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Beat, Beat, Beat (1959) by William F. Brown Beatbeatbeat.jpg
Beat, Beat, Beat (1959) by William F. Brown

Beatnik was a media stereotype prevalent throughout the 1950s to mid-1960s that displayed the more superficial aspects of the Beat Generation literary movement of the 1950s. Elements of the beatnik trope included pseudo-intellectualism, drug use, and a cartoonish depiction of real-life people along with the spiritual quest of Jack Kerouac's autobiographical fiction.

Mass media refers to a diverse array of media technologies that reach a large audience via mass communication. The technologies through which this communication takes place include a variety of outlets.

Stereotype Over-generalized belief about a particular category of people

In social psychology, a stereotype is an over-generalized belief about a particular category of people. Stereotypes are generalized because one assumes that the stereotype is true for each individual person in the category. While such generalizations may be useful when making quick decisions, they may be erroneous when applied to particular individuals. Stereotypes encourage prejudice and may arise for a number of reasons.

The Beat Generation was a literary movement started by a group of authors whose work explored and influenced American culture and politics in the post-war era. The bulk of their work was published and popularized throughout the 1950s. The central elements of Beat culture are the rejection of standard narrative values, making a spiritual quest, the exploration of American and Eastern religions, the rejection of materialism, explicit portrayals of the human condition, experimentation with psychedelic drugs, and sexual liberation and exploration.



Poster for The Beat Generation (1959) BeatGenerationLOC.jpg
Poster for The Beat Generation (1959)

In 1948, Kerouac introduced the phrase "Beat Generation", generalizing from his social circle to characterize the underground, anticonformist youth gathering in New York at that time. The name came up in conversation with John Clellon Holmes, who published an early Beat Generation novel titled Go (1952), along with the manifesto This Is the Beat Generation in The New York Times Magazine . [1] In 1954, Nolan Miller published his third novel Why I Am So Beat (Putnam), detailing the weekend parties of four students.

New York City Largest city in the United States

The City of New York, usually called either New York City (NYC) or simply New York (NY), is the most populous city in the United States. With an estimated 2018 population of 8,398,748 distributed over a land area of about 302.6 square miles (784 km2), New York is also the most densely populated major city in the United States. Located at the southern tip of the state of New York, the city is the center of the New York metropolitan area, the largest metropolitan area in the world by urban landmass and one of the world's most populous megacities, with an estimated 19,979,477 people in its 2018 Metropolitan Statistical Area and 22,679,948 residents in its Combined Statistical Area. A global power city, New York City has been described as the cultural, financial, and media capital of the world, and exerts a significant impact upon commerce, entertainment, research, technology, education, politics, tourism, art, fashion, and sports. The city's fast pace has inspired the term New York minute. Home to the headquarters of the United Nations, New York is an important center for international diplomacy.

John Clellon Holmes American Beat Generation writer, novelist

John Clellon Holmes was an American author, poet and professor, best known for his 1952 novel Go. Considered the first "Beat" novel, Go depicted events in his life with his friends Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady and Allen Ginsberg. He was often referred to as the "quiet Beat" and was one of Kerouac's closest friends. Holmes also wrote what is considered the definitive jazz novel of the Beat Generation, The Horn.

<i>Go</i> (Holmes novel) John Clellon Holmes novel

Go is a semi-autobiographical novel by John Clellon Holmes. It is considered to be the first published novel depicting the beat generation. Set in New York, it concerns the lives of a collection of characters largely based on the friends Holmes used to hang around with in the 1940s and 1950s in Manhattan. An underworld of drug-fueled parties, bars, clubs and free love is explored through the eyes of character Paul Hobbes, Holmes' representation of himself in the novel. Hobbes is torn between joining his friends in their riotous existence and trying to maintain his relatively stable life and marriage to his wife Kathryn.

The adjective "beat" was introduced to the group by Herbert Huncke, though Kerouac expanded the meaning of the term.[ citation needed ] "Beat" came from underworld slang—the world of hustlers, drug addicts and petty thieves, where Allen Ginsberg and Kerouac sought inspiration. "Beat" was slang for "beaten down" or downtrodden, 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. [2] [3]

Herbert Huncke

Herbert Edwin Huncke was an American writer and poet, and active participant in a number of emerging cultural, social and aesthetic movements of the 20th century in America. He was a member of the Beat Generation and is reputed to have coined the term.

Allen Ginsberg American poet and philosopher

Irwin Allen Ginsberg was an American poet, philosopher and writer. He is considered to be one of the leading figures of both the Beat Generation during the 1950s and the counterculture that soon followed. He vigorously opposed militarism, economic materialism, and sexual repression and was known as embodying various aspects of this counterculture, such as his views on drugs, hostility to bureaucracy and openness to Eastern religions. He was one of many influential American writers of his time who were associated with the Beat Generation, including Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs.

