THE WORD “BEAT” can connote violence or beauty, rhythm or rage, action or entity, energy or lassitude, enthusiasm or ennui, despair or enlightenment. One thing is for certain: it was a great name for a generation. From the day the New York Times published John Clellon Holmes’s foundational article “This Is the Beat Generation,” in which he proclaimed that “the meaning is all too clear to most Americans,” the term echoed out into the postwar public sphere as a floating signifier, reverberating across the nation, accruing signifieds as it spread. Now indelibly sedimented into our historical memory, the scale and scope of its significance continues to spark debate. Who and what should we call Beat, and how do we set the historical parameters of the Beat Generation’s emergence and decline?

Surely the easiest answer to these questions was supplied by archivist Bill Morgan, who simply stated that “[t]he Beat Generation was essentially a group of friends who gathered around and interacted with Allen Ginsberg.” This definition situates its object quite cleanly in space and time, buttressing Morgan’s claim to be able to write a “complete, uncensored history” of it. However, while Morgan’s definition clearly circumscribes who can be considered a member of the Beat Generation, it sidesteps what can be considered Beat Literature. If we simply say it’s what these friends of Ginsberg themselves wrote and published, we end up with a bewildering range of literary forms and styles that defy easy categorization. The challenge is encapsulated by the stark contrast among the so-called Big Three — Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and William Burroughs — whose literary styles bear little in common.

This is the challenge taken up by Steven Belletto in his magisterial and encyclopedic new book, The Beats: A Literary History. The subtitle is key, as Belletto deliberately disavows the biographical focus of so much scholarship on the Beat Generation, determined instead to affirm it as a literary movement, not just a group of friends. As a result, Belletto casts a wide net, beginning before the coining of the term and extending beyond its apotheosis, and including a wide variety of writers, some of whom explicitly disavowed any affiliation with the movement. The result is capacious and contradictory, as Belletto stretches the term to its breaking point, bringing a whole roster of neglected postwar writers into literary historical view while also diluting the term to the point that it risks losing any literary historical specificity.

Belletto breaks his history down into four parts, the first of which explains “How it All Got Started” between 1944 and 1948. He begins with the Big Three well before they were known as such, or indeed known to anyone except each other, selecting Lucien Carr’s murder of David Kammerer and its ensuing representation in Kerouac and Burroughs collaboratively written (and posthumously published) And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks as a “recognizable origin story.” The complex and contradictory relationship between the lurid facts and their literary representation is crucial for Belletto, as it enables him to emphasize that “however much real life inspired and informed literary production, their achievement rests finally in the nature of this production, in the distinctive ways they explored and experimented with language.” The lives of the Beats, Belletto reminds us, are interesting because of how they wrote about them; and though all the Beats stressed, in various ways, their fidelity to their experience, their writing in fact challenged conventional ideas about the relationship between lived reality and its literary representation. As Belletto affirms, “[r]ather than looking to Hippos to find out ‘what really happened,’ […] we should read it for the ways it navigates those narratives that were immediately attached to the murder.”

When Belletto ultimately determines what makes this writing experiment distinctive, his conclusions have less to do with style than with audience. Hippos, he writes, “plays on tensions between its intimate audience — those familiar with the murder and its principals prior to reading its fictionalization — and a broad or public audience — those who came to the fictionalization from positions outside the circle.” What is distinctive about the Beats, then, is not so much how they wrote but who they wrote for, and the ways in which their modes of address split their readership into insiders who understood and outsiders who just didn’t get it. And one of the easiest ways to mark this division was to write about people and experiences only they could know about firsthand.

The literary history of the Beats, then, can partly be traced by the widening of this circle, up from underground and out from anonymity. And appropriately, Belletto’s next section is titled “Underground to Literary Celebrity,” running from 1948 to 1957, the year On the Road was published. He begins by examining a series of postwar romans à clef, from Kerouac’s The Town and the City (1950) to Chandler Brossard’s Who Walk in Darkness (1952) to John Clellon Holmes’s Go (1952), in order to situate the Beat Generation at the sociological heart of the literary underground. As Belletto reminds us, these were relatively conventional, third-person limited omniscient novels that presented the underground from a kind of ethnographic “straight” perspective. This genealogy in turn enables Belletto to emphasize the ways in which Naked Lunch and On the Road were, to the contrary, literary innovations that came from the underground, as opposed to literary representations of the underground.

