Most cultural movements are large-scale shifts in thinking due to a collective action on the part of many people. Beat Culture is unusual in that the concept of what it meant to be a Beat was based upon the writings and activities of a very few people who had an extraordinary impact upon America. Despite their small numbers, the original Beats tapped into something beneath the surface of American society in the 1950s, giving voice to unspoken feelings. The term “beat” comes from black culture and from jazz. However, “beat” does not refer to a musical beat, but to the way those who were black in America felt: “beat.” “Beat” means “beat down,” “beaten up by life,” down and depressed, in a state of despair.
When a black person said, “I am beat,” s/he was making a profound statement, not of fatigue, but of alienation and of hopelessness. Whites, in the segregated Fifties, would come into contact with blacks on the musical scene, coming to black jazz clubs to listen to the music. To whites, outsiders and spectators of a culture they could hardly understand, blacks were the ultimate “cool” cats, possessing an impressive machismo that whites could only admire. The coolness of the “hep cats” was copied by the whites to the extent that the famous author, Norman Mailer, wrote an essay in 1957 called, “The White Negro” about wanna-be coolness.
White men wanted to be as cool as black men because the black culture seemed to offer a freedom from the conformity of the Fifties. Whites did not realize that the “freedom” from behavioral rules was the result of enforced segregation and exclusion from the larger mainstream society. But the reason for the cool freedom was not important to the white admirers of black culture. What the Beats wanted was freedom from the Fifties. Writer Gore Vidal once characterized the Fifties as “the worst decade in the history of the world.” If one was gay, like Vidal, the Fifties was catastrophic, and the only place society offered to someone who was “queer” was in the closet. Being gay was grounds for dismissal from jobs and many gay men “passed” into straight society through marriage and children.
The plight of gays and lesbians who were forced to live a stunted and inauthentic existence was an extreme version of the life society demanded you live. There were few choices in that decade, but the proscribed lifestyle was possible only for middle class whites. Thanks to huge government programs, the white middle class prospered in suburbs, in a single-family home with a white picket fence, with a husband and wife, two children, a dog, a cat, a station wagon. After a horrible Depression and a frightening war, suburbia and a lawn to mow seemed like paradise, but with paradise came a price. Many people felt that their options were too limited and strained against the conformity and the conservative, even retrograde, attitudes of the Eisenhower years.
The Beats were those who rebelled against the complacency and the materialism that marked the years that Eisenhower was the President. There were two Beat centers, New York and San Francisco, and, to a lesser extent, Los Angeles. The attraction for the Beats was the Jazz scene and black musicians had migrated to the West Coast where they hoped they would find less hostility. In his book Art After 1940, Jonathan Fineberg writes as though the Beats and the Neo-Dada artists were part of the same culture in New York. They actually were not.
The only thing these two groups had in common was that both the Beat and the Neo-Dada figures were part of the New York underground. There is little evidence that the groups had any impact upon each other’s art. They would have known of each other but their differences would have kept them apart. The Neo-Dada artists were underground because they were not yet accepted into the mainstream, an event that happened in 1958 when Leo Castelli debuted Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg in his gallery. The artists’ time in the underground ended.
The term “Beat” would have been applied to them long after the fact and not during the Fifties. The Beats were not visual artists, but literary artists and were few in number. The Beats never wanted to be part of the mainstream, never sought success or acceptance. The main “leaders” were a novelist, Jack Kerouac, who wrote On the Road (published 1957) and Allen Ginsberg, a poet who wrote Howl. The two had met at Columbia University where neither fit in. Kerouac was a nonconformist and Ginsberg was gay. Although the University recognized their gifts, these rebels could not be absorbed into a formal system. The third member of the literary trio was William Burroughs, author of Naked Lunch, published in 1959. But the first of the three to achieve literary notoriety was Ginsberg, who debuted his famous poem Howl in San Francisco in 1955.
Fineberg stresses the New York art world and completely leaves out the significance of the West Coast. This kind of neglect is common for East Coast art historians, but in the case of the Beat culture, leaving out the importance of San Francisco leaves a large blank space. The visual artist who had the most connection with the literary Beats was a photographer, Robert Frank, who published his seminal, The Americans (1958). Jack Kerouac wrote the preface for Frank’s book, which became the most famous book of photography of the Twentieth Century. Frank took a road trip across America, photographing the country from his perspective as a Swiss expatriate and was in San Francisco for the first reading of Howl.
