Culture Wars/Current Controversies

Cancelling the Beat Generation

By David S. Wills, Quillette

Almost from its inception, the Beat Generation seemed to be doomed to failure. In and around Columbia University, a ragtag group of bohemians coalesced based upon an odd array of mutual interests. Two of them were homosexuals, one bisexual, and all were interested in drugs and subversive literature. William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Lucian Carr were fascinated by the underground culture of criminals and hustlers, hobos and vagabonds. It was the mid-1940s and they had no interest in middle-class values. They were more interested in experience, in expanding their minds through drug use, and in forging a new philosophy called “The New Vision.”

It is perhaps fitting that the “libertine circle,” as it was known, was blown apart by a murder. Lucian Carr, likely pushed to breaking point by the sexual advances of Burroughs’s friend David Kammerer, stabbed the older man to death in a park and hid his body in the Hudson River. Kerouac was jailed for helping Carr dispose of the murder weapon, Burroughs was forced to start a new life in Texas, and Ginsberg was left alone in New York, where soon he would be locked up in a mental institution. For Carr, it was the end of his youthful experimentation, but the friends would continue to correspond, and Burroughs, Kerouac, and Ginsberg would go on to become some of the most important writers of their era, shaping not just American literature but the whole culture with their radical approaches to art.


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