The Lost Generation of Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald celebrated alcohol during Prohibition in novels like The Sun Also Rises and The Great Gatsby. The writers of the Beat Generation, in turn, loved cannabis.
William Burroughs commented, “I wrote nearly the whole of [his novel] Naked Lunch on cannabis. I think it stimulates the associational process, and visualization.”
Poet Allen Ginsberg opined, “Marijuana is a useful catalyst for specific optical and aural aesthetic perceptions.”
“I smoked more grass than anyone you ever knew in your life," Jack Kerouac boasted in 1969.
The group met each other in New York City in 1943 through mutual friend Lucien Carr. Ginsberg was Carr’s dorm-mate at Columbia University. Kerouac came to Columbia on a football scholarship before dropping out and joining the Merchant Marine. Burroughs was the well-off grandson of the inventor of the Burroughs Adding Machine, and knew Carr from St. Louis through his friend David Kammerer.
In July 1944, Carr said he rebuffed Kammerer’s advances, and the man attacked him, prompting Carr to stab him to death in self-defense. Kerouac and Burroughs co-wrote a novel about the incident titled The Hippos Were Boiled In Their Tanks. It was not published until 2008, but the collaboration had begun that would become a hallmark of the group.
Kerouac and fellow writer John Clellon Holmes came up with the name the Beat Generation in 1948, initially inspired by their friend Herbert Huncke, a junkie and petty criminal who referred to himself as beat, as in “beaten down.”
But Kerouac was determined to imbue the word with more hopeful connotations: beatific, and the beat of the jazz drum. The man who Kerouac believed embodied that spirit arrived in New York in 1947. Neal Cassady had spent his youth in Colorado alternating between skid row with his hobo dad and reform school, thanks to his compulsion for stealing cars. Kerouac found his letters to possess a raw vitality the Beats’ writing had heretofore lacked. His cannabis- and amphetamine-fueled raps, inflected with the rhythm of his beloved bebop, were to Kerouac a “wild yea-saying overburst of American joy” and he patterned his own style of “spontaneous prose” after them.
Ginsberg’s channeled the same stream of consciousness into the shockingly confessional “Howl,” an epic recount of the Beats’ promiscuity and drug use, which he debuted on October 7, 1955, at San Francisco’s Six Gallery while Kerouac swigged wine and chanted “Go! Go!”
Howl and Other Poems went on trial for obscenity in August 1957, but in a bit of fortuitous timing, the publication of Kerouac’s On the Road was heralded on September 5 by The New York Times as a “historic occasion” and “major novel.” Judge Clayton W. Howl decreed “Howl” was not without social value, and the case became a milestone in the fight against censorship in the United States.
On the Road recounted the wild cross-country road trips taken by Kerouac and ladies’ man Cassady, high on “all kinds of wonderful Technicolor visions.” It kicked off a pop culture Beat craze and introduced cannabis to countless middle class readers, just as Kerouac’s 1958 novel The Dharma Bums helped popularize Buddhism.
On April 2, 1958, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen coined the term “beatnik” by combining Beat with the Soviet satellite Sputnik, reflecting many Americans’ fear that the bohemians were Communists (which, indeed, Ginsberg’s mother had been, along with a schizophrenic nudist). Soon the archetype of the goateed, beret-wearing slacker in sandals could be seen everywhere from the nightly news to Mad Magazine, spouting gibberish poetry while accompanied by bongos and a proto-Goth woman dancing in black leotards.
The image was partly derived from the Paris existentialists of the 1940s, but a pre-Gilligan’s Island Bob Denvercrystallized it as Maynard G. Krebs on TV’s The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. 77 Sunset Strip featured hipster Ed “Kookie” Byrnes, and Route 66 turned On the Road into a weekly drama, much to Kerouac’s ire. He was equally appalled by the 1960 big screen adaptation of his novel The Subterraneans, but at least the film attempted to take the Beats seriously, unlike Funny Face, Bell Book and Candle, A Bucket of Blood, The Beat Generation and the many beatnik exploitation quickies of the era.
By August 1960, even Liverpool tabloids like The People were running “exposes” on the danger of the phenomenon in articles like “The Beatnik Horror.” A photo of the filthy “pad” of local art students Stu Sutcliffe and John Lennon accompanied the story. That month, the two changed the name of their rock group from The Silver Beetles to the Beatles.
But while the cartoon moose Bullwinkle taught his viewers how to be a beatnik, the darkest Beat published the nightmarish Naked Lunch in July 1959 in France. Burroughs had written it primarily in Tangier after killing his wife – accidentally, he always maintained.
