The Beat Generation… cultural catastrophe. By Roger Kimball

We’ll get you through your children.” —Allen Ginsberg, 1958

The core of the heresy of the Free Spirit lay in the adept’s attitude towards himself: he believed that he had attained a perfection so absolute that he was incapable of sin. Disclaiming book-learning and theological subtleties, they rejoiced in direct knowledge of God- indeed, they felt themselves united with the divine essence in a most intimate union. And this in turn liberated them from all restraints.

Every impulse was experienced as a divine command; now they could surround themselves with worldly possessions … now, too, they could lie or steal or fornicate without qualms of conscience. For since inwardly the soul was wholly absorbed into God, external acts were of no account. —(Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium, 1957)

A toxic cultural movement In November 1995, an exhibition called “Beat Culture and the New America: 1950-1965” opened at The Whitney Museum of American Art. Considered as an art exhibition, this traveling melange of some two hundred objects hardly existed. In more ways than one, walking through the exhibition was like touring a junk shop. Forgettable and justly forgotten paintings, sculptures, and films were intermixed with innumerable books, photographs, magazines, and other literary detritus, all scattered about the Whitney’s exhibition spaces while the drug-inspired jazz of Miles Davis droned on in the background:
that is what “Beat Culture and the New America” had to offer.

The two or three objects of even minimal aesthetic accomplishment on view—some paintings by Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline —were not products of the Beat sensibility at all but merely happened to be created at the same time that the Beats got going. Although aesthetically nugatory, “Beat Culture and the New America” was an exhibition of considerable significance—but not in quite the way that Lisa Phillips, its curator, intended.

Casting a retrospective glance at the sordid world of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and other Beat icons, the exhibition unwittingly furnished a kind of pathologist’s report on one of the most toxic cultural movements in American history. In this sense, at least, the Whitney deserved our gratitude for sponsoring “Beat Culture.” The romance that has surrounded the Beat generation since the mid-Sixties has acted as a kind of sentimental glaze, obscuring its fundamentally nihilistic impulse under a heap of bogus rhetoric about liberation, spontaneity, and “startling oases of creativity.”

Notwithstanding their recent media make-over, the Beats were not Promethean iconoclasts. They were drug-abusing sexual predators and infantilized narcissists whose shamelessness helped dupe a confused and gullible public into believing that their utterances were works of genius. We have to thank Lisa Phillips and the Whitney for inadvertently reminding us of this with such vividness.

Fueling the Cultural Catastrophe

If nothing else, “Beat Culture and the New America” showed that the Beats were not simply artistic charlatans; they were—and, in the case of those who are still with us, they remain—moral simpletons whose destructive influence helped fuel the cultural catastrophe with which we are now living. Not, of course, that the folks at the Whitney saw it this way. But then the Whitney Museum has long been a splendid example of cultural breakdown.

In his foreword to the catalogue, David Ross, at that time the Whitney’s director, complained that the “depth and seriousness of Beat culture” was insufficiently appreciated by many postwar journalists, whose “reactionary” response led them to dismiss the Beats as “loony beret-wearing weirdos, conspiratorial communists, amoral homosexuals, filthy drug-addicted hipsters, or merely pathetic wannabe artists.”

One nice thing about David Ross was his predictability. On the subject of Beat culture, one knew in advance that he would deplore “McCarthyism” and the Fifties generally, and that he would then trot out a number of clichés about race-class-gender, ending with a flourish about the importance of federal funding for the arts. And right on cue he told us that the Beats suffered from “politicians looking for convenient scapegoats,” that they “opened up a closed-down culture,” and that later “artists struggling with their emerging sexual identities found the Beat world a nurturing place, where desire could be freely expressed and pleasure openly extolled.” Finally, he registered his relief that he can “still cite the National Endowment for the Arts as a public champion of important exhibitions such as this once.”

