ESSENTIAL SOCIAL AND HISTORICAL BACKGROUND
After the Yalta Agreement in February 1945, the world was divided into two blocks, respectively on the influence of USA and The Soviet Union. The USA, Britain and France had restored democracy to Western Europe; The Soviet Union had imposed communist dictatorship in the Eastern Countries. The division of Berlin into two established the so-called Iron Curtain effectively and started the Cold War. The relationships between the two super-powers became very bad and deteriorated to a point never reached before. The fear of a new conflict worried the Western Countries especially after the Crises of Suez and the Russian invasion of Hungary in 1956. Americans were alarmed by this situation and feared communist subversive activities, so the American Congress passed The Communist Control Act in 1954 which restricted the legal right of the Communist Party in USA. In the following years a wave of anti-communist hysteria encouraged by Senator Joseph McCarthy against anyone with left-wing sympathies, brought a clime of ‘witch trials’. As a consequence, a lot of people lost their job or were imprisoned.
Another big social problem came from the Negroes. The Blacks’ rights were still limited and new revolutionary Black movements, such as the Black Panther and the Black Muslims were founded. The racial discrimination came under attack and the USA Supreme Court was obliged to rule that the public school segregation or separation of Negroes from Whites was unconstitutional.
The third great evil of American society was that of poverty. Even if the financial situation of the country had improved after the war bringing new prosperity, the number of The Poor had increased, too. Many people lived at the margin of society on the suburbs of the City-ghettoes.
In the late 1950s a group of novelists and poets expressed in their works the uneasiness, the anger and the disappointment of their contemporary young generation. Among them we have to mention Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs for the novel and Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and Lawrence Ferlinghetti for poetry. They are considered to be the starters of the Beat Generation.
The term Beat Generation comes from a definition by Kerouac of the young artists who were unconventional both in language and life-style. Kerouac also suggested that “Beat” meant being socially marginalized and exhausted (“beaten down“) and blessed (“beatific“). He described the attitude of his friends and of himself by these words: ‘a sort of furtiveness … and weariness with all the forms, all the conventions of the world. … So I guess you might say a Beat Generation.’There are also musical connotations to the name as many members were jazz enthusiasts. This label was soon taken up by the magazines of the time and used to describe those who were bored with and rejected standard middle-class values and the way of life based on a good education, marriage and material possessions.
The Beats or Beatniks (Beat plus the ending of the Russian term ‘ Sputnik’ because they had communist sympathies) revolted against militarism, denounced the society crises and dehumanization, supplanted society with their own life-style and values: free love and communal living.Many of them were homosexual or bisexual. They grew their hair and usually dressed their standard uniform: well-worn jeans, an old T-shirt, a sweater and a pair of sandals, disregarding contemporary convention of dress and personal clearness. They preached the non-violence in the form of flower power, found an escape into Buddhism or other esoteric cults, used to held sit-ins or simply took the road following Kerouac’s example. Their problem was the problem of all the young people who faced life in the immediate after-war. Trapped into a society of Mass they didn’t like, teenagers escaped it creating their own world. They lived in small bands according to the primitive code based on a strong sense of friendship. When they made use of drugs, alcohol and jazz, they only wanted to have an illusion of escaping a deluding present. Sometime they behaved as Hooligans using violence and committing crimes.
Their way of life was easily seen as an anti-middle class revolt and they were often compared to the Lost Generation, that is the American intellectuals who, after the 1st world war, rebelled against Victorian customs and middle-class conventionalism. They were also seen closer to the rebel generation of the years which followed the crises of 1929, or to the Anarchists who followed Henry Miller’s Circle of Big Sur in California.
There is a strong difference between them: the former were writers of denouncement and struggled to impose the aesthetical program started at the turn of the 20th century while the latter, born in a world already denounced, looked for something to believe in and struggled for a moral program aiming at the rebuilding of a society through the spiritual rebirth of human personality. The Beatniks are also different from the Angry Young Men. Even if the Angry Men Movement may have paved the way to the Beat phenomenon, they only shared the dissatisfaction against the established society. The Angry Men were politically committed and struggled against class distinction, social injustice, unequal distribution of wealth and labour. They were more similar to the artists of the Rebel Generation (the American Rebel Poets of the 1950s who expressed their political anxiety imposed by McCarthyism) or of the Lost Generation because they, too, struggled to fulfil their programs. The Beatniks instead have no programs; they only want to find a reason to live.