“The Beats conducted their lives in a state of counter-cultural experiment.” (Watson, p. 6). They expressed non-conformity within a society of the 1940s & 50s that was dedicated to conformity. They valued intense experience when most US citizens spent most of their waking hours at mundane work that was either corporate, industrial or domestic. They enacted iconoclastic creativity while most North Americans were fixated on copying their neighbors. Every period has its foil, its critics. Between the early 40s and the late 50s, that role belonged to the Beats.
Stephen Watson captures the excitement and ethos of that group. He follows their development from the first meetings among the central figures (the writers: Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac; as well as the inspirational icons: Neal Cassady, Herbert Huncke and Carl Solomon). Though these men generally ignored or exploited the women unfortunate enough to become attached to them, Watson does a superb job of presenting women’s voices, views and writings. After presenting relational development and first adventures (including collective epiphanies, sex, slumming, arrests, drug experiences and key events of communion), the author follows the evolution of chief writings. He chronicles the development of these works, with special attention to how the writers influenced each other. Watson understands of the importance of artists “circles” for support and inspiration. He continues with this theme throughout the book while the circle is struggling against a hostile mainstream, battling censorship and widening artistic community in New York and San Francisco. Finally, the author presents the disintegration of this group, resulting from a banal commercialization of the Beat image, combined with a natural disposition of the key writers to shy away from media-fueled straitjackets having little to do with individual expression.
Watson occasionally over-emphasizes the importance of the Beat Generation. He calls Allen Ginsberg the “most iconic figure” of “the Love Generation” during the 1960s, when there are too many contenders for that title. (Watson, p. 302). He credits Burroughs with the phrase “heavy metal” used to identify a rock genre, when Burroughs used the term to describe creatures in one of his books, not music, and the term had been in use for decades prior by physicists. (Watson, p. 307). Certainly, the Beats made valuable contributions. Their censorship trial victories are immeasurably important to the freedoms we have today. Their example of living and expression enriched our art, provided a precursor for later counter-cultural movements and made many yearn for greater personal freedom. Some on the periphery (and even in the center) of this circle were self-destructive, thieves, grifters, posers, hacks and parasites. But the constellation of individuals has, in general, made a lasting contribution.
Oddly, the book never discusses the relationship of the Beats to important events of their time. Monumental occurrences like World War II, McCarthyism, race relations and the Bomb, have little effect on the narrative. Some combination of the author lacking interest in the interplay between political events and the Beat world, or the Beats being too self-absorbed to care, seem to be at play. The exclusion of crucial historic occurrences is puzzling in a history.
Despite these flaws, The Birth of the Beat Generation does a fine job of presenting a group of artists and their circle. Watson is skillful at balancing the lively influential events of these people’s lives with the internal processes of creative individuals. He describes both elements with enthusiasm and vivid imagery. As a result, his work is both a portrait of the Beats in their age, as well as a representation of the outsider artistic dissent and creativity that innovates culture in every age.
Watson, Steven. The Birth of the Beat Generation. Visionaries, Rebels and Hipsters. 1944-1960. New York: Pantheon Books, 1998.