The Beat Movement in San Francisco: A Literary Tour
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San Francisco, California is a city that usually needs no introduction: it's the foggy city, the home of the Golden Gate Bridge, the center of the LGBTQ+ pride movement, the hilly city, the overpriced crux of Silicon Valley. Although the eastern United States were settled by Europeans long before the San Francisco Bay Area was, San Francisco has such a layered and dynamic history that rivals any "older" eastern city, and that includes literary history and literary travel destinations.
The Bay Area has been a mecca for eccentrics and outcasts since the 1846 Goldrush, when gold-hungry prospectors flooded the area in search of fortune. Over the years, San Francisco became a center of counterculture movements in America and has a reputation for attracting and fostering "colorful" characters, social progressives, and artists and creatives of all varieties.
Acknowledgement of Native lands: Often when we talk about San Francisco's history, we start with Western settlers who "discovered" the area. Long before Spaniard Gaspar de Portola "discovered" the San Francisco Bay in 1769, this area was primarily the land of the Ohlone Indigenous group, including the Yelamu and Miwok Native tribes among others. Spanish settlers brought European diseases and forced cultural assimilation. After the Mexican-American war, when San Francisco became part of the US, the state government sanctioned a mass genocide of Indigenous peoples in the wake of the Gold Rush.
San Francisco's culture of cultivating artists and anarchists made it home to one of the most prominent literary movements in American history, the Beat Movement.
But first, what is the Beat Movement?
The Beat Movement was a community of counterculture bohemians and writers in America during the 1950s. The Beats rejected the idealized "normal life" awaiting young adults in the post-war era in favor of embracing a more spontaneous, unstructured lifestyle that was in many ways a forerunner to the hippie movement of the 60s-70s (also largely based in San Francisco. Are you sensing a trend here?).
Instead of settling down to find jobs and start families, the Beats embraced free love, blatant eroticism, and even open homosexuality while it was still illegal in the US. This counterculture of writers and artists believed that something essential in life was being stifled, and their responsibility was to find the truest meaning of existence by flying in the face of all the rules and conventions of the time.
The Beat poets in particular believed it their calling to "take back" poetry and literature from the rigid grasp of academics and experiment with form and theme, breathing life back into writing.
Lest ye get too carried away with admiration, I'll pause right here to openly state that the Beat writers were hardly saintly. Many readers openly despise the writings of Beat Generation notables, including Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, and more. The reality is this was a movement dominated almost exclusively by privileged white men living off of family and government assistance; men whose writings are frequently misogynist and racist, despite them being considered the "progressives" of the time.
There is no pedestal on which we can place the Beat Generation of writers; anyone reading or studying them must do so with eyes open to their many failings as well as their successes. Love them or hate them, the Beat writers made an indelible impression on American culture and on American literature to come.
If literary travel is an interest of yours, make time in your San Francisco itinerary to visit the following literary locations significant in San Francisco Beat history.
This can be done as a half-day walking tour or just as literary sites to check out as you go about your San Francisco sightseeing.
Make sure you also check out my post on my favorite 5 San Francisco bookstores to visit.
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You can also find all the titles and authors mentioned in this post on my Beatnik Book List at Bookshop.org. Purchasing from Bookshop puts proceeds into the pockets of indie booksellers all over the country.
Pin this for help in planning your San Francisco travel itinerary:
Beat Generation Sites in San Francisco: An Overview
The Beat Museum
The San Francisco Beat Museum is a great place to start when discovering more about the Beat Movement writers. It focuses on prominent figures like Jack Kerouac (author of On the Road), Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, William S. Burroughs, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, but also has a lot of information about lesser known Beat generation figures, including several female Beat poets (yes, they existed) and Black Beat poets (they also existed).
There's not a whole lot in the museum by way of original items or products of great monetary value, but I still consider the Beat Museum well worth the visit. It's a single room but really well organized both visually and informatively.
Start at the beginning and take your time reading each of the educational plaques by each display. Even those already familiar with the Beat Movement history will end up learning a lot (for example, did you know that Barbra Streisand considered herself a Beatnik before really becoming famous? There's a really interesting display featuring an early career article interviewing her on the topic).
The Beat Museum also features a really unique and wonderfully curated bookstore/souvenir shop (I featured it on the list of my 5 favorite bookstores in San Francisco, in case you missed it). You'll find not only a bathtub full of books (yes, a bathtub), but also a great selection of Beat literature, new and used, other random used books, and an extensive collection of photographic prints and vintage magazines. It's a great place to pass an afternoon browsing.
