“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!” ~ Jack Kerouac, father of the Beat Generation
To say that a segment of the American population was disillusioned with the status quo in the years following World War II would be an understatement. The 1950s are best known for McCarthyism, the Red Scare, and the inception of the Cold War. The overall culture of fear drummed up by conservatives scared much of the public into following this right-wing trend. To challenge this mindset was to risk your reputation and in some cases, your life. In spite of this, a group of friends and writers with radical ideas for the time period formed a rebellion against tradition that is known as the Beat Generation.
This new cultural phenomena can trace its meager origins to New York City and Columbia University. Jack Kerouac, who played football there, abandoned athletics to become a writer. First devised in 1948, “’Beat’ was Jack Kerouac’s term; in half-serious tribute to his Catholic upbringing, he claimed it was short for ‘beatitude’,” (Isserman & Kazin 138-9), as well as the visionary enlightenment offered by Zen Buddhism. “[Beat] also referred to the patron saints of the movement, the drifters, who shed the trappings of institutional society,” (Szatmary 137). Kerouac befriended other writers/philosophers including Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs (author of Naked Lunch), Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Neal Cassady (inspiration to the writers). They shared the same basic values and attitudes when it came to writing; with the common thread among most of these beliefs being rejection of middle-class America, the emptiness of modern society, and the need for protest and withdrawal. Their aims were spiritual and sexual liberation, drug experimentation/legalization, and a unifying wholeness with nature. They set goals to abolish censorship, protect the environment, and oppose what Ginsberg called “the military-industrial machine civilization.” While they may have appeared drab in dark attire – some might even say “‘beat down’ and downtrodden to ‘straights’ [the general public], the bums symbolized the freedom that the avant-garde so dearly cherished [. . .] chasing the unwashed American dream,” (Szatmary 137).
The style of the beat writers varied from writer to writer, but is usually characterized by its spontaneous prose. Ginsberg noted that he and the Beats wanted to challenge the previously accepted ways of writing by being as truthful to our minds and reality as they could. He also expressed that they wanted to “encourage a ‘liberating insolence of recognizing one’s own feelings and acting on one’s own feelings rather than acting on Madison Avenue feelings of careerism,” (Szatmary 138). The overarching understanding was that in order to make changes in society, individuals would have to transform their consciousness – free the mind.
In the early 1950s, the Beats headed to San Francisco where another movement, the San Francisco Renaissance was taking place. A turning point in the movement took place here, in October of 1955 when Allen Ginsberg recited his long (and now infamous) poem, “Howl” to an audience at the at the Six Gallery. His performance put the Beats on the map, essentially.
“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of light . . .” (Isserman & Kazin 139).
From this point forward, America knew who the Beats where and that they were a force not leaving anytime soon. His poetry reading “was a declaration of independence from the rigid, authoritarian order” that they believed was taking over the country. In a way, it was a form of passive, yet forceful, protest that helped “create themselves as icon-smashing legends,” (Isserman & Kazin 140). In fact, the poem was so anti-establishment and controversial, that Ferlinghetti (owner of City Lights Bookstore) was arrested after publishing the poem in 1957. The trial went international and ended in an acquittal and proved that the poem had historical and “social importance” (Isserman & Kazin 140). Kerouac’s On the Road was released that same year and has become synonymous with the Beat Generation. Beatniks were suddenly mainstream and everyone could be one.
As the 1960s progressed, the beatnik persona evolved into the more popular stereotype of the hippie. The Beat Generation was split. Kerouac believed that the new direction was making a joke out of everything It’s safe to say that the hippie movement might not have been so widespread had he had sought to accomplish, whereas Ginsberg and Cassady embraced the emerging culture they had influenced.
Had it not been for the groundwork laid down by these beatnik writers during the late 1940s and 1950s. “The Beats helped plant seeds that would sprout, luxuriantly, during the 1960s and thereafter,” (Isserman & Kazin 140). The beats introduced the need for open sexual exploration, which was unheard of in America prior to their emergence. The “glorification of the outlaw spirit” shunning traditional work ideals and the experimentation with drugs to expand the mind are two additional and major contributions to society (Isserman & Kazin 140).
The baby boomers coming of age in the 1960s embraced these revolutionary concepts and took them several steps further, especially when the Vietnam War started. “Like the Beats, hippies rejected the stultifying boredom of American 50s’ consumer society, offering an alternative to the then prevalent idea of living in identical suburbs, sleeping in twin beds, driving virtually identical cars, [etc.],” (Miles 9). Like their predecessors – the Beats – hippies understood that in order to make a change, they had to step outside society and observe it objectively. The Beat influence extended to that of musicians – such as Bob Dylan and the Beatles. Music played an integral role in both the Beat Generation (jazz, mainly) and the Hippie movement (rock, psychedelic rock, etc.). The Beats also influenced other artists like Jackson Pollack and Andy Warhol. Possibly as early as 1961, Ginsberg befriended Dr. Timothy Leary (Harvard). They both distributed LSD to influential people of the time in an attempt to lift the fear off the public and the government towards drug use. Ginsberg also met Ken Kesey; he and Cassady joined him and the Merry Pranksters on a cross-country bus ride. Ginsberg remained active in the protest era of the 60s (taking the passive protests of the 1950s to the next level).
In conclusion, both movements were comprised of people who wanted to bring about change, improve society, and stand up for their individual freedoms. Hippies might not have been possible, had it not been for the meek, but mighty rise of the Beats. The terms “Beatnik” and “Hippie” are one in the same, brought on by evolution and a peaceful revolution.
Isserman, Maurice, and Michael Kazin. America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s. 4th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. Print.
Miles, Barry. Hippie. New York: Sterling, 2004. Print.
Szatmary, David P. Rockin’ In Time: A Social History of Rock-And-Roll. 4th ed. NewJersey: Prentice Hall, 2000. Print.