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 ... [4] [5]

Hipster (1940s subculture) 1940s subculture

Hipster or hepcat, as used in the 1940s, referred to aficionados of jazz, in particular bebop, which became popular in the early 1940s. The hipster adopted the lifestyle of the jazz musician, including some or all of the following: dress, slang, use of marijuana and other drugs, relaxed attitude, sarcastic humor, self-imposed poverty, and relaxed sexual mores.

"Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street" is a short story by the American writer Herman Melville, first serialized anonymously in two parts in the November and December 1853 issues of Putnam's Magazine, and reprinted with minor textual alterations in his The Piazza Tales in 1856. In the story, a Wall Street lawyer hires a new clerk who, after an initial bout of hard work, refuses to make copies or do any other task required of him, with the words, "I would prefer not to".

Kerouac explained what he meant by "beat" at a Brandeis Forum, "Is There A Beat Generation?", on November 8, 1958 at New York's Hunter College Playhouse. The seminar's panelists were Kerouac, James A. Wechsler, Princeton anthropologist Ashley Montagu and author Kingsley Amis. Wechsler, Montagu, and Amis wore suits, while Kerouac was clad in black jeans, ankle boots and a checkered shirt. Reading from a prepared text, Kerouac reflected on his beat beginnings:

Anthropology is the scientific study of humans and human behavior and societies in the past and present. Social anthropology studies patterns of behaviour and cultural anthropology studies cultural meaning, including norms and values. Linguistic anthropology studies how language influences social life. Biological or physical anthropology studies the biological development of humans.

Ashley Montagu British-American anthropologist

Montague Francis Ashley-Montagu, previously known as Israel Ehrenberg, was a British-American anthropologist who popularized the study of topics such as race and gender and their relation to politics and development. He was the rapporteur, in 1950, for the UNESCO statement "The Race Question". As a young man he changed his name from Ehrenberg to "Montague Francis Ashley-Montagu". After relocating to the United States he used the name "Ashley Montagu". Montagu, who became a naturalized American citizen in 1940, taught and lectured at Harvard, Princeton, Rutgers, the University of California, Santa Barbara, and New York University. Forced out of his Rutgers position after the McCarthy hearings, he repositioned himself as a public intellectual in the 1950s and 1960s, appearing regularly on television shows and writing for magazines and newspapers. He authored over sixty books throughout this lifetime. In 1995, the American Humanist Association named him the Humanist of the Year.

Kingsley Amis English novelist, poet, critic, teacher

Sir Kingsley William Amis, CBE was an English novelist, poet, critic, and teacher. He wrote more than 20 novels, six volumes of poetry, a memoir, various short stories, radio and television scripts, along with works of social and literary criticism. According to his biographer, Zachary Leader, Amis was "the finest English comic novelist of the second half of the twentieth century." He is the father of British novelist Martin Amis. In 2008, The Times ranked him ninth on a list of the 50 greatest British writers since 1945.

It is because I am Beat, that is, I believe in beatitude and that God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son to it ... Who knows, but that the universe is not one vast sea of compassion actually, the veritable holy honey, beneath all this show of personality and cruelty? [6]

Kerouac's statement was later published as "The Origins of the Beat Generation" (Playboy, June 1959). In that article, Kerouac noted how his original beatific philosophy had been ignored amid maneuvers by several pundits, among them San Francisco newspaper columnist Herb Caen, to alter Kerouac's concept with jokes and jargon:

I went one afternoon to the church of my childhood and had a vision of what I must have really meant with "Beat"... the vision of the word Beat as being to mean beatific ... People began to call themselves beatniks, beats, jazzniks, bopniks, bugniks, and finally I was called the "avatar" of all this.

In light of what he considered beat to mean and what beatnik had come to mean, Kerouac once observed to a reporter, "I'm not a beatnik, I'm a Catholic", showing the reporter a painting of Pope Paul VI and saying, "You know who painted that? Me."


Stereotypical beatnik woman. Beatgirl (3).jpg
Stereotypical beatnik woman.

