The Beat Generation and Censorship
Beginning in the 1940s with writers such as Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg at its forefront, the Beat Generation was arguably one of the most influential time periods in American history.
It embraced the idea of self-expression and liberating oneself from societal norms in a multitude of ways, even though some of them were questionable. While the Beat Generation began as a way to defy traditional writing styles, it blossomed into something much larger. Its most profound impact was in its rebellion against censorship and its goal to ensure that any and all texts could be publicized. In 1957, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a publisher, was arrested and subsequently tried for publishing Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” due to its obscenity and unconventional themes. Backed by the American Civil Liberties Union, he won the case, but “Howl” continued to be, even till today, criticized for its strong language.
Not only is “Howl” a great literary work– “It envisions every broken vision, supplies the skeleton key that reveals the genius of every torrent of babble, reconstitutes every page of scribble that looks like gibberish the next morning,” as Luc Sante says — but its publication marked the beginning of poetry’s (and other fiction’s) immunity to censorship, despite the questionability of the topics that it may explore. But “Howl”, with its unconventional language and mentions of illicit drug use, was not the only text of the Beat Generation to transcend America’s social standards. As written in the The Literature Network’s description of the Beat Generation, Jack Kerouac was something of “the de facto spokesperson for his generation.” They also write that though, in On the Road, Kerouac’s choice of topics was not as idiosyncratic as those presented in “Howl”, “[it helped to propel] discussions of ecology and environmentalism into the mainstream.” Not only did this generation’s literature oppose many of the social restrictions at that time, but it also brought exigent topics to light.
Other significant literature from the Beat Generation includes William Burrough’s Naked Lunch, which contains deeply emotional passages regarding his alcoholism and his accidental murder of his wife; Neal Cassady’s The First Third, which contains the same themes as On the Road as Kerouac and Cassady were very close friends; and Diane di Prima’s Dinners and Nightmares, which, as said in Google Books’ synopsis of this text, “[shatters] the conservative myths of the Fifties”. Diane di Prima was also one of the Beat Generation’s few well-known women and the publication of her novel was a turning point as it went against society’s conservative belief that women should only be allowed to discuss certain topics. The Beat Generation lasted only two decades, but it has changed the structure of our society. Poetry, fiction, and art took on a new style, and the generation’s prominent figures used their media to oppose societal norms and embrace new thoughts. While intellectuals criticized these figures, it is evident that they were extremely sophisticated and knowledgeable in their understanding of literature.
The Beat Generation helped not only to propel the arts forward, but controversial texts such as “Howl” and On the Road also helped society become more acceptant of unconventional themes and language in literature, which was a major step towards ending censorship.