A Literary Timeline That’ll Make You “Howl”
Let's look back at the how the bad boys of the Beat Era inspired a generation.
The scene: A group of radical, independent thinkers have gathered together in New York City to discuss new ideas and bond through their dedication to non-conformist ideals. They advocate for disestablishmentarianism and seek solace in spirituality and a life of sexual liberation.
No, we’re not describing the revival of the hippie-driven musical Hair, but rather a very real, wholly iconic literary renaissance known as the Beat Movement. Creative, spontaneous, and viewed by political conservatives of the time as entirely obscene, the Beat Generation brought a new, formerly unheard voice to the American literary scene, one that explored ideas of deviant literature and individualistic thinking.
When thinking of the radical, iconoclastic Beat Generation, names like Kerouac or Ginsberg often come to mind. Yet it wasn’t just the famed authors of On the Road and “Howl” who helped pioneer the movement and bring it to the forefront of American culture. In reality, there was a multitude of authors, works, and events that contributed to the movement’s success, providing essential layers and insight into the literary phenomenon.
So if you’re some cat who digs the bad boys of the Beat Generation as much as we do, then check out our time line of the era.
1939—45: World War II takes the nation by storm while evoking new ways of thinking and sparking countermovements.
1944: Famed Beat writer Lucien Carr gets tangled up in a murder trial and enlists the help of fellow writers William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, implicating his friends while simultaneously drawing them closer together.
1949: Allen Ginsberg is arrested for possession of marijuana, leading to an insanity plea and some time spent in prison—directly inspiring the work “Howl.”
1952: Proto-Beat writer Chandler Brossard publishes Who Walk in Darkness, widely recognized amongst the literary community as the first-ever Beat novel. Said to have influenced the works of Jack Kerouac and Philip Roth, Who Walk in Darkness tells the story of a group of young Bohemian-thinkers as they navigate New York City in the 1940s—not unlike real-life Bohemians Kerouac and Roth.
1955: The “San Francisco Renaissance” of the Beat Movement kicks off; here, Allen Ginsberg’s famed “Howl” is read for the first time aloud. Jack Kerouac is in attendance, but his overly-intoxicated state makes it impossible for him to read his work.
1957: Jack Kerouac releases On the Road, a piece arguably regarded today as the most famous Beat work of the movement. Kerouac’s 1957 piece reveals what it means to be a true “Beat” through the story of two men’s journey throughout the country. Also in 1957, Allen Ginsberg’s equally revered and notorious “Howl” is tried for obscenity. Because it’s found to have legitimate social value, the accusation is deemed invalid and the case proves a landmark decision on the topic of free speech.
1958: Kerouac publishes Dharma Bums, based on the author’s escapades in California and his relationship with Buddhism.
1959: William S. Burrough’s Naked Lunch is published, and it further emphasizes the Beat movement’s dedication to deconstructing literary form. The novel and its chapters, which consist of multiple loosely-connected vignettes, can be read in any order, as stated by Burroughs. Loosely based on the author’s own experiences, Naked Lunch takes place in varying locations and delves deeply into the world of addiction.
1966: Naked Lunch receives literary validation as its initial ban is reversed in the United States, once again highlighting the Beat movement’s positive influence on Americans’ right to free speech. Oftentimes regarded as the unofficial end to the Beat Movement’s prominence, Naked Lunch was deemed to be one of Time Magazine’s “100 Best English Language Novels from 1923-2005” and spawned a film of the same name in 1991.