In 1944 Lucien Carr stabbed David Kammerer to death in a park on the Hudson River in New York. These names may not be recognisable but it was a crucial moment in the formation of the so called Beat Generation, which influenced almost all music, art and literature which followed.
The beginnings of the Beat Generation can be traced back to Columbia University where the likes of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Lucien Carr and Hal Chase formed a tight-knit group of friends who enjoyed discussing philosophy and indulging in ‘actes gratuits’, actions with no conceivable reason nor point. Added to this group were two older men: William Burroughs, a Harvard graduate, who lived a life of leisure and narcotics and David Kammerer, a man who was obsessed with the young and brilliant Lucien Carr.
The death of Kammerer was the spur for both Kerouac and Burroughs to start writing properly. In the year after the incident they wrote together, providing alternate chapters for And the Hippos Were Boiled in their Tanks, a fictional account of the murder. They failed to have it published but the impact of the event is clear, especially as Kerouac returned to it in two further novels, The Town and the City and The Vanity of Duluoz.
When Carr was released from prison two years later, he, the original shining light of the group, withdrew to join United Press with whom he stayed for the rest of his life. The others remained, living a life of excess which fuelled their writing. Burroughs in particular was known for his drug taking and wild lifestyle. He became addicted to heroin, the substance which inspired his novels, Junky and Naked Lunch and wrestled with his sexuality. Although he knew that he was gay, he lived with a woman called Joan Vollmer, who he shot in a drunken game of William Tell at a party in 1951.
Many of the people and experiences of the Beat Generation can be found in Jack Kerouac’s seminal novel, On the Road. Written in an intense three week period in 1951 on a continuous, 120 foot scroll of tracing paper sheets that he taped together, it was to become one of the most important works of the 20th Century and is considered the essential Beat work.
The influence of the Beats can be seen everywhere, from the novels of Hunter S. Thompson and Bret Easton Ellis, to the music of Bob Dylan and Tom Waits. This article is just a taster of what they have to offer; I don’t have space to talk of Ginsberg and Corso, of Tangiers and Paris, of the San Francisco Renaissance and the later Beatniks. But I urge you to find out for yourself; it is one of the most fascinating and inspiring groups of people, full of murder and intrigue and most importantly, amazing writing.