The Beats were America's first hipsters. But what were they, like, really about, man?
THE OTHER SIDE OF AMERICA
One night in 1948, two students at new York's Columbia University, John Clellon Holmes and Jack Kerouac, were hanging out talking about what they thought was wrong with the modern world -the constant threat of nuclear war, the hollowness of suburbia, and the stifling academic mainstream. At one point, Kerouac remarked, "This really is a beat generation."
What did Kerouac mean? It was something he'd heard a few years earlier from someone he'd met in Times Square, a street hustler named Herbert Hunche. According to Kerouac, Hunche told him that "beat" meant that "you're exhausted, at the bottom of the world, looking up or out, sleepless, wide-eyed, perceptive, rejected by society, on your own, streetwise."
Holmes' and Kerouac's clique consisted of a handful of equally disenchanted artists, writers, and academics, all with (un)healthy interests in drugs, booze, and urban culture, including poet Allen Ginsberg and novelist William S. Burroughs. This was the Beat Generation, and they found their escape in the underexplored and often seedy side of American life. And they expressed it in what would come to be highly influential written works.
SEX, DRUGS, BEBOP
img class="size-medium wp-image-62610" title="beats" src="http://uploads.neatorama.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/beats-500x326.jpg" alt="" width="500" height="326" />
Hal Chase, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs.
The Beats thought the way to enlightenment and artistic fulfillment was to go out and experience the world, especially the fringe elements. They hitchhiked around the country, befriending (and emulating) hobos and outlaws (like Hunche), and they experimented with marijuana, Benzedrine, and morphine.
The main core of the Beats ultimately settled in San Francisco's North Beach in the mid-1950s, where they congregated at jazz clubs for smokey jam sessions and in coffee houses for poetry readings. The structure of jazz -it was experimental, non-linear, free-form, often stream-of-consciousness- heavily influenced the way the Beats wrote.
But the fact that the Beats were literary doesn't mean they were refined. Beat literature had a tendency to be raw, lurid, personal, and extremely confrontational -and that was the point. Here are some excerpts from three of the most influential pieces of Beat literature:
On the Road (1957). Jack Kerouac's autobiographical novel about a road trip full of crime, shady characters, and the unseen underbelly of '50s America is considered the definitive Beat work. Kerouac reportedly wrote it in just three weeks, typing stream-of-consciousness style on a 120-foot scroll of paper. It was so unstructured that before it could be published, it had to edited (sections deemed pornographic were deleted) and reformatted with conventional punctuation and paragraph breaks. Here's a passage:
And for just a moment I had reached the point of ecstasy that I always wanted to reach, which was the complete step across chronological time into timeless shadows, and wonderment in the bleakness of the mortal realm, and the sensation of death kicking at my heels to move on, with a phantom dogging its own heels.
"Howl" (1956). Ginsberg's furious epic free-verse poem was first performed at a poetry reading at San Francisco's Gallery Six. Published by Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights Press, "Howl!" was banned as obscene; Ferlinghetti was arrested, and the trial that followed brought national attention to the work. Here are the first few lines of the poem:
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, angelhead hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night, who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz...
Naked Lunch (1959). William S, Burrough's controversial novel also led to an obscenity trial. Published in Paris in 1959, it wasn't released in the U.S. until 1962. Semi-autobiographical, Naked Lunch follows the surreal adventures of junkie William Lee (Burroughs was a morphine addict). Here's a sample:
"Selling is more of a habit than using," Lupita says. Nonusing pushers have a contact habit, and that's one you can't kick. Agents get it too. Take Bradley the Buyer. Best narcotics agent in the industry. Anyone would make him for junk. He is so anonymous, grey and spectral the pusher don't remember him afterwards.
THE BEAT LEGACY
* The Beat Generation set forth that it was okay to try new avenues in art, even if (or especially if) they were dark, unsettling, or personal. Artists sharing this philosophy included comedian Lenny Bruce, painter Jackson Pollock, photographer Diane Arbus, and filmmaker John Cassavetes.
* Beat writers popularized spontaneous, stream-of-consciousness prose and performance art, along with abstract expressionism and postmodernism. Modern day "slam"-style poetry is a direct outgrowth of the Beats. So was the "New Journalism" or "literary nonfiction" of the '60s and '70s. Writers would deliver long, narrative, true stories (in which they were active participants) about the edges of American life as if it were a novel, in a highly-descriptive free-flow manner. Two of those writers: Tom Wolfe (The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test), and Hunter S. Thompson (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas).
* Blogging is relative new form of information delivery (often challenging mainstream media) by regular people who explore the world around them and document it in online journals, if not for an audience then for the sake of self-expression. Tech writer Tom Forenski of ZDnet.com argues that bloggers are the present-day equivalent of the Beats. "Both celebrate the written word, and both celebrate a raw and passionate literature that is largely unedited. And both are disruptive movements."
Six months after the USSR launched Sputnik, San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen gave the beats their most famous nickname when he called them beatniks in a 1958 column. "I made fun of the Beats because they took themselves so seriously," he remembered. "I had a drink with Allen Ginsberg one night at Vesuvio and we walked across the street to Tosca. He was barefoot. The uptight Italian who owned the place kicked him out. 'But I'm Allen Ginsberg," he shouted. The guy had never heard of him."
___________________The article above was reprinted with permission from the Bathroom Institute's book Uncle John's Heavy Duty Bathroom Reader.
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