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by Rosemary McKittrick

This might just be the most defining photo of the Beat Generation. Columbia University, 1945, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs and Hal Chase are pictured together like cavalrymen getting ready for combat.  Smug and delinquent, they seem poised for some sort of culture crash. 

The Beats were the "all grown up" generation with nowhere to go and nothing to offer but their own uncertainty. They were the fringe element of the 1950s, a close knit group of "alienated" and "beat down" writers, searching for truth in altered states.

Ginsberg remembered first hearing the word "beat" on the streets. Its meaning for him was "exhausted, at the bottom of the world, looking up or out, sleepless, wide-eyed, perceptive, rejected by society, on you own, streetwise."  For Kerouac "beat" referred more to "characters of a special type of spirituality."

These merry bohemians rose to fame not only for their non-conformity but also their non-conforming style of writing. 

"His (Kerouac's) ideal was not to display his literary skill, but to have a conversation with the reader," noted Jazz musician, David Amram said.

"Poetry is not an expression of the party line. It's that time of night, lying in bed, thinking what you really think, making the private world public, that's what the poet does," Ginsberg said of his style.

Burroughs believed artists were the real architects of change, not the political legislators who implemented change after the fact.

The final person pictured in the photo, Hal Chase, was a close friend of Kerouac's. He introduced Neal Cassady to Ginsberg and Kerouac.

The Ivy League, Columbia University may have seemed like an odd meeting ground for these literary subversives, but that's where it began.  The year was 1944, Kerouac was 22.  Ginsberg was 17.

"Allen walked into the living room to find Jack sprawling in the armchair, and trying to make an impression, looked at him with shining black eyes and confided in a deep voice, "Discretion is the better part of valor." Instead of finding this funny, Jack replied, "Aw, shut up, you little twitch."

The major Beat writings include Jack Kerouac's "On the Road," Allen Ginsberg's "Howl," and William Burroughs' "Naked Lunch."

"The so-called Beat Generation was a whole bunch of people, of all different nationalities, who came to the conclusion that society sucked," said poet, Amiri Baraka.

The photo described has been reproduced thousands of times in many books and publications. This example appears to be of a better quality than most.

The original, sepia-tone, gelatin silver-print photo sold on March 9 at Pacific Book Auction Galleries in San Francisco, Calif.  It was taken either directly from the original negative or no more than one generation from it, and measured 2 1/2 inches by 3 1/2 inches.

Estimated to bring $1,500-$2,500, it sold for $7,475. The photo was featured in the Edwin Blair Collection of Beat Literature plus Modern Literature sale.

Here are some current values for other Beat Literature sold in the auction.

Beat Literature
»Jack Kerouac; "Visions of Cody;" first edition, first printing, first issue; pictorial jacket; inscribed presentation copy; 1972;  $1,035.
»William Burroughs; "The Naked Lunch;" first edition, first issue, dust jacket; signed; 1959;  $4,025.
»Allen Ginsberg; "Iron Horse;" original holographic manuscript from tape transcriptions by Ginsberg; plus three other published book editions; offers interesting insight into author's creative process, 1966-1985; $4,600.
»Allen Ginsberg; "Howl and Other Poems;" first edition, first printing; inscribed presentation copy, San Francisco, 1956;  $7,475.
»Charles Bukowski; Chapbook; "Flowers, First and Bestial Wail;" first edition; one of 200 copies of his rare, first book; inscribed to friend John Webb, 1960;  $9,775.

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