Skip to comments.Who Were the Beatniks? (Vanity)
Posted on 11/25/2012 2:47:21 PM PST by DustyMoment
A lot of FReepers tend to blame Baby Bomers for the ills of the world. The fact is that the Baby Boomers didn't originate a lot of the counter-culture activities of the 60s, they learned them from the Beatniks. So, to help clarify where the Hippies came from, you have to know and understand who the Beatniks were. Here is their story:
Imagine it is the year 1959.
You are seated at a table with a bottle of cheap red wine, a cigarette glows red in the ashtray. The place; a smoky, dimly lit, seedy, little bar in Greenwich Village, New York. A slight, bearded fellow with black sockets for eyes, listens to the rhythmic pounding of bongo drums.
A pallid, sullen, pouting girl in black stockings buries her head in a copy of HOWL.
A kid with a goatee, wearing tatty clothes, sandals and a beret smokes a bit of 'tea', and takes a long, heavy, luxurious draw of smoke.
A wide-eyed, red-eyed, streetwise, young, but old, Times square hustler surveys the scene.
A table of unwashed, uncouth, angry young men heatedly discuss the recent publication of THE NAKED LUNCH.
A girl with black-rimmed eyes, long, messy hair, wearing a large, shapeless sweater broods silently in a corner while her boy-friend, a whiskery, wiry, winsome young man nervously fingers a syrette of morphine.
A wild haired, bespectacled poet stammers out a poem to an entranced group of fresh faced poet-girls and poet-boys.
In 1959, in this smoke-clouded Greenwich Village bar, you would immediately know, if you were at all hip to the scene, that the ragged assortment of malcontents, delinquents, 'tea-heads', Bohemians, hipsters and hustlers before you, could all rather conveniently fit into the mould, effectively created and labeled by the media of the times as 'BEATS', or more sneeringly as 'BEATNIKS'.
Herbert Caen, a San Francisco journalist, first coined the term when he cried out, "I certainly don't intend to support my son if he wants to be a beatnik," meaning of course, one of those hairy, sandal wearing, coffee-house lounging, poetry spouting Bohemians. The media immediately seized upon the term as a rather "handy caricature for everyone associated with beatness." The real meaning of "beatness" lost all significance and was basically used to describe a physical type. Middle-class, conventional, smugly content Americans reading their Time and Life magazines could sit back, happy in their prosperity, and safely chuckle over the antics of the beatniks. Turtle necks, bongos and berets--what fun. Americans had become all to familiar with the beatnik but less so with the philosophy behind all of the trappings.
"I am the originator of the term, and around it the term and the generation have taken shape" wrote Jack Kerouac in a 1959 article called The Origins of the Beat Generation. The word "beat" had been used by jazz musicians, hustlers and hipsters in the 1940s as a street slang term meaning dead beat, down and out, exhausted, poor. In 1944 a Times Square street hustler and hipster named Herbert Huncke, a friend of William Burroughs walked up to Jack Kerouac and said "Man, I'm beat." "I knew right away what he meant somehow," wrote Kerouac, "I was a bum, a brakeman, a seaman, a panhandler anything and everything, and went on writing because my hero was Goethe." In 1955 he published an excerpt from a novel he was writing called Beat Generation and the term started appearing in various publications.
In 1956 Allen Ginsbergs' Howl and Other Poems virtually exploded on to the American literary scene and seemed to scream out "beat." But in 1957 when Kerouacs' Beat Generation transmogrified into On The Road, the term "beat" suddenly became part of the American vernacular. According to Kerouac "youth had emerged cool and beat, had picked up the gestures and the style; soon it was everywhere."
The original group of Beat writers formed in New York in the mid 1940s. William S. Burroughs scion of a cultivated and established St. Louis family (his grandfather had invented the adding machine) first introduced the young Columbia university student Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac to his friend, the Times Square hustler Herbert Huncke who in turn introduced them to the druggy, jazzy New York underworld. He taught them what "beat" was all about and was instrumental in securing drugs for all of them. Burroughs became involved with a "community of outlaws" and became addicted to the drug morphine. At this point Harvard graduate Burroughs did not consider himself to be a writer. Kerouac saw him as "an eccentric scholar, traveler, seeker of the facts of life." Burroughs was on a personal quest to find an alternative style of life-alternative experiences and alternative values. He was determined to pursue experience to the fullest and sought to escape the constraints of his conservative, up-right, conventional, upper middle-class upbringing. He sought to "expand consciousness" through his travels, through sexual experimentation, through the use of narcotics, and through art. "Artists, to my mind," he wrote, "are the real architects of change."
