Jack Kerouac photographed by Allen Ginsberg in New York in September 1955. All images: © Allen Ginsberg/Corbis
The romantic allure of the Beat Generation of writers and poets continues to hold sway over contemporary audiences, as proven by the release of two new movies based on key texts from the era, Howl and On The Road, and an exhibition of photos currently on show at the National Theatre in London…
The Beats came to prominence in 1950s America, and their experimental approach to writing – as well as their hedonistic lifestyle and celebration of non-conformity – struck a deep chord with the changing times in the country. Both the literature, and the key characters of Beat culture, have continued to influence generations since.
Neal Cassady and Natalie Jackson on Market Street in San Francisco, c. 1955, text by Allen Ginsberg
Neal Cassady driving with a female friend, mid-1950s, shot by Allen Ginsberg
The exhibition at the NT selects images of these key figures from the Corbis photography archive, and tracks the early years of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady and William S Burroughs, as their cultural significance grew. Many are taken by Ginsberg himself, and looking at these early shots, it is possible to see how image has become such a key element in the attraction of the Beats; the black-and-white photographs nostalgically echo with an a sense of adventure and innocence that seems long past.
Allen Ginsberg posing on a rooftop, shot by William S Burroughs, c. 1953
Timothy Leary and Neal Cassady aboard Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters bus, 1964, photograph by Allen Ginsberg
With much of the writing of the time being overtly biographical, it is easy to understand the fascination that became attached to the authors and those around them, with many becoming cult figures. Neal Cassady – the real-life “mad to live” Dean Moriarty in Kerouac’s On The Road – is featured in many of the images in the show, pictured alongside various women, and also on Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters’ bus. What is perhaps less obvious in these images is the darker aspects of the lives of the Beats, however. Cassady, like Kerouac, met an untimely death in his 40s, possibly from an overdose of barbituates.
For those more interested in the literature of the era, two new movies may appeal. A big screen version of On The Road, starring Sam Riley, will be released later in the year, while Howl, a movie about Ginsberg’s classic poem, has its debut at UK cinemas next week. Howl sees James Franco starring as Ginsberg, and recreates the legendary (and undocumented) first performance of the poem in a San Francisco coffee house in 1955, as well as the obscenity trial that followed its publication. These two events are placed in context by an extended interview with Franco-as-Ginsberg that also forms part of the film and is created from an amalgamation of real interviews that Ginsberg gave about the period during his life. The reenactments are engaging and immaculately done, though are perhaps at times too glossy: was everyone in the 50s really that good-looking? But what makes Howl really stand out is its emphasis on the poem itself, which takes centre stage and is brought to life by Franco’s passionate rendition as well as animation by Eric Drooker.
Howl will be released in the UK on February 25. The exhibition at the National Theatre continues until March 20. This Saturday (Feb 19), a panel discussion will be held in the Lyttelton Theatre where a number of figures (including the poet Michael Horovitz, the journalist and author John Harris Dunning, and Allen Ginsberg’s biographer Barry Miles) will discuss the significance of the Beat writers. Tickets for the event can be booked here.
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