Beat poetry betrays the same concern with audience, particularly after the apotheosis of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, which Belletto describes as “a kind of secret history of hipness” that “flickers between broader generational claims and close attention to a far smaller, insider community.” By writing the poem at least partly as a versified roman à clef, Ginsberg encourages a kind of close reading that focusses as much on who is being written about as what the writing means. Indeed, after the Big Three became celebrities, one of the easiest ways to affiliate with the now prominently named and known Beat Generation was to meet them and then write about it. It hardly mattered how superficial or slight the contact, if you put one of their names in your novel or poem you placed yourself inside the ever-widening circle.

The publicity surrounding the publications of Howl and Other Poems and On the Road turned Beats into Beatniks and sparked a profusion of literary production in a dizzying array of genres and styles, mostly associating with the Beat Generation through satirizing the Beatnik “craze” and name-checking the “real” Beats through gossipy insiderism. Belletto’s third part designates the “Beatnik Era” as running from 1958 to 1962; it was characterized as much by external social commentary and critique as it was by literary expression. This was the era of Paul O’Neil’s Life Magazine article “The Only Rebellion Around” and Norman Podhoretz’s Partisan Review takedown “The Know-Nothing Bohemians,” of articles and books that focused on the social disaffection of the Beat Generation, emphasizing their lifestyle and dismissing their literature. It was also the era, as Belletto emphasizes, of the New Criticism, the embodiment of the academic institutions and establishment values against which the Beats were writing and fighting. The New Critics themselves were happy to reciprocate, affirming Lowell’s famous distinction between the “cooked” poetry of the seminar room and the “raw” poetry of the street as a statement of literary value.

Belletto turns to the little magazines of the mimeograph revolution for the underground response to establishment attacks on the Beats. It was a diffuse and diverse response, and Belletto at times strains to rein it all in under the Beat banner. Little magazines like Yugen or newsletters like The Floating Bear explicitly understood themselves as representing a “new consciousness” which included but was not restricted to writers associated with the Beat Generation. Belletto is of course correct in concluding that “you can’t get a good handle on the widening of the Beat movement in the late 1950s without paying serious attention to the work of the little magazines,” but this was not the only significant work they performed.

This intrinsic terminological tension, generated by a kind of feedback loop between the variety of postwar avant-garde literary styles and the polysemic ambiguity of the term “Beat,” shadows the rest of Belletto’s history. As he concedes in his chapter on “The Opening of the Field,” the “writers who constitute a widening of the movement were at times conflicted about being labeled ‘Beat,’ and yet they all drew sustenance and creative energy from being so associated.” This claim is further complicated by the fact that the association was frequently ironic or satirical, invoking Beatnik stereotypes at least as often as authentic Beat sensibilities, which were almost always figured as hopelessly compromised. Nevertheless, Belletto’s built-in strategy is to emphasize association over disaffiliation, situating his recovery of figures neglected by literary history within his larger effort of widening the importance of the Beat Generation in that history.

This effort is partly about identity politics, as Belletto is eager to complicate, if not subvert, Allen Ginsberg’s seminal designation of the Beats as a “boy gang.” Ginsberg didn’t include race in his designation, but the whiteness of the Beat Generation is as famous as its misogyny and as central to its historical significance. Belletto’s third (and longest) part is thus engaged in diversifying the Beats, starting with relatively well-known figures such as Diane Di Prima and LeRoi Jones, and then moving on to genuinely neglected figures such as Barbara Moraff and Ted Joans. In this part, Belletto covers a bewilderingly wide range of writers — many of whom explicitly affiliated with adjacent schools or movements — continuously straining, usually with at least semi-success, to keep them under the Beat umbrella. This is also the point in the book where Belletto treats a variety of well-known fellow travelers of the Beats, such as Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, Michael McClure, and many others. And here again the centripetal force of Belletto’s agenda strains against the centrifugal force of his subject matter. Like Diane Di Prima and LeRoi Jones, these writers produced extensive oeuvres over a long span of history; it would be a miscategorization to call all of it “Beat” and indeed many of them resisted being so categorized.

