"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."