Pens and voices have proven to both be mighty swords throughout history.
The Beat Generation is a subculture that stands the test of time. In the post-war era, prominently the late 1940s through the 1960s, there were creative nonconformists who took a stance. What began as a small group of writers, producers and artists, whose work centered around their rejection of economic materialism and racism among others flaws found within society, transformed into a lifestyle of liberation and release they advocated strongly for. Through sexual freedom and exploration within the realm of psychedelic drugs, which were tremendously taboo at the time, they ran wild with their work. These individuals were often referred to as “beatniks” or “beats,” for short.
To anyone who’s ever watched a television show or film involving characters adorning black turtlenecks, cool dark shades and berets while sitting outside cafes sipping coffee — that’s essentially the media stereotype of beatniks. They’re often depicted with this pretentious and mysterious flare.
Now, don’t confuse beatniks with hippies. There’s quite a difference with those cats. As a matter of fact, beatniks truly set the precedent for hippies. Throughout the years, hippies were typically more out and about in the public eye, and arguably even more political. Meanwhile, beatniks remained rather docile and withdrawn with small gatherings and conversations centered around art.
Poets, like Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, as well as authors, like Jack Keuroac and Neal Cassayd, are just a handful of memorable beatniks who tapped into creative expression as their form of protest. The result was a multitude of beat literature with a lasting legacy like Ginsberg’s 1956 controversial poem “Howl” and Keuroac’s 1957 iconic novel “On The Road.”
A notable theme of beatniks was their stream of consciousness style of writing as their thoughts streamed from pen to paper. The tones within their words elicit raw, manic emotion. For example, in “On The Road,” Keuroac doesn’t hesitate to use repetition, otherwise known as a sin in conventional writing. For Christ’s sake, a mere sentence of his exceeds the length of a typical paragraph. It’s undoubtedly admirable and out-of-the-box.
“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!” — an excerpt from “On The Road.”
To Keruoac, being a beatnik embodied a not-so-glamorous lifestyle. In this lifestyle, as depicted in “On The Road,” the rough and rugged ways of hitchhiking and bumming would expand and be graceful in its own ungraceful ways. It would be somewhat desperate, yet spiritually fulfilling.
Ginsberg, on the other hand, captured themes of mental illness, poverty and the extreme lack of help at the time for those causes. Mind you, “Howl” was written back in the mid 1950s. Humbling and vital, it is.
“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the 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 the night,” Ginsberg wrote in “Howl.”
Beat culture stressed the importance of bettering oneself and bettering this world for others. Go ahead and dive into artistic expression, in all forms, as a matter of fact. Step on a soap box and scream truth. Publish a book about a desired reality in the quiet of the night. Expand viewpoints — everyone’s constantly learning. Do it all. If there’s any message to be received from the work of a beat, it’s that conventionality can go straight to hell. Be seen and be heard like a beatnik.