|"The hipster and hipsters -- lovers of the Beat Generation are rebels, all right, but not against anything so sociological and historical as the middle class or capitalism or even respectability. This is the revolt of the spiritually underprivileged and the crippled of soul -- young men who don't think straight and hate anyone who can."1|
Every generation is subject to broad generalization and latter-day interpretation. Often, it
rarely seems to match what the people who have been lassoed into the category say about their
lives and their emotions at the time. In Douglas Coupland's Generation X, he describes a group of
misfits, or slackers, who live in fear of atomic war and pre-packaged foods. The popular media,
desperate to find a name for the kids growing up in the nineties, settled on Generation X and thus
we have become that. While myself and my other “X-er” friends find very little in common with
the themes in the Coupland novel we will nonetheless be categorized as the X Generation, now
and probably forever. Such is the situation with the Beat Generation.
It is important to understand what the Beats were really trying to accomplish in their
poetic anarchy to grasp the ways in which the media characterized them and created such a
compelling image of the Beat lifestyle and bohemianism that it is recognized worldwide. In this
essay I will attempt to answer the question: How did the popular media of the late 1950s and
early 60s shape the face of an entire generation of people and how do we interpret this image of
the beatnik as portrayed in other entertainment media such as film? Is the beatnik really “beat” or
just black-clad and goateed? Using 1950s-era sources, articles, newspaper clippings, film and
music, to set the tone feel of the Beats while contrasting that with more recent commentary a
picture of who the Beats really were and what they were about will emerge.
The Beat Generation was born out of post-war disillusionment and restlessness. They were a generation of young people struggling to come to terms with the chaos and uncertainties which were a part of their upbringing. Their movement, if it can accurately be called that, manifested itself in literature and poetry which threw off the traditional, classical format to become a character in and of itself. The Beats attempted to express themselves in a way that was extremely personal and extremely in-your-face. “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix.” They addressed issues that were taboo at the time, most notably homosexuality and drug use, writing largely for and to each other, sharing life experiences and crying out against an establishment that harbored little space for individuality and protest.
Diane DiPrima, a token female beat writer, “characterized America as a 'post-Korean war society' enjoying a time of economic prosperity in the early and mid-1950s while silently enduring the political suppression under President Eisenhower that led to the execution of the Rosenbergs as Communist spies and the rise of Senator Joseph McCarthy as the chairman of a Committee on Un-American Activities, staging ‘witch hunts’ against alleged communists.” LIFE magazine staff writer Paul O'Neil described the Beat individual as someone who “finds society too hideous to contemplate and so withdraws from it.” But, “he does not go quietly,” O'Neil says, “nor so far that his voice is inaudible, and his route of retreat is littered with old beer cans and marijuana butts.”
In an interview with Paul Dresman, a former professor of English at the University of Oregon, who had conducted a very popular Beat Poets class, he says that the Beats were really a reflection of the times. “After living through the Depression and then WWII, most people just wanted a quiet life in the suburbs to rebuild and try to find themselves. They were just happy to let things happen. That is why so much of that stuff happened with McCarthyism. The last thing anyone was going to do was rally around the Beats -- they didn't want chaos; they didn't want protest.” And so, one way to look at the Beats is as courageous individuals. They were willing to risk because they had created a minimalist lifestyle for themselves that could easily withstand the consequences of risk. It is apparent in their writings and their attitudes that they thrived on risk and that those risks really made the life of a true Beat. Allen Ginsberg, one of the “original” Beats, was a maverick in college at Columbia University in New York. He was at once admired and abhorred by his professors. He was suspended for a year when he wrote “Fuck the Jews” in the dust of a window overlooking campus. “But he's a Jew himself,” cried one of his professors. The irony or perhaps the beauty of that action is that Ginsberg was indeed Jewish and had been brought up as such. His action had more to do with confronting his own fears and, perhaps, hatred of himself while making a loud statement against popular mentality. This mentality didn't allow for things which were thought to be said, whose evils are pristinely reflected by the McCarthy hearings which created fear of individualistic opinion.
The term “beat” was coined by Jack Kerouac, author and poet, who is perhaps the most recognized name and face of the group. “The word 'beat' originally meant poor, down and out, dead-beat, on the bum, sad, sleeping in subways.” Kerouac said. “Now that the word is belonging officially it is being made to stretch to include people who do not sleep in subways but have a new gesture, or attitude, which I can only describe as a new more.” Kerouac used the word in an interview with writer John Clellon Holmes in 1948. Holmes, in turn, wrote an article in 19** for New York Times Magazine entitled “This is a Beat Generation.” From there the term was made and has been used since to describe any person of this 'counter-culture' age spanning from the mid 1940s until as late as the 70s.
