" is the name given to a group of avant-garde poets active in San Francisco after the end of World War II. They shared a disdain for mainstream poetry, which at the time was largely based on traditional formalism. However, there was no single style that linked them together. Though there was no common political or aesthetic styles, the poets favored a modernist idea of innovation and experimentation. They often read together and were included in anthologies together. Those often associated with this "Renaissance" include Kenneth Rexroth, Madeline Gleason, William Everson and Jack Spicer. This open and innovative poetry scene attracted and influenced many of the Beat Generation.

Many of the most famous authors of the Beat movement can be traced to Columbia University and New York City. However by the mid 1950s much of the movement was based in San Francisco, specifically the North Beach district.

The post-war period experienced an unprecedented economic boom, along with this came disillusionment among certain young people. Society was being told that it could simply buy happiness. Some began to question the social structure, rampant materialism, capitalism, and sexual puritanism. This disillusionment was captured and expressed by a group of writers who came to be known as the Beats. The Beats were attracted to the raw and primitive. Though most of the well known writers were from middle-class backgrounds, many of their friends were lower-class drug addicts, thieves and the mentally unstable. While the rest of the country was being fed the story of perfect a television family with 2.5 children and a white picket fence the Beats were writing about drugs, sex, Eastern philosophy and jazz.

One of the most famous of the Beat poets was Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg's father was a poet, socialist and high school teacher and his mother was a communist who suffered from mental illness. His experiences with his mother's mental illness was the inspiration for some of his work, including his most famous poem, Howl. At one point Ginsberg himself spent eight months in a mental institutions to avoid going to jail for possession of stolen goods. Here he met the young writer Carl Solomon, to whom he later dedicated Howl. Other than the people and poets he met personally, Ginsberg's biggest influence would be Walt Whitman. Hearing a teacher read one of Whitman's works had a profound effect on Ginsberg. Ginsberg's famous poem "A Supermarket in California" is a homage to the Romantic poet.

In the 1950s Ginsberg ended up in San Francisco where he wrote Howl. Meant to be read aloud, the poem is a collection of observations and experiences, including drug use, sexual acts and criticisms of consumerism. Ginsberg was a homosexual and socialist at a time when both of those were considered subversive and openly wrote about both. On October, 1955 Ginsberg gave his groundbreaking reading of Howl at the six Gallery, a rundown experimental art gallery located on at 3119 Fillmore Street in San Francisco. The other poets at the reading were Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, and Philip Whalen along with Kenneth Rexroth. In attendance was Lawrence Ferlinghetti, owner of City Lights Bookstore and Publishers. In the following days Ferlinghetti contacted Ginsberg about publishing Howl.

In June 1957 City Lights was raided by the San Francisco police department and Ferlinghetti was charged with obscenity. The trial judge was a Sunday school teacher and a police magistrate, who at one point sentenced five shoplifters to watch the movie The Ten-Commandments. This seemed like the least favorable judge that Ferlinghetti could have landed. However, with the help of the ACLU the defense won the trial and created a new precedent for the First Amendment. The judge rules that "All ideas having even the slightest redeeming social importance" have protection from censorship.

The trial propelled Ginsberg and the rest of the Beat Generation to fame. Possibly the most famous piece of Beat literature is Jack Kerouac's On The Road, which was written in 1952, but not published until after the Howl obscenity trial. On The Road chronicles a series of road trips and adventures by characters based on real Beat figures. It is a document to the free-spiritedness and non-conformity seen in the Beat Generation.

While Kerouac did not live in San Francisco for an extended period of time, he did come and go often, staying with friends and visiting much of the West Coast. At one point he worked for the Southern Pacific railroad as a brakeman in San Francisco. Parts of his novel The Dharma Bums are based on his experiences in San Francisco and Berkeley.

The Beats were clearly counter-cultural and played an important influence on future generations, such as the hippies. They were at the forefront of free-speech issues and fighting against censorship. However the Beat movement was never primarily one of politics. One of the exceptions may have been Allen Ginsberg. He would spend the rest of his life supporting free-speech issues. At one point he was invited to visit Communist Cuba, but was arrested and soon kicked out for openly supporting homosexuality and drug use. He then went on to visit Czechoslovakia, where he was crowned king of the Mayday celebrations. However, the government began investigating him, stealing personal notebooks from his room and arresting him. He was soon expelled from that country for being an 'immoral menace'. He was an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam war and an activist for drug legalization. A lifelong supporter of leftist causes Ginsberg was one of the most political of the Beat Generation. Jack Kerouac on the other hand went from being an idol of youth rebellion to a Catholic conservative, supporting figures such as conservative commentator William F. Buckley while criticizing the hippy movement.

Before the 1950s were over the Beat Generation was being capitalized on. A term by San Francisco columnist Herb Caen which combined the words 'beat' and the name of the Russian satellite 'sputnik' came to represent a new youth based fashion 'beatnik'. Men and women reading poetry in berets and black turtlenecks. Tour busses would visit North Beach, showing off 'real beatniks'. One North Beach cafe hired a local artist to dress up in stereotypical beatnik fashion and sit next to the window, in hopes of attracting customers. As with many other cultural phenomenons, the Beat Generation was commodified.

There exist a number of places in San Francisco which have historical meaning to the Beat Generation. Larger than it was in the 1950s, City Lights Bookstore still exists at 261 Columbus Ave. right next door is Vesuvio Cafe, where many of the poets would come and write, including Ginsberg and Dylan Thomas. Between the two is Jack Kerouac Alley, officially named so by the city of San Francisco on January 25, 1988. Located at 540 Broadway is the Beat Museum, which is really half bookstore half Beat memorabilia. Across the bay in Berkeley, Caffe Mediterraneum, located at 2475 Telegraph Avenue, is said to be where Ginsberg wrote parts of Howl.