The Beat Generation of the 1950s was part of an extremely controversial cultural phenomenon that continues to influence us to this day. Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and other members of this counterculture are still the subject of numerous works. Just last year, at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, a new movie version of Kerouac’s On the Road debuted.
It is widely believed that the Beats led to the hippies of the 60s and contributed to changing societal views towards drugs, sex, the arts, and more. When people debate about legalizing marijuana or same-sex marriage today, they can trace such ideas back to the Beats. In their book Mania, authors Ronald K.L. Collins and David M. Skover examine the lives of those men referred to as the Beats and how these fascinating individuals left an indelible mark on our culture.
Collins and Skover explicitly state that in this work they “seek neither to demonize nor apologize for Ginsberg and his cohorts.” That is, the authors aim to present the Beats in an honest way, without necessarily glorifying some of the more contentious aspects of the group members’ lives. In certain ways, the book emulates the writing of the Beats themselves; the stories are raw, without any sugarcoating of the alcohol, drugs, or sex that permeated the scene of these counter-cultural icons.
By the end, the reader feels that they have journeyed across the country with Kerouac, Ginsberg, and the entire cast of “angelheaded hipsters.”
While the Beat Generation was undoubtedly an influential movement in our history, one might wonder why a book about this group is being featured on a mental health website. In fact, the field of psychiatry and mental health were prominent themes in the lives and writing of many members of the Beats.
Allen Ginsberg was once a patient at the Columbia Presbyterian Psychiatric Institute and much is told in Mania about the relationship he formed with writer Carl Solomon while they were both there receiving psychiatric care. Jack Kerouac as well was sent to a psychiatric ward while he served in the Navy. One of Kerouac’s more famous quotes is the line from On the Road that begins “The only people for me are the mad ones…”
In these stories of what authorities in the 40s and 50s deemed “madness,” we can catch a glimpse of the history of psychiatric treatment. While it is hard and perhaps inappropriate to speculate as to whether or not these famous men suffered from mental illnesses, it seems that their nonconformity to society’s norms certainly played a role in their hospitalization. For instance, Ginsberg’s homosexual behavior was cited as one of the reasons for his need of care, whereas nowadays this would not be the case. Much of what may have seemed shocking in their day would seem to be to be normal or commonplace to most people today.
The authors utilize Ginsberg’s famous poem “Howl” as a focal point of the book. Perhaps the most well-known work of the Beats (it shares its title with a 2010 film about Ginsberg starring James Franco), its opening lines echo its writer’s experience with emotional distress: I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness.
With graphic imagery and stark language, the poem typifies the Beat ethos of presenting life exactly as one sees it, with no holding back. As Collins and Skover put it, this poem represents when Ginsberg “turned his inner madness outward.” The book also goes into detail regarding the famous obscenity trial over the poem. Through this legal battle, the reader sees how the Beats influenced the very definition of art in modern times.
Whatever one thinks of the Beats and their writing, there is no denying that they had a major influence on our society: Artists from Bob Dylan to the Beatles have commented on the inspiration they drew from this group. Mania offers an intriguing look at the Beat Generation, even for readers who may be unfamiliar with these compelling icons. Meanwhile, for those who may be well versed in the history of the counter-cultural movement, the book provides a great deal of new insight. And although the book is not meant as a history of mental health care, it serves as a fascinating look at what was considered psychologically “abnormal” just half a century ago.
Top Five Books, March, 2013
Hardcover, 464 pages