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The Beat Generation was led by artists including Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, who wrote about alternative sexualities, the rejection of materialism and experimentation with drugs. It is from this movement that the stereotypical image of the beatnik was born: a young artist wearing a black turtleneck and a beret, reciting free verse poetry and chain-smoking cigarettes.
The Beats were bohemian hedonists, desirous only of material goods which were disposable and offered immediate physical pleasure. Cigarettes were readily available, socially acceptable and affordable, even for nomadic writers who couldn’t hold down a steady job.
In On the Road, Jack Kerouac documents his aimless trek across the United States, in an attempt to capture the essence of American existence. He is often too poor to buy food but is never without a pack of cigarettes.
“All the cigarette butts, the bottles, the matchbooks, the come and the gone were swept up in this pile. Had they taken me with it, Dean would never have seen me again. He would have had to roam the entire United States and look in every garbage pail from coast to coast before he found me embryonically convoluted among the rubbishes of my life, his life, and the life of everybody concerned and not concerned.” – On the Road by Jack Kerouac
The Beat writers embraced hedonistic ideals unapologetically. Cigarettes, sex, drugs and alcohol represented the ability to take personal control of your happiness and your body. Their work was often viewed as lewd and illicit, in certain cases they were even tried in court for obscenity, like Allen Ginsberg for his poem Howl.
“I saw the best of my generation destroyed by madness,
starving hysterical naked,
who copulated ecstatic and insatiate with a bottle of beer a
sweetheart a package of cigarettes a candle and fell off the
bed, and continued along the floor and down the hall and
ended fainting on the wall with a vision of ultimate cunt
and some eluding the last gyzym of consciousness,” – Howl by Allen Ginsberg
Beat writers wanted to demystify drugs through their writing. In his books, William S. Burroughs often considers the double standard between drugs that are socially acceptable and that carry a stigma.
“Someone who smokes a few cigarettes a day is no more likely to go insane than a man who takes a few cocktails before dinner is likely to come down with the D.T.'s.” – Junky by William S. Burroughs
Although we don’t usually consider cigarettes a drug, they contain nicotine, which is an artificial stimulant. Anything that had the ability to alter consciousness was essential to the creation of art for the Beat Generation. This is why the iconic beatnik always has a cigarette in his mouth.
Allen Ginsberg smoked his entire life, though in his later years he stopped encouraging others to adopt the habit. He warns of the dangers of tobacco in his poem Put Down Your Cigarette Rag (Don’t Smoke).