Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 1, 2016

Beat Generation questionnaire

Filed under: beatniks — louisproyect @ 8:11 pm

My favorite writer from the Beat Generation

A little while ago I received email from a student who needed some input for a class assignment. Usually I get these kinds of requests about socialism but was delighted to get a query about the beat generation, a group I identified with long before I became a socialist and remain true to even now.

     My name is Natalie H. and I am an eighth grader at xxx. I am doing a National History Day project (a nationwide competition that encourages students to write a thesis on an event in history) on the Beat generation. Due to your expertise, I would like to ask you a few questions. Unfortunately, this project was rather last minute and i won’t be able to use responses that come later than January 11th. If you would be willing to answer my interview questions I will post the full interview on my website under the bibliography tab. Thank you for your time.

                                                                                        Natalie H.,

Beat generation questionnaire

  1. How do you feel the beat generation has shaped present day counter culture in general?
  2. How do you think a present day beat movement would be received?
  3. Do you have a favorite “Beat Generation” writer? Who is it, and why?

My reply:

  1. It has a major effect even though it is distorted through the “hipster” lifestyle that reminds me in some way of how people began wearing Che Guevara or Malcolm X t-shirts in the 1980s without ever having read Che or Malcolm. For a male hipster, the beard, tattoos and skinny jeans are a kind of uniform but as an original 1961 hipster, I have to admit that we had our own uniforms: sandals, blue denim work-shirts and black t-shirt, etc. (Women wore blue denim skirts and embroidered peasant blouses.) Most of our ideas about how to dress came from photos of men and women about 10 years older than us or from seeing them on the street in Greenwich Village.

I remember the time I visited my friend Robbie in NYC, who was a lot “hipper” than me, a year before graduating high school in 1961. We were walking down a street in Greenwich Village and he nodded in the direction of a couple of guys on the opposite side of the street who were wearing blue jeans, work boots and what we called lumber jackets at the time. (They sell them now at J Crew for $118—typical.) He warned me not to stare at them because “they were beatniks and dangerous”. All I knew was that I wanted to be just like them.

All this is about the superficial aspects of the “beat” culture. On a deeper level, it is about the rejection of the values of capitalist society. In many ways, this culture has been around since the 19th century when Walt Whitman was writing poetry that sounded a lot like Allen Ginsberg’s and when Greenwich Village had begun to be a magnet for artists and poets.

When I was not that much older than you, we all aspired to be like the “beatniks” but we never would use that word to describe ourselves. We called ourselves “hipsters” or “cats” and “chicks”. We had books and music that made us members of a subculture, from Jack Kerouac to Charlie Parker. And above all, we did not want to become members of “straight” society. After graduating Bard College, a center for the subculture in those days, the idea of wearing a suit and sitting in an air-conditioned office was like being condemned to burn in hell.

I ended up wearing the suit but stayed true to my outsider values.

In terms of today’s counter-culture, it is obvious to me that many young people see themselves as carrying on the “beat” tradition. Here are some examples off the top of my head. The poets, especially African-American who appear at “poetry slams”, are excellent examples. Beat poets like Allen Ginsberg made their name at the same types of events in the late 50s. Another example would be the people who hitchhike or travel with nothing more than a suitcase or knapsack and write about their experience. This is how I reacted to Cheryl Strayed’s memoir “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail”, which was made into a good movie starring Reese Witherspoon. Strayed basically went out to see American on her feet. The desire to live a kind of hobo life was key to the Beat Generation. In my day, people my age were always shipping out on freighters, hitchhiking, or even train hopping if you had guts. Frankly, I think lots of 18 year olds would be doing the same thing today if the economy wasn’t so crappy. People are desperate to get “straight” jobs because it is the only way to survive.

  1. Basically I don’t think the Beat Generation ever disappeared. It just evolved into today’s counterculture. In my senior year at Bard, we stopped talking about being “hipsters”. Instead, it was about being a “hippie”. Within two years of my graduation, the “hippie” movement had become massive, to the point that a million or so self-identified “hippies” would end up at Woodstock. People like Allen Ginsberg greeted them as his brothers and sisters. Even radicals felt some connection to them like Abby Hoffman and Jerry Rubin who created the Youth International Party (“yippies”). I never felt much of a connection to them because I stopped using drugs after becoming a socialist but I always felt that we had a common enemy, especially when the hippie slogan “Make Love, not War” became so widespread. I don’t think there is any word that captures what young people are about today but when I used to walk around Columbia University, I could recognize the same attitudes I had when I was their age. The only difference is that a lot of these rebellious kids are probably majoring in computer science or prelaw just so they can get a job after graduating.
  2. My favorite writer is Jack Kerouac. I guess there is no surprise there. I loved Kerouac because he expressed a sense of freedom that was a breath of fresh air in the oppressive 1950s. Almost every page of “On the Road” is a celebration of the life of a vagabond, a man or woman who rejected mainstream values and wanted to find transcendence in art, music, sex, drugs and travel. This passage expresses what I am talking about. When I read these words for the first time, my head exploded:

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.

