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The History of the Hipsters

A Review of James Campbell’s This is the Beat Generation

James Campbell, a Scottish writer, was educated at the University of Edinburgh, where he studied literature, and worked for New Edinburgh Review. He currently writes for the “NB” column for The Times Literary Supplement. He has written many books including Exiled in Paris: Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Samuel Beckett, and Others on the Left Bank, Syncopations: Beats, New Yorkers, and Writers in the Dark, Invisible Country: A journey through Scotland, and Paris Interzone.

In the early 1950s, America was mostly a conformist society. However, three major post-world war two writers greatly contributed to the development of an individualistic culture. Through their obscene and oddly artistic works of poetry and writings, they challenged the mainstream style and criterion for writing. At first their attempts at fame and acceptance by the public were futile, as many of their works were held in court for their shocking taboo content. It was later on that the Beat writers gained publicity after people began noticing the unique language of their “writings, characterized by jive talk”1. In This is the Beat Generation, James Campbell describes how the writers came to be, and how their writing and style took part in the revolution that created the “beatniks” and “hippies”, and partly how their whole writing legacy affected America, ultimately forming the ‘Beat Generation’.

In the first part of the book, Campbell introduces the beat writer’s and their background. Jack Kerouac, a rowdy, troublemaking man who yearned for adventure, discovered that his life in the navy was far from exciting and successfully succeeded in discharging himself on accounts of schizophrenia. Meanwhile, William Burroughs was the complete opposite. He was quiet and “appeared to others in his own description as ‘without context, and completely anonymous’” to others.2 His famous ‘Van Gogh kick’ in which he cut off part of his finger in response to betrayal by his male lover, showed the sociopathic side of him. Allen Ginsberg wrote for the poetry section in the New York Times and worked at a psychiatric hospital part time, meeting Carl Solomon who would inspire and greatly influence his writing style. Lucien Carr, a poet that fused poetry with violence in a creative, shocking way became the bridge that connected Kerouac, Burroughs, and Ginsberg, all of which were either bisexual or homosexual. Together, these three would create controversial works that would slowly shape into forms of the Beat writing.

At the halfway point of the book, Campbell talks about the formation and beginning of the Beat, and how the public first received it. The languages in Beat writings are mostly from jive talk, which traced back to the Wolof language in West Africa, and other forms of jive talk originate from Mandingo and Bantu languages, some of which “may have been cross-fertilized by the idioms of southerners of British decent”, rising in popularity in the 1930s.3Jive talk was introduced to the beat writers by drug addict Herbert Huncke who seemed to possess worldly knowledge. The first time the writers heard the word ‘beat’ was when Really the Blues was published. At then, Beat was used to describe criminals and the low life of society. In 1948, the word Beat began to be associated with glamour, and in the same year, Kerouac published The Town and the City, a book that describes a family’s journey to a city and their life after World War two. Although it was a commercial failure, it was the first book ever written by a Beat author in their books, Beat writers (most specifically Ginsberg) talked openly and explicitly about their homosexuality and sexual activity. They also were famous for doing multiple types of drugs and recording their observations. Because of the obscene content in his book, Ginsberg was brought before court to justify the profanity and taboo of Howl. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch was also questioned by the court, and the Chicago Review called it “an endless novel which will drive everyone mad.”4 The first impressions by the public and critics had overall negative responses. However, this was just the beginning for Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Burroughs.

Campbell then moves on to talk about the progression of the Beat, and how it became more successful later on. The failure of The Town and the City caused Kerouac to “renounce all fiction and to make his works less literary.”5 As a result, in most of the Beat books, writers wrote about their life and everyday activities. Kerouac frequently wrote in a diary which inspired him to travel and try new things. He began what he called ‘constructive involvement’, or doing many different things so that he could add them in his book. Holmes, a friend of Kerouac, persuaded him to write his story in a “sort of furtiveness…a kind of beatness”, and to characterize the new attitude.6 This transformation in Kerouac’s writing began the true works of the beat generation. Meanwhile, Ginsberg began to study eastern art and became obsessed with Buddhism poetry and mantras after being introduced by it by Kerouac. Ginsberg believed Buddhist literature to be genius, and tried to combine the rhythm of jazz with the style of the Buddhist writings in his poems. He also experimented by writing his poetry to the rhythm of the chants. The Buddhist mantras inspired the themes behind most of his poems, which was feeling the rhythm and experience of a moment to create poetry. Kerouac, on the other hand, focused on the conflict between sexual desire and religion in his book, The Dharma Bums. The three major writers were also inspired by romanticism from the works of William Blake. The style of Beat writings became a sort of impulsive type of writing, with no format or organization. Kerouac’s On the Road was criticized for this and asked, “where is the development...Where’s the story?” by publisher Malcolm Cowley.7 To this question, Kerouac would respond “that the journey was the story, that anything could happen, and that was the daring of the exercise for the author and the excitement of it for the reader.”8 Kerouac eventually revised the book and created a second new On the Road to which he added more excitement and danger, and received more positive reviews. Ginsberg’s most successful work, Howl and Other Poems described his homosexuality and was a biography of his life up to 1955. Both Howl and The Naked Lunch were greatly criticized in court for their obscene sexual content, but ultimately won the case. Even the critics admitted that they saw potential success in the works in the future.

