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The Beat Generation

The Beat Generation. It’s often intertwined with romantic images of Jack Kerouac’s offbeat scribbles, the attacks on conformity by Alan Ginsberg, and the heroin-riddled work of William S. Burroughs. The Beats – for many – were left behind with the literary minds of the fifties and the re-appropriated ‘hippie generation’ of the sixties, but it seems to be making a comeback in some of our more modern alternative cultures. The rise of the ‘Hipster’ movement is creating some comparisons between the Hip of today, and the Beats of 1950s America, illustrating the idealized faults and ruminative shortcomings of each generation.

Defined in 1948 by Jack Kerouac, the small, but vocal counterculture exploded in a bloom of spiritual and sexual liberation, ecological consciousness, Eastern spirituality and a general rejection of the military-industrial complex, conformity and materialism that was prevalent at the time. The Beats rejected mainstream American consumerism and conformity in favor of spontaneous bohemianism. According to Kerouac, they were 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 . . . the subterranean heroes who’d finally turned from the ‘freedom’ machine of the West and were taking drugs, digging bop, having flashes of insight, experiencing the ‘derangement of the senses,’ talking strange, being poor and glad, prophesying a new style for American culture, a new style (we thought), a new incantation.”

As a culture intent on re-defining themselves apart from the mainstream malarkey that was so prominent in post-war society, The Beats buried themselves in artistic escapades, introspection and total individual freedom. They chose to be unique in a period plagued by Cold War conformity and commercialized excess, despite facing rejection from the mainstream culture. The media often diluted Beat culture with allegations, superficial stereotypes, and mocked them in cartoons and film. The term ‘Beatnik‘ was coined in 1958 in an emphasized reference to the more artificial components of Beat thinking.

Regardless, the Beats cultural seed was planted and the collective artistic impact was immediate. Within literary circles, William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch (1958) was monumental in the development of postmodern literature. Alan Ginsberg was a huge influence on performance and slam poetry. Kerouac’s On the Road (published in 1957) became the Beat bible, described by the New York Times as “the most beautifully executed, the clearest and the most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as ‘beat,’ and whose principal avatar he is”.

The musical impact was just as substantial with the likes of Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Jim Morrison, as well as The Beatles citing the Beat’s literary and cultural work as major influences throughout the sixties. The Beatles supposedly reference The Beats generation in the spelling of their band name. Today, further parallels can be drawn between the Beats and recent trends in alternative youth culture, most notably with the modern ‘Hipster.’ Elements that defined the Beat generation now resonate in the formative notions and overarching convictions of our own generation of counter-culture dwellers.

The rejection of conformity, the full-hearted embrace of ecological consciousness, an emphasis on individuality, and the rebuff of the loosely defined ‘mainstream’ are all characteristics shared by the Beats and the Hip. These elements are among the core values often attributed to many of those who grace the margins of any alternative identity, Beatnik, Hippie, Hipster, or otherwise. These parallels, whether prescribed or adopted, are becoming increasingly prominent in popular illustrations of Beat literature and work within contemporary pop-culture. In Hollywood, many blockbuster movies have borrowed from the Beat. For example, Howl, as based on Ginsberg’s magnum opus of the same name, was released in 2010 starring James Franco. The screen adaption of On the Road was released in 2012 starring Kristen Stewart and Garrett Hedlund. An adaptation of Kerouac’s autobiographical Big Sur is meant to come out later this year while Kill Your Darlings, starring Daniel Radcliffe, is due out in November bringing “together the great poets of the beat generation: Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs.”

Yet, despite the parallels, it is problematic to offer an exact comparison between the two groups. The Beats have had the benefit of retrospect to redefine their work and derelict personas. Modern means of artistic expression, most specifically film, is less effective in voicing the woes and philosophies of a select counter-culture. Film is subject to the audience, rather than the artist, and the digital-media microscope has the ability to demystify the mystic. It is even more difficult to speak of alternative or counterculture in general terms. To dismiss the dissimilarities between them and discount the reasoning behind each genesis is unfair to the generations behind them. Do so, and you risk siding with those who so enthusiastically coined the labels ‘Beatniks’ and ‘Hipsters’ in the first place. Despite this, we can draw some conclusions as based on the stereotypical conceptions of the ‘Hipster’ and ‘Beatnik.‘

We can assume that countercultures are defined by what they oppose, and that they are typically vindicated for what they stand for and by what it yields. Grunge, the LGBT movement, ‘70s Hip Hop or the ‘60s Protest Scene came to be defined by the art they inspired and/or the changes they incited. The Beats were no different, and were created by Cold War conformity and substantiated by their literary and musical heritage. Here is where our modern Hipster movement falters. With many ideological parallels to the Beats, the comparisons between the two are inevitable, but when the Beats were looking inwards, Hipsters were busy defying mainstream culture. Where the Beats dug deep, we hipsters skim, echoing their philosophy rather than embodying it.

Even the most bastardized version of the ‘Beatniks’, were still defined by their artistic and liberal diversions, not only the aggressive rejection of pop-culture in the name of individuality. No counter-culture is perfect, but modern Hipsters, to appropriate the phrase, have come to be defined by superficial interests rather than their actions, movements or artistic endeavors. It is time to not only embody the ideals of the Beats, but also to champion our own.

Attributions: Allen Ginsburg-By Elsa Dorfman

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