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February 2002
The Beat Legends

A symbol of the USA in the 50's

You’ve probably come across the terms ‘Beat Generation’ and ‘beatnik’ before, but do you know much more about them?

Feature by Suzanne Nash

Introduce Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady and Allen Ginsberg into the picture, and you might get a better idea.

Carolyn Cassady, formerly married to Neal, has just visited Nottingham Trent University. She was invited by the Department of English and Media to deliver an inaugural talk in the New Lecture Theatre.

Her lecture provided a personal insight into the lives of the trio, dubbed by the media as the classic ‘Beat Generation’.

Kerouac, Cassady, Ginsberg and others have become legendary figures on the landscape of twentieth-century literature.

And it looks as though their story will be told for years to come, especially since Francis Ford Copolla owns the film rights to Kerouac’s famous novel, ‘On the Road’.

To understand more about the ‘beat’ writers, you need to embark on an imaginary journey to the USA back in the 1950s.

You’ll arrive in the era of Elvis Presley and James Dean.

American highway
The American highway played its part in 'On the Road'.

The USA has emerged from the ravages of the Second World War and entered an economic boom. It hopes for lasting prosperity.

At the same time, the country has become paranoid about threats from ‘outside’, most notably Communism.

The USA also craves a stable centre. It tries to impose on its citizens a set of social ‘norms’. They include marriage, an urban lifestyle and a steady nine to five office job.

Against this backdrop stood Kerouac and other young Americans - especially males - who had literally grown up during the war. They struggled to identify with the new social order and rebelled against convention.

The term ‘beat’ had been used on the jazz scene in the late 1940’s when the likes of Miles Davis and Charlie Parker were in their prime. It referred to someone on the periphery of society who was ‘dead beat’ or ‘beaten’.

Jack Kerouac borrowed these negative connotations and added a more positive one, of ‘beatitude’.

He glorified the image of the ‘off-beat’ and rootless American in his novel, ‘On the Road’ (1957).

His work is based upon a real life journey across America, undertaken by Kerouac himself with Neal Cassady. In the novel, Cassady’s voice informs the narration.

Read about Carolyn Cassady’s perspective in the Myth’s of ‘Hollyweird’.

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Jack Kerouac

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Carolyn Cassady

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