As a result, this part is filled with qualifications. Of Joanne Kyger, Belletto notes, “although the Beat movement wasn’t necessarily the greatest influence on her poetics, she came to know a range of Beat-associated writers”; he calls Ron Loewinsohn “a Beat-associated poet worth discussing”; he concedes that, “[l]ike so many of the writers I’ve been discussing, [Alan] Ansen insists he isn’t Beat while trading on the popularity of that very label.” This last qualification is key, as it affirms that, during what Belletto calls the “Beatnik Era,” a feedback loop had developed between mainstream Beatnik stereotypes and Beat-associated writers such that satirizing the former automatically associated one with the latter.

In expanding and diversifying the Beat canon, Belletto works to counter the claim that the Beats retained many of the prejudices of the establishment against which they were rebelling. He argues that, “if we want to understand the Beat movement’s complexities and contradictions, it is absolutely essential to first acknowledge the elision of female voices, and second to attend to not only their historical presence but their considerable literary achievement.” The women Belletto discusses — Joyce Johnson, Elise Cowen, Janine Pommy Vega, Kay Johnson, Barbara Moraff, and Carol Berge — are as varied in their literary output as the Big Three, and while it is highly laudable of him to participate in the ongoing recovery of their work, it feels paradoxical to incorporate them into the very movement that marginalized them in the first place.

Belletto is of course aware of this paradox, conceding that the authors of the Totem Press collection Four Young Lady Poets (1962) contributed to a “broadly Beat ethos” as “part of a matrix of avant-garde writing in the 1960s.” He concludes: “I have tried to show throughout this book that we should indeed think in terms of a Beat literary movement […] which in turn might encourage us to be more capacious in considering who or what might fly under the Beat banner.”

But Bellotto isn’t quite finished yet. He’s got two chapters left and they are oddly discordant. The penultimate chapter, “Liberating Language,” focuses on a discreet set of texts — Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Her (1960), Gregory Corso’s The American Express (1961), Ted Joans’s The Hipsters (1961), and William Burroughs and Brion Gysin’s Minutes to Go (1968) — arguing that they “represent a radical refocusing of language informed if not inspired by the widespread caricatures of the Beatnik.” And the last chapter, “The Vietnam Effect,” ties the street activism of groups like the Yippies to the Beats that preceded them, claiming that “a theatrical, pugnaciously irrational vision of protest took hold in the American counterculture that as inspired by or directly tied to the Beat Sensibility.” To a certain degree, then, Belletto’s history simply confirms and expands on a narrative that is already canonical: that the Beats were the historical precursors of the counterculture, which both democratized and neutralized their dissident sensibilities, ultimately bringing them into the mainstream. And indeed Belletto’s coda concludes that “the age of social media does seem like a perverse Beat utopia where nothing is taboo and we can all be celebrities in our own fictional universes.”

Concluding with celebrity is appropriate, insofar as it was ultimately a talent for publicity that differentiated the Beats from the other postwar avant-garde movements with which they affiliated, and which tended to have less catchy designations. There was no particular public purchase in affiliating with Black Mountain or the San Francisco Renaissance; these terms had no semantic reach beyond designating a location where artists congregated. To claim the term “Beat,” on the other hand, whether sincerely or satirically, was to insert oneself into a larger arena of cultural conflict and expression which, arguably, is still going on today.

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Loren Glass is professor of English and the Center for the Book at the University of Iowa. The paperback reissue of his book, Rebel Publisher: Grove Press and the Revolution of the Word, was released in April 2018.