Beat Museum Hours: Open Thurs- Mon, 10 am - 7 pm
Cost: $8 for adults; $5 for students & Seniors
Group tours available by request and for a fee
Estimated time to visit: 1-2 hours
City Lights Bookstore
261 Columbus Ave.
To the average Joe wandering San Francisco where the North Beach neighborhood meets Chinatown, City Lights Bookstore looks like a bookstore like any other, except perhaps that it stays open later than most bookstores. However, City Lights Bookstore is arguably the center of San Francisco's Beat literary history.
Beat generation poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti opened City Lights Bookstore in 1953, and it quickly became a so-called "literary meeting place" for writers exploring anti-academic, experimental writing forms. Back in its heyday, City Lights was open unofficially 24 hours a day, because writers would come and hang out and talk about writing and wouldn't want to leave.
Shortly after opening the City Lights Bookstore, Ferlinghetti and his business partner started a publishing house in conjunction with the bookstore, calling it City Lights Publishing. Their purpose was to publish modern poetry that wasn't getting published by the main publishing houses of the day.
City Lights rose to international prominence when Ferlinghetti was arrested and tried for obscenity after publishing Allen Ginsberg's famous poem, "HOWL." Ferlinghetti won the case on the grounds that the poem contained literary merit. This became a landmark case setting a precedent for first amendment rights and drew international attention to City Lights, the Beat Movement, and San Francisco. Young writers began flocking to San Francisco to join the Beat literary scene there.
While at City Lights Bookstore today, you can enjoy three levels of books, including a section for used books in the basement, and an upstairs floor dedicated to poetry. Treat yourself to a City Lights Bookstore t-shirt and maybe even purchase your own Pocket Poets Series from its site of origin.
City Lights Bookstore Hours: Open 7 days a week, 12 pm - 8 pm
Estimated time to visit: 10-45 minutes
Jack Kerouac Alley & Vesuvio Cafe
255 Columbus Ave.
As you exit City Lights Bookstore, hang to the right and you will find yourself in the very colorful Jack Kerouac alley, named for the famous Beat writer who lived and wrote in San Francisco during the 1950s (that is, when he wasn't living On the Road).
Check out the elaborate murals lining the walls on either side of the pedestrian-only alley as well as the stone pavers underfoot, which feature quotes from writers like Maya Angelou and Jack London.
Across the alley from City Lights Bookstore you will not be able to miss the brightly lit, always lively Vesuvio Cafe. Vesuvio Cafe was opened in 1948 by artist Henri Lenoir, who wanted to create a Bohemian meeting spot. It's housed in an Italian Renaissance Revival building and has attracted writers, musicians, and artists since its opening.
With its convenient location next to City Lights Bookstore, of course the Beat writers who hung out there would frequently wander across the alley for a stiff drink and a good time. The decor at Vesuvio remains much the same as it was when Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and others would have been hanging out here, right down to the infamously provocative Vesuvio Cafe sign, which features a nude man leisurely enjoying a drink.
There's even a fun anecdote that Kerouac once skipped out on a scheduled meeting with Henry Miller and spent his evening carousing at Vesuvio Cafe instead.
Dylan Thomas and Bob Dylan have also enjoyed drinks at Vesuvio Cafe.
You can visit Vesuvio Cafe by day (just don't come anticipating ordering food!) or by night for a stiff drink and a lively time.
Vesuvio Cafe hours: Open 7 days a week, 11 am - midnight, 2 am on weekends
601 Vallejo St.
This is another cafe that was popular amongst Beat poets in San Francisco during the 1950s, and it has remained a popular haunt for writers since. Rumor has it that Francis Ford Coppola even wrote most of his script for The Godfather here at Caffe Trieste.
Oddball writers quickly felt at home in this eclectic eatery run by Giovanni Giotta, an Italian immigrant who had gained local fame as the "singing window washer" before opening this North Beach cafe.
Caffe Trieste is dripping with ambience and a fun place to eat while surrounded by the spirit of literary history inside its walls.
Jack Kerouac's San Francisco "Love Shack"
29 Russell St.
This is one of the lesser known Jack Kerouac San Francisco sites, but it's a significant one! In 1952, Kerouac lived here with best friend Neal Cassady (you might know him as Dean Moriarty in On the Road) and his wife Carolyn. The house is known as the "love shack" because while Kerouc lived here with his friends, he and Carolyn carried on an affair (with Cassady's encouragement). That is, until Carolyn threw them both out of the house.