Allen Ginsberg was a young student at Columbia University when he met the much older Burroughs(thirteen years his senior). "He educated me more than Columbia, really," claimed Ginsberg. At Columbia, Ginsberg had become dissatisfied with his economics studies, and felt himself to be an outsider as a Jewish, homosexual. He was expelled for writing on a dirty window "Butler has no balls" (referring to the president of the university). Ginsberg was restless and intent on breaking the rules and in Burroughs he had found the perfect tutor. Burroughs unconventional life-style appealed to Ginsberg who was fascinated by his introduction into the "subterranean" Times Square underworld. In 1948 Ginsberg had a series of "mystic visions" of the poet William Blake and henceforth dedicated himself to becoming a poet. When he published Howl and Other Poems in 1956, considered by poet and critic Kenneth Rexroth to be "the most remarkable single poem published by a young man since the second war," he dedicated it to Jack Kerouac, "new Buddha of American prose," William Seward Burroughs, and Neal Cassady.
When Jack Kerouac met William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg some time in 1944, he had already dropped out of Columbia to enlist in the navy, been discharged, and subsequently served as a merchant seaman. His "restless exuberance" had led him back to New York where he was encouraged to write by Ginsberg and Burroughs. Kerouac was struck by the open rebelliousness, the licentiousness, the madness of his new friends. The narrator of On the Road, Sal Paradise (Kerouac himself) proclaims at one point that "the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved... the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing." It was with this mad group of beats that Kerouac was to find comradeship, inspiration and enlightenment and at the same time he acknowledged that they were "the most evil and intelligent buncha bastards and shits in America." During the 1950s the publication of Jack Kerouacs' On the Road, Allen Ginsbergs' Howl and Other Poems, and William S. Burroughs' The Naked Lunch established the authors as a rebellious literary and cultural movement bent on shaking the foundations of American society. America in the fifties was enjoying an unprecedented period of economic prosperity while "silently enduring" the destructive forces of McCarthyism, racial intolerance, political suppression, and repressive conservatism. White, middle-class America with it's passionate addiction to the dollar had become smug, corrupt, hypocritical and suspicious of the individual. The "beats" were having none of it, and as Paul O'Niel stated in a LIFE article in 1959, the beats felt that "the only way a man can call his soul his own is by becoming an outcast." Allen Ginsberg wrote of his own "awakening" in the Columbia university bookstore one day when he suddenly became aware that everyone around him appeared to be hiding some sort of "unconscious torment from one another: they all looked like horrible grotesque masks, grotesque because hiding the knowledge from one another."
Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs, were all uniquely different artists yet they shared many of the same themes and techniques. They were greatly influenced by Jazz music and the jazzy hipster New York underworld. The Jazz philosophy of "there are no wrong notes" greatly appealed to them. Jazz seemed to disregard all the rules. It was raw and emotional. The beats sought to write the way Jazz sounded with its syncopated rhythms and its screaming dissonance. Kerouac's typewriter became his musical instrument. The music of Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker resounded in his works. And Ginsberg proclaimed in his book, Howl, "Holy the groaning saxophone! Holy the bop apocalypse! Holy the Jazz bands marijuana hipsters peace and junk and drums!"
The Beats shared in their belief that modern society was lacking in spiritual values. They were opposed to the "rat race" which they felt deadened the soul, wasted time and brutalized feeling. All three artists felt the dissaffection of the outsider. They reviled the "square" who seemed to be "stuck in a rut" in his endless pursuit of the dollar. To be beat was to be appalled by the ugliness, the emptiness, the soulessness of contemporary society. To be beat was to refuse the American ideal. To reject suburban morals and values. To be beat was to come to terms with the reality of life as it was, to refuse the white-wash. The beats sought to penetrate beyond the glossy surface of things. They found conventional American society wanting in spiritual values and so they sought an alternative. They sought to expand consciousness through their travels, sexual experimentation, drugs, and delving into Zen Buddhism. Thomas F. Merrill in his study of Allen Ginsberg wrote that the beats were in effect "conscientous objectors."