In the final part of the book, Campbell describes the effects that the Beat Generation had on American society. The Beat generation had risen in popularity towards 1959, and had greatly influenced the counter-culture that began in the 1960s. Herb Caen, a columnist called the beat writers beatniks because they were “as ‘far out’ as Sputnik, which had currently launched during the time.7 In 1959, the beatnik style was seen everywhere, characterized by the “loose-fitting hooped T-shirt, beret, goatee beard, sunglasses, poetry book in hand…”.9 There also was the Rent-a-Beatnik, in which people could hire beatniks to read poetry for forty dollars. The Beat Generation had become famous because the counter-culture, which celebrated individualism, finally appreciated the Beat works for their true value. The success of Howl and The Naked Lunch I the court freed America from censorship. The Beat literature started a sexual revolution, which allowed people to talk more openly about sexual subjects, as well as make homosexuality more excepted. Furthermore, Beat writers popularized the use of drugs, since their books are mostly about drug experimentation, and made psychedelic drugs popular by introducing their hallucinogenic effects. The Beat generation started a chain reaction that transformed into the counter-culture of the 1960s.

In This is the Beat Generation, Campbell believes that the conformity of America had caused unsettled resentment beneath the surface, and that the beat writers caused the necessary change needed to free everyone from social restraint and be the individuals they were meant to be. When The Town and the City was first published, it was a failure, and did not receive much attention. However, when the beat literature and style was fully developed, the books and poems began to receive more attention. On the Road second edition was more popular, and received mixed reviews. While the Sunday New York Times Book Review called it ‘plotless’ and ‘a road that leads nowhere’, New York Time’s Gilbert Milstein said, “On The Road is the most beautifully executed, clearest and most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as ‘beat’…”.10 Campbell emphasizes that over time, the reviews became mostly positive for the On the Road once people began to “celebrate originality and a break from conformity” in the 1960s.1

Campbell believes that the writers of the beat generation were always the protagonists and heroes that started the Cultural Revolution, and changed America. Throughout the novel, he justifies their negative actions and pitied them in their hardships by saying, “Burroughs applied to join the navy, but was turned down…then he attempted to become a pilot, but was refused because of his weak eyesight”12 Campbell studied beat literature throughout his time at the University of Edinburgh, and is an admirer of the beat writers. Campbell listed all the writers’ failures and rejections from society to evoke sympathy, and to ultimately demonstrate how the writers made a major comeback and changed the society. Campbell thoroughly reminds the readers the significance of each of their achievements including the court cases won that ended censorship. Campbell published the edition in 1999. Since 1995, the post World War Two writers have gained much attention and critical acclaim. As time passed, they were more and more regarded as heroes of the counterculture and their works have been greatly appreciated and understood for their meaning. 1999 is a time far passed the 1960s Cultural Revolution. People in 1999 and even now look to the 1960s as a very important decade. This is because without the Cultural Revolution, people would not have the diverse, exciting society existing today, and the masterminds behind the revolution were the beat writers. Because of the large time gap, Campbell is safe to say that the beat generation has greatly changed America into a land of more freedom and is much more open on discussing a variety of subjects.

