To say that the Beat generation has affected modern culture seems at first to be no great revelation; it is inevitable that any period of history will affect the time that follows. The Beat generation is especially significant, though, because of its long lasting impact on American culture. Many aspects of modern American culture can be directly attributed to the Beat writers, primarily Allen Ginsburg, William Burroughs, Neal Cassady, and Jack Kerouac. (Asher) Their influence has changed the American perception of obscenity, has had profound effects on American music and literature, and has modified the public’s views on such topics as sex and drug use.
The label “Beat Generation” was first publicized in a 1952 New York Times Magazine article entitled, “This is the Beat Generation.” In this article, author John Clellen Holmes states that “beat” means “More than mere weariness,” involving “a sort of nakedness of mind, and, ultimately, of soul; a feeling of being reduced to the bedrock of consciousness.” (Holmes) These feelings became the inspiration for the Beat writers and from them sprang ideas that permeated throughout society. Major interests among the Beats were freedom, self-expression, and a rejection of mainstream ideologies (such as those governing drugs, sex, and spirituality). (Scheibach 213)
Much of this new post-World War II era thinking was ill-received by many Americans at the time. Popular Beat writer Allen Ginsburg recited his famous poetic work, “Howl,” at the Six Gallery in San Francisco on October 13, 1955. This reading was followed by a book of his poems, including Howl, being published, which was subsequently seized by officials and lead to an obscenity trial in 1957. (Howl)This landmark event marked a change in, if not public opinion, then judicial opinion regarding obscenity; the verdict stated that the work was not profane if it was of “redeeming social importance.” (Howl)
The definition of obscenity has changed greatly throughout American history, which can be seen as progress or regress or both, depending on one’s perspective. Many lines in Howl would have been considered obscene by the standards of his time, especially, “who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy.” (Howl) Prior to 1957, obscenity was legally defined as anything that “has a substantial tendency to deprave or corrupt its readers by inciting lascivious thoughts or arousing lustful desires.” (Obscenity) Since much of Howl is concerned with illicit drug use and sexual deviancy, it clearly meets these requirements. Now, however, no second thought is given to works such as “Howl.” Our culture has changed so drastically that not only has what was once considered obscene become accepted, but it has been raised to the status of literature.
The Beatniks, as they eventually came to be known, also had a strong influence on music and literature. The artists of the then-emerging musical style of rock and roll, such...