beatnik n : a member of the beat generation; a nonconformist in dress and behavior [syn: beat]
EtymologyBeat (generation) + -nik. The nik refers to Sputnik which launched during the hippy/beat generation.
- IPA: /ˈbiːtnɪk/
- A young man or woman associated with the Beat Generation.
- Spanish: beatnik m|f
Beatnik is a media stereotype that borrowed the most superficial aspects of the Beat Generation literary movement of the 1950s to present a distorted (and sometimes violent), cartoon-like misrepresentation of the real-life people and the spirituality found in Jack Kerouac's autobiographical fiction.
In "Aftermath: The Philosophy of the Beat Generation" Kerouac spoke out against this distortion of his ideas:
- The Beat Generation, that was a vision that we had, John Clellon Holmes and I, and Allen Ginsberg in an even wilder way, in the late Forties, of 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--a vision gleaned from the way we had heard the word "beat" spoken on street corners on Times Square and in the Village, in other cities in the downtown city night of postwar America--beat, meaning down and out but full of intense conviction. We'd even heard old 1910 Daddy Hipsters of the streets speak the word that way, with a melancholy sneer. It never meant juvenile delinquents, it meant characters of a special spirituality who didn't gang up but were solitary Bartlebies staring out the dead wall window of our civilization...
Marketing and Madison AvenueIn her Minor Characters memoir (Houghton Mifflin, 1987), Joyce Johnson described how the beat stereotype was absorbed into American culture:
- “Beat Generation” sold books, sold black turtleneck sweaters and bongos, berets and dark glasses, sold a way of life that seemed like dangerous fun – thus to be either condemned or imitated. Suburban couples could have beatnik parties on Saturday nights and drink too much and fondle each other’s wives.
Ann Charters, in Beat Down to Your Soul: What Was the Beat Generation? (Penguin, 1991) observed how the term "beat" was appropriated to become a marketing tool:
- The term caught on because it could mean anything. It could even be exploited in the affluent wake of the decade’s extraordinary technological inventions. Almost immediately, for example, advertisements by “hip” record companies in New York used the idea of the Beat Generation to sell their new long-playing vinyl records.
Beatific etymologyThe word "beatnik" was coined 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 the Beat Generation. Caen's column with the word came six months after the launch of Sputnik. It may have been Caen's intent to portray the members of the Beat Generation as un-American. Objecting to Caen's twist on the term, Allen Ginsberg 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."
Eight months later, Kerouac explained his meaning of "Beat" at a Brandeis Forum, "Is There A Beat Generation?", held November 8, 1958, at New York's Hunter College Playhouse. Panelists for the seminar were Kerouac, James A. Wechsler, Princeton anthropologist Ashley Montagu and author Kingsley Amis. Wechsler, Montague and Amis all wore suits, while Kerouac was clad in black jeans, ankle boots and a checkered shirt. Reading from a prepared text, Kerouac reflected on his Beat beginnings:
- It is because I am Beat, that is, I believe in beatitude and that God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son to it... Who knows, but that the universe is not one vast sea of compassion actually, the veritable holy honey, beneath all this show of personality and cruelty?
Kerouac's address that night was later published as "The Origins of the Beat Generation" (Playboy, June 1959). In that article Kerouac noted how his original beatific philosophy had been ignored as Caen and others had intervened to alter Kerouac's concept with jokes and jargon:
- I went one afternoon to the church of my childhood and had a vision of what I must have really meant with "Beat"... the vision of the word Beat as being to mean beatific... People began to call themselves beatniks, beats, jazzniks, bopniks, bugniks and finally I was called the "avatar" of all this.
Beat cultureIn 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. This distinction was clarified by Boston University professor Ray Carney, a leading authority on beat culture, in "The Beat Movement in Film," his notes for a 1995 Whitney Museum exhibition and screening:
- Much of Beat culture represented a negative stance rather than a positive one. It was animated more by a vague feeling of cultural and emotional displacement, dissatisfaction, and yearning, than by a specific purpose or program.
- It would be a lot easier if we were only looking for movies with "beatniks" in them. San Francisco columnist Herb Caen coined the word (which by sarcastically punning on the recently launched Russian Sputnik was apparently intended to cast doubt on the beatnik's red-white-and-blue-blooded all-Americanness). And the mass media popularized the concept. Dobie Gillis, Life magazine, Charles Kuralt, and a host of other entertainers and journalists reduced Beatness to a set of superficial, silly externals that have stayed with us ever since: goatees, sunglasses, poetry readings, coffeehouses, slouches, and "cool, man, cool" jargon. The only problem is that there never were any beatniks in this sense (except, perhaps, for the media-influenced imitators who came along late in the history of the movement). Beat culture was a state of mind, not a matter of how you dressed or talked or where you lived. In fact, Beat culture was far from monolithic. It was many different, conflicting, shifting states of mind.
