Who Are the Pioneers of the Beat Generation?

The three pioneers of the Beat Generation include Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs. Here’s all you need to know about them.

Jun 1, 2024By Alex "Cosmo" Lutz, BA English Literature

pioneers beat generation


The Beat Generation was a group of poets, writers, and artists who rebelled against the mainstream culture of the USA that was left disenfranchised after World War II. At the center of the literary movement were the now-cultural icons: Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs. These three artists helped define an entire counterculture generation through their many notable works.


The Beat Generation: Who Were They?

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Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, 1952. Source: The New York Times


The Beat Generation or Beat Poets were known for their counter-culture, anti-conformist views that were expressed through their poetry, art, and literary works. These works were often fueled by spiritual quests that stemmed from Eastern philosophies of religion and spirituality. Often, they also expressed anti-materialist sentiments.


Many of their gatherings took place between New York and San Francisco where the Beats held poetry readings in a spoken-word style. They often took place in underground bars and jazz clubs. The Beats led a bohemian lifestyle, experimented with psychedelic drugs, explored their sexuality, and spoke openly about their sexual identities and other topics that were considered taboo in the late 1940s and 1950s.


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Allen Ginsberg photo by William S. Burroughs, 1953. Source: National Gallery of Art


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The Beatniks, as they later came to be known, were early hipsters who came before the hippie generation of the 1960s. Originally, the word beat referred to tired, worn down, or people beaten down by the conventions of American life.  The term can be traced back to the group’s early days of drinking and gathering in Columbia University bars, where Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs first met. Some of the other notable members of their group in New York were Lucien Carr, Neal Cassady, and Herbert Hunke, the poet whom Kerouac credits as the first person to use the term Beat.


And The Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks

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And The Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks by Jack Kerouac & William S. Burroughs, 1953. Source: Grove Press


Not long after their first meetings, Burroughs, who was quite a bit older than Kerouac and Ginsberg and already a published author, became a mentor to the two young and aspiring writers. He and Kerouac would go on to co-author a short novel called And The Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks which centers around the then highly publicized imprisonment of Lucien Carr. Carr was convicted of involuntary manslaughter for killing a man who stalked him for 14 years.


Carr and Jack Kerouac were close friends and were set to join the merchant marine the night before the murder. Kerouac even briefly went to jail as a material witness when Carr turned himself in after seeking advice from Burroughs.


The drama surrounding Carr’s incarceration deeply affected the early New York members of the Beat movement and inspired many future writings, including Kerouac’s first semi-autobiographical novel The Town & The City. It also contributed to the group’s dispersion west to Los Angeles and the Bay Area where they merged with members of the San Francisco Renaissance, such as poet Gary Snyder and publisher Lawrence Ferlingetti, who owned City Lights Bookstore until his death in February 2021.


Jack Kerouac

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Jack Kerouac listening to a recording of himself, 1969. Source: University of Massachusetts Library


Jack Kerouac is considered by many the first pioneer of the Beat Generation along with both Allen Ginsberg and William. S Burroughs. His works influenced some of popular culture’s most recognizable icons, from Bob Dylan to Jerry Garcia.


Kerouac was born in 1922 in Lowell, Massachusetts to a lower-class family. His mother was French-Canadian and his childhood was marked by the early death of his brother Gerard, who died of Tuberculosis at the age of seven. Kerouac was a gifted athlete and he won a football scholarship to attend Columbia University in New York City.


While in New York he was exposed to alcohol, drugs, and sexual liberation as well as a community of people who all felt a sense of uselessness during the apocalyptic times of World War II. In New York, he became close friends with Ginsberg and Burroughs. He decided to join the merchant marine but was rendered unfit for military life and was honorably discharged in 1943.


Once Kerouac met Neal Cassady—a jail rat with a passion for freedom—he was inspired to drive across America with him. On the road with Cassady, Kerouac discovered his spontaneous prose style that would become a staple of the Beat Generation. It also allowed him the creative freedom he felt he needed to write On The Road, which was Kerouac’s first great work that brought him both critical and financial success.


On The Road

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On The Road, Great Kerouac Series, 2018. Source: Penguin Classics UK


On The Road became the quintessential piece of writing for the Beat Generation. It was written in a rush of short and long sentences in a stream-of-consciousness style that Kerouac likened to both James Joyce and Marcel Proust. Kerouac wrote all of his words while—or as ifhe was actually on the road, in the moment.


The legend behind how the book was written inspired Kerouac’s cult following as much as the sentiments that he expressed in his book. It was said that he Scotch-taped a 120-foot manuscript together and wrote the entire first 175-thousand-word draft in a 20-day burst. By another account, he wrote the whole thing on a type-writer while sitting next to Neal Cassady, whom Kerouac fictionalized as the character Dean Moriarity. He referred to himself as Sal Paradise, and together, the two characters from the novel drove around the US in search of a type of freedom that rejected the rigidness and structure of the conventional American way of life.


