Definitions

beatnik

Beat movement

American social and literary movement of the 1950s and '60s. It is associated with artists' communities in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York. Its adherents expressed alienation from conventional society and advocated personal release and illumination through heightened sensory awareness and altered states of consciousness. Beat poets, including Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso (1930–2001), and Gary Snyder, sought to liberate poetry from academic refinement, creating verse that was vernacular, sometimes sprinkled with obscenities, but often powerful and moving. Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs developed an unstructured, spontaneous, sometimes hallucinatory approach to prose writing that was designed to convey the immediacy of experience. The Beat movement had faded by circa 1970, though its influence continued to be felt decades later.

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Beatniks were members of a sociocultural movement in the 1950s that subscribed to an anti-materialistic lifestyle.

History

Author Jack 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 novel about the beat generation, titled Go, in 1952, along with a manifesto of sorts in the New York Times Magazine: "This is the beat generation"). The adjective "beat" was introduced to the group by Herbert Huncke, though Kerouac expanded the meaning of the term. "Beat" was 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 downtrodden, but to Kerouac, it symbolised being at the bottom and looking up. Other adjectives discussed by Holmes and Kerouac were "found" and "furtive."

Kerouac's claim that he had identified (and embodied) a new trend analogous to the influential Lost Generation might have seemed grandiose at the time, but in retrospect he may have been correct

In "Aftermath: The Philosophy of the Beat Generation" Kerouac criticized what he believed to be the distortion of his 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... 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. Panelists for the seminar were Kerouac, James A. Wechsler, Princeton anthropologist Ashley Montagu and author Kingsley Amis. Wechsler, Montague and Amis all 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:
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?

Kerouac's address that night 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 as Caen and others had intervened 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.

Stereotyping

In her Minor Characters memoir (Houghton Mifflin, 1987), Joyce Johnson described how the beat 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.

Ann Charters, in Beat Down to Your Soul: What Was the Beat Generation? (Penguin, 1991) observed how the term "beat" was appropriated to become a 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.

Etymology

The word "beatnik" was coined by Herb Caen in an article in the San Francisco Chronicle on April 2, 1958. Caen coined the term by adding the Russian suffix -nik after Sputnik I to the Beat Generation. Caen's column with the word came six months after the launch of Sputnik. It may have been Caen's intent to portray the members of the Beat Generation as un-American. 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."

Beat culture

Boston University professor Ray Carney wrote that beat culture represented a negative stance rather than a positive one, animated more by a vague feeling of cultural and emotional displacement, dissatisfaction, and yearning, than by a specific purpose or program.

San Francisco columnist Herb Caen coined the word (punning on the recently launched Russian Sputnik) to cast doubt on the beatnik's red-white-and-blue-blooded all-Americanness. Dobie Gillis, Life magazine, Charles Kuralt, and other entertainers and journalists reduced Beatness to a set of superficial externals: goatees, sunglasses, poetry readings, coffeehouses, slouches, and "cool, man, cool" jargon. Since 1958, the terms Beat Generation and beat have been used to describe the anti-materialistic literary movement that began with Kerouac in 1948, stretching on into the 1960s. The Beat philosophy of anti-materialism and soul-searching influenced 1960s musicians such as Bob Dylan, the early Pink Floyd and The Beatles.

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.

By 1960, a small 'beatnik' community in Newquay, Cornwall, England (including a young Wizz Jones) had attracted the attention and the abhorrence of their neighbours, for growing their hair to a length that was then quite abnormally long (past the shoulders), for which they were interviewed by the BBC's Alan Whicker for national television.

The beat philosophy was generally counter-cultural, anti-materialistic and stressed the importance of bettering one's inner self over and above material possessions. Some beat writers 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 William Burroughs, 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 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.

Beatniks in literature and film

The character Maynard G. Krebs, played on TV by Bob Denver in The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (1959-63), solidified the beatnik stereotype, in contrast to the rebellious, beat-related images presented by popular film actors of the early and mid-1950s, notably Marlon Brando and James Dean.

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, Roberta Flack, Petula Clark, Rod McKuen, Shirley Bassey and others). Stanley Donen brought the theme to the film musical in Funny Face (1957) with one Audrey Hepburn production number revamped into a Gap commercial in 2006. In yet another Madison Avenue manipulation, one of Jerry Yulsman's photographs of Kerouac was altered for use in a Gap print ad by airbrushing Joyce Johnson right out of the picture.

The Beat Generation (1959) made an association of the movement with crime and violence, as did The Beatniks (1960). The notion of violence or other criminality possibly arose because hardcore outlaws and criminals were popularly portrayed as using many of the same jive terms in their speech, and this distortion could also be seen in popular TV shows with regard to hippies a few years later.

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

The Looney Tunes cartoon character Cool Cat is often portrayed as a beatnik, as is the banty rooster in the 1963 Foghorn Leghorn short Banty Raids. In the television cartoon Scooby-Doo, the character Shaggy is a portrayal of a beatnik. Similarly, the Beany and Cecil cartoon series also had a beatnik character, Go Man Van Gogh (aka "The Wildman"), who often lives in the jungle and paints various pictures and backgrounds to fool his enemies, first appearing in the episode, "The Wildman of Wildsville." In the animated series The Simpsons, the parents of character Ned Flanders are beatniks who have him placed in a mental institution as a child after they have trouble disciplining his bad behavior (Complains his mother: "We've tried nothin', and we're all out of ideas!"). Also, in the animated television series, Doug, Doug's older sister, Judy Funnie, is characterized as a beatnik.

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