The origins of ‘beat’ and ‘beatnik’
So, what is a beatnik, exactly? The term beat generation was coined by Jack Kerouac in a conversation with writer John Clellon Holmes in 1948. Holmes wrote in his journal on December 10, 1948: ‘Kerouac speaks to Harrington about ‘the beat generation,’ the ‘generation of furtive.’’ Allen Ginsberg, who certainly should know, wrote in the Prologue to Beat Culture and the New America that in so doing Kerouac was ‘not meaning to name the generation, but to unname it.’
Beat and the beat generation
The term first appeared in print in a 16 November 1952 article by Holmes in the New York Times Magazine entitled ‘This is the Beat Generation’, a catchy phrase to be sure. Holmes wrote: ‘It was John Kerouac…who finally came up with it [the expression ‘Beat Generation’] several years ago when he said, “You know, this is really a beat generation”.’ Holmes continued: ‘The origins of the word ‘beat’ are obscure, but the meaning is only too clear to most Americans. More than mere weariness, it implies the feeling of having been used, of being raw. It invokes a sort of nakedness of mind, and ultimately of soul; a feeling of being reduced to the bedrock of consciousness. In short, it means being undramatically pushed up against the wall of oneself.’
Shortly thereafter, Kerouac published ‘Jazz of the Beat Generation’ in New World Writing under the pen name ‘Jean-Louis’. In his 1956 novel On The Road, Kerouac used the Dean Moriarty character to explain ‘BEAT – the root, the soul of Beatific’. In it, Kerouac wrote, ‘They were like the man with the dungeon stone and the gloom, rising from the underground, the sordid hipsters of America, a beat generation that I was slowly joining.’ Folk etymologist Peter Tamony identified 1957 as the year in which beat began to be used regularly to describe the new movement of hipsters.
In the February 1958 issue of Esquire, John Clellon Holmes took another stab at defining the elusive word:
Now, with the word ‘beat,’ we may have their sobriquet at last. Everyone who has lived through a war, any sort of war, knows that beat means, not such much weariness, as rawness of the nerves; not so much being ‘filled up to here,’ as being emptied out. It describes a state of mind, from which all unessentials have been stripped, leaving it receptive to everything around it, but impatient with trivial obstructions. To be beat is to be the bottom of your personality, looking up; to be existential in the Kierkegaard, rather than the Jean-Paul Sartre, sense.
The next year, in identical articles appearing in Playboy (June 1959) and Encounter (August 1959), Kerouac himself revisited the meaning of beat. Acknowledging that he had originally picked up the term beat from Times Square hipster/hustler Herbert Huncke, who ‘perhaps brought [the word] from some midwest carnival or junk cafeteria,’ Kerouac went on with an attempt to rehabilitate the word:
I went one afternoon to the church of my childhood (one of them), Ste. Jeanne d’Arc in Lowell, Mass., and suddenly with tears in my eyes I had a vision of what I must have really meant with ‘beat’ anyhow when I heard the holy silence in the church (I was the only one in there, it was five P.M., dogs were barking outside, children yelling, the fall leaves, the candles were flickering alone just for me), the vision of the word Beat as being to mean beatific.
This was not Kerouac’s first baptism of beat with spiritual meaning. In a 23 August 1957 letter to his sometime-lover Joyce Johnson, Kerouac wrote, ‘I compared beatness to the Second Religiousness prophesied by Spengler’. In an interview also in 1957, he had said ‘Beat means beatitude, not beat up.’
Kerouac, who was asked about the word beat hundreds of times in his life, ultimately came up with a third explanation. In a 1958 interview, he said that the beat generation was ‘a hipness. It’s twentieth century hipness.’
Amiri Baraka, known during the beat years as LeRoi Jones, did not care for the term at all as he explained in a 1979 interview: ‘The whole Beat thing I always thought of as a publicity gimmick…I thought the press put a handle on it, Beat, because then it made it packagable, marketable, and more easily put-downable. So Beat meant nothing to me.’ Norman Mailer too didn’t have much time for the word: ‘The Beat Generation is probably best used to include hipster and beatniks. Not too many people seem to use the word Beats; it is uncomfortable on the tongue; those who refuse to let it die seem to use it as an omnibus for hipsters and beatniks.’ The last word on beat generation’ should be left to the late Carolyn Cassady, widow of Neal Cassady. In 1996 she said, simply, ‘I don’t even know what the Beat Generation is.’
What is a beatnik?
The term beatnik became and remains the term most commonly used to describe a stereotypical member of the 1950s Bohemian counterculture. The word is a rare instance of a wildly popular slangy neologism whose origins are actually known. It was coined by Herb Caen (1916-1997), a longstanding and popular San Francisco newspaper columnist, first appearing in Caen’s column in the San Francisco Chronicle on 2 April 1958: ‘Look magazine, preparing a picture spread on S.F.’s Beat Generation (oh, no, not AGAIN), hosted a party in a No. Beach house for 50 Beatniks, and by the time word got around the sour grapevine, over 250 bearded cats and kits were on hand, slopping up Mike Cowles’ free booze.’ Caen later explained what went into the coining: ‘I coined the word beatnik simply because Russia’s Sputnik was aloft at the time and the word popped out; why the coinage earned world-wide currency is a minor and not very interesting story’. In 1961, he publicly confessed, ‘I’ve never been particularly proud of the word’.
The term struck a responsive chord and was immediately pounced upon by the media, who know a catchy label when they see one. Beat or hipster had no chance once the charismatic and clever beatnik made its appearance. While popular response to the term was enthusiastic, it was not without its critics. Caen recalled running into Jack Kerouac at the El Matador nightclub the night that the term first appeared and that Kerouac was not at all happy: ‘You’re putting us down and making us sound like jerks. I hate it. Stop using it.’ In 1961, Kerouac formally petitioned that beatnik be stricken from his former wife’s alimony suit, arguing that ‘In conventional society, the term beatnik is a term of disfavor, conjuring up images of unwashed, bearded persons.’ In a similar but harsher vein, Norman Mailer in Advertisements for Myself defined beatnik as ‘a word coined by an idiot columnist in San Francisco’.
Both beat and beatnik survive in our collective memory, with beat most closely associated with the beat generation literary movement, and beatnik associated with the stereotype of the pre-hippie countercultural rebel.