There has been much debate, especially among writers who have been grouped in with the Beats, as to who is actually a Beat poet. Gary Snyder is one who, to this day, denies that he was ever a part of the Beats. When Kerouac had that conversation with Holmes it was only he and a few of his friends, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and William S. Burroughs, who were attempting to approach writing and expression in a different way. The four of them were discontent and disillusioned with the current state of things but knew that there was really nothing they could do. “Sometimes this kind of rebellion is the important statement to make, but sometimes it is only important in the context of art,” says Dresman. “The world is really run by power, not by artists.” But, nonetheless, a large group of writers have been 'damned' to be a part of the Beat Generation; some of those names are: Herbert Hunke, Neal Cassady, Kenneth Rexroth, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Phillip Whalen, Lew Welch, and Amiri Baraka (token African- American Beat writer whose given name is LeRoi Jones).
In the late 1950s the Beats really became a part of the popular media. Articles condemning their dangerous lifestyle and pot-smoking madness cautioned teens from glamorizing this sub- culture. Other articles and criticisms sought to make sense of some of the writings which were emerging from this group of young people. In a Time article, published in February, 1958, a critic attempts to dissect Kerouac's novel The Subterraneans. The general tone is dismissive of any talents that Kerouac might hold. The writer says, “[The novel] celebrates that 'systematic derangement of the senses' from which Rimbaud concocted his visions of hell. The difference is that Jack Kerouac, ex-merchant seaman, ex-railroad brakeman, is not Rimbaud but a kind of latrine laureate of Hobobohemia.” The book was eventually made into a movie which Kerouac detested. The directors cast a white woman to play the part of his black girlfriend and cast a limp- wristed Arte Johnson to play Allen Ginsberg. This was just one of the many ways that the image of the Beats became distorted.
A later Time article, September 1959, revisits the Beat scene, acknowledging the success of The Subterraneans, “over 40,000 sold, not counting paperbound reprints,” and wonders why it's so catchy. “Why the popularity? The Beat blather certainly is not literature. But it can be amusing, and at its best, more fun to recite in the bathtub than anything since Vachel Lindsay's The Congo.” It then goes on to include an excerpt from Gregory Corso's, The Bomb, in order to display the way the Beats were frivolous and only suitable as bathroom reading material: “...O Bomb I love you, I want to kiss your clank eat your boom You are a paean an acme of scream...O resound they tanky knees BOOM BOOM BOOM....”
Other writers were fiercely critical of the Beat Generation as a movement. Norman Podhoretz, who penned the opening quote, questioned Kerouac's supposed rebellion. “Kerouac, who is thoroughly unpolitical, seems to feel that respectability is a sign not of moral corruption but of spiritual death.” This is exactly true, in a sense. The Beats were attempting, at least in their own lives, to turn notions of responsibility and place on its ear so that they could find something new, discover a different way of living. Podhoretz also accuses Beat writers of condoning violence, “At one end of the spectrum, this ethos shades off into violence and criminality, main-line drug addiction and madness.” This is one of the most exploited images of the Beats -- the beatnik as murderer. The attitude of the Beats is much the same attitude that caused Ginsberg to scrawl epithets in a dusty window at Columbia. Popular culture makes it okay to think it but not to say it. That was Ginsberg's statement. So, as with Burrough's Naked Lunch, which takes the reader through the topsy-turvy, tripped-out world of an addict's life between fixes, he was expressing things which were too horrible to be expressed but that were true. He says that writing it he was “shitting out my educated Middlewest background once and for all. It's a matter of catharsis, where I say the most horrible things I can think of.”
Drugs became a definite character of the Beat. Constantly in the media they were portrayed as pot-smoking, coffee-drinking, sloppy Beat guys and Beat chicks. Soon, marijuana became a focal point in the attack of the Beat lifestyle and the Beats were accused of taking many other hard drugs. But, the Beat writers were very open about the kind of lifestyle they were leading, a fact that enraged many parents. Diana Trilling wrote in the Partisan Review, Spring, 1959, “it is no accident... that our single overt manifestation of protest takes the wholly non-political form of a bunch of panic-stricken kids in blue jeans, many of them publicly homosexual, talking about or taking drugs, assuring us that they are out of their minds.”