Kerouac’s novel both romanticized the road and placed it as a symbol of rebellion against mainstream ideals, such as the nuclear family unit complete with a kitchen fridge, white-picket fence, and TV set. Dean became Kerouac’s beacon for this kind of freedom and rebellion. He stole cars, drank excessively, and experimented with drugs and sex. While the novel is a romanticized depiction of life on the road, eventually the hardships of life would wear on Kerouac. His battles with both fame and alcohol led to what he called the restless wanderings that haunted him for the remainder of his life.


The Dharma Bums

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The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac. Source: Penguin Random House


The Beat Poets were also heavily inspired by Eastern philosophies, religions, and ideals, particularly those of Buddhism. Though Kerouac would eventually go on to reject the ideologies and structure of religion altogether, The Dharma Bums, which is perhaps Kerouac’s second most famous novel, expresses his relationship with Buddhism. The novel’s character Ray Smith walks us through his introduction to the religion, his experimentation with Zen ideals, the practice of meditation, and his conceptions of the soul.


Where Dean was Kerouac’s carrier of the ideas of post-war freedom, the hero of The Dharma Bums is Jack Snyder, characterized as Japhy Ryder, who was a scholar of Eastern religions at the University of California Berkeley. Japhy Ryder was the spiritual teacher and role model who helped define a style of backpacking and traveling by foot, which became known as tramping. In this way, Kerouac tramped and wandered all over the world, never really feeling a true sense of home, which is a theme we begin to see in The Dharma Bums.


The novel tracks Ray Smith’s struggle to reconcile his identity as a rucksack wanderer and follow the Zen teachings of Ryder, while he searches for his sense of self. Alongside Ryder, the two travelers read poetry, drink wine, and go down from the fabled shores of 1950s West Coast America to Mexico,


The follow-up novel to The Dharma Bums is Desolation Angels which can be seen as the novel’s companion piece. In a similar way to how Jack London’s White Fang plays antithesis to Call of The Wild, Kerouac’s follow-up novel plays antithesis to the ideals that he seemed to cherish in The Dharma Bums. Jack London was also a San Francisco native and another writer who influenced Kerouac.


Big Sur

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Big Sur cover by Jack Kerouac, cover art by Rob Admiraal, 1962. Source: Penguin Random House


Kerouac’s battle with both alcohol and fame continued to follow him for the remainder of his life and it often comes up thematically in his work. Big Sur is the final novel in his series of works. It is a sprawling work that provides a climactic ending to The Duluoz Legend and is the epitome of his spontaneous prose style. Jack Duluoz is Kerouac’s fictional pseudonym in Big Sur. 


The novel takes place in a cabin on the famous Big Sur cliffs of the Northern California shores. The cabin belonged to his one-time publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Kerouac was visiting the cabin in search of a quiet refuge away from all the attention that fame brought him.


Kerouac was drinking heavily at the time and both themes of struggles with alcohol and regret come up in his final novel. Big Sur is punctuated by a long, unrhymed poem entitled The Sea. The poem is a fitting meditation on the sights, sounds, and vastness of the ocean. It shows Kerouac finally at peace with himself, even if only in that moment. Kerouac died of heart complications in Florida in 1969, at the age of 47 after an altercation in a bar where he was severely beaten.


Allen Ginsberg

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Allen Ginsberg, 1966. Source: Atlantic Press


Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac remained close friends right up until Kerouac’s early death. Ginsberg lived the majority of his life between New York and San Francisco where he became famous for writing poetry and his involvement in what would become the Gay Rights Movement in the 1960s.


When Ginsberg first met Kerouac and their group of friends at Columbia University he was able to live a more liberal lifestyle both philosophically and sexually. There are hints in his writing as well as in the writing of the other Beat Poets that he may have had unrequited or brief love affairs with both Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady. Ginsberg also had a big influence on Kerouac’s interest in Buddhism and he worked closely with both Kerouac and Burroughs who all helped edit and revise each other’s works.


In his New York circle, Ginsberg felt comfortable enough to further develop his points of view regarding anti-materialism, anti-militarism, sexual liberation, drug experimentation, and homosexuality. All of these are major and recurring themes in his poetry. He portrayed those themes in such a raw and emphatic style that his major work Howl & Other Poems was banned for obscenity.


The trials to uncensor the book of poems became highly publicized and made Ginsberg the spokesperson for the early Gay Rights movements in both San Francisco and New York. He remains an important figure in the progression of queer rights. The trials also gave him a platform to speak publicly on behalf of a variety of other progressive political issues and he became a central figure of the San Francisco Renaissance.


Howl & Other Poems

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Howl & Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg (1956). Source: City Lights Bookstore


If Kerouac’s novel On The Road outlined the characteristics of an entire generation, then Howl was the poem that epitomized it. Ginsberg wrote it with a spontaneous style of writing that he developed alongside Kerouac. The poem has long sentences and many internal, natural rhymes. It also explores themes of experimental drug use, sexual liberation, anti-establishment, and counter-culture.


