Beatnik

Moody Street Irregulars

Beatnik [beet-nik] was a media stereotype of the 1950s and early 1960s that displayed the more superficial aspects of the Beat Generation literary movement of the 1950s and violent film images, along with a cartoonish misrepresentation of the real-life people and the spirituality found in Jack Kerouac’s autobiographical fiction. Kerouac spoke out against this detour from his original concept.

Kerouac introduced the phrase ‘Beat Generation’ in 1948, generalizing from his social circle to characterize the underground, anti-conformist youth gathering in New York at that time. The name came up in conversation with the novelist John Clellon Holmes who published an early Beat Generation novel, ‘Go’ (1952), along with a manifesto in The New York Times Magazine: ‘This Is the Beat Generation.’

The word ‘beatnik’ was coined by columnist Herb Caen in an article in the San Francisco Chronicle in 1958. Caen coined the term by adding the Russian suffix -nik after Sputnik I to the Beat Generation. Objecting to Caen’s twist on the term, Allen Ginsberg wrote to the New York Times to deplore ‘the foul word beatnik,’ commenting, ‘If beatniks and not illuminated Beat poets overrun this country, they will have been created not by Kerouac but by industries of mass communication which continue to brainwash man.’

In the vernacular of the period, ‘Beat’ indicated the culture, the attitude and the literature, while the common usage of ‘beatnik’ was that of a stereotype found in lightweight cartoon drawings and twisted, sometimes violent, media characters. Much of Beat culture represented a negative stance rather than a positive one. It was animated more by a vague feeling of cultural and emotional displacement, dissatisfaction, and yearning, than by a specific purpose or program.

The adjective ‘beat’ was introduced to the group by writer Herbert Huncke, though Kerouac expanded the meaning of the term. ‘Beat’ came from underworld slang—the world of hustlers, drug addicts and petty thieves, where Ginsberg and Kerouac sought inspiration. ‘Beat’ was slang for ‘beaten down’ or down-trodden, but to Kerouac and Ginsberg, it also had a spiritual connotation as in ‘beatitude.’ Other adjectives discussed by Holmes and Kerouac were ‘found’ and ‘furtive.’ Kerouac felt he had identified (and was the embodiment of) a new trend analogous to the influential Lost Generation.

In ‘Aftermath: The Philosophy of the Beat Generation’ Kerouac criticized what he saw as a distortion of his visionary, spiritual ideas:

‘The Beat Generation, that was a vision that we had, John Clellon Holmes and I, and Allen Ginsberg in an even wilder way, in the late Forties, of a generation of crazy, illuminated hipsters suddenly rising and roaming America, serious, bumming and hitchhiking everywhere, ragged, beatific, beautiful in an ugly graceful new way—a vision gleaned from the way we had heard the word ‘beat’ spoken on street corners on Times Square and in the Village, in other cities in the downtown city night of postwar America—beat, meaning down and out but full of intense conviction. We’d even heard old 1910 Daddy Hipsters of the streets speak the word that way, with a melancholy sneer. It never meant juvenile delinquents, it meant characters of a special spirituality who didn’t gang up but were solitary Bartlebies staring out the dead wall window of our civilization…’

Beat Generation’ sold books, sold black turtleneck sweaters and bongos, berets and dark glasses, sold a way of life that seemed like dangerous fun—thus to be either condemned or imitated. Suburban couples could have beatnik parties on Saturday nights and drink too much and fondle each other’s wives. The term caught on because it could mean anything. It could even be exploited in the affluent wake of the decade’s extraordinary technological inventions. Almost immediately, for example, advertisements by ‘hip’ record companies in New York used the idea of the Beat Generation to sell their new long playing vinyl records.

Dobie Gillis, Life magazine, Charles Kuralt, and a host of other entertainers and journalists reduced Beatness to a set of superficial, silly externals which have stayed with us ever since: goatees, sunglasses, poetry readings, coffeehouses, slouches and ‘cool, man, cool’ jargon. The only problem is there never were any beatniks in this sense (except, perhaps, for the media influenced imitators who came along late in the history of the movement). Beat culture was a state of mind, not a matter of how you dressed or talked or where you lived. In fact, Beat culture was far from monolithic. It was many different, conflicting, shifting states of mind

At the time that the terms were coined, there was a trend amongst young college students to adopt the stereotype, with men wearing goatees and berets, rolling their own cigarettes and playing bongos. Fashions for women included black leotards and wearing their hair long, straight and unadorned in a rebellion against the middle class culture of beauty salons. Marijuana use was associated with the subculture, and during the 1950s, Aldous Huxley’s ‘The Doors of Perception’ further influenced views on drugs.

The Beat philosophy was generally countercultural and antimaterialistic and it stressed the importance of bettering one’s inner self over and above material possessions. Some Beat writers, such as Alan Watts, began to delve into Eastern religions such as Buddhism or Taoism. Politics tended to be liberal; with support for causes such as desegregation (although many of the figures associated with the original Beat movement, particularly Jack Kerouac, embraced libertarian/conservative ideas). An openness to African-American culture and arts was apparent in literature and music, notably jazz. While Caen and other writers implied a connection with communism, there was no obvious or direct connection between the beat philosophy (as expressed by the leading authors of this literary movement) and the philosophy of the communist movement, other than the antipathy that both philosophies shared towards capitalism.

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