Mainstream Icons

Lisa Phillips sang a similar song, but waxed even more lyrical. In “Beat Culture: America Revisioned,” her essay for the catalogue, Phillips spoke of the “enduring achievement” and “now legendary literary accomplishments” of the Beats, whose “vanguard and antimaterialist” stance set them against the “conformity and consensus of official culture” and the “smug optimism of the Eisenhower years.” In one remarkable passage, she explains how during the Cold War, in the aftermath of World War II, a new generation emerged in America, known as the Beat generation. Disillusioned with the progress of science and Western technocracy, the Beats embarked on a quest for a new set of values out of which to build a new faith, [and] a new tribal ethic was born. Although once rejected by mainstream society as outlaws, rebels, and morally dangerous, today the Beats are recognized as icons of America’s counterculture and as one of the most influential cultural movements of the century.

Their literary works, which aroused great controversy and academic disdain when first published in the fifties, are now part of the canon of American literature taught in universities around the country.

Their archives are selling for vast sums, … and first editions of their books are highly sought after. Perhaps most important, the Beats continue to inspire younger generations of artists with their directness, courage, and intensity of vision. There is a great deal one could say about this paragraph, beginning with that supposed disillusionment with “the progress of science and Western technocracy”

Er, Like Hipocrite, Man

The Beats regularly denounced (in the words of that proto-Beat, Henry Miller) the “air-conditioned nightmare,” but they freely availed themselves of the fruits of modern science and technology—electricity, jet travel, penicillin, not to mention other drugs. Nevertheless, there is one frighteningly accurate statement in Phillips’s inventory: namely, that the Beats “are now part of the canon of American literature taught in universities around the country.”

As she later observed, “the Beat rebellion gave form to an invisible turning point in American culture at mid-century.” David Ross and Lisa Phillips celebrated this development as a giant step forward for freedom and creativity. In fact, the institutionalization of the Beat ethic has been a moral, aesthetic, and intellectual disaster of the first order. (It has also been a disaster for fashion and manners, but that is a separate subject.)

We owe to the 1960s the ultimate institutionalization of immoralist radicalism: the institutionalization of drugs, pseudo-spirituality, promiscuous sex, virulent anti-Americanism, naïve anti-capitalism, and the precipitous decline of artistic and intellectual standards. But the 1960s and 1970s only codified and extended into the middle class the radical spirit of the Beats, who, in more normal times, would have remained what they were in the beginning: members of a fringe movement that provided stand-up comics with material.

Looking back on it now, it seems peculiarly appropriate that the only real job that the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg ever had—for more than a few weeks, anyway—was in market research. He clearly had a tremendous gift in that direction. For although he later ridiculed his time on Madison Avenue (“We spent $150,000 to learn that most people didn’t want furry teeth,” he scoffed)—as indeed he ridiculed every other aspect of middle-class, bourgeois life—his own career as a poet and spiritual guru depended crucially on his talent as a tireless self-promoter. It was the one talent, in fact, that he indisputably possessed in great abundance.

Readers only vaguely familiar with Ginsberg’s life and work will doubtless find this surprising. When he died at seventy of liver cancer in April 1997, Allen Ginsberg was almost universally celebrated as a major literary figure—and one who, moreover, exercised a benign if sometimes “controversial” influence on the cultural and ethical life of his times. A smiling, sybaritic hippie, lost in clouds of incense and marijuana, chanting mantras, seducing young men, he disparaged the United States while preaching nonviolence and love, and taking off his clothes in public at every opportunity.


Among other things, Ginsberg was an active supporter of the North American Man Boy Love Alliance (NAMBLA), an organization devoted to encouraging homosexual pedophilia: “I don’t know exactly how to define what’s underage,” Ginsberg once said—adding that he himself “had never made it with anyone under fifteen.”

It says a lot about our culture—or perhaps it is one more testimony to Ginsberg’s marketing skills—that such a man should be exalted by the mainstream press as a beneficent or at least harmlessly amusing presence.

As Norman Podhoretz noted in his recent memoir, “in later life, Ginsberg would adopt a sweet and gentle persona, but there was nothing either sweet or gentle about the Allen Ginsberg” of the late 1940s and early 1950s. The few dissenting voices at the time of his death were drowned out in a chorus—one might say a “Howl,” after Ginsberg’s best-known poem—of fulsome eulogy. In a front-page obituary, The New York Times hailed Ginsberg as “the poet laureate of the Beat Generation,” “one of America’s most celebrated poets,” whose “irrepressible personality … provided a bridge between the Underground and the Transcendental.”