In her memoir, Minor Characters, Joyce Johnson described how the stereotype was absorbed into American culture:

"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. [7]

Kerouac biographer Ann Charters noted that the term "Beat" was appropriated to become a Madison Avenue marketing tool:

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. [8]

Lee Streiff, an acquaintance of many members of the movement who went on to become one of its chroniclers, believed that the news media saddled the movement for the long term with a set of false images:

Reporters are not generally well versed in artistic movements, or the history of literature or art. And most are certain that their readers, or viewers, are of limited intellectual ability and must have things explained simply, in any case. Thus, the reporters in the media tried to relate something that was new to already preexisting frameworks and images that were only vaguely appropriate in their efforts to explain and simplify. With a variety of oversimplified and conventional formulas at their disposal, they fell back on the nearest stereotypical approximation of what the phenomenon resembled, as they saw it. And even worse, they did not see it clearly and completely at that. They got a quotation here and a photograph there — and it was their job to wrap it up in a comprehensible package — and if it seemed to violate the prevailing mandatory conformist doctrine, they would also be obliged to give it a negative spin as well. And in this, they were aided and abetted by the Poetic Establishment of the day. Thus, what came out in the media: from newspapers, magazines, TV, and the movies, was a product of the stereotypes of the 30s and 40s — though garbled — of a cross between a 1920s Greenwich Village bohemian artist and a Bop musician, whose visual image was completed by mixing in Daliesque paintings, a beret, a Vandyck beard, a turtleneck sweater, a pair of sandals, and set of bongo drums. A few authentic elements were added to the collective image: poets reading their poems, for example, but even this was made unintelligible by making all of the poets speak in some kind of phony Bop idiom. The consequence is, that even though we may know now that these images do not accurately reflect the reality of the Beat movement, we still subconsciously look for them when we look back to the 50s. We have not even yet completely escaped the visual imagery that has been so insistently forced upon us. [9]


Poster for The Beatniks (1960) Thebeatniks.jpg
Poster for The Beatniks (1960)

The word "beatnik" was coined by Herb Caen in his column in the San Francisco Chronicle on April 2, 1958. Caen wrote "Look magazine, preparing a picture spread on S.F.'s Beat Generation (oh, no, not AGAIN!), hosted a party in a No. Beach house for 50 Beatniks, and by the time word got around the sour grapevine, over 250 bearded cats and kits were on hand, slopping up Mike Cowles' free booze. They're only Beat, y'know, when it comes to work ..." [10] Caen coined the term by adding the Slavic suffix -nik to the Beat Generation.

Caen's column with the word came six months after the launch of Sputnik I . [11] [12] Objecting to 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." [13]

Beat culture

In the vernacular of the period, "Beat" referred to Beat culture, attitude and literature; while "beatnik" referred to a stereotype found in cartoon drawings and twisted, sometimes violent media characters. In 1995, film scholar Ray Carney wrote about the authentic beat attitude as differentiated from stereotypical media portrayals of the beatnik:

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 ... It was many different, conflicting, shifting states of mind. [14]

The news photo caption for this 1959 event in Venice, California read: "Beatnik Beauties: Posing before a sample of beatnik art are contestants for the title of Miss Beatnik of 1959, which will be conferred Sept. 12 under sponsorship of the Venice Arts Committee. From left are Michi Monteef, Sammy McCord, Patti McCrory, Shaunna Lea and, in rear, Jan Vandaveer." MissBeatnik.jpg
The news photo caption for this 1959 event in Venice, California read: "Beatnik Beauties: Posing before a sample of beatnik art are contestants for the title of Miss Beatnik of 1959, which will be conferred Sept. 12 under sponsorship of the Venice Arts Committee. From left are Michi Monteef, Sammy McCord, Patti McCrory, Shaunna Lea and, in rear, Jan Vandaveer."

Since 1958, the terms Beat Generation and Beat have been used to describe the antimaterialistic literary movement that began with Kerouac in the 1940s and continued into the 1960s. The Beat philosophy of antimaterialism and soul searching influenced 1960s musicians such as Bob Dylan, the early Pink Floyd and The Beatles.

However, the soundtrack of the beat movement was the modern jazz pioneered by saxophonist Charlie Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, which the media dubbed bebop. Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg spent much of their time in New York jazz clubs such as the Royal Roost, Minton's Playhouse, Birdland and the Open Door, shooting the breeze and digging the music. Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis rapidly became what Ginsberg dubbed "secret heroes" to this group of aesthetes. The Beat authors borrowed much from the jazz/hipster slang of the 1940s, peppering their works with words such as "square", "cats", "cool" and "dig".

At the time the term "beatnik" was coined, a trend existed among young college students to adopt the stereotype. Men emulated the trademark look of bebop trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie by wearing goatees, horn-rimmed glasses and berets, rolling their own cigarettes, and playing bongos. Fashions for women included black leotards and long, straight, unadorned hair, 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.