Influences on Western culture
There are many authors who can claim to be influenced by the beats (see the individual articles for each of the Beat writers); but the Beat Generation phenomenon itself has had a huge influence on Western Culture overall, larger than just the effects of some writers and artists on other writers and artists.
In many ways, the Beats can be taken as the first subculture (here meaning a cultural subdivision on intellectual/artistic/lifestyle/political grounds, rather than on any obvious difference in ethnic or religious backgrounds). During the very conformist post-World War II era they were one of the forces engaged in a questioning of traditional values which produced a break with the mainstream culture that to this day people react to -- or against.
There's no question that Beats produced a great deal of interest in lifestyle experimentation (notably in regards to sex and drugs); and they had a large intellectual effect in encouraging the questioning of authority (a force behind the anti-war movement); and many of them were very active in popularizing interest in Zen Buddhism in the West.
A quotation from Allen Ginsberg's A Definition of the Beat Generation as published in Friction, 1 (Winter 1982), revised for Beat Culture and the New America:
Some essential effects of Beat Generation artistic movement can be characterized in the following terms:
* Spiritual liberation, sexual "revolution" or "liberation," i.e., gay liberation, somewhat catalyzing women's liberation, black liberation, Gray Panther activism.
* Liberation of the word from censorship.
* Demystification and/or decriminalization of some laws against marijuana and other drugs.
* The evolution of rhythm and blues into rock and roll as a high art form, as evidenced by the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and other popular musicians influenced in the later fifties and sixties by Beat generation poets' and writers' works.
* The spread of ecological consciousness, emphasized early on by Gary Snyder and Michael McClure, the notion of a "Fresh Planet."
* Opposition to the military-industrial machine civilization, as emphasized in writings of Burroughs, Huncke, Ginsberg, and Kerouac.
* Attention to what Kerouac called (after Spengler) a "second religiousness" developing within an advanced civilization.
* Return to an appreciation of idiosyncrasy as against state regimentation.
* Respect for land and indigenous peoples and creatures, as proclaimed by Kerouac in his slogan from On the Road: "The Earth is an Indian thing."
The essence of the phrase "beat generation" may be found in On the Road with the celebrated phrase: "Everything belongs to me because I am poor."
Transition to the "Hippie" era
Some time during the 1960s, the rapidly expanding "beat" culture underwent a transformation: the "Beat Generation" gave way to "The Sixties Counterculture", which was accompanied by a shift in public terminology from "Beatnik" to "hippie".
This was in many respects a gradual transition. Many of the original Beats remained active participants, notably Allen Ginsberg, who became a fixture of the anti-war movement -- though equally notably, Kerouac did not remain active on the scene: he broke with Ginsberg and criticized the 60s protest movements as "new excuses for spitefulness".
The Beats in general were a large influence on members of the new "counterculture", for example, in the case of Bob Dylan who became a close friend of Allen Ginsberg.
The year 1963 found Ginsberg living in San Francisco with Neal Cassady and Charles Plymell at 1403 Gough St. Shortly after that Ginsberg connected with Ken Kesey's crowd who was doing LSD testing at Stanford, and Plymell was instrumental in publishing the first issue of R. Crumb's Zap Comix on his printing press a few years later then moved to Ginsberg's commune in Cherry Valley, NY in the early 1970s. (The Plymells never lived at the Farm, just visited there; although they remained in Cherry Valley.)
According to Ed Sanders the change in the public label from "beatnik" to "hippie" happened after the 1967 "Be-In" in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park (where Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder and Michael McClure were leading the crowd in chanting "Om").
There were certainly some stylistic differences between "beatniks" and "hippies" somber colors, dark shades, and goatees gave way to colorful "psychedelic" clothing and long hair. The beats were known for "playing it cool" (keeping a low profile) but the hippies became known for "being cool" (displaying their individuality).
In addition to the stylistic changes, there were some changes in substance: the beats tended to be essentially apolitical, but the hippies became actively engaged with the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement. To quote Gary Snyder in a 1974 interview (collected in The Beat Vision):
... the next key point was Castro taking over Cuba. The apolitical quality of Beat thought changed with that. It sparked quite a discussion and quite a dialogue; many people had been basic pacifists with considerable disillusion with Marxian revolutionary rhetoric. At the time of Castro's victory, it had to be rethought again. Here was a revolution that had used violence and that was apparently a good thing. Many people abandoned the pacifist position at that time or at least began to give more thought to it. In any case, many people began to look to politics again as having possibilities. From that follows, at least on some levels, the beginning of civil rights activism, which leads through our one whole chain of events: the Movement.