Though primarily gay, Burroughs bonded with Joan Vollmer in 1944 after meeting her through Kerouac’s girlfriend, and they had a son together. Then, on September 6, 1951, in Mexico City, as Burroughs recounted, “We were both very drunk and reckless, she dared me to shoot a glass off her head, and for God knows what reason, I took the dare.” Her death has polarized people for decades. Some are appalled Burroughs walked away with a manslaughter conviction and two-year suspended sentence. Others believed him when he said, “All my life I have regretted that day.”
After Ginsberg and Kerouac helped him edit his phantasmagoric odyssey, it also went on trial, with seven years passing before it was declared not obscene.
Meanwhile, once Cassady achieved fame, he was targeted by the police. When he gave marijuana to an undercover cop, he was sent to San Quentin Prison for two years. After he got out, he became the link between the Beats and the hippies when he served as bus driver for author Ken Kesey. Kesey had taken part in LSD tests sponsored by the CIA at Menlo Park Veterans Hospital, and then written the best-selling One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1962. He used his profits to buy a school bus, which he and his gang—the Merry Pranksters—painted like a Day-Glo Jackson Pollock explosion. With Cassady at the steering wheel, they took off on a cross-country trip captured in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and the 2011 documentary Magic Trip, which used footage from the actual journey. The ride inspired the Beatles’ “Magical Mystery Tour,” The Doors’ “The End” and The Who’s “Magic Bus.”
After the trip, they began holding LSD parties in the Bay Area frequented by Ginsberg, Hunter S. Thompson and the Hell’s Angels. The events grew in 1965 to become “Acid Test” dance parties featuring the Grateful Dead as the house band. With its wild light shows, the Acid Tests were the predecessor to the rave.
Kesey and 13 guests were busted for marijuana on April 23, 1965, in a police raid. After being sentenced the following January, Kesey attempted to fool the police by leaving a suicide note, then took off for Mexico, but eventually returned to the States to serve five months in San Mateo County Jail in 1967.
Meanwhile, Cassady became the roommate of Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir in the group’s Haight-Ashbury house. Cassady helped him write his first major Dead composition, “That’s It For the Other One,” celebrating Weir’s experience on the Prankster bus. The lyrics evolved over time before Bob settled on the refrain “You know he had to die” and performed it for the first time in February 1968.
“Two days later I got home and somebody told me that Neal [Cassady] had died two nights prior. I realized that at the very moment Neal was dying, I was writing ‘The Other One.’ Of course, he was there with me,” said Weir. On February 4, Cassady had passed out by train tracks on a rainy night after mixing alcohol with barbiturates and expired from exposure to the elements.
Ginsberg continued as a central figure amongst the hippies, the descendants of the Beats with more colorful clothes and longer hair. In 1964, he co-founded the NYC branch of LeMar (Legalize Marijuana) in the Lower East Side, and the group held a protest later that year near Tompkins Square Park. Per the Village Voice, the poet said, “This is the first seed demonstration in New York, the first attempt to manifest publicly in favor of a change in law [regarding cannabis].” Likewise, a LeMar leaflet read, “Like liquor prohibition, pot prohibition violates personal liberty, promotes racketeering, and invites mass evasion of the law. But while alcohol is demonstrably productive of a hangover, cirrhosis of the liver, violence, and Dylan Thomas type scenes, marijuana on the other hand is in ALL respects gentle, benevolent and absolutely non-addictive."
In November 1965, Ginsberg originated the concept later dubbed “flower power” in the essay Demonstration Or Spectacle As Example, As Communication Or How To Make a March/Spectacle, which extolled the use of flowers in protest marches.
By that time, Bob Dylan had integrated Ginsberg and Kerouac’s style into his own lyrics, paying direct homage in tracks like “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” The Soft Machine named themselves after one of Burrough’s novels. Steely Dan took their name from a dildo in Naked Lunch. Burroughs’ The Wild Boys inspired Ziggy Stardust’s costume, and Duran Duran turned the book into a hit single and video of the same name. Burroughs became a seminal influence on punk artists like Patti Smith and Jim Carroll, and collaborated with Kurt Cobain.
Though he wasn’t a Beat, novelist Norman Mailer summed it up in his essay “The White Negro: Superficial Reflections of the Hipster,” published the same month On the Road was released. “If marijuana was the wedding ring, the child was the language of Hip …”
Western civilization became significantly hipper in the wake of the Beat Generation.
Andrew Grant Jackson is the author of 1965: The Most Revolutionary Year in Music, Still the Greatest: The Essential Songs of the Beatles’ Solo Careers and Where’s Ringo?