An hour-long PBS television documentary paraded a long list of luminaries, from Joan Baez to Norman Mailer, to extol his “courage,” his literary and spiritual daring, and (a favorite epithet) his “gentleness.” Not to be outdone, the well-known poetry critic and Harvard professor Helen Vendler wrote in the September-October 1997 issue of Harvard Magazine about Ginsberg’s “great gifts to world culture,” “the moral base of his poetry,” and her “own profound gratitude for his work and the life out of which it came.” (“He allowed me my own rage, social criticism, and coarseness,” she claimed, no doubt correctly.)


Ginsberg’s friend William S. Burroughs, II, Beat novelist and sometime heroin addict, whose paternal grandfather invented the adding machine, got a similarly enthusiastic send-off when he died at eighty-three in August 1997. No one spoke of his “gentleness,” of course. “Gentleness” was definitely not part of Burroughs’s reputation as the author of Junkie, Naked Lunch, and other surrealistic hymns to violence, drug abuse, and extreme sexual degradation. “Bill was never keen on the love-and-peace side of the sixties,” one fan noted. “The only way I’d like to see a policeman given a flower,” Burroughs sneered, “is in a flowerpot from a high window.” The first line of the obituary that appeared in The Village Voice summed up Burroughs: “Addict, killer, pederast.” Even so, a memorialist in New York magazine assured readers that, whatever his pathologies and fondness for guns, Burroughs was really “a sweet, funny, and lonely man. Just lovely.” And naturally there were plenty of encomia to Burroughs’s “courage,” “candor,” and “strange genius,” his exalted place (in the words of the Los Angeles Times) as “a seminal figure of the Beat Generation.” “Seminal” indeed: “He spent years experimenting with drugs as well as with sex” The New York Times cheerfully reported, “which he engaged in with men, women, and children…

Burroughs’s even creepier world, marked by paranoia and unrelieved sordidness, has left a number of individual casualties we know about quite well. It would be difficult to overstate the loathsomeness of Burroughs’s opinions. Asked about Christianity, he said: “I’m violently anti-Christian. It was the worst disaster that ever occurred on a disaster-prone planet, the most virulent spiritual poison. … Fundamentalists are dangerous lunatics. There’s really no place for them in an over-crowded life boat. They’re a menace.” Burroughs apparently thought women were a menace, too. He once advised Peter Orlovsky, Ginsberg’s boyfriend, to “take a tip from me, kid, and steer clear of’em. They got poison dripping all over ’em.” In an interview from 1969, Burroughs explained that “I think love is a virus. I think love is a con put down by the female sex. I don’t think it’s a solution to anything…. I think they [women] were a basic mistake, and the whole dualistic universe evolved from this error.”

Ginsberg recalled that Burroughs, in a fit of paranoia, believed that women were extraterrestrial agents and that “maybe you had to exterminate all the women, or get rid of them one way or another. Evolve some sort of male that could give birth by parthenogenesis.” Barry Miles claims that Burroughs later “modified” his feelings about women. Perhaps he did.

In any event, in 1951 Burroughs was living in Mexico with his wife, Joan, and the young son he had fathered. Unable to procure her favorite amphetamines, Joan was drinking a quart of tequila a day—which, Burroughs’s biographer tells us, cost four cents, “the cost of a boy,” whose services Burroughs availed himself of regularly. Burroughs’s drug of choice at the time seems to have been yage (a hallucinogen that Ginsberg indulged in frequently as well). He was also drinking heavily.

William Tell…and Joan

One afternoon, he and Joan were very drunk at a friend’s apartment.

“Bill opened his travel bag,” Miles recounts in his biography, “and pulled out the gun.” Burroughs then said, “It’s about time for our William Tell act. Put a glass on your head.” They had never performed a William Tell act before but Joan, who was also very drunk, laughed and balanced a six-ounce water glass on her head. Bill fired. Joan slumped in her chair and the glass fell to the floor, undamaged. The bullet had entered Joan’s brain at the temple. She was pronounced dead on arrival at Red Cross Hospital.