"I took the opportunity to examine the very wonderful house they had. It was a two-story crooked, rickety wooden cottage in the middle of tenements, right on top of Russian Hill with a view of the bay; it had four rooms, three upstairs and one immense sort of basement kitchen downstairs. The kitchen door opened onto a grassy court where Dean’s old shoes still were caked an inch thick with Texas mud"
Jack Kerouac describes the house in On the Road
The so-deemed Jack Kerouac Love Shack is a privately owned home and not open to visitors. However, you can still make a trip to see the environs of this literary site where Kerouac began writing perhaps the most famous Beat Generation book, On the Road, on one continuous scroll of paper. He did so in the attic room by the second-floor window, which you can see from the exterior of the home.
Make sure you also look for the small, silver plaque on the building across the street from the Jack Kerouac Love Shack. There is a low window there, and the plaque marks the location where the famous photo of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady was taken by Carolyn Cassady. You can even get your Beat attitude on and recreate the photo as so many have done before you.
Note: I wasn't even aware of this before visiting the Beat Museum, but Carolyn Cassady wrote her own book about her time with Neal and Jack from her perspective. It's rather cleverly titled, Off the Road.
Former Location of the Six Gallery & the HOWL reading
3119 Fillmore St
The Beat poets were performative; they generally intended for their poems to be read aloud. So it wouldn't have been uncommon to stumble upon poetry readings all over the North Beach San Francisco neighborhood in the 1950s.
While each writer developed his or her own personal style, Beat writers tended toward lengthy, unstructured verses meant to evoke passion and some sense of chaos. No one embodied this more than the famous Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, author of "HOWL."
It was Ginsberg's poem that resulted in City Lights Bookstore owner Ferlinghetti's arrest and trial for obscenity. It became notorious not only in the United States but made literary history internationally as well.
Ginsberg first recited "HOWL" (Part One) at the Six Gallery on October 7, 1955, a night that has gone down in literary history. City Lights owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti had previously rejected Ginsberg's poems for publication, but after attending this "HOWL" reading, he famously sent Ginsberg the same note that Ralph Waldo Emerson sent to Walt Whitman a century before: "I greet you at the beginning of a great career. Please send manuscript."
Fellow Beat Poet Michael McClure was also reading some of his poetry on this significant occasion. He describes the "HOWL" reading:
"The Six Gallery was a huge room that had been converted from an automobile repair shop into an art gallery….A hundred and fifty enthusiastic people had come to hear us...
Allen began in a small and intensely lucid voice. At some point Jack Kerouac began shouting "GO" in cadence as Allen read it.
Ginsberg read on till the end of the poem, which left us standing in wonder, or cheering and wondering, but knowing at the deepest level that barrier had been broken, that a human voice and body had been hurled against the harsh walls of America and its supporting armies and navies and academies and institutions and ownership-systems and power-support bases."
Michael Schumacher describes the reading in Dharma Lion:
"Jack Kerouac, sitting at the edge of the platform, pounded in accompaniment on a wine jug, shouting 'GO!' at the end of each long line. The crowd quickly joined him in punctuating Allen's lines. . . . By the time he had concluded, [Ginsberg] was in tears."
The Six Gallery is no longer standing; there's a restaurant there, now. But you can still visit the spot and see the standing plaque in the sidewalk commemorating this defining moment in San Francisco's Beat literary history.
Allen Ginsberg's Apartment
1010 Montgomery St
The final stop on our San Francisco Beat literary tour is another private residence, the location of Allen Ginsberg's apartment in San Francisco. In this apartment, Ginsberg lived with partner Peter Orlovsky and worked on his poem, "HOWL," in its many various editions and forms.
"My front room... North Beach apartment wherein I wrote Howl Part I... I was living on unemployment checks, San Francisco, Summer 1955."
Again, you won't be able to go inside, but you'll be able to walk the same streets and see the same types of views and environment that Ginsberg saw and was surrounded by during his time in San Francisco. There is no plaque here to mark the location; so you'll just have to find the address and do your best to take it all in.
You can get a peek at what the inside of the apartment was like at the time in this photograph and accompanying handwritten description by Ginsberg, excerpted above.
That concludes our literary tour of the Beat Movement in San Francisco. I hope you learned something new about these San Francisco authors and marked down a few literary sites to check out on your next visit!
Drop any questions in the comments, and make sure you pin this for your next trip to the San Francisco Bay Area.