In “’This is the Beat Generation’: The Beat Goes On” by Daniel Swift of the New York Times, Swift describes how Campbell talks in thorough detail about how the writers felt about themselves and in their time, but misses the point of the beat itself, and “how their work still has the power to move us today”.13 Throughout the book, Campbell gives a detailed accuracy of the events in the Beat Generation, but Swift believes that Campbell does not address the purpose of the Beat, and the Beat themselves. Swift commends Campbell for having an “unflinching” attitude when describing the flaws of the writers. However, he greatly criticizes Campbell by saying that even though “for all his sympathy for the writers, he misses what draws us to their books”.14 His greatest dissatisfaction with This is the Beat Generation is Campbell’s failure to recognize the importance of John Clellon Holmes’s essay, from which Campbell borrowed his title, and instead has conflicting with that essay.

“Knights of the Road” in the London Review is written by Tom Clark, who congratulates Campbell on a great account of the “seven-year trial of rejection and suspicion” in which Kerouac writes and publishes On the Road.15 On the other hand, Clark believes that Campbell falsely interprets the Beat term and described his efforts to capture the ‘magic’ of the term proved a failure. Clark notices the stress Campbell puts on “the fundamental difference between Burroughs’s approach to the vision-quest and Ginsberg’s. Burroughs wanted to eradicate his own identity; Ginsberg wanted to incorporate everything in his”.16 That statement acknowledges the fact that Ginsberg and Burroughs’s writing style differed in many ways, but were all for the same concept of entertainment and providing a good story. Clark also notices that Campbell take into notice the important effect romanticism had on the writing styles of the writers, and how their romantically involved circle of friends affected most definitely Ginsberg’s howl.

Campbell describes the history of the Beat Generation very well, and notes all the most important aspects of it. He also thoroughly examines the process in which Kerouac went through to publish his books, the adjustments he made, and how critics responded to his works. However he fails to include the reason the Beat writers created the beat, and the meaning of the beat. Also, his constant shown sympathy for the Beat writers during their hardships prevents him from criticizing the beat writers and their style of writing. By sympathizing and pitying the writers during their failures, Campbell softens the important journey from their hardships and rejection from society that made them what they became. He also spends less time giving his point of view than telling the story of the writers. Overall, he fails to completely explain the legacy of the Beat Generation, only quoting at the last sentence of the book, “I hope America will still be here when we get back. It was. And, at the same time, it wasn’t.”17 Readers can gain much knowledge about the writers and the major events of the beat generation from the book, but know less about the meaning of the beat.

The Beat Generation is a critical time period that caused the necessary revolution of culture to form the society today. Campbell accurately describes in detail the personal lives of the three major writers, and how they met through Lucien Carr. Campbell shows how the beat slowly formed into its final product through the influences of romanticism, shown Howl and other Poems, sexual desires, in basically all beat literature, drug use, noting their experiences in their books, Zen Buddhist ideology, shown in Ginsberg’s poems and Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums, jazz and blues rhythm, used in Burroughs’s writings and described by Kerouac as “the pit and prune-juice of pure beat life itself”, and individualism.18

The book informs in great detail the development of the Beat, and how it came to be. Campbell does not describe what exactly attracted readers to beat literature, and what the beat characterized. The beat generation was a path to individualism and opposition to conformity and to make sense of the world. In the book, there are few key points of the legacy, such as the freedom from censorship of literature when the court cases excused the obscene language and content. The introduction of drugs and discussion of homosexuality encouraged more open talks about the subjects. The Poems and literature of the Beat Generation were known for their originality in organization and its shocking language that observed homosexual behavior, but to show the effects of sexual orientation and drugs on self esteem. After describing the journey which led the beat to become what it was, Campbell described America as a changed new country, which in some ways was still the same America as before.


  1. Campbell, James. This is the Beat Generation. Secker & Warburg, 1999. 36.

  2. Campbell, James. 6.

  3. Campbell, James. 36.

  4. Campbell, James. 231.

  5. Campbell, James. 105

  6. Campbell, James. 163

  7. Campbell, James. 163

  8. Campbell, James. 245

  9. Campbell, James. 246

  10. Campbell, James. 204

  11. Campbell, James. 207

  12. Campbell, James. 6.

  13. Swift, Daniel. "'This Is the Beat Generation': The Beats Go On." The New York Times. The New York Times, 9 Dec. 2001. Web. 04 June 2012. < 2.

  14. Swift, Daniel. 2.

  15. Swift, Daniel. 4.

  16. Clark, Tom. "Knights of the Road." London Review of Books. London Review of Books, 6 July 2000. Web. 04 June 2012. <>. 5.

  17. Campbell, James. 285.                                 

  18. Campbell, James. 81.