We had little confidence in our power to make any long range or significant changes. That was the 50s, you see. It seemed that bleak. So that our choices seemed entirely personal existential lifetime choices that there was no guarantee that we would have any audience, or anybody would listen to us; but it was a moral decision, a moral poetic decision. Then Castro changed things, then Martin Luther King changed things ...
The countrys many drug abuse centers have served several generations, and will continue to do so as long as drug addiction remains a problem.
The original members or the Beat Generation group in Allen Ginsberg's phrase, "the libertine circle" used a number of different drugs.
In addition to the alcohol common in American life, they were also interested in marijuana, benzedrine and, in some cases, opiates such as morphine. As time went on, many of them began using other psychedelic drugs, such as peyote, yage, and LSD.
Much of this usage can fairly be termed "experimental", in that they were generally unfamiliar with the effects of these drugs, and there were intellectual aspects to their interest in them as well as a simple pursuit of hedonistic intoxication.
Benzedrine at that time was available in the form of plastic inhalers, containing a piece of folded paper soaked in the drug. They would typically crack open the inhalers and drop the paper in coffee, or just wad it up and swallow it whole.
Opiates could be obtained in the form of morphine "syrettes": a squeeze tube with a hypodermic needle tip.
As the Beat phenomenon spread (transforming from Beat to "beatnik" to "hippie"), usage of some of these drugs also became more widespread. According to stereotype, the "hippies" commonly used the psychedelic drugs (marijuana, LSD), though the use of other drugs such as amphetemines was also widespread.
The actual results of this "experimentation" can be difficult to determine. Claims that some of these drugs can enhance creativity, insight or productivity were quite common, as is the belief that the drugs in use were a key influence on the social events of the time.
The postwar era was a time where the dominant culture was desperate for a reassuring planned order; but there was a strong intellectual undercurrent calling for spontaneity, an end to psychological repression; a romantic desire for a more chaotic, Dionysian existence.
The beats were a manifestation of this undercurrent (and over time, a primary focus for those energies), but they were not the only one. Before Jack Kerouac embraced "spontaneous prose", there were other artists pursuing self-expression by abandoning control, notably the improvisational elements in jazz music, and the action paintings of Jackson Pollock and the other abstract expressionists.
Also, there were other artists in the post-war period who embraced a similar disdain for refined control, often with the opposite intent of suppressing the ego, and avoiding self-expression; notably, the works of the composer/writer John Cage and the paintings and "assemblages" of Robert Rauschenberg. The "cut-up" technique that Brion Gysin developed and that William Burroughs adopted after publishing Naked Lunch bears a strong resemblance to Cage's "chance operations" approach.
The beatniks were certainly not the only form of experimental writing in the post-war period. Various other movements/scenes can be identified that were happening roughly concurrently:
* The Angries a group of post-war British writers with which the Beats are sometimes compared
* The Black Mountain poets (which John Cage was also associated with)
* The San Francisco Renaissance can be regarded as a separate movement of its own, with origins preceding the beats.
There were many influences on the beat generation writers: Blake was a large intellectual influence on Allen Ginsberg and there are striking echoes of Walt Whitman's style in Ginsberg's work; the novel You Can't Win by Jack Black was a strong influence on William Burroughs; Marcel Proust's work was read by many of the beats, and may have inspired Kerouac in his grand scheme for a multi-volume autobiographical work.
The full historical background arguably includes Henry David Thoreau, Imagism (especially Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams and H.D.), the Objectivists and Henry Miller. Some points to consider:
* Gary Snyder read Pound early and was encouraged in his interests in Japan and China by Pound's work.
* William Carlos Williams encouraged a number of beats and wrote a preface for Howl and other poems.
* Pound was also important to Allen Ginsberg and to most of the San Francisco Rennaissance group (Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, etc).
freaks on drugs
Good summary. It should be added that much of the Port Huron group sprouted from children of communist immigrants who had found homes in academia.
Maynard G. Krebbs: “WORK!!?? Who said ‘work’?”
Interesting history. Thanks, eh?
