“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness…”
The poet Allen Ginsberg first read out these lines from his poem ‘Howl’ at a reading at the Six Gallery in December 1955. The reading was an immediate success and nearly 65 years on, the lines still resonate and the influence of Ginsberg, then 29, still continues on literature, social movements, popular culture and politics.
The Beat Generation – the literary movement formed by Ginsberg and his fellow writers such as Jack Kerouac, Peter Orlovsky, William Burroughs and Lucien Carr – which explored post-war culture and set the stage of much that came later, including hippies and the quest for spiritualism which brought many to India.
Though many of the writers first met in Columbia University in New York, it was in San Francisco they flowered. Fans from all over the world still make a beeline to San Francisco to soak in the atmosphere in which the Beats lived and thrived, creating some of their greatest works. After the 2012 movie based on Jack Kerouac’s book On the Road, and before that Howl (2010), starring James Franco as Ginsberg, interest in the Beats has heightened.
And there is much to see in San Francisco – from walking tours based on Kerouac’s brief stays in the city to the Big Sur, celebrated in his works to the bookshop set up by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti who published ‘Howl’ and fought and won an obscenity case about the book. Ferlinghetti, himself a significant poet, recently turned 100, a milestone celebrated by the bookshop and the city too.
Right across City Lights is the Beats Museum, a private initiative by a long time devotee of the Beats. “The Beat Museum is a labour of love,” says Jerry Cimino, who worked in sales for large companies such as IBM and American Express before he decided to pursue his passion for the culture that the Beats spawned. His wife and he opened a bookshop and a museum in 2004 right across City Lights – which is next to Jack Kerouac alley – and began collecting memorabilia associated with the writers and the poets.
It is here that for the price of admission (eight dollars) the visitor can see books, posters, photographs, even typewriters and jackets belonging to Ginsberg, Kerouac and others — and understand the seminal influence they had on their own generation and beyond. Many of the items come in via mail or are handed over by people for display in the museum.
“The Beat Generation writers influenced everybody. Both Dylan and John Lennon read Howl and On The Road in 1959. There’s even evidence that the Beatles changed the spelling of their name from the Silver Beetles in 1959 to The Beatles in 1960. Dylan and The Beatles exemplified the values of The Beat Generation’” says Cimino.
“Young people today believe in racial equality, gender equality, gay and lesbian rights and, of course, climate change. The Beats would’ve called that “Environmentalism” back in the 50s and 60s, when they were writing about saving the whales and saving the dolphins. The Beats made it OK to be different. Allen Ginsberg came out of the closet as a gay activist before we had the term “gay”, before we had the term “activist,” he says.
In 1961, Allen Ginsberg, along with Orlovsky, left by boat to Bombay to get away from the controversies generated by ‘Howl’ and to explore India, visiting ashrams, the ghats of Benares and opium dens in Delhi. In Calcutta, he met the writers of the Hungrialist Movement, including Malay Roychowdhry, Samir Roychowdhry, Shakti Chattopadhyay and Debi Roy. Ginsberg’s Indian journey is chronicled in Deborah Baker’s A Blue Hand: The Beat Generation in India.
Cimino says he is keen to visit India to follow in their footsteps. The museum gets visitors from India. Many international celebrities have visited the Museum to pay homage to the Beats. He rattles off the names – Patti Smith, Tom Waits and Jimmy Page, the lead guitarist of Led Zeppelin. “After the Beats went to India, we had to as well,” Page reportedly said.
The museum struggles against the tide of rising rentals and the burst of start up companies competing for space in the expensive city. “As a not-for-profit, it is not easy to get employees who can afford to live here.” But he intends to continue, as he has all these years. “We need the Beats probably more than ever. The Beat Generation embraced diversity. That’s important, especially in a global environment. The Beats encouraged people, especially young people, to find their own path and live their lives in their own ways. That’s especially important as the world moves faster and faster.”