In 1959, LIFE magazine did a photo spread entitled “Squaresville U.S.A. vs. Beatsville” which chronicled the events in a small town, Hutchinson, Kansas, where some wayward teens created a “cool crisis.” It seems that three girlfriends decided that their town was full of “squares” and so they wrote to Lawrence Lipton, whom the magazine touts as the “leader of the Venice [Calif.] beatniks,” imploring him to come and help them get “cooled in.” He agreed but didn't get a chance to leave California before the media and the girls' parents, who were quoted as being “furious,” caught wind of the deal. LIFE photographers descended upon the town and matched photos of life in a typical square town, Hutchinson, with those of “beat central” Venice. Venice is described as a town which “throbs with the rebellion of the beatnik, who ridicules U.S. society as ‘square,’ talks a strange language and loves to chant his poetry while jazz bands or bongo drums play accompaniments.” In the end, a reporter asks Luetta Peters, one of the girls involved, how it all got started. “All we did was send a letter,” she answers. “We know beatniks aren't good, but we thought they just dressed sloppy and talked funny. Now we know that they get married without licenses and things like that.”
A popular understanding of the Beats were that they “talked funny.” A sort of 'beat-speak' developed and many writings on and about the Beats used these words and phrases. Basically the language evolved in the coffeehouses where Beat poetry readings were often held. The word 'cool' became cool during this time. 'Hipster,' one who is cool and part of the scene, and 'square,' meaning someone who is uncool or unhip, were introduced to describe people in and out of the scene. The word 'beatnik' came about shortly after the launching of the Russian satellite Sputnik. In a album released by Mercury Records as a spoof on 'beat-speak' was called How to Speak Hip. In the recording we have the square interviewer talking to a paranoid but hip hipster. They cover the words “cool” and “uncool” and what the ramifications are of being uncool. “[They] dissect the fine points of coolness with all the thoroughness of a tea-head (marijuana smoker) looking for seeds and stems in shag carpet.” Podheretz, Beat critic, dismissed the whole idea of 'beat-speak' and says that “you couldn't even write a note to the milkman” using Beat terminology.
While it was easy to pish-posh the Beats some felt that it was important to really try to figure out what they were all about. In a LIFE article entitled “The Only Rebellion Around,” the writer attempts, and does a good job of, assessing the real situation and lifestyle of the Beats. But, probably the most telling aspect of the article is the posed photo which accompanied it and really personified the image that was created by media sensation of the Beats. It is a staged photo of a domestic Beat “pad” using “paid models” in a studio setting with numbers attached to the various items in the photo and below it a description of each item. Number 1 is the wood-burning stove used “to heat Beat baby's milk and dry Beat chick's leotards.” Number 3 is the Beat chick herself. Also depicted in the room is a “Beat guy with sandals,” beer cans, Beat literature, a poetry leaflet, a guitar and, of course, “Beat baby.” And, the photographer did not even neglect to include some marijuana in a vase (which looked to me like dried lilacs).
The writer of the above article at first likens the Beats to fruit flies infesting the United States, the most succulent melon in the patch. He calls them “some of the hairiest, scrawniest and most discontented specimens of all time... who not only refuse to sample the seeping juices of American plenty and American social advance but scrape their feelers in discordant scorn of any and all who do.” But he then goes on to say, insightfully, that “the wide public belief that the Beats are simply dirty people in sandals is only a small if repellent part of the truth.” He delves even further into Beatness: They are talkers, loafers, passive little con men, lonely eccentrics, mom-haters, cop-haters, exhibitionist with abused smiles and second mortgages on a bongo drum -- writers who cannot write, painters who cannot paint. Around this bohemian cadre wanders a second group -- an increasing corps of amateur or weekend Beats who have jobs and live the comfortable square life but who seek the “cool” sate of mind, spread the Beat message and costume themselves in old clothes to ape the genuinely unwashed on Saturday nights.
This is really quite representative of the attitude towards the Beats during that time and, in a sense, his words to capture the essence of what the youth who ran off to join the Beat Generation were about.
