The Daybreak Boys: Essays on the Literature of the Beat Generation

The Daybreak Boys: Essays on the Literature of the Beat Generation

The Daybreak Boys: Essays on the Literature of the Beat Generation

The Daybreak Boys: Essays on the Literature of the Beat Generation


"Who howled... and were dragged off the roof waving genitals and manuscripts- Allen Ginsberg , "Howl"

"Beat." A single-word synthesis describing this group of disaffected heroes of the subculture who used the language of the body, as well as of the soul, in their writing. These questers for a new vision, journeying through the inner and outer conflicts of their disparate, though related, lives by experimenting with new modes of transcendence, new styles of writing, and new methods of surviving, paved the way for a new generation of writers by breeching taboos; by exposing their problems, their nightmares, and their fears in print; by shocking the safe, insipid culture of the fifties. They created a movement- the Beat Generation- with their revolution of the spirit and their anthem of "Go."

In these critical essays Gregory Stephenson takes the reader on a journey through the literature of the Beat Generation: a journey encompassing that common ethos of Beat literature- the passage from darkness to light, from fragmented being toward wholeness, from Beat to Beatific. In his introduction, Stephenson provides a brief history of this literary and cultural phenomenon and establishes the basis of these authors' right to be called a "generation." He examines what sets the Beats apart from other writers of the postwar period, showing which qualities of the works of these dissimilar authors formed the nexus of a movement. He also discusses the effect they had on a very unaware and cautious public.

Stephenson then provides original in-depth examinations of the writings of eight Beat authors and develops new perspectives on their work. He travels through Jack Kerouac's Duluoz Legend. following Kerouac's quests for identity, community, and spiritual knowledge. He examines Allen Ginsberg's use of transcendence in "Howl," discovers the Gnostic vision in William S. Burroughs' fiction, and studies the mythic, visionary power of Lawrence Ferlinghetti's poetry. Stephenson also provides one of the first detailed examinations of the writings of lesser-known Beat authors: John Clellon Holmes. Gregory Corso, Richard Fariña, and Michael McClure. He explores the myth and the mystery of the literary legend of Neal Cassady. And in the conclusion Stephenson integrates the common traits of the Beat writers- their use of primitivism, shamanism, myth and magic, spontaneity, and improvisation, all of which led them to a new idiom of consciousness and to the expansion of the parameters of American literature.

Carolyn Cassady, in the foreword to Stephenson's chapbook on her husband Neal, has stated that "Stephenson's concise insights illuminate with exceptional clarity the complex dualistic nature Cassady wrestled with throughout his life- both real and fictional." Burroughs, commenting on Stephenson's essay on him, has said, "The precise parallels with my own lines of thought, independently arrived at, are striking." And Ferlinghetti has called the essay on Ginsberg's "Howl," "excellent." Stephen Moore, in his review of the Cassady essay in The Kerouac Connection, refers to "Stephenson's growing reputation as one of the best Beat critics writing today."


To find the Western path,
Right thro' the Gates of Wrath
I urge my way.
Sweet Mercy leads me on;
With soft repentant moan
I see the break of day.

William Blake


T he title of this collection of essays on the writers of the Beat Generation is taken (respectfully and with kind permission) from John Clellon Holmes' original title for his novel Go (1952). Holmes has explained that the Daybreak Boys were "a river-gang on the New York waterfront of the 1840's," and that he felt it was "an appropriate title for a book about a new underground of young people, pioneering the search for what lay 'at the end of the night' (a phrase of Kerouac's)." Holmes was prevented by his publishers from using the title because they had recently published a book titled The Build-Up Boys.

I have taken The Daybreak Boys as the title for this volume because I, too, found it apt and appropriate, suggestive of the essential qualities of the writings of the Beat Generation: their contraband, outlaw character, and their shared sense of a quest, of a journey through darkness to light. The phrase also resonates with images from the poetry of William Blake and William Butler Yeats. In Blake, night represents humankind's fallen state and all the forces of oppression and restraint that hold the human spirit in check, whereas "break of day," in the poem "Introduction" from Songs of Experience, symbolizes liberation through imagination and vision. Yeats employs the image "Daybreak and a candle-end" in "The Wild Old . . .

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