In the last ten years, a group of shabby young individuals who like to be known as the Beats have attracted considerable attention to themselves in the United States. Like the American Communists of the 1930’s, the Paris existentialists of the 1940’s and England’s Angry Young Men of recent years, the Beats are conspicuous because they deliberately break every rule and ridicule every aspiration of the normal ‘good’ citizen of their society.
It is easy to recognize the Beat. He has developed a fairly standard uniform, a pretty rigid set of tastes and a small, strict vocabulary which serves him in describing anything and everything. He is likely to wear dungarees, sandals and a black turtle-neck sweater. He was formerly given to beards, but recently beat imitators have started wearing beards and so the true Beat has shaved his off.
The Beat prefers to live in beat communities. Such communties are usually in the free-and-easy, Bohemian sections of large cities. Favorite locations are in the North Beach area of San Francisco, Venice West in Los Angeles and Greenwich Village in New York. The furnishings of the Beat ‘pad’ are standard: a bare mattress, crates that serve as tables and bookcases, a hot plate and a few pans, a phonograph and loud-speaker and a typewriter. Lighting is provided by bare bulbs, or candles stuck in wine bottles.
~ Wayne Lawson, The Beats (1958)
It’s obvious Mr. Lawson had no desire to do any palling around with the Beats, nor did he beat about the bush: his description is rather cliché and damning, and maybe this is strange as this description was a serious entry on the Beats for the Encyclopedia Americana. Also, it’s odd and pretty sad that Lawson drops the word communist already in the third line. The fifties were known for its witch hunt on communists and because the Beats fell outside of the mainstream, they were immediately suspicious with Americans who, at the time, considered communists state enemy #1.
The labeling of a counter culture movement can be challenging, if not impossible: the more you read about the Beats and how they defined themselves, the more nuance there seems to be. One of the very first definitions came from Beat writer John Clellon Holmes who in the New York Times, and as early as 1952, explained who the Beats were. He described them as American existentialists who were beat (as in tired) but not so much physically beat as mentally beat: used-up and raw they felt they were at their personal ground zero and from there they wanted to develop a new vision with which they viewed (and criticized) the world.
Poet Allen Ginsberg was on the same wavelength and said that this new generation was tired of the world but not defeated and that they used a different foundation to project a new vision, and mostly in a literary form exclusively.
Jack Kerouac defined it slightly differently in a Playboy article of 1958 (The Origins of the Beat Generation): the Beats were, he said, a hip group of new young American men who, in the late forties, wanted to enjoy life because they had survived WWII– coming back from that war, however, they felt they couldn’t assimilate to what conventional society expected of them. Beat, Kerouac said, didn’t only derive from downbeat but also from the word beautiful and the Biblical beatific which involved beauty, a new faith and a new vision.
As such, the Beats were the extension of and precursors to all other counter cultures in America. As the extension of the Lost Generation, the Beats formed the bridge between the rebels of the period between the two world wars and the babyboomers of the 1960s, or as poet Gary Snyder said, the beatniks changed into hippies the moment jazz was replaced by rock & roll and marijuana by LSD.
The public, the establishment as well as the media had a decidedly lower opinion of the Beats at the time: they associated the Beats with black turtlenecks, smoke-filled jazz cafes, drug use (and abuse), and poetry readings which were at times just improvisations accompanied by jazz music.
The City Lights Bookstore of Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti in North Beach was not only a central point but also a key publisher at the moment that the mainstream publishers rejected the early work by Ginsberg and Kerouac.
The ultimate impact of the Beats should not be underestimated, or as the American historian David Halberstam wrote in his book on the fifties: “They were the first to protest what they considered to be the blandness, conformity and the lack of serious social and cultural purpose in middle-class life in America. If much of the rest of the nation was enthusiastically joining the great migration to the suburbs, they consciously rejected this new life of middle-class affluence and were creating a new, alternative life-style; they were the pioneers of what would eventually become the counter culture.”
San Francisco was the epicenter for the Beat movement and that showed that the West was finally and truly competing with what had been an epicenter for literature and publishing (New York City) for a long time– it was San Francisco’s literary coming of age in a sense, and with it, the recognition of the importance of the West Coast as a trend setter in the second half of the twentieth century.