For those of you who have heard of the term, or for those who have not, a “Beatnik” was a shortened form for the 1950s to mid-1960s stereotype belonging to the “Beat Generation” – a literary movement based on Jack Kerouac’s auto-biographical works including “Big Sur”, “On the Road” and “The Dharma Bums.”
Kerouac introduced the phrase “The Beat Generation” in 1948, to describe his friends such as Allen Ginsberg and their then contemporary views on underground, anti-conformist youth gatherings in New York and later around the United States of America. According to Wikipedia, the term “Beat” came from underworld slang which belonged to hustlers, drug addicts and petty thieves; but to Kerouac and Ginsberg, it leaned more towards a spiritual connotation as in “beatitude“.
- To Kerouac, these years represented a generation of crazy hipsters who hitch-hiked, bummed or roamed around post-war America focussing on each owns spiritual journey.
In the vernacular of the period, “Beat” indicated the culture, the attitude and the literature, while the common usage of “Beatnik” was that of a stereotype found in lightweight cartoon drawings and twisted, sometimes violent, media characters such as this cartoon which featured in the Women’s Weekly magazine.
Beatniks focussed on anti-materialism, soul-searching and a way of life that seemed like dangerous fun—thus to be either condemned or imitated. Their lifestyle influenced many 1960s musicians from Bob Dylan, the early Pink Floyd and The Beatles.
The word “Beatnik” was apparently first used by Herb Caen in an article in the San Francisco Chronicle on April 2, 1958. Caen coined the term by adding the Russian suffix -nik after ‘Sputnik I’ to help define and describe the Beat Generation. However, Allen Ginsberg objected to this term and wrote to the New York Times to deplore “the foul word beatnik,” commenting, “If beatniks and not illuminated Beat poets overrun this country, they will have been created not by Kerouac but by industries of mass communication which continue to brainwash man.”
Like modern-day hipster fashion; the Beatniks had their own fashion statements; from black turtleneck sweaters and goatee beards; to berets and dark glasses. There were those who preferred to roll their own cigarettes, and/or experiment with marijuana and other drugs to partying, reading esoteric works and playing bongo drums. Similarly women ventured into their own fashion statements, wearing black leotards and allowing their hair to grow long, straight and unadorned, as a form of rebellion against the middle class culture of beauty salons.
The following are some examples of Beatnik culture in films and TV:
- The 1961 UK film The Rebel (US: Call Me Genius), featuring British comedian Tony Hancock satirizes pseudo-intellectuals; while it tells of a London office clerk who moves to Paris to pursue his vocation as an artist of the Beat Generation.
- Two for the Seesaw was a successful Broadway play by William Gibson and was made into a 1962 film which portrayed the fated romance between a small town square and Greenwich Village beatnik chick. The plot revolves around his non-understanding and perplexity around ‘her’ chaotic and promiscuous lifestyle choices.
- The Looney Tunes cartoon character Cool Cat is often portrayed as a beatnik, as is the banty rooster in the 1963 Foghorn Leghorn short Banty Raids.
- Similarly, the Beany and Cecil cartoon series also had a beatnik character, Go Man Van Gogh (aka “The Wildman“), who often lived in the jungle and painted various pictures and backgrounds to fool his enemies, firstly appearing in the episode, “The Wildman of Wildsville.“
- Hanna Barbera’s series Top Cat features Spook, a beatnik cat; and their series Scooby Doo, features a beatnik character Shaggy.
From Kerouac, I close and summarize with one of his quotes: “Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.” – from On the Road.
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