See https://louisproyect.org/category/beatniks/ for other items in this vein.

1 Comment »

  1. I was delighted to see this post this morning… It reminded me that I was asked by my then-partner’s daughter’s Junior High School friend to answer similar questions back in 2001 or so… when I was 43 or so. Born in 1957 into a family with two Commie parents and two older brothers who were raised on the streets of Queens NY during the late 40’s and 50’s, I wasn’t really “there” but I’ve always felt that I was part of it all, at least I was born into something that wasn’t the regular mainstream… so I, in my infinite ignorance and ample arrogance, answered her thus:

    1. In your opinion, what factors contributed to the beginning of the Beat era?

    1. America is a culture and history fraught with contradictions and vast gaps between accepted truth and real events. These include its history of conquest and the establishment of an economy based on slavery and theft (natural resources, land, knowledge); all of the above done in the name of freedom, equality and with divine approval. So there is a credibility problem for the Straight world when they try to maintain social control. This leads to rebel cultures within the nation, but outside the mainstream. This happens to every generation. In the late 40s, the Beats were the expression of feelings arising from acute anxiety about the meaning and value of life, and the inadequecy of the Straight world to deal with these feelings.

    2. The cumulative effect of a century only half finished that had seen two world wars and the most horrifying examples of human cruelty combined with swift and powerful advances in technological ability to commit mass atrocities against humanity and nature.

    3. The Atom Bomb. The sudden realization that the power to end all life on earth now rested in the hands of a few old men with their minds locked in conflict, each claiming the right to annihilate the other (and everyone else too.)

    Lots more, but the above creates an imperative to stand up and really examine the basis of one’s beliefs and actions. When your life is under threat from big military forces and crushing dogmatic authority, the stakes are sufficiently high to cause a segment of individuals in a society to conclude that alternatives are not just interesting, but of critical importance for their survival. This allows them to leave the established boundaries of social normalcy and create a culture within a culture — one that is experimental by nature and spiritual in essence.

    2. If you had taken part in Beat culture, what part would you have played?

    Truthfully, who knows? If I could go back, I would have been a tenured professor (Anthropology? History?) at Columbia or Berkeley and had a lot to do with defending the radicals of the day from the likes of the House Un-American Activities Committee (Nixon, McCarthy). I would have studied Zen and gone to Mississippi in the early 60s to organize voter registration. But then, I wouldn’t have been a beatnik, would I? To be “beat”, one assumes an attitude of disassociation from attachments to preconceptions and ego driven displays of righteousness.

    3. How do you think modern day counter culture was affected by the Beats?

    The question is, what is the function of a “counter-culture”? Was the Beat culture an attempt to remake society and emerge from one state of existence into another, transformed? Or was it a fashion creation from some crazy designers? The Beat thing created room for doubt, gave voice to nagging suspicions of blatant rip-off and genocidal fraud. The Counter-Culture today reflects the new reality of post-innocence established by the Beats. Nobody really belives in the Straight world anymore, but we all gotta eat.

    4. What was the connection between Beat poetry and music, (spec. Jazz)?

    The beats and jazz as experimental cultures were dedicated to freedom of expression. This freedom represents the meaning of life itself — a value with heightened currency during the paranoid days of the Cold War and Jim Crow. Beats and jazz musicians were like monks — searching for the truth. They were willing to change everything around in order to see it for what it was.

    5. How do you think the Beat movement was influenced by previous writing

    What little I know about the influences on Beat literature:
    William Blake – ecstatic wonder
    Rimbaud – excessive devotion to one’s own madness
    Sartre – the whole “so-what” thing
    Suzuki – patience
    Lao Tsu – wisdom
    … and there’s Walt Whitman and John Steinbeck and Ernest Hemingway and T.S. Eliot and William Butler Yeats and…

    6. What was the connection between the Beats and the Hippies?

    Just a logical progression through a slight generation offset (hippies being 20 years younger the old beats) and with different social events to deal with. In the case of the Grateful Dead, they grew up around Stanford University in Palo Alto where there was a Beat scene. They hung out at clubs to hear jazz and folk music, teach and be taught music, discuss books and score dope from bohemians and beats. They were heavily diverted from becoming beat clones by the influence of LSD and the advent of the the war in Vietnam.

    7. How were you influenced by Beat writers?


    8. Do you ever do any writing of your own?

    Not much.

    9. Have you attended any Beat poetry readings? If so can you tell me what they are like?


    10. What role did drugs play on the Beat lifestyle, and on Beat writings in particular?

    Kerouac used a lot of methamphetamine. Burroughs was a junkie. Ginsburg loved pot. Cassady did everything all at once. All of them did peyote.
    Cataloging the various chemicals doesn’t get to the point. The Beat writers were not just “writers” — they saw themselves as cosmonauts of the human soul. Their job was to go to extremes and help us face the terror of our lives with some information that came without the strings of commercial interest and social control that characterize what passes for truth in the Straight world.

    Comment by Terrence Finnerty Burke — January 2, 2016 @ 9:55 pm

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