This summer, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. is exhibiting “Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg” — a collection of photographs taken by the American poet before he achieved literary stardom. Ginsberg focused the shots on his inner circle of Beatnik friends: a clan of bohemian artists, including William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and Gregory Corso, who embodied — nay, pioneered — the counterculture of the mid-20th century. Amidst the post-war conformism (demonstrated by the massive expansion of suburbia during this time) and capitalism, these artists were proponents of sex, drugs and alternative lifestyles. Many of the “Beats,” as they were called, completed their masterpieces while residing in hotels (like the now-defunct mom-and-pop roach motel nicknamed the Beat Hotel in Paris). And many of their favorite haunts still stand — check out some Beat hangouts after the jump!
Where to stay when you’re On the Road: Hotel Chelsea
Opened in 1883, this hotel once housed Allen Ginsberg’s inner circle of Beatnik friends. Many of the Beats drew inspiration from one another, and Hotel Chelsea was the site of some of their earliest intellectual exchanges and philosophical discussions. Some of the Beats’ earlier works were also created here — Jack Kerouac wrote On The Road while living at the hotel. Today, the hotel no longer allows great thinkers and artists to stay for more than 24 consecutive nights, but artwork from residents past still adorns the walls… and ceilings.
On the Road (1957)
Kerouac’s best-known work — typed single-spaced on a 120-foot long scroll of tracing paper without margins or paragraph breaks – is thought to be the defining work of the Beat Generation. Inspired by drug experiences, poetry and jazz music, the book is largely an autobiographical depiction of Kerouac’s road trip across America with his Beatnik friends.
Where to stay if you need inspiration: Sir Francis Drake
Before he penned Howl, Ginsberg reportedly had a vision of this hotel during a peyote experience. The vision became his inspiration for a being called “Moloch” in the poem. In Levantine lore, Moloch is a god to whom children are sacrificed. However, in Ginsberg’s work, Moloch can be interpreted as a destructive system of control.
Originally written as a performance piece, this poem — in which Ginsberg condemns capitalism and conformism — was considered obscene and vulgar after it was published because of its strong language and sexual references. Howl was banned until 1957, when a San Francisco judge ruled that the poem had some redeeming qualities. It went on to become one of the most influential pieces of the Beat Generation.
Where to stay near the Beatnik scene: Hilton San Francisco Financial District
This 549-room business hotel from the Hilton chain may go against the Beats’ anti-capitalist beliefs, but it’s just a short walk away from the North Beach neighborhood that once swarmed with bohemian artists and writers. Plus, the hotel is one of San Francisco’s best business hotels, and the rooms have soft beds and up-to-date electronics.
City Lights Bookstore
This bookstore was launched into infamy after the owner, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, was arrested on the grounds of obscenity in 1956 for publishing Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems. In 1957, Judge Clayton W. Horn ruled that the book was not obscene in a revolutionary ruling that deemed any work with “the slightest redeeming social importance” protected under the First Amendment. After the trial, Ginsberg published his major books of poetry exclusively with the independent press for 25 years. City Lights has also published the works of other beat artists, including Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso, Neal Cassady and William S. Burroughs.
Situated right across from City Lights, this bar — opened in 1948 — still pays homage to the Beat Generation and prides itself on its diverse clientèle. After Neal Cassady stopped here for a drink in 1955 en route to a reading at Six Gallery — where Howl was first performed — the bar became a regular Beat haunt; Jack Kerouac was a regular customer.
Where to stay to experience Beat Memories: Hotel Monaco
This flashy, 183-room Kimpton hotel is a short walk from the National Gallery of Art, where Ginsberg’s collection of photographs is on display. Hotel Monaco is outfitted with bold design elements, and its convenient location in Penn Quarter places you near plenty of attractions and restaurants. The bathrooms are dimly lit, but the Beatniks — who have a reputation for skulking around dark bars — probably wouldn’t have minded.
Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg
Ginsberg purchased his first camera in 1953, just before he published Howl. The 79 photographs on display feature images of himself, his friends and his lovers. Ginsberg captured everyday moments with his Beatnik buddies, and this exhibit offers an intimate look inside their unconventional lifestyles. Many of the photographs are reprints that Ginsberg made in the early 1980s of his earlier work and feature detailed inscriptions about the moments when the photographs were taken.