John Clellon Holmes introduced the term "Beat generation" in a 1952 essay on his novel GO (1952), and later Kerouac suggested that "Beat" meant being socially marginalized and exhausted ("beaten down") and blessed ("beatific"). There are also musical connotations to the name as many members were jazz enthusiasts.
The four original Beats, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, and Neal Cassady, met in New York in the late forties. More than a decade would pass before Ginsberg's Howl ignited the explosion that would coalesce the disparate ideas, the sense of lifestyle, and the philosophical musings into a full-fledged literary movement.
Socially the Beats, many of whom were homosexual or bisexual, extolled individual freedom and attacked what they saw as the materialism, militarism, consumerism, and conformity of the 1950s; "America, where everyone is always doing what they ought," as Kerouac put it.
The battle against social conformity and literary tradition was central to the work of the Beats. Among this group of poets, hallucinogenic drugs were used to achieve higher consciousness, as was meditation and Eastern religion. Buddhism especially was important to many of the Beat poets
In 1952 Kerouac and the bohemians were united by a sense of the emotional, aesthetic, and spiritual deficiencies of the nation, and Holmes's book and article were the first public reflections of that attitude, the first signal of a process that would turn alienation into a fad. "This is the Beat Generation" struck a responsive nerve.
These few pilgrims were mystics who rejected materialism and rationalism as the highest level of reality in a nation that went to church but believed in a mechanical universe, a nation that felt man was nature's master and was capable of perfection, a people who celebrated optimism, consumerism, and conformity.
To be Beat was to create new rhythms in the mind - to get beyond the ordinary rush of raw life where it was possible to more than just live. Realizing this, opened up whole new worlds of seeing. Dissent, however, was always being revised.
Throughout the 50s the Beat was more of a literary eruption than a revolution. In 1953 Junkie by Burroughs led to Thom Gunn’s Fighting Terms in 54, to Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Pictures From a Gone World in 55, to Ginsberg’s Howl in 56, to Kerouac’s On The Road in 57, and right through Gary Snyder’s Riprap in 59.
The Beat Generation rejected the prevailing academic attitude to poetry, feeling that poetry should be brought to the people. Readings would take place in the Coexistence Bagel Shop and Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, often to the accompaniment of Jazz.
The Beat Generation writers and artists, through their redemption of the commonplace, took art out of the galleries and back to the streets. The Beats freedom of expression shook up post-war stasis and gave birth to cultural diversity and the widespread counter-culture of the sixties, seventies and beyond.