Way too long for most to read, but, yes, the ‘60s counter-culture was invented by a previous generation, most of whom seem to have managed to avoid military service in WWII. Hippies were not young people who invented themselves, as boomers now want us to believe.
Who were the Beatnicks?
Buncha’ gays looking for a context in which to be gay and yet not feel so queer. Sex was ALWAYS bubbling around close by with these “free spirits”.
Jazz.....if you try to improvise without regard to theme, beat and chord, you wind up with garbage. Just like much of what the hippies had.
In 1972, when I turned 21, I hitch-hiked out to San Francisco and spent time in beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Bookstore and read the days away in those decrepit chairs. Kerouac was a central figure, but I always felt he saw himself as a writer much more than a beatnick. He wrote some extraordinarily beautiful passages, and spent the end of his life in the Catholic faith of his youth.
The 1968 movie ‘What’s So Bad About Feeling Good?’ with Mary Tyler Moore was a satire on beatniks, not on hippies as the date might suggest.
I'm not much on blaming generations for our problems. I've seen quite enough Boomer-bashing to be sure of that. In the end, individuals act -- not generations.
MAD Magazine had a good take on their lingo:
Friends, Romans, hipsters,
Let me clue you in;
I come to put down Caesar, not to groove him.
The square kicks some cats are on stay with them;
The hip bits, like, go down under;
So let it lay with Caesar. The dude Brutus
Gave you the message Caesar had big eyes;
If that’s the sound, someone’s copping a plea,
And, like, old Caesar really set them straight.
Here, copacetic with Brutus and the studs,—
For Brutus is a real cool cat;
So are they all, all cool cats,—
Come I to make this gig at Caesar’s lay down.
He was my boy, the most and real gone to me;
But, like, Brutus pegs him as having big eyes;
And old Brutus is a real cool cat.
He copped a lot of swinging heads for home,
Which put us way out with that loot;
Does this give Caesar big eyes?
When the square cats bawled, Caesar flipped;
Big eyes should be made of more solid megillah;
Yet Brutus pegs him as having big eyes;
And Brutus is a real cool cat.
You all dug that bit at the Lupercal scene
Three times I bugged him with the King’s lid,
And three times he hung me up; was this big eyes?
Yet Brutus pegs him with big eyes;
And, sure, he is a real cool cat.
I don’t want to double-O what Brutus gummed,
But, like, I only dig what comes on straight
You all got a charge out of him once,
So how come you don’t cry the blues for him?
Man! You are real nowhere,
You don’t make it anymore. Don’t cut out on me;
My guts are in the pad there with Caesar,
And I gotta stop swinging till they round-trip.
Quite right. And when you consider the quality of the enduring jazz 1948-1960 that parallels the beatniks, you find jazz in many ways (in my opinion) at its peak, most notably represented by Miles’ Birth of the Cool sessions, and the Miles Ahead collaboration with Gil Evans. These arrangements were crafted like jewels, certainly not the work of scatterbrained freedom seekers.
I think the word Beatnik was derived from Sputnik — the first earth satellite launched by Russia in 1957. Sputnik’s surprise launch shocked the Western World almost as much as 9/11 and caused a lot of people to question the validity of American military, poltical, and academic excellence.
Since the “Beats” were already accustomed to hanging out in coffee houses and poetry bars with the Bohemians questioning everything in contemporary culture, they quickly latched on to the idea of how great the Soviet Union was and how lame the US was. It was a natural progression.
I was in school at UC Berkeley at the time. We paid little attention to the Bohemians, and less to the Beats, looking upon them as oddities. But, then came the Hippies, as the Viet Nam War heated up, and they overwhelmed the culture.
As the Draft became an inconvenient fact of life, more and more young folks decided to attend college and to apply for student deferments. College was expensive — even in those years — and students from the eastern US flocked to Caliifornia (where in-state tuition was incredibly cheap) to wait for their state’s residence.
They had to live there for a year before they could get into school at the in-state price, and they basically had nothing to do, except cause trouble, while they waited to be admitted.
One of their favorite targets was the newly elected Governor Reagan and the Board of Regents of the University of California. They launched the Free Speech Movement, followed by the Filthy Speech Movement, follwed by the bra-less movement, followed by the braless in a sheer blouse movement, followed by the nude movement. And on, and on, and on.
The Mummy--Bob McFadden & Dor (Dor is the poet Rod McKuen)
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