[Editor's note: This is the first in a series of posts examining different "Generations."]
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
Angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection
to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
People call Allen Ginsberg a visionary, but predicting modern-day Bushwick^? That’s some Dionne Warwick s***. Maybe this guy is for real.
When they came of age during the ’40s and ’50s, The Beats shocked polite society with their loose attitudes toward drugs and sex, their itinerant travels, and their appreciation for jazz and pretty much everything that made grandma cry. They didn’t even use proper punctuation! Oh yeah, and like other future and past generations, they even sold out. During a brief stint in advertising, Allen Ginsberg helped create Ipana Toothpaste’s “Brusha-Brusha” campaign (as depicted in Grease).
But before we get further into what the Beats were, it’s helpful to remember what “Beat” meant. An interview with Ginsberg and cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead on History.com explains the term’s genesis:
MEAD: Beat(nik) is a name that’s used at present for a group of young people who are interested in the arts. Not interested in the kind of society we have. They travel around in automobiles a great deal with a lot of addresses. And the men usually wear beards.
Mead, to my knowledge, didn’t win any awards for her lexicography. It seems like what she’s really describing is generic Wesleyan undergrads. Beards, really?
Ginsberg’s answer elucidates a little better.
GINSBERG: … [explaining "Beat"] Kerouac, in conversation with another novelist [John Clellon Holmes], were talking about Fitzgerald in the ‘20s and strictly non-officially, sort of an after-dinner, drunk conversation saying ‘what will we be called?’ And Kerouac said, ‘God knows, we’ll probably be called the Beat Generation or whatever.’ It was strictly a private joke. Wasn’t meant as any great official pronunciamento. … It was picked up and first written about in the NY Times. (This conversation occurred in 1948, four years before Holmes himself wrote about the term for the Times. More on that later.)
HOST: So it was Mr. Kerouac himself [who coined it] who was a part of the Beat Generation.
GINSBERG: Well, I don’t think he’d consider himself part of the “magazine” Beat Generation…
Ginsberg had previously explained that the term Beat was truly coined by the mass media, remarking that mass media today tend to coin terms very quickly. [Tiger blood, anyone?] He went on to say that Beats didn’t like being called “Beats” or especially “Beatniks.”
It calls to mind this gem from The Onion…
When we hear a discussion of Beats, three names (give or take) generally get mentioned: Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs. They came from vastly different backgrounds but ended up literally and figuratively in the same place at the same time — 1940s New York.
Pervading so-called authentic Beat sensibilities is a feeling that the artists were downtrodden outsiders (of course some of this was self-imposed. You don’t set out to become a junky and then write a novel about it in the hopes of winning widespread cultural approval). At the risk of oversimplifying things, I see three commonalities as having shaped the men’s “beatness.”
First, all three of them tried and ultimately failed to excel at military service during a time when The Greatest Generation was fighting one of the few “just” wars. It’s not hard to see the effect of this isolation. Burroughs’ lifelong dreams of a brilliant military career were shattered by the military itself. Before the war, his application to become a fighter pilot was rejected. In 1941, he was drafted as an infantrymen. But Burroughs, who saw himself as officer material, pitched a fit and ultimately had mommy get him out. Kerouac readily enlisted but was discharged after 10 months due to his “dementia praecox” (schizophrenia). Inspired by Kerouac, Ginsberg served unremarkably in the Merchant Marines while he was suspended from Columbia for writing that “Butler (the university president) has no balls.”
Second, all three dabbled in or fully committed to homosexuality. This was at a time when private, consensual homosexual acts were still illegal in most states. Simply writing poetry that alluded to such things could land you in a courtroom. Burroughs went so far as to cut off the tip of his finger to prove his love for another man.
And third, they were all plagued by mental illness. Did I mention Burroughs cut off his finger? Well, he did. He also accidentally shot his wife in the head, completely screwed up his son, and had sex with children (generally frowned upon since Ancient Greece). Granted, those are more issues of morality than of illness, but he was kind of an all-around bad dude. Ginsberg, after witnessing his mother’s long decline into insanity, was finally admitted himself in 1949. And Kerouac struggled his whole life with what he called “get[ing] nervous in an emotional way.”
The article to which Ginsberg was referring in the interview [see above] was written by Holmes himself and appeared in the New York Times Magazine on November 16, 1952. To put that into context, On the Road wouldn’t be published for another five years and Howl for another four.
For the purposes of this blog, how a generation saw themselves is actually less important than how “Society” saw that generation. Reading the article today, it’s striking how alternately relavant and comical it seems in passages. [Click here to read the whole thing.]
It opens by describing a recently published photo of a young girl.
It was a face which could only be deemed criminal through an enormous effort of righteousness. Its only complaint seemed to be: “Why don’t people leave us alone?” It was the face of a beat generation.
Any attempt to label an entire generation is unrewarding, and yet the generation which went through the last war, or at least could get a drink easily once it was over, seems to possess a uniform, general quality which demands an adjective … The origins of the word “beat” are obscure…
In other words, you can’t label any generation, but let’s go ahead and do it anyway because it makes for such snappy headlines.
The absence of personal and social values is to them, not a revelation shaking the ground beneath them, but a problem demanding a day-to-day solution. How to live seems to them much more crucial than why.
Everywhere people with tidy moralities shake their heads and wonder what is happening to the younger generation. … For the wildest hipster, making a mystique of bop, drugs and the night life, there is no desire to shatter the ‘square’ society in which he lives, only to elude it. To get on a soapbox or write a manifesto would seem to him absurd.
The shock that older people feel at the sight of this Beat Generation is, at its deepest level, not so much repugnance at the facts, as it is distress at the attitudes which move it. Though worried by this distress, they most often argue or legislate in terms of the facts rather than the attitudes.
For beneath the excess and the conformity, there is something other than detachment. There are the stirrings of a quest. What the hipster is looking for in his “coolness” (withdrawal) or “flipness” (ecstasy) is, after all, a feeling on somewhereness, not just another diversion.
… There is not as yet a single external pivot around which they can, as a generation, group their observations and their aspirations. There is no single philosophy, no single party, no single attitude. The failure of most orthodox moral and social concepts to reflect fully the life they have known is probably the reason for this, but because of it each person becomes a walking, self-contained unit, compelled to meet, or at least endure, the problem of being young in a seemingly helpless world in his own way.
Holmes’ article suffers from a misstep that permeates most journalism and populist rabble-rousing about youth culture. In attempting to describe “this generation” and what makes “this one unique” and especially disconcerting, etc., what is truly being described is youth itself. Don’t young people, by nature of feeling marginalized, exaggerate and flaunt their isolation?
In the end, the Beats are every other modern generation. To his partial credit, Holmes recognizes this but simply overemphasizes the perceived differences.
… in a world which seems to mark its cycles by its wars, it is already being compared to that other postwar generation, which dubbed itself “lost” (The Lost Generation)
So if we’re really getting to the bottom of things, the Generation That Ruined Everything was really Hemingway’s. Yet, if you were able to ask Ginsberg, he would and did pass the buck to this Beatnik, who really, truly ruined everything.