Literary Revolutions

The Beat Generation

Literature and art are often at the centre of revolution. They can spark change within a single person or within whole societies. Mads Banfield explains some of the most prevalent literary movements and asks whether innovation and revolution can take place now.


Throughout the last centuries there have been a range of different literary movements, which have revolutionised how language is presented and engaged with. Movements like the Beat Generation and Modernism were innovative because they experimented with different forms, structures and content. They rebelled against the current traditions through exploring new and original techniques to present language. Other movements directly opposed the characteristics of previous ways of writing, and contemporary events such as war and industrialisation, which led to a reversal or at least a rejection of old principles.



Wanderer above the sea of fog

The Augustan age idealised order and regulations, some felt the frequent use of blank verse and regular rhythm limited the expression of emotions. Towards the end of the 18th century, the Romantic movement became prevalent. This directly refuted the previous era’s repression of identity by stressing emotion and imagination. Romantic writers were able to embrace their individualism rather than continuing the Augustan characteristic of undermining imagination and enforcing strict societal expectations on identity. Indeed, beyond the Augustan ‘Age of Reason’, the Romantics explored the realm of the supernatural and Gothic within their writings, to suggest something beyond reality. At the time the Industrial Revolution resulted in mass migration to the cities where there were more opportunities. But the Romantics, favoured the natural world, and, thus, criticised the urban society that they felt corrupted and exploited the individual. In many respects they were also revolutionary in their attitude towards the less fortunate, because they actually exposed the cruelties of the urbanised world and engaged with humanitarian values.



Nearing the end of the 19th Century and continuing into the early-20th, the Modernist movement incorporated music, art and literature. It was characterised as a movement which completely rejected the different revolutions of the past and stressed experimentation and originality. Indeed, they opted for an abstract approach to life rather than a realist one. Writers like James Joyce and Virginia Woolf rejected the Victorian novel, which did not seem to be relevant in their constantly developing society. Instead of focusing on content, Modernism favoured the innovation of form by developing new concepts and structures. After the atrocities of the First World War, society was left in a sense of disillusionment and isolation. Modernism rejected capitalist, communal society and instead embraced the individual and its subconscious by focusing on the stream of consciousness.


The Beat Generation

The Beat Generation

After the Second World War many felt an underlying fear of nuclear war and terrorism. Thus, the American identity stressed the importance of conformity and capitalism. However, in the 1940s in New York and San Francisco, a group of writers, known today as the Beat Generation, rebelled against the restrictions of these conformities, by undermining the conventions of the materialistic society. Effectively, it was a group of friends that met up, talked, drank, took drugs, and wrote. The term ‘beat’ was meant to imply people who were down and out; citizens that had been exploited by the capitalist society and left to fend for themselves. The Beat Generation was anti-authoritarian in this respect, because it openly challenged the establishment and its repressive nature. Within this movement there were no taboos; sexuality and drugs became widely explored. Founding writers like Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady rejected the formalities of social expectations and forced their consciousness beyond everyday reality. Jazz, the music genre that was thought of as threatening to society, was heavily interconnected with the Beat Generation. Similarly to the genre, the erratic rhythm and fast-paced nature of the stream of consciousness became integral to the movement. Jack Kerouac, for example, wrote one of the first drafts of On the Road on a 120 foot long, continuous scroll in just three weeks, so as to not interrupt his train of thought. This manuscript epitomises the Beat Generation, because of its fast paced, irregular rhythm and unpredictable thought process.


Post Modernism

The characteristics of Post Modernism reject Modernism entirely, by suggesting that no idea is original anymore, because it is impossible to be completely innovative. Becoming more popular in the middle of the 20th century, it is still apparent in life today. It breaks down the boundaries between the past and the present and blends techniques, forms and themes. Post Modernism has stripped the conventions of literature and challenges the expectations. It utilises paradox and parody to create the suggestion of multiple readings. Indeed, concepts like meta-fiction are utilised in Post Modernism to make the reader aware that what they are reading is fiction, it unsettles the reader, thus creating a whole new experience in its reading. Subsequently, Post Modernism proposes that it has become difficult to create a completely original idea. Indeed, it seems that literary revolutions may no longer be able to be entirely ground breaking, but will instead seek to explore ideas and forms that already exist and to take them one step further. Additionally movements like the Spoken Word, where writers perform their work, is becoming increasingly prevalent. Language has become a lot more than just words on a page, the importance is no longer constrained to just content, but instead an array of aspects like structure and rhythm are explored and experimented with.