Long before iffy efforts like the film adaptation of On the Road arrived to sully its reputation — in fact, several decades before Kristen Stewart was even born — the Beat movement brought an unprecedented brand of excitement and energy to the American literary scene.
Influenced by everything from jazz to Buddhism, iconoclasts like Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti took a torch to tradition and built up a new literary language from scratch with their impressionistic prose and poetry. But the Beat legacy looms so large — where do the uninitiated start, and where can those who’ve burrowed through the basics turn next? Here are a few handy suggestions for your Beat book browsing.
The Portable Beat Reader Edited by Ann Charters
Sure, it’s impossible to encapsulate the entire Beat movement in a single anthology, but you can’t blame an editor for trying, right? And what better editor to tackle the task than Ann Charters, as authoritative a figure as you’ll find on the subject. Over the course of this collection, she gathers (and crucially contextualizes) not only work by Beat lit’s high priests (Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, etc.) but also by less ubiquitous — but no less enthralling — authors like John Clellon Holmes and Herbert Huncke. If you can only tackle one Beat tome, try this one.
Women of the Beat Generation By Brenda Knight
The biggest Beat writers may have been male, but don’t let that lead you to believe women weren’t a part of the picture. This book looks in on the life and work of the women who helped to influence the Beat generation as well as those who were deeply immersed in it. From precursors like Jane Bowles to poets like Diane di Prima and Denise Levertov, Brenda Knight tells the tales of the women who — though not as well known as their male peers — played an important part in making the movement what it was.
The Beats: A Graphic History Edited by Paul Buhle
When you’re documenting one of the most vibrant, colorful literary scenes in history, what’s a more natural element to add than visuals?
And when you’ve got graphic novelists like Harvey Pekar on hand to depict turning points in Beat history, illustrating key moments in the lives of the movement’s major figures, you’re looking at a book that not only illuminates another art form but stands as a work of art all by itself.
On the Road: The Original Scroll By Jack Kerouac
True to its urgent, electric feel, the defining document of Beat literature, On the Road, came leaping out of Jack Kerouac in a long, luminous burst of inspiration so spontaneous that he didn’t want to waste time changing pages in his typewriter. Instead he fed several long sheets of tracing paper through his machine one at a time, unleashing his first draft in a superhuman burst of artistic energy, and then he taped them all together to form a “scroll” some 120 feet long. That original version, bearing distinct, fascinating differences from the final draft and infused with all of Kerouac’s kaleidoscopic vision, can be read right here.
Starting From San Francisco By Lawrence Ferlinghetti
If he never wrote a word, Lawrence Ferlinghetti — a true Beat survivor today at the age of 95 — would still be a huge figure in the Beat scene as the man behind San Francisco’s legendary City Lights bookstore and press. But he also happens to be one of the movement’s most gifted poets. Like many great Beat works, his third volume of poetry, originally published in 1961, was inspired by cross-country travels, and explodes with the brilliant blend of surprise, spirituality, and bebop-infused swing that’s emblematic of the movement.