The Beat movement was started by a group of writers, artists and thinkers. Taking their name from their artistic struggles of being beaten down and beatific, this small group of young men who shared the same philosophies formed a rebellion against the traditionalist ideas of 1950s America.
The Beat Museum stands today to keep the legacy of the Beats alive through exposing their work to new audiences where it all began, in San Francisco. Located in the city’s North Beach neighbourhood, the building occupies the same ground that was once the heart and soul of Beat activity in its heyday. Housing an extensive collection of Beat memorabilia, original manuscripts, rare books, letters, personal effects and cultural ephemera, it stands as the only Beat Museum in existence.
The phrase “Beat Generation” was invented by Jack Kerouac in 1948. The core group of the generation consisted of Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady and William S. Burroughs, who met in the neighbourhood surrounding Columbia University in uptown Manhattan in the mid-’40s. They went on to pick up Gregory Corso and Herbert Huncke in New York City. From there they found themselves in San Francisco where they expanded their group consciousness by meeting Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen and Lew Welch.
Characterized by an experimental and stream-of-consciousness style of prose, the genre – and particularly Jack Kerouac – was heavily influenced by jazz, which filters through to his distinctive narrative style. As a result, Kerouac’s work had a huge impact on the rock music and lifestyle of the 1960s. Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek of The Doors credited Kerouac and his novel On the Road as the very reason the band existed.
Most of the Beats struggled for years to get published, but their moment of fame came with the 1957 “Howl” trail which came about over the controversy surrounding Ginsberg’s poem of the same name. Following Ginsberg’s first public reading of “Howl” in October 1955 at the Six Gallery in North Beach, the poet was later arrested on obscenity charges. In 1957, Judge Clayton W. Horn overruled the police and declared Ginsberg’s poetry as not “an obscenity” and of redeeming social value.
According to the San Francisco Chronicle, “Historians list the ‘Howl’ trial and earlier Six Gallery readings, as the beginning of the Bay Area’s Beat awakening. But it arguably began incubating a decade earlier, when Madeline Gleason started the Festival of Poetry at a small gallery on Gough Street in San Francisco.”
Today the Beats remain a beloved symbol of what San Francisco represents: tolerance and social acceptance. However, the museum is facing extinction as the building will be forced to close its doors for six months due to a city-mandated seismic retrofit. The not-for-profit arts organization will lose 20–25% of its existing exhibit space, although if they raise enough funds, they hope to overcome this obstacle with some remodelling to maximize usage of the space. For more information and for details on how to support the Beat Museum, visit www.kerouac.com.