- The films and videos that have been selected for the screening list are an attempt to move beyond the cultural clichés and slogans, to look past the Central Casting costumes, props, and jargon that the mass media equated with Beatness, in order to do justice to its spirit.
At the time that the terms were coined, there was a trend amongst young college students to adopt the stereotype, with men wearing goatees and berets, rolling their own cigarettes and playing bongos. Fashions for women included black leotards and wearing their hair long, straight and unadorned in a rebellion against the middle-class standards which expected women to get permanent treatments for their hair. Marijuana use was associated with the subculture, and during the 1950s, Aldous Huxley's The Doors of Perception further influenced views on drugs.
The beat philosophy was generally counter-cultural, anti-materialistic and stressed the importance of bettering one's inner self over and above material possessions. Some beat writers began to delve into Eastern religions such as Buddhism or Taoism. Politics tended to be liberal; with support for causes such as desegregation (although many of the figures associated with the original Beat movement, particularly William Burroughs, embraced libertarian/conservative ideas). An openness to African-American culture and arts was apparent in literature and music, notably jazz. While Caen and other writers implied a connection with communism, there was no direct connection between the beat philosophy (as expressed by the leading authors of this literary movement) and the philosophy of the communist movement, other than the antipathy that both philosophies shared towards capitalism.
Stereotypes, cartoons and parodiesIn its official history, American Greetings notes that beatniks and cartoon studio cards of the mid-1950s prompted its humorous Hi Brows card line in 1957:
- Beatniks launched the anti-establishment movement in the 1950s, and Americans began to question tradition. Building on this counterculture momentum, American Greetings introduced a new kind of greeting card - Hi Brows. These irreverent, witty cards were slim and tall. Even the name of the cards was a rebellious parody. The inspiration for Hi Brows came from funny cards being made by Bohemian artists in their Greenwich Village studios. Hi Brows featured short, comic punch lines and cartoon-style artwork, a new generation of greeting cards to help a new generation communicate.
The character Maynard G. Krebs, played on TV by Bob Denver in the Dobie Gillis (1959-63), solidified the beatnik stereotype, in contrast to the rebellious, beat-related images presented by popular film actors of the early and mid-1950s, notably Marlon Brando and James Dean.
The subculture surfaced on Broadway as musical comedy in The Nervous Set (1959) by Neurotica editor Jay Landesman and Theodore J. Flicker with music by Tommy Wolf and lyrics by Fran Landesman; this was the source of two jazz standards, "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most" and "The Ballad of the Sad Young Men" (recorded by Gil Evans, Anita O'Day, Roberta Flack, Petula Clark, Rod McKuen, Shirley Bassey and others). Stanley Donen brought the theme to the film musical in Funny Face (1957) with one Audrey Hepburn production number revamped into a Gap commercial in 2006. In yet another Madison Avenue manipulation, one of Jerry Yulsman's photographs of Kerouac was altered for use in a Gap print ad by airbrushing Joyce Johnson right out of the picture.
A sensationalist Hollywood interpretation, The Beat Generation (1959), made an association of the movement with crime and violence, as did The Beatniks (1960). The notion of violence or other criminality possibly arose because hardcore outlaws and criminals were popularly portrayed as using many of the same jive terms in their speech, and this distortion could also be seen in popular TV shows with regard to hippies a few years later.
Among the humor books, Beat, Beat, Beat was a 1959 Signet paperback of cartoons by Phi Beta Kappa Princeton graduate William F. Brown, who looked down on the movement from his position in the TV department of the Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn advertising agency. Suzuki Beane (1961), by Sandra Scoppettone with Louise Fitzhugh illustrations, was a Bleecker Street beatnik parody of Kay Thompson's Eloise series (1956-59). 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. In the television cartoon Scooby-Doo, the character Shaggy is a portrayal of a beatnik. Similarly, the Beany and Cecil cartoon series also had a beatnik character, Go Man Van Gogh (a.k.a. "The Wildman"), whom often lives in the jungle and paints various pictures and backgrounds to fool his enemies, first appearing in the episode "The Wildman of Wildsville." In the animated series The Simpsons, the parents of character Ned Flanders are beatniks who have him placed in a mental institution as a child after they have trouble disciplining his bad behavior (Complains his mother: "We've tried nothin', and we're all out of ideas!"). Also, in the television cartoon "Doug", Judy Funnie, Doug's older sister, is characterized as a beatnik.
- Charters, Ann (ed.). The Portable Beat Reader. Penguin Books. New York. 1992. ISBN 0-670-83885-3 (hc); ISBN 0140151028 (pbk)
- Nash, Catherine. "The Beat Generation and American Culture." (PDF file)
- Phillips, Lisa (ed). Beat Culture and the New America: 1950-1965. New York: Whitney Museum of Art and Paris: Flammarion, 1995.
beatnik in Danish: Beatnik
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beatnik in Hebrew: ביטניק
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beatnik in Russian: Битники
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