In Howl Ginsberg invokes Walt Whitman’s famous poem Leaves of Grass. The barbaric Yawp that Whitman’s poem depicts as a literal sound that transcends language and unites all human-kind down to the most basic, primordial sound is where the howl in the title of Ginsberg’s poem comes from.


Lawrence Ferlinghetti published Howl along with a select group of Ginsberg’s other poems, from his small, independent publishing company that he operated out of his bookstore. Ginsberg used to read the poem in a spoken-word setting to large crowds in many underground bars and jazz clubs across America.


William S. Burroughs

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William S. Burroughs by Richard Avedon, 1975. Source: Mutualart


William S. Burroughs is a writer and artist who is considered the third pioneer of the Beat Generation, though much of his life and works were controversial. He wrote extensively and had a major influence on various figures of literature and popular culture, from J.G Ballard to Norman Mailer.


Burroughs was born in St. Louis, Missouri in 1914 and was fictionalized by Kerouac in On The Road as ‘Old Bull Lee. He attended Harvard University and later attempted to join the war as part of the medical staff with the US Navy, but he was prevented from doing so for reasons likely related to morphine use. When he returned to America he ended up in New York City where he acted as both mentor and friend to Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. Through Burroughs’ guidance, both Kerouac and Ginsberg were able to develop many of the philosophical ideas that would become synonymous with the Beat Generation, particularly the contempt for the post-war American way of life. He also exposed both impressionable, young writers to the works of Friedrich Nietzsche and Oswald Spengler.


Burroughs led a bohemian lifestyle on the outskirts of society in America with a family life that may have been wholesome had the author not been preoccupied with his addiction to heroin, which his friends Kerouac and Ginsberg viewed as reckless. This recklessness, along with his fascination with guns dramatically altered his life in 1951 when Burroughs accidentally murdered his second wife, Joan Vollmer in Mexico City, where he lived temporarily in self-imposed exile to escape drug charges.



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Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs in Kansas photo by James Grauerholz 1991. Source: The Allen Ginsberg Project


Burroughs’ early success came from his 1953 novel Junkie, which he considered to be an anthropological study of his own life as an individual addicted to opioid drugs. Junkie follows his daily life and routine both in recovery and in his most drug-dependent state. The novel candidly portrays many dire and raw moments in the life of an addict, all of which are recorded in a strict, anthropological style.


One of the insights that Burroughs highlights that is consistent with the Beat Generation movement, is a revolt against the boredom of middle-class life, which he felt was a major contributing factor to heroin use. He believed that adolescents and adults who felt unchallenged by its cookie-cutter lifestyle turned to heroin as a way to make their otherwise boring lives more exciting, or filled with purpose.


This controversial opinion was in strict contrast to the commonly held beliefs surrounding drug addiction at the time. Physical dependencies were more commonly attributed to habits that lingered from narcotics prescribed for pain, mental disabilities, reactions to trauma, or other reasons originating from medical use.


Beat Generation and Addiction in Burroughs’s Naked Lunch

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Naked Lunch by Wiliams S. Burroughs, 1959. Source: Grove Press


Naked Lunch, Burroughs’ most famous novel, is a twisted, post-absurdist-themed novel that depicts, very vividly and gruesomely, the hallucinatory experiences related to addiction. Like Howl & Other Poems, Naked Lunch was also banned for obscenity. Both Burroughs and the novel received quite a lot of critical and popular attention as a result.


In 1991, Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg made a film adaptation of Burroughs’s novel. Cronenberg is a film auteur whose early films often depicted versions of Franz Kafka’s metamorphosis where humans mutate from insects and vice-versa. These scenes, depicted in both the novel and the film adaptation of Naked Lunch, draw clear influence from Kafka’s absurdist themes.


Burroughs described other controversial opinions in both Junkie and Naked Lunch that stemmed from his own experience as a lifelong heroin addict. He believed heroin to be the elixir of life and that the process of re-growing cells in the body could restore nutrients to the body that had been deprived while using the drug, and extend someone’s life indefinitely.


Though many of his ideas are viewed as a little wild or sometimes even outrageous, he is considered a true genius by many. To his credit, he never drank alcohol and he lived longer than both Kerouac and Ginsberg. He died in Lawrence, Kansas in 1997 at the age of 87.

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By Alex "Cosmo" LutzBA English LiteratureCosmo is a writer and filmmaker from Ontario, Canada. After completing his BA in English Literature from Western University Canada, he spent nearly 8 years traveling the world, living out of a backpack, before deciding to return to Canada to complete his certificate in advanced Filmmaking from Fanshawe College. He currently works on-set as a Camera Assistant, and continues to travel, living out of a van and produces short films.