The influence of the Beats in Europe

To what extent did this American symbol that initiated the Beat Generation influenced the rest of the world? I will mainly focus on Europe, given that the old continent had close ties with America, and that at this time, most literary and cultural movement crossed the Atlantic Ocean. The Beat Generation was not an exception.

First, I want to focus on how the Beat Generation developed from America to Europe. The four main countries in which the Beat Generation had spread are France, Great Britain, Germany and the Netherlands. After war and the deprivation it had triggered, Europe had an appetite for updated cultural movements and in particular in the U.S. However, all that was American was not necessarily welcome; witness the slogans “U.S. Go Home” found in France just after World War II, but overall, the U.S. has always been a fascinating nation and land for many European people, and especially youngster. This explains why, consciously or not, there was in Europe eagerness to American things. In addition, American poets, some of them being Beats, came to Europe, and even lived in Paris, like Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsberg in 1957 who came to a place called the “Beat Hotel” in the very center of the city of lights. Kerouac also came to this hotel.

Let us see how On the Road and more broadly the Beat poetry has evolved in the European Canon since 1957. At first, the Beat poetry was not really known in Europe. On the Road was published in 1960 in France. “Still, for all the literary activities going on at the Beat Hotel, it is striking to see that while the Beats were able to influence each other, they did not make much of an impression on the French literary scene which surrounded them, not even when their work began to be published and translated.” (Jaap Van Der Bent, 51). Progressively, their work was published by Jean-Jacques Lebel, a French proactive writer in a French anthology of Beat writing, La Poésie de la Beat Generation (Paris, Ed. Denoël, 1965). Thanks to him, French reader started to hear about the movement. “Pretty soon there definitely was a receptive audience for Beat writing in France. Still, on the whole French writers tended to keep their distances from the Beat legacy: they admired but did not imitated.” (Jaap Van Der Bent, 51) Indeed, there are very few French Beat writers. Claude Pélieu, for instance was strongly influenced by Burrough’s cut ups, but according to Van Der Bent he was far less successful. In Great Britain, Beat poetry reached the more fame around 1965. But previously, a book called Protest (1960), a translation of an American book by Gene Feldman and Max Gatenberg, The Beat Generation and the Angry Young Men (1958), had a great audience among British youngsters, John Lennon himself owned the book. In 1965 Allen Ginsberg came to England to give lectures, readings (one of them in front of more than two thousand people) and met with English poets. In the Netherlands, On the Road was published in 1961, and overall it was not as a milestone as in other countries. Indeed, as soon as in 1858, critics tended to prefer The Subterraneans, 1958, to On the Road. As a whole, the Beat influence in Holland remained weak. Actually, in many European countries, literature had already experienced more freedom, more liberation from social and literary constraints through Surrealism and Modernism after the 1920s, consequently, the Beat movement, literaturewise, was not as revolutionary as it was in America.

However, the European cultural (or rather, countercultural) fallout of the Beat movement is significant. Student riots that occurred in 1968 around the globe were very probably partly influenced by the Beat spirit. If Hippies and Beats are different, there is no denying that the first influenced the second. Troubles started in Berkeley, related to the hippie movement. It spread up to France. Along with Beatniks or Hippies, a large proportion of French students claimed more freedom, free sex, drug legalization, peace and love… In the French mind there was an association between Beatniks, Hippies and “Yé-yé” (French-style hippies). But Beatniks came before hippies and Yé-yé and actually influenced the two movements. Indeed, Kerouac and the Beat poets denounced the American Way of Life, the so-called “squares”, who were inflexible and conformist. They praised the hipsters who reject social taboos and what they saw as an “Air-Conditioned Nightmare” (Henri Miller, 1945). Kerouac denounces “the absolute madness and fantastic hoorair of New York with its millions and millions hustling forever for a buck among themselves” (On the Road, Chapter 14). In May 1968, it began with student riots in Paris and eventually, eleven million workers went on strike (22% of the French population). Some of the slogans yelled by students can easily remind of a Beat influence: “We don’t want a world where the guarantee of not dying of starvation brings the risk of dying of boredom.”, “The more you consume, the less you live. Commodities are the opium of the people”, “Live without wasted time and enjoy without hindrance”. One can easily imagine these sentences in Sal’s mouth. As we can see with the French example, the Beat movement had fallout outside of the U.S, and directly or not, youngsters in Europe got influenced by this cultural movement.

Back to first page.

I. Kerouac, On the Road, and their influence on the Beats.

III. From Europe to America?


One thought on “The influence of the Beats in Europe

  1. Charles,

    This is a fascinating read. I think you are correct to point out the reciprocal relationships between the Beats and Europe in terms of influence going both ways. My main comments are largely focused on structure. You have some paragraphs here that I think could be more strongly structured through revision (which would also help you catch some grammatical issues). The larger point is that your strong analytic points tend to be buried at the end of paragraphs and the end of sections. For example:

    “Actually, in many European countries, literature had already experienced more freedom, more liberation from social and literary constraints through Surrealism and Modernism after the 1920s, consequently, the Beat movement, literaturewise, was not as revolutionary as it was in America.”

    This is an important point. I think you could talk about the different cultural milieu’s that the Beats entered in the U.S. vs. England vs. France. What was the status of the “squares” (or the equivalent term) that Beats attacked for conformity and staleness?

    You also bury this point further down in your section III:

    “Of course, the Beats came from the U.S., and maybe being American and fascinating was the reason of their success in Europe. But the initial intertwinement may have shaped the whole movement.”

    To me, it seems like you could reverse sections II and III for a more logical flow of the project–the influence of France on the Beats and then the influence of the Beats on France (and other European countries). I would like to see how French critics responded to “On the Road” vs. “The Subterraneans” (1958 not 1858–you might want to fix that typo). Overall, very interesting and a good reminder that “American Literature” gains much of its meanings from its interactions with other national literatures.



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