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Derivation of "Beat," "Beatnik" and some background on the Beat Generation:



The Beat Goes On


Beats wrote cool books.  They're all on sale at City Lights - an independent bookstore in San Francisco

"Find out about the Beats," came the booming voice from on-high (well, from our really tall boss-man on the cell phone...) "Beets?" I asked. "Aren't those the reddish-purple vegetables my mom used to try and make me eat, that I hid under the table for the dog to snack on instead? That's sort of a silly assignment. I mean, I don't get it-what do beets have to do with U.S. history?"

"No, not beets," the voice insisted, "BEATS! The Beat Generation, Beatitude, Beatniks. You know, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs."

"Ohhh, Beats!" Right. I'd read Jack Kerouac's famous book On the Road while I was in high school. I knew all about the Beat Generation! Sure glad I didn't have to eat any of those slimy beets for research.

Beatniks. They were the guys who hung out in jazz bars , and read their poetry at coffee houses. They went on long road trips around the U.S., drank a lot, smoked some pot, and made sure to live outside the bounds of corporate America. They were artists! They were dreamers! They were free! They were....It was at that moment, that our brave trekker realized that she had no more exclamations to make.


Wow! "There's something 'bout...

Hmmm. I knew all this stereotypical stuff about the Beats, but when I sat down and really considered my assignment, I decided that there was a lot that I still needed to learn. I was plagued by several questions. For example:

  1. What were the myriad economic and societal issues that converged in the middle of the 20th century to create an appropriate breeding ground for the beatnik mentality?
  2. What was going on with Allen Ginsberg's hair? and...
  3. What exactly was beatitude, anyway?

Beats (like Allen Ginsberg) had fun hair

After wasting away many a sleepless night pondering the above questions, I found a book that at least answered question 3:

Beatitude: The necessary beatness or darkness that precedes opening up to a light, egolessness, giving room for religious illumination.OR...A state of inner grace, sought in Zen Buddhism.

A state of inner grace!?!? That sounded great! I could be a card-carrying member of the Beatitude club. Where should I sign up?

Well, after some well-placed phone calls, I was saddened to find out that you can't apply to be a Beat. There are no membership cards, no hazing, no interview process or essays to write. You simply had to live in the right time and the right place. Seeing as the Beat generation spanned from the mid 1940s through the 1950s, knew I had missed my chance. Humph! Just my luck.

I still had a few questions to answer, though, and rather than wallow in self pity about my inability to become a Beatnik, I decided to learn more and see what impact the Beat culture has had on our lives today. Here's what I found.

The term "Beat Generation" can be traced back to a few friends in New York City who hung out around Columbia University in the mid-1940s. These guys were intellectuals who liked to read, write, and enjoy jazz music. They were a diverse bunch: white and black and Native American; Catholic and Protestant and Jewish; homosexual and heterosexual-and everything in between.

 Beats hung out at cool cafes and bars.  Cafe Vesuvio was a San Francisco Beat Favorite - and you can still buy yummy, overpriced drinks there today!

This group of young men and women had grown up during World War II and faced a conservative society that valued good, stable jobs for men, and housewife status for women. They rebelled against this by creating an alternative lifestyle for themselves. Money was not important to the Beats. Instead, they found a different kind of wealth in poetry, art, travel, and music.


Experience was their best teacher, so the Beats congregated in busy, passionate, culturally rich cities like New York and San Francisco, and they also spent a lot of time on the road (as all good trekkers know, one of life's most wonderful experiences is travel!). Travel brought them into contact with new people, ideas, and places. Jack Kerouac and his friend Neal Cassady almost defined the term "road trip" with their cross-country adventures. They would hitchhike or drive or bus from New York to Texas to California and back again, adventuring through jazz bars and friends houses and new geography all the way. Kerouac would later use these experiences in his famous book, On the Road.

Beat writing took on a new style, reflecting the jazz music the Beats loved so much. They often used stream-of-consciousness writing, and would put thoughts or images to paper as soon as they came into their heads. Artists such as Jackson Pollock were also considered to be Beats. Their use of abstract art, created without apparent form or focus, followed the liberated, free-form verse of Kerouac and the others. Emotion and imagery and truth were important to Beats; structure and rules were not.

 Beats had streets named after them (at least Kerouac did in San Francisco

It wasn't until On the Road was published that the Beat Generation became a well-known, well used term. Soon after, Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti (one of my personal favorites) opened the first all-paperback bookstore in the United States, called City Lights. His intent was to publish Beat writers, giving them an opportunity to get their works read. With Allen Ginsberg's poem, "Howl," City Lights did just that. "Howl" created an immediate controversy for many Americans. Some felt it was obscene and perverse, while others saw it as a brilliant work of genius. The national attention resulted in an obscenity trial, and "Howl" was banned from bookstores and libraries for a while.

After a decade and a half of adventure and art, love and living life to the fullest, the 1960s and the Vietnam War blew in. The Beat Generation gave way to a new generation of youth, equally concerned about freedom and adventure, but extremely political and full of protest. Enter...the Hippies.

 Beats were nudists. OK, that's not true, but the sign seems to imply it, doesn't it?

Although the Beats were replaced by a new youth movement, their legacy lives on. The Beat Generation offered Americans an alternative lifestyle, driven by emotion and art rather than business and greed. They showed us that living life to the fullest meant making things happen now, not waiting for fulfillment or happiness years down the road. While I may never be a Beatnik myself, I certainly can identify with the passionate poetry of this exciting generation. I share Jack Kerouac's attraction to the Beats, which he summed up in this passage from On the Road:

the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk,
mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time the ones who never yawn
or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles
exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight
pop and everybody goes "Awww!"

Wow! Go, Beats, Go!


Please email me at: rebecca@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Stephen - Heeeeehhhhhhh. Hop on the chopper and cruise through suburban paradise
Irene - That's not just an orange you are eating. It's history
Nick - Moving to the city? Get ready for a fight
Jennifer - You ain't nothing but a SUPERSTAR!!!!!!!
Nick - That's it. You're done. We terminate you