Howl is a great American poem—an updating of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. At the time, it was considered “obscene,” but today, like all Beat literature, it is considered a “classic” and is part of the American literary canon. Ginsberg read his poem at the Six Gallery in San Francisco to shouts of “Go!” from Kerouac. Also present was local poet, Michael McClure, who introduced Ginsberg, and Los Angeles artist, Wallace Berman, a Beat artist from L. A., who had far closer ties to the New York Beats than did the artists in New York itself. Most publishers would refuse to publish a poem with “dirty words,” but one brave publisher and bookstore operator dared.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, owner of the famous City Lights Bookstore in North Beach, published the poem and was promptly tried for obscenity in 1957. Defended by the ACLU, Ferlinghetti was allowed to publish the book and continued his career as a poet and as a defender of civil liberties, including the Chicano Civil Rights movement. Once a place of scandal, City Lights Bookstore is located at the corner of Broadway and Kerouac Alley, one of several streets in San Francisco named after writers, including via Ferlinghetti.
Ironically, the year that Howl got the seal of approval, one of the attendees at the reading, Wallace Berman, was also accused of obscenity for a show he did at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles. Tried and convicted and humiliated, Berman left Los Angeles and moved to San Francisco, a more open-minded town where he lived for years before returning to L. A. where he died in 1970.
The year Howl was published, On the Road appeared. Kerouac had written the autobiographical novel from a road trip he took in the 1940s. Although the book claimed to be about one journey, it was actually composed of three separate trips. He was accompanied on the primary road trip by Neal Cassady. The Beat movement was all male with a few women on the fringes. As a result of the sexual repression of the Fifties, the sexual torments and yearnings of the confused men are present in this book. Written in 1951 on twelve-foot strips of paper, linked into a one hundred twenty foot scroll, the novel was finally published, with name changes, to instant success.
Naked Lunch by William Burroughs followed. With a keen ear for the language of drug culture, Burroughs tapped into the lingo and introduced white American readers to key terms, still in use today. Burroughs had much experience with drugs, having operated a marijuana farm in Texas, and with death, having accidentally shot his wife to death. One of the most interesting terms to come from the novel was the name of a dildo, “Steely Dan,” taken up twenty years as the name for a famous avant-garde rock ‘n’ roll group, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen. The real underground Beat artists were the artists in San Francisco scene, such as Bruce Connor, Jay de Feo and her husband, Wally Hedrick, and in the Los Angeles scene, such as Wallace Berman and Ed Kienholz. The movement of the Beat artists in San Francisco’s North Beach evolved into the “funk”’ movement in the next two decades.
These Beat writers of the Fifties awoke something in American readers, who, despite the quietude of the decade, apparently yearned to hear dissident voices. Beats became famous and were renamed when the Soviet Union launched a tiny satellite named “Sputnik” in 1957. Americans were alarmed, to say the least, and reacted by getting into the space race and by reinforcing math in school curriculums. Beats were renamed “Beatniks,” perhaps to make them appear less threatening. Mainstream Americans were horrified at the attire of male Beatniks: beards, black clothing, and sandals.
In order to absorb this dire invasion from the coffee houses, Hollywood invented its own tame Beatnik, “Maynard G. Krebs,” a character on a television show. But an unknown group of young teenage musicians took the Beats as role models. Wearing long hair, another establishment no-no, and black leather jackets, the leader of the band decided their new name would be the BEATles. It is often said that the Beats inspired the Counter-Culture movement, but the connection seems to be questionable.
Certainly the Beats served as an inspiration for the Sixties youth culture. But the original Beats were social critics did not want to be part of the mainstream culture; however, they were not social dropouts. Kerouac scorned the hippies and disapproved of their “turn on” and “tune out” attitudes. The counter-culture was politically active and the Beats preferred to stay outside of the political realm. That said, Ginsberg was one of the first Americans to take LSD and Burroughs was a part of the East Village Scene in the Eighties that included Jean-Michel Basquiat who was a great admirer of the old druggie. For a black, being “beat” meant being alienated for racial reasons, for a white being “beat” meant being alienated for social reasons. Beatniks were literary artists who refused to enter the establishment and, despite their success, were never part of the mainstream. Unlike the artists of the New York underground, they stayed underground, anti-heroes to the counter-culture, even today.
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