The role of Beat Culture in the use of marijuana in the US


Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs were the 3 writers of the Beat culture who popularized marijuana in the United States

Beat Culture. The Beat generation was a literary movement that began with the writers Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs. By the way, do not confuse William Burroughs with his brother, Edgar Burroughs, author of Tarzan’s novels.

Their literary work and philosophy of life had a great influence on the culture and politics of the United States after the war and, in addition, popularized the use of marijuana.

The Beats were the first generation of writers for whom marijuana was an essential part of their work and thought. Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs used to write after consuming cannabis.

The most important character of the culture and acceptance of marijuana in the United States, in addition to the writers mentioned, was the jazz clarinetist Mezz Mezzrow, who was the main supplier of Mexican marijuana in jazz clubs in Harlem.

Cannabis was very important for their cultural contacts, not only in Mexico, but also in the African-American community.

While the so-called “lost generation” of writers like Ernest Hemingway bathed in alcohol and burst their livers, the Beat movement, the forerunner of the hippie movement, fell in love with marijuana.

Writers like William Burroughs openly declared that they had written the entirety of his literary work under the influence of cannabis. And his close friend, writer Allen Ginsberg also claimed that marijuana is a catalyst for aesthetic perceptions.

Jack Kerouac: the first hippie

But among all the writers of this era, the one who most influenced society was Jack Kerouac. Without pretending, he was the first hippie, or at least, he aroused a social awareness among American youth that led to the hippie movement.

Kerouac saw life as a journey that had to be enjoyed without missing a moment. It traveled all the United States, from east to west and from north to south, making auto stop. From his experience his book “On the road” was born.

Jack Kerouac said in an interview in 1969 that he had smoked more marijuana than anyone else in the world.

Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac met in New York in 1943, through mutual friend Lucien Carr. Ginsberg was Carr’s friend at Columbia University. Kerouac began studying at Columbia University but left to join the Merchant Navy. For his part, Burroughs knew Carr through his friend David Kammerer.

In July 1944, Carr argued with Kammerer and they had a great fight in which Carr killed his partner in self-defense. Kerouac and Burroughs co-wrote a novel on this subject. The collaboration between both writers became a hallmark of the group of these 3 friends.

The “Beat” movement

Kerouac and writer John Clellon Holmes proposed the name of Beat Generation in 1948, inspired by a friend who was a drug addict and who referred to himself as “beat” because he felt like beaten up by the life.

However, Kerouac did not like that connotation of the word beat. He wanted the concept to be full of hope, spirituality and lots of jazz music. Between the blue smoke of jazz clubs in Harlem and the marijuana he smoked, Kerouac found his personal style to write. In fact, when in 1957 he published his excellent novel “On the road”, The New York Times called it a historical milestone and great novel. In fact it became a symbol against censorship in the United States.

The person who for Kerouac embodied the spirit of what he wanted the beat movement to be was Neal Cassady. This man had spent his childhood traveling around the country with his father, a vagabond. And when they were not traveling and stealing cars, the child was locked in state reformatories.

The letters of Neal Cassady had a spontaneity and freshness that left Kerouac very impressed. That, along with his joints of marijuana and his love for jazz music, ended up convincing young Kerouac, who got caught by his “wild explosion of American joy”. From that moment, Kerouac followed his own style of spontaneous prose.

The novel “On the road” narrates the journeys made by the writer throughout the country. Thanks to this book and its descriptions of traditional culture, pop music is born (popular) and also, Kerouac introduced cannabis in the homes of millions of readers from all over the world.

From the “Beat” to the Beatles

In 1960 the “beat culture” was already so popular around the world that John Lennon decided to change the name of his band “The Silver Beetles” to The Beatles. And perhaps The Beatles were the musicians who consumed the most marijuana in the 60s. In fact, it was said that with the herb that the Liverpool group had smoked, a whole flock of sheep could be fed.

For his part, Cassady, Kerouac’s travel companion had already achieved fame as a writer. But the police arrested him for selling some marijuana to a secret police officer and he was sent to San Quentin prison for two years.

When he got out of prison, he became the nexus between the Beats and the hippies when he worked as a bus driver with a bus that had bought to work for the writer Ken Kesey, author of the book “One flew over the cuckoo’s nest” in 1962.

Cassady and his gang, the Merry Pranksters, began a journey across the country. This trip inspired the Beatles in their “Magical Mystery Tour”, The Doors in their “The End” and in the “Magic Bus” of The Who.

Soon after, he became the roommate of Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir, whom he helped write the Grateful Dead’s first major song, “That’s for the Other,” which was a celebration of Weir’s experience on the Cassady bus and the Merry Prankster. Two days later Cassady was struck by a train and died.

Cannabis activism in the Beat Culture

Allen Ginsberg continued to be an essential person among the hippies, who were the descendants of the Beats, but with more colorful clothes and longer hair. In 1964, he founded the New York branch of LeMar (Legalize Marijuana). Displaying his refined irony, the poet said that “This is the first manifestation of seeds in New York, the first attempt to publicly demonstrate in favor of a change in the law regarding cannabis.”

Another booklet published by LeMar said that, like the prohibition of alcohol, the prohibition of marijuana violates the freedom of the individuals, promotes organized crime and the evasion of money. But while alcohol leaves you with a big hangover and kills you, as it happened to the writer Dylan Thomas (from whom the musician Bob Dylan got his name), marijuana is a kind substance in all the senses that, besides, doesn’t cause addiction.

Already at that time, Bob Dylan had adopted the literary style of Ginsberg and Kerouac in their own lyrics, and he paid tribute to them with his songs such as “Subterranean Homesick Blues”.

The Soft Machine group was named after one of Burrough’s novels. And his book “The Wild Boys” was converted by the group Duran Duran into a single and video of the same name. Finally, Burroughs became a great influence and source of inspiration for artists like Patti Smith and Jim Carroll, and even collaborated with Kurt Cobain, of the Nirvana group.

Interesting facts about the big three of the Beat generation

William Burrough spent a lot of time in the Amazon jungle with the tribes. There he discovered the medicinal and entheogenic properties of ayahuasca. He decided to write his book ” letters of the ayahuasca” in which he tells of his “trips” under the influence of this product, which is a true work of botanical engineering that is produced by mixing concrete doses of two plants of the jungle: the ayahuasca and the chacruna.

The literary work of Jack Kerouac speaks about issues such as spirituality, jazz music, Buddhism, marijuana and travel. He soon became one of the most important writers in the United States and the father of the hippie movement. His most read book is “On the road.” And if you read it when you are young, I assure you that it will be difficult for you not to get on the road to discover the world by doing a hitchhiking.

Allen Ginsberg was one of the best poets of the Beat generation in the 1950s. His opposition to capitalism, materialism and militarism in the United States brought him many problems. His best known book is “Howl” in which he denounces the destructive power of capitalism. The book begins with the words “I have seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness.”

 It was banned for a long time until finally a less conservative judge lifted the ban. Among his best-known fans is the singer Bob Dylan.

Undoubtedly, the Beat Generation has made our western civilization more hippie and more pro-marijuana. His vision of cannabis was essential to achieve social acceptance of this substance in our times.

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