The Beat Goes On: Women Writers of the Beat Generation

The Beats were one of the most influential communities of the 20th century, and my project focuses on the critically underrepresented women who were part of their influence. Today, the Beats are largely celebrated for their literary legacy, popularizing a spontaneous poetic style as well as promoting an antimaterialist ethos and globe-trotting mystique in opposition to Cold War attitudes of confinement and consensus. During the 1950s and 1960s, the Beats were seen as harbingers of cultural disillusionment, taking to the road in search of God, championing the “beatific” nature of the disenfranchised, the poor, and the lowly across America. Today, the Beats are considered to be the progenitors of pacifist “hippie” culture and a revolutionary postwar spirit.

Despite this democratizing goal, a prevailing critical consensus holds that the Beat movement was primarily a “boy’s club,” in which the homosocial bonds between the key male figures fostered a system of literary mentorship that largely excluded women writers. Although the canon is frequently narrowed to give precedence to Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs, and the male writers who joined their cadre, my project focuses on the many women writers who were part of the Beat community and the lasting impact of their work. My goal is to reconceptualize Beat aesthetics, themes, and communities in light of these women’s writing. The project entails close textual analysis of these writers’ work across multiple genres, including poetry, memoir, and fiction, as well as research toward historical and cultural contextualization. I have conducted and plan to conduct more personal interviews with some of these writers as well, in order to faithfully represent the truth of their experience.

In addition to bringing well-deserved attention to these marginalized writers, this research is valuable for American literary history in expanding knowledge of women’s writing at midcentury. More broadly, these writers are of significance to our understanding of modern feminism as well. The majority of these women worked to support their families at a time described by Betty Friedan as the age of the “feminine mystique,” and they pushed back against the rigid social conventions of their time by escaping into bohemian life. The Beat women wrote frankly about reproductive roulette, single motherhood, abortion, social stigma about being women who lived alone, and difficulty starting careers in a sexist culture. For their shared values of self-sufficiency and dedication to their work, these women could be seen as feminist forerunners to the major crest of second wave feminism. However, feminism is not a single, static, monolithic push, and my interrogation of Beat women’s texts will complicate and enrich understandings of postwar gender conventions and link to ongoing discussions in modern feminist thought, including a flux in cultural attitudes toward domestic labor, the importance of women’s communities, and forms of female leadership.