Beat-Bashing

April 2: The term "beatnik" was coined on this day in 1958 by Herb Caen in his column for the San Francisco Chronicle. Caen said that "the word popped out," a flip comment inspired by the recent Sputnik launch, but the context and tone of the coinage reflect the Beat-bashing then current:

Look magazine, preparing a picture spread on S.F.'s Beat Generation (oh, no, not AGAIN!), hosted a party in a No. Beach house for 50 Beatniks, and by the time word got around the sour grapevine, over 250 bearded cats and kits were on hand, slopping up Mike Cowles' free booze. They're only Beat, y'know, when it comes to work….

Jack Kerouac caught the derogatory tone and complained to Caen that he was "putting us down and making us sound like jerks." Kerouac had published an article in Esquire magazine the previous month in which he had presented his vision of the Beats as busted-out "Bartlebies," an allusion which links Herman Melville's malcontented, office-bound scrivener to post-war road rage:

The Beat Generation…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…. 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….

But until the bongo-beard image replaced it, the juvenile delinquent image stuck, especially in Hollywood. In the 1959 movie The Beatniks, billed as "the screen's first story of a mutinous generation" and an "answer to the beatnik question that all America is asking," a hepcat who only wants to sing gets dragged down into coffeehouse crime. In The Beat Generation, also from 1959, the villain is a beatnik-serial rapist.

 

NextGen Beat poet Anne Waldman was born on this day in 1945. She and Allen Ginsberg co-founded the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, and her Beat Book anthology includes an excerpt from Kerouac's "The Origins of the Beat Generation," first published in 1959. Here Kerouac takes the long view, tracing the Beat spirit from his Breton ancestors through his defiant French-Canadian grandfather to America:

Like my grandfather this America was invested with wild selfbelieving individuality and this had begun to disappear around the end of World War II with so many great guys dead … when suddenly it began to emerge again, the hipsters began to appear gliding around saying "Crazy, man."


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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