Burroughs jumped bail and fled Mexico rather than stand trial. He later said that it was his wife’s death that made him a writer, forcing him into “a lifelong struggle, in which I have no choice except to write myself out.” Another choice might have been to lead a responsible life and take care of the son he had fathered and the daughter he had inherited from his wife’s previous marriage. But Burroughs abandoned them both to other family members.

His son survived until 1981, when he finally managed to drink himself to death at the age of thirty-three. Burroughs claimed to have felt badly about that, too. There is not much to be said about Burroughs’s writing. It consists of semiliterate ravings by a very sick mind, a kaleidoscope of surrealistic depictions of drug-taking, violent, often misogynistic fantasy, and sexual depravity.

The enthusiastic praise that Ginsberg and Burroughs elicited on the occasion of their deaths was not just valedictory piffle, white lies that surround the dead like a second shroud. During his lifetime, Ginsberg was showered with just about every literary award and honor it was possible to win, short of the Nobel Prize, including the National Book Award, election to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, even, in 1993, the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres. This enemy of “materialism” and the corporate culture of “Amerika” had his eight-hundred-page Collected Poems published by Harper & Row (now HarperCollins) and received more than one million dollars for his papers from Stanford University.

Burroughs, who lacked Ginsberg’s charm and craving for publicity, did not prosper to the same extent. As an heir to a fortune built by American ingenuity, he didn’t need to. But Burroughs, too, lived to see himself lionized, both as an important literary figure and as a hero and role model for countless rock musicians, from The Beatles to David Bowie.

Having begun as outlaws from the establishment, literary and otherwise, Ginsberg and Burroughs were taken up by a grateful academic establishment desperate to play a role in the countercultural carnival. Innumerable papers, monographs, and dissertations have appeared to praise and interpret their works, and both men were the subject of fawning biographies in the early 1990s…

Although predominantly heterosexual, Kerouac also had sex with Ginsberg and Burroughs (who in turn had sex with each other).

… For all of them, sex functioned chiefly as a prop to wounded narcissism. For Ginsberg and especially for Burroughs, this transformed sex into an obsessive, predatory activity in which an endless stream of “partners” —male or female, young or old-became little more than discardable accessories to masturbation and fantasies of absolute transcendence. Kerouac’s insecurities hobbled this aspect of his narcissism, making him somewhat less promiscuous but also distinctly more helpless than Ginsberg or Burroughs.

Jack Kerouac

The third celebrated member of the Beat triumvirate was Jack Kerouac. It was he who coined the phrase “Beat Generation,” and who, one is reminded again and again in the literature about the Beats, suggested the title of Naked Lunch to Burroughs. Kerouac managed to drink himself to death in 1969 at the age of forty-seven.

Consequently, he missed out on a lot of what we might call the pre-posthumous adulation showered on his friends Ginsberg and Burroughs when the culture caught up with their radicalism in the 1970s. Moreover, Kerouac became an increasingly problematic figure for fans of the counterculture: by the end of his life he had returned to the Roman Catholic faith, espoused conservative political views, and supported the war in Vietnam.

Nevertheless Kerouac, too, was subsequently lionized by the establishment he once affected to scorn. Not only are all (or virtually all) his works still in print, but Viking recently honored him with a fat Portable Jack Kerouac, a tribute once reserved for genuinely accomplished writers. There is a scholarly edition of his letters from 1940-1956 (with no doubt more to come) and a special fortieth-anniversary reissue of Kerouac’s most famous book, On the Road, first published in 1957. There are also the usual academic studies and at least one star-struck biography His home city of Lowell, Massachusetts, even saw fit to name a new park after him in 1987.

About the Beats generally, an “Appreciation” of Burroughs in The Washington Post admirably summed up the current state of received opinion. The obituarist quotes from a book of Burroughs’s dreams: “I attend a party and dinner at Columbia. Allen Ginsberg is there and rich. He has founded some sort of church.” The obituarist comments: “This was no dream; this was reality…. [Today,] the church of the Beats is stronger than ever, unquestionably the most significant literary congregation in America since the Lost Generation of Hemingway and Fitzgerald.”

fromThe Long March: How the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s Changed America” by Roger Kimball, Encounter Books; First PB Edition, First Printing (June 1, 2001)

— See also, The Beatles A Reappraisal.

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