The Beat Generation consisted of bohemian creatives of the 1950s and ’60s and started in New York City. Beatniks were apart of an underground movement that thrived on poetry and jazz music. They were also known to take part in narcotics and petty theft, which further fueled their lifestyle. Their style and place in society could be comparable to the group we call “hipsters” today, but Beatniks left their own mark on American culture.
So Who Were These Mysterious, Literary Free Spirits?
Just before the hippies of the ’60s and ’70s waved their tie-dye flags declaring love, the Beat Generation burst onto the scene and crafted some of the most renowned works of literature in the history of America.
Jack Kerouac Coined The Term “Beat Generation”
The Beat Generation rose up out of the depths of steamy New York coffee shops and underground poetry readings. The term was coined by Jack Kerouac, the famous New York writer who penned On The Road. In an offhand comment to writer John Clellon Homes, who published Go, one of the first beat novels, in 1952, Kerouac used the phrase “Beat Generation” to describe their social circle of literary, non-conformist friends. The adjective “beat” was slang that was introduced to the group by Herbert Huncke, a bohemian poet and writer, but the meaning was far from positive.
The Origins Of Being ‘Beat’
Beat was originally considered jazz slang. It was used to describe someone who was completely down-trodden and both Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, two of the movement’s leaders, found inspiration in those sorts of people. People who were “beat” were living with no money and had no future prospects. Kerouac and his friends weren’t too far off. They lived on the fringes of society, spending their days experimenting with drugs, creating art, and celebrating sexuality. Instead of wallowing in the idea that their alternative, bohemian lifestyles would lead nowhere, Kerouac and his friends co-opted the term and made it powerful.
Jazz Music Was The Beating Heart Of Beat Culture
Jazz music was the community around which the Beat Generation was formed. It was a soundtrack to the movement, and influenced the philosophy and vocabulary of some of the generation’s most influential writers. Writers would meet in small jazz clubs like the Red Drum, Minton’s and the Open Door to watch musicians like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. Allen Ginsberg dubbed these musicians “Secret Heroes.” Though “beat” meant down and out in jazz slang, Kerouac used it to describe the feeling jazz gives you. It meant “beatitude, not beat up. You feel this. You feel it in a beat, in jazz real cool jazz.”
Greenwich Village, New York City, The Kingdom Of The Beats
The Beats emerged from the depths of roach-filled apartments in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Today, you’d be hard-pressed to find a person who isn’t struggling to pay rent in Manhattan. Back then, the neighborhood was downtrodden and characterized by low rents. Because of the cheap cost of living, it attracted artists, creative types and those living alternative lifestyles.
This quote just about sums it up: “Like, man, if you’re Beat, where else is there to go but Greenwich Village, Earth? Like, it’s Endsville, man, you dig?
Coffee Shops Helped Spread The Beat Message
Coffee shops were the cornerstone of the Beat Generation. It was where writers, artists and musicians got to gather and share their thoughts and ideas. It’s where so much of the great work in the Beat Generation was developed – you could sit without time constraints and read a novel, write or workshop. Coffee shops still function like this today, but during the Beat Generation, they didn’t just serve as meeting places. They were impromptu venues for Beat performers. In this image, a woman is reciting poetry in Greenwich Village café in 1959. Others mixed music and poetry, for example some poets read their work with light accompaniment from wind instruments.
The Gaslight Café
The Gaslight Café was a regular haunt for beats in the late ’50s and ’60s in the heart of Greenwich Village, New York . At the club, which was opened in 1958 by John Mitchell, poets would perform and pass around a basket hoping to get tips. The Gaslight showcased revolutionary Beats including Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso before it became a folk-music club in 1961. During this time it, rather than focusing on Beat poets, showcased folk talent that was associated with the Beat Generation. In 1962, Bob Dylan recorded his famed 10-song album Live at the Gaslight 1962.
Beatniks And Russian Communism
Just like modern day hipsters, who are all too displeased when you call them hipsters, beatniks weren’t thrilled with the term beatnik. Though Jack Kerouac and his friends co-opted the term “beat” from those living in the fringes of society, “beatnik” actually stemmed from the stereotyped, derogatory image of what the Beats actually did – the drugs, the sex, and all the scandalous free-thinking associated with the movement.
The term “Beatnik” was actually coined by journalist Herb Caen in an April 1958 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle. He took the term “beat” from the Beat Generation and fused it together with “nik,” a word inspired by the Russian satellite Sputnik. He was, essentially, equating the Beats with communism.
The Beatnik Stereotype
To those on the outside, the Beats were hip, cool and mysterious. They were searching for meaning through art and deeply philosophical, but the stereotype of beatnik became greater than the actual movement. Marketing companies and the media latched on perpetrating the stereotype of shallow, goateed, slang-using men wearing black berets and turtle necks, doing drugs, playing jazz and reciting garbage poetry in musky coffee shops. They were stereotyped in the media as violent and lacking morals or wild drug addicts. In reality, they were visionaries who crafted some of the most groundbreaking literature of the ’50s and ’60s.
Allen Ginsberg Called Out The Idea Of “Beatniks” In An Open Letter
Allen Ginsberg, the radical poet who penned Howl and Other Poems and Kaddish and Other Poems, publicly rejected the media’s idea of a “beatnik.” In a letter to The New York Times, Ginsberg called the term a “foul word” and said “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.”
Kerouac also rejected the term stating in a 1969 interview with The Tampa Bay Times, “I’m a Catholic, not a beatnik.”