By 1960, a small "beatnik" group in Newquay, Cornwall, England (including a young Wizz Jones) had attracted the attention and abhorrence of their neighbours for growing their hair beyond shoulder length, resulting in a television interview with Alan Whicker on BBC television's Tonight series. [16]

The Beat philosophy was generally countercultural and antimaterialistic, and stressed the importance of bettering one's inner self over material possessions. Some Beat writers, such as Alan Watts, began to delve into Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Taoism. Politics tended to be liberal, left-wing and anti-war, with support for causes such as desegregation (although many of the figures associated with the original Beat movement, particularly Kerouac, embraced libertarian and 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, no obvious or direct connection occurred between Beat philosophy, as expressed by the literary movement's leading authors, and that of the communist movement, other than the antipathy both philosophies shared towards capitalism. Those with only a superficial familiarity with the Beat movement often saw this similarity and assumed the two movements had more in common.

The Beat movement introduced Asian religions to Western society. These religions provided the Beat generation with new views of the world and corresponded with its desire to rebel against conservative middle-class values of the 1950s, old post-1930s radicalism, mainstream culture, and institutional religions in America. [17]

By 1958, many Beat writers published writings on Buddhism. This was the year Jack Kerouac published his novel The Dharma Bums , whose central character (whom Kerouac based on himself) sought Buddhist contexts for events in his life.

Allen Ginsberg's spiritual journey to India in 1963 also influenced the Beat movement. After studying religious texts alongside monks, Ginsburg deduced that what linked the function of poetry to Asian religions was their mutual goal of achieving ultimate truth. His discovery of Hindu mantra chants, a form of oral delivery, subsequently influenced Beat poetry. Beat pioneers who followed a Buddhism-influenced spiritual path appreciated Asian religions's profound understanding of human nature and insights into the being, existence and reality of mankind. [17] Many of the Beat advocates believed that the core concepts of Asia religious philosophies had the means of elevating American society's consciousness, and these concepts informed their main ideologies. [18]

Notable Beat writers such as Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Gary Snyder were drawn to Buddhism to the extent that they each, at different periods in their lives, followed a spiritual path in their quests to provide answers to universal questions and concepts. As a result, the Beat philosophy stressed the bettering of the inner self and the rejection of materialism, and postulated that East Asian religions could fill a religious and spiritual void in the lives of many Americans. [17]

Many scholars speculate that Beat writers wrote about Eastern religions to encourage young people to practice spiritual and sociopolitical action. Progressive concepts from these religions, particularly those regarding personal freedom, influenced youth culture to challenge capitalist domination, break their generation's dogmas, and reject traditional gender and racial rules. [18]

Beatniks in media

The subculture surfaced on Broadway as musical comedy in The Nervous Set (1959) by Neurotica editor Jay Landesman and Theodore J. Flicker with music by Tommy Wolf and lyrics by Fran Landesman; this was the source of two jazz standards, "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most" and "The Ballad of the Sad Young Men" (recorded by Gil Evans, Anita O'Day, Mark Murphy (singer), Roberta Flack, Petula Clark, Rod McKuen, Shirley Bassey and others). The show opened with the song, "Man, We're Beat".

Beatnik books

Alan Bisbort's survey, Beatniks: A Guide to an American Subculture, was published by Greenwood Press in 2009 as part of the Greenwood Press Guides to Subcultures and Countercultures series. The book includes a timeline, a glossary and biographical sketches. Others in the Greenwood series: Punks, Hippies, Goths and Flappers. [21]

Tales of Beatnik Glory: Volumes I and II, by Ed Sanders, is, as its name suggests, a collection of short stories, and a definitive introduction to the beatnik scene as lived by its participants. [22] The author, who went on to found the Fugs, lived in the beatnik epicenter of Greenwich Village and the Lower East Side in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Among the humor books, Beat, Beat, Beat was a 1959 Signet paperback of cartoons by Phi Beta Kappa Princeton graduate William F. Brown, who looked down on the movement from his position in the TV department of the Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn advertising agency. [23]

Suzuki Beane (1961), by Sandra Scoppettone with Louise Fitzhugh illustrations, was a Bleecker Street beatnik spoof of Kay Thompson's Eloise series (1956–59).

In the 1960s, the comic book Justice League of America's sidekick Snapper Carr was also portrayed as a stereotypical beatnik, down to his lingo and clothes. The DC Comics character Jonny Double is also portrayed as a beatnik.


In San Francisco, Jerry and Estelle Cimino operate their Beat Museum, which began in 2003 in Monterey, California and moved to San Francisco in 2006. [24]

Ed "Big Daddy" Roth used fiberglass to build his Beatnik Bandit in 1960. Today, this car is in the National Automobile Museum in Reno, Nevada. [25]

See also

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