The best way to really see the true effects of the media portrayal is in some of the entertainment media which bastardized the Beat look. There is a surprisingly large handful of movies with “Beat” themes and characters. The “Greenwich Village Story,” was publicized as “A tale of young love and desire... Roaming the bars, the caverns, the pads and lofts and the clangorous confines of the extroverts, introverts and perverts!” Another movie portraying the “free-living world of the over-teens” was “The Rebel Set” which was about “a criminal mastermind who runs a Beat coffeehouse as a front.” On television, you could tune in weekly during the early 60s to “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” and see Maynard Krebs (Bob Denver, Gilligan of “Gilligan's Island” fame) as the beatnik character who spent his time in coffeehouses “swinging with Beat chicks.” There was even a Broadway musical called “The Nervous Set” whose album sleeve featured a charachicture of a bopping Beat, eyes closed, arms akimbo, fingers snapping to what must be the hip, cool sounds of the Beat Generation. But, the pièce-de-resistance has to be in a 1960, Sunday supplement issue of Parade. It featured “Beat chicks” with heavily made up eyes and provided directions for making yourself up in terms of “beatnik beauty.” This for the benefit of girls trapped in the land of the squares.
Rhino Records came out with a three-CD set of actual poetry readings by Kerouac and others, some news coverage of the Generation at that time, interviews with Kerouac, Beat music (Jazz), music inspired by the Beats and, conversely, music which inspired the Beats. It is probably the best compact version of the Beat movement's major players and the Generation that they affected. The selections range from campy to serious and back again. You can hear Tom Waits, Lenny Bruce, the Charlie Parker Quartet next to Three Bips & A Bob performing “Professor Bop” and Don Morrow reading one of Grimm’s Hip Fairy Tales, “Like Rumpelstiltskin.” “Beatnik’s Wish” starts out with a soulful, languorous trumpet which gets cut off with Patsy Ray’s breathy, “Let’s Go, Daddie-O!” All of these things are impressions left by the media of the late 50s which have resurfaced in this new commentary.
There were really three types of people when it came to the portrayal of the Beats: Those that were extremely critical and quick to dismiss this young rebellion as frivolous and dangerous; those that were curious and intrigued by them, and; those that could cash in on the Beats. Now, as for answering whether the Beat was really “beat” or just media image, there were some really serious writers during that time. Kerouac hitchhiked across the country and wrote about it in his first book, appropriately titled, On the Road. To anyone with an appreciation of the Beats, that book is the Beat Bible. Allen Ginsberg's poem, Howl, was, for a time, banned because of the powerful imagery of drug use, societal abandon and issues of family that were contained in it. While some would find those images just grounds to dismiss the works, we must remember that some of the greatest artists and writers of our times had problems with addiction and mental illness: Edgar Allen Poe, Vincent van Gogh, Lewis Carol. “At Bohemia’s best the virtues of sacrifice, social intimacy, idealism, availability to experience, acceptance of both pleasure and suffering, and talent come together.”
In my interview with Paul Dresman, I asked him what relevance the Beat literature has today. “There is still some relevance today,” he said. “There is still some attempt to censor, for example, Robert Mappelthorpe's artwork. Maybe running around on the road is not as relevant or real today but it was all about knowledge of self – every generation has to come to terms with it.” The writing of that time of 50s mentality cannot be repeated because it is a direct reflection to what was going on in politics and society. But, the image of the Beats as beret-wearing, tripped-out cats has stood the test of time. It may not be so obvious but anytime a poet is characterized there is a high possibility that you will see that image.
Dresman also spoke about his time in Haight-Ashbury during the sixties: “I was there just for the poetry and poets... but people tended to classify everybody who was hanging out there as a hippie,” he said. “I found the idea of hippies quite repugnant and was offended that I was grouped into that.” Over and over again the media pigeonholes movements and generations into well- defined packages which, on closer analysis, have lots of holes. It must be the nature of the media beast which allows for such broad generalizations. Kenneth Rexroth, who attempted to separate himself from the Beat movement but nonetheless will forever be regarded as such, had a major bone of contention with the movement in that it got to be too much of a “publicity hallucination.” Truer words about the Beats have never been spoken.
As the dubious members of Generation X grow up and move on there will surely be many who disagree with the whatever label and package the media will put them in. Just as the aged Beats and their followers have had to accept their fate so will Generation X. The X generation will undoubtedly leave behind some sort of collective message but whether or not it will be media hype remains to be seen. It’s my hope that whatever I do now will be real enough, or unreal enough, to stand the test of time on its own feet, in its own terms. I’m sure the dreams of my generation, and every other generation, are not so different from the Beat Generation.
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