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Denver's Significance In The Beat Movement

Aug 18th, 2023

“Now I could see Denver looming ahead of me like the Promised Land, way out there beneath the stars, across the prairie of Iowa and the plains of Nebraska, and I could see the greater vision of San Francisco beyond, like jewels in the night.” Jack Kerouac, “On the Road”

Denver holds a magical place in the hearts of people who spend time there, and there’s no better example of such a captivating hold than its significance to the Beat Generation writers and artists. 

Here’s why Denver was hailed as such a magical place in the hearts and minds of Beat-era writers and, of course, the local haunts they frequented in that adventurous time. 

What was the Beat Generation?

In the 1950s, a group of young artists and writers in the United States rejected society’s status quo and created a new way of life. They called themselves the Beat Generation and, for a few decades, were known for their nonconformist attitudes, their love of jazz and poetry and their experimentation with drugs and spirituality. The movement was primarily a literary one, although many artists and thinkers participated and contributed. 

The Beats were inspired by the jazz musicians of the time who improvised their music and created a new sound that was free and expressive. They also found inspiration in the teachings of Zen Buddhism, which emphasized the importance of living in the present moment and finding enlightenment through personal experience.

The Beats were a diverse group of people, but they were united by their shared sense of alienation from mainstream society. They saw the world as a corrupt and materialistic place, and they sought to create a more authentic and meaningful way of life. Famous figures in this movement, affectionately dubbed “beatniks,” included writers Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, all of whom wrote stirring pieces on life, culture and rebellion.

The Beat Generation had a profound impact on American culture. They inspired the counterculture movement of the 1960s, and their work continues to be read and studied today.

And, as it turns out, Denver has a huge part to play in the story of this 20th century cultural movement!

'On the Road' in the Mile High City

To understand Denver’s significance to the Beat Generation writers, we have to talk about Jack Kerouac’s wildly successful novel “On the Road” that skyrocketed the literary movement to stardom. 

Written in a frenzied three-week burst of creativity, “On the Road” is a free-form account of Jack Kerouac’s travels across the United States with his friend Neal Cassady, who've each been renamed Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, respectively, in the novel.

Dean is a charismatic and reckless figure who embodies the Beat Generation's rejection of domestic and economic conformity. He’s a drug addict and notorious womanizer, and his behavior often leads to trouble.  Despite Dean's flaws, the narrator (“Sal”/Kerouac) is drawn to his energy and enthusiasm for life. Together, they travel from New York to San Francisco, meeting a cast of colorful characters along the way as they talk about life, love and the meaning of it all.

Today, “On the Road” is a celebration of the American road trip and the freedom of youth. It is also a cautionary tale about the dangers of addiction and self-destruction. But most importantly, it is a testament to the power of friendship and the human spirit.

The novel was an instant success when it was published in 1957, and it quickly became one of the defining works of the Beat Generation. It has been praised for its raw energy, its unflinching honesty and its poetic prose. “On the Road” has inspired generations of readers to follow their dreams and to live life to the fullest. 

Why is this important to know? Because a significant portion of the book takes place in Denver, that’s why! Denver is where real-life Neal Cassady spent most of his life, and it was Cassady who introduced Kerouac and, in return, the Beat Generation, to the ins and outs of Denver’s counterculture hangouts.

Keep an eye out for our follow-up article on all the places you can visit in the footsteps of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady as they spent time in our very own Mile High City so long ago! 

(Hint, there are plenty near our luxury Denver apartments!)

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Featured photo courtesy Pixabay/BarbaraBonanno

Author of Article

Colleen Ford is a South African who now lives in Spokane, Washington. She loves to travel, camp (in warm weather) and bake.

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