Jack Kerouac’s On The Road Memorialized Beat Culture
In 1956, nearly a decade after Kerouac coined the term the Beat Generation, he released his hallmark novel On The Road. This novel was a gripping, stream-of-consciousness tale of Beat culture. It explored scandalous topics like drugs, sexual liberation and jazz music. The novel, which remains one of the most influential books of the ’50s, received rave reviews in The New York Times. The rag hailed the novel as “the most beautifully executed, the clearest and the most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as ‘beat’.”
Women’s Beatnik Style
Beatnik style was marked by muted, dark colors – most often black. Women chose a variety of button downs, boatnecks and turtlenecks all in dark colors. Beat women rebelled against the flared skirts of the ’50s and wore cigarette pants. They weren’t concerned with flashy jewelry and kept it to a minimum.
In this photo, Mimi Margaux, a dancer, actress, model and follower of ‘la Vie Boheme’ hangs out on the balcony of an East Village apartment in 1959. She exhibits classic beat style: high-waisted pants with a sensible, dark blue shirt. She has minimal makeup and natural hair.
Gregory Corso, The Youngest Beat
The youngest of the famous Beats, Gregory Corso, wasn’t always regarded as the literary genius he is today. Before becoming a world-renowned poet, Corso spent most of his life in orphanages and prisons. The day before his 18th birthday, he broke into a tailor shop and stole a suit for a date. He spent the night in jail, but when he woke up a legal adult with prior offenses, he was given a two to three year sentence at Clinton State Prison. While he was there mobster Charles “Lucky” Luciano donated an extensive library, and Corso began studying up on poetry and literature. This sparked his passion.
In the above photo, Corso is standing in a stairway waiting to read poetry at the Seven Arts Café in 1959.
Folk Music’s Link To The Beat Generation
Though the Beat Generation was widely marked by Jazz, it also stemmed a small folk music scene primarily because of Bob Dylan. Dylan and his sometimes mentor Allen Ginsberg became friends in 1963 and continued to influence each other’s work throughout their careers. Though the Beats largely went against the American backwoods story told by folk artists, the performers tended to run in the same liberal circles. Eventually the jazz evolved to inspire rock and roll in bands like the Beatles, Janis Joplin and the Doors. These artists were influenced by the poets’ and writers’ work in the Beat Generation.
The Beats Were Particularly Socially Conscious
If the Beats were around today, you can bet they’d have been at Standing Rock protesting the pipeline. The Beats had an unyielding respect for land and indigenous people – they were highly liberal and fought towards women’s liberation, black liberation and indigenous rights. As Kerouac said in his famed novel On The Road “The Earth is an Indian thing.”
The Beats opposed the military-industrial machine civilization. This is seen in writings by William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Kerouac and Herbert Huncke. They also were highly spiritual with Kerouac proclaiming a “second religiousness” was developing in advanced civilization.
Dispelling The Stigma Of Mental Illness Through Poetry
The Beats wanted to document the human condition in all of its forms. For many, that included clinical depression. Allen Ginsberg wrote his most famous work Howl about just that. Ginsberg found inspiration in his friend Carl Soloman, a surrealism enthusiast who suffered from clinical depression. Soloman was suicidal but he thought the only form of suicide that was acceptable was to ask for a lobotomy at a mental hospital. The mental hospital refused and gave him intense therapy which included electroshock treatment. Howl was an eye-opening account of this. It threw depression, a taboo disease, in front of America’s headlights and showed the struggles experienced by those who suffer even if they’re seeking treatment.
Sexual Liberation In The Beat Generation
The Beat Generation was marked for liberal ideas about sex. Beats were LGBTQ members and allies, and some of the most famous beat poets experimented freely with their sexuality. Allen Ginsberg was radically controversial with his openness about homosexuality. In 1943, the poet admitted he discovered “mountains of homosexuality” within himself and expressed this desire graphically in his poems. This was extremely controversial. Previously homosexuality was only hinted at or talked about in metaphor. It was hidden and never addressed head on. The Beats were unafraid and Ginsberg his fellow beats like William S. Burroughs and Lenny Bruce, challenged obscenity laws by expressing their sexuality through poetry.
Drugs And The Beat Generation
The Beats were widely known for their drug use – something that scandalized conservatives in America. Jack Kerouac’s hallmark novel On The Road was peppered with drug-fueled musings. Allen Ginsberg also worked to demystify drug use by organizing the New York chapter of LeMar (Legalize Marijuana). He also teamed up with LSD-spokesperson Timothy Leary to promote the common use of hallucinogens. William S. Burroughs was also known for his drug use penning The Yage Letters with Ginsberg about an epic quest through South America seeking Yage, a drug promising telepathic abilities. Though the letters were largely fictionalized, it still worked to demystify recreational drug use and brought the concept into American homes.
The Beatnik Riot Of 1961
On April 9, 1961 hundreds of beatniks and musicians gathered in New York City’s Washington Square Park to protest their right to sing freely. The gathering was peaceful and the crowd hung around singing folk songs and relaxing in the sun. They’d been doing this since the 1940s, but for some reason, on this particular day, the New York City Police Department was determined to kick them out. Unlike today, where anyone can play music in Washington Square Park, you needed a permit and the Beats had their permit rejected without an explanation. They showed up, like they had every Sunday, anyway. That’s when things turned into a riot.
The Sole Permit
Izzy Young, who ran the Folklore Center on MacDougal Street near Washington Square Park was the only one who applied for a permit. When it was rejected he formed the protest that would later be known as the Beatnik Riot.
“It wasn’t run by any political party,” Young told NPR. “It was run by the idea I … and others [had] that people had a right to sing. So it’s a peaceful demonstration asking for our rights.”
The cops ended up arresting protesters. The ones they didn’t arrest were pushed and shoved after refusing to leave the park. As reported in the short film Sunday, which documented the protest, the police didn’t even seem to know why they were trying to kick musicians out of the park other than beatniks were considered undesirable.