The Best Minds of My Generation
A Literary History of the Beatsby Allen Ginsberg
A unique and compelling history of the Beats, in the words of the movement’s most central member, Allen Ginsberg, based on a seminal series of his lectures.
In 1977, twenty years after the publication of his landmark poem “Howl” and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, Allen Ginsberg decided it was time to teach a course on the literary history of the Beat Generation. Through the creation of this course, which he ended up teaching five times, first at the Naropa Institute and later at Brooklyn College, Ginsberg saw an opportunity to present the history of Beat Literature in his own inimitable way. Compiled and edited by renowned Beat scholar Bill Morgan, and with an introduction by Anne Waldman, The Best Minds of My Generation presents the lectures in edited form, complete with notes, and paints a portrait of the Beats as Ginsberg knew them: friends, confidantes, literary mentors, and fellow revolutionaries.
In The Best Minds of My Generation, Ginsberg shares anecdotes of meeting Kerouac, Burroughs, and other writers for the first time, explains his own poetics, elucidates the importance of music to Beat writing, discusses visual influences and the cut-up method, and paints a portrait of a group who were leading a literary revolution. For Beat aficionados and neophytes alike, The Best Minds of My Generation is a personal yet critical look at one of the most important literary movements of the twentieth century.
“Jack Kerouac may have coined the term Beat Generation, but it was Ginsberg’s indefatigable energy that shaped and sustained one of the most significant movements in American literature . . . Morgan, a leading authority on Ginsberg and author of numerous books on the Beat Generation, has done a superb job organizing and editing the material, while preserving the poet’s voice and lecture style . . . Essential reading.” —Library Journal
“A gold mine for anyone interested in beat literature . . . Ginsberg reads and thinks like a poet; interested in language and style, he abandons narrative to leap from image to image, yoking grandiloquent statements with pungent summations and deadpan remarks. Fans of the period will embrace Ginsberg’s raconteur style and insider knowledge about his friends and their achievements.” —Publishers Weekly
“Authoritatively edited by Morgan from course material and tapes . . . While many classes were as free-wheeling, digressive, and opinionated as anyone might expect from Ginsberg, most offered close readings, literary background, candid recollections, and cogent analyses, highlighting both craft and literary influence . . . A rich sourcebook for literary historians and fans of the passionate, iconoclastic Beats.” —Kirkus Reviews
To begin with, the phrase “Beat Generation” rose out of a specific conversation with Jack Kerouac and John Clellon Holmes in 195051 when discussing the nature of generations, recollecting the glamour of the “lost generation.” Kerouac discouraged the notion of a coherent “generation” and said, “Ah, this is nothing but a beat generation!” They discussed whether it was a “found” generation, which Kerouac sometimes referred to, or “angelic” generation, or various other epithets. But Kerouac waved away the question and said “beat generation!” not meaning to name the generation but to un-name it.
John Clellon Holmes then wrote an article in late 1952 in the New York Times magazine section with the headline title of the article, “This Is the Beat Generation.” And that caught on. Then Kerouac published anonymously a fragment of On the Road in New World Writing, a paperback anthology of the 1950s, called “Jazz of the Beat Generation,” and that caught on as a catchphrase, so that’s the history of the term.
Secondly, Herbert Huncke, author of The Evening Sun Turned Crimson, who was a friend of Kerouac, Burroughs, and others of that literary circle from the 1940s, introduced them to what was then known as “hip language.” In that context, word “beat” is a carnival “subterranean,” subcultural, term, a term much used in Times Square in the 1940s. “Man, I’m beat . . .” meaning without money and without a place to stay. Could also mean “in the winter cold, shoes full of blood walking on the snowbank docks waiting for a door in the East River to open up to a room full of steam heat . . .” Or, as in a conversation, “Would you like to go to the Bronx Zoo?” “Nah, man, I’m too beat, I was up all night.” So the original street usage meant exhausted, at the bottom of the world, looking up or out, sleepless, wide-eyed, perceptive, rejected by society, on your own, streetwise.