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Beat Versus Beatnik

March 3rd, 2021 · 25 Comments · Kerouac and The Beats

21st Century Beatniks
versus
Hieroglyphic Caricatures

There’s long been a debate about the word “beatnik” — originally coined by a sensationalist San Francisco gossip columnist in 1958, playing on the Yiddish suffix “nik” and the first Russian satellite launched in September ’57 known as “Sputnik.”  Jack and Allen & company hated the word back in the day as it was a pejorative noun for the cliché of unemployed do-nothing scatterbrain dropouts that the older generation thought anyone who read On the Road or Howl must be.

But over the decades, the caricatures faded away.  The goofy poster-child beatnik, Maynard G. Krebs, played by Bob Denver on TV’s Dobie Gillis show, went off the air in 1963, nearly 60 years ago.  In more recent decades the word has evolved into simply becoming shorthand for “the Beat Generation writers” … which is 27 letters and eight syllables … versus “beatnik” which is seven and two. 😉  That’s really why it happened. 🙂  It’s just shorter and simpler.

Personally, I prefer, and use, “Beat.”  And over the decades, I’ve explained the difference between “Beat” and “beatnik” to innumerable people — but for the last many years I get a blank stare back.  They don’t know what I’m talking about.  And they don’t care.  It’s getting to be — What’s the point?  Just about nobody anymore even knows there ever was a negative connotation to the word.  It might be a good idea to stop keeping alive some interpretation that ceased to exist way back in the early sixties.

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Some old-school Beat Gen peeps still hate it — but these days when most writers and reviewers and journalists and scholars and such use “beatnik” they’re referring to Kerouac, Ginsberg & company in as favorable a light as any of the old hardcores see them.  People have forgotten the goatee goofball cliché — but remember the god-sent groundbreaking geniuses.

It’s only people who hold onto this ancient hieroglyphic caricature of “beatnik” who are offended.  Nobody else even knows it existed.  Except when one of these old-timers brings it up!  🙂

The cliché is a dinosaur.  It’s bones in an empty museum nobody visits.  I’ve been going to beatnik events pretty regularly all over North America and Europe for 40 years and don’t remember ever meeting one of these clichés even once.  They don’t exist.

The word is not going to be banished from our lexicon — so we’ve just got to embrace it, own it, and make sure the modern usage embodies the best of what being Beat is: openness in written language, honesty, sympathy, optimism, environmental respect, the value of the individual, advocating for and practicing a life of creativity and self-expression, embracing adventure, saying “Yes!” more than “no,” working together with like-minded explorers, and creating art out of one’s own life experiences.

Another thing that Beat or beatnik means is — hard work.

The idea of beatniks being lazy is 180 off the mark.  Kerouac has over 50 different books in print — and he died at age 47.  Gawd knows how many poems Allen Ginsberg wrote in his 70 years but there are dozens of volumes full of them — not to mention his nonstop public appearances.  William Burroughs wrote 15 novels, 25 novellas, and there’s 15 books of his letters, journals and interviews.  Lawrence Ferlinghetti opened a bookstore and publishing house, nurtured both for decades, and both are still thriving 70 years later.  Across the street, the Beat Museum has become an institution in San Francisco since 2006 because of the hard work put in by the founders and employees every day since.  And besides everything else Allen did, he also founded a university in Boulder in 1974 along with Anne Waldman that has employed hundreds of teachers and taught thousands of students.

These are not do-nothing bohemians.

Beatnik is cool.  Beatnik is a good thing.

Jerry Garcia & Janis Joplin, who were both living in the city where the word was coined, called themselves “beatniks” until the day they died.  In fact, one of the very last letters Janis ever wrote was to her confrere Myra Friedman at Albert Grossman’s office in New York saying, “I finally remembered that I was a beatnik.”

I just got off the phone with S.A. Griffin, a lifelong Beat poet & practitioner, who casually referred to our collective as “beatniks.”  He didn’t mean it as a pejorative any more than Barack Obama did when he referred to the Beats in his 2020 A Promised Land memoir as “beatniks.”

The Beat Museum called the last big Beat summit ever staged “The Beatnik Shindig” and the museum sure as hell doesn’t look down on the Beat writers or practitioners.

The fact that anyone uses that word should not be misconstrued as an insult.

Diane Di Prima, the great writer, teacher & spirit-force who was part of the scene since the late ’50s and stayed part of it until her passing in 2020, called her autobiography Memoirs of a Beatnik.

When Helen Weaver, the esteemed translator and Kerouac’s girlfriend in 1956, wrote her autobiography, The Awakener, published by City Lights Books in 2009, she referred to herself and all the old gang getting back together for the NYU conference in 1994 by writing, “we beatniks are senior citizens.”  She dates back to before the term was coined, and lived through all the decades afterwards, and when she was summing up her life with Allen & Gregory & company, she herself described their collective as “beatniks.”

Ed Sanders, who, sitting next to Jack on stage on the William Buckley show called him “A great poet,” titled his book Tales of Beatnik Glory not Tales of Beat Glory.

On Donovan’s joyous 2004 tribute album Beat Cafe, he climaxes the title song by singing “beatnik café” over and over — not “beat café.”

Jonah Raskin, who many know for his books on Allen Ginsberg, Abbie Hoffman & others, and for being the book reviewer at the San Francisco Chronicle for years, just referred to himself as a “beatnik” in his tribute to Ferlinghetti.

The esteemed film scholar and New York Times reviewer Elvis Mitchell astutely connected the main characters in Tarantino’s recent masterpiece Once Upon a Time in Hollywood to the beatniks in a way I didn’t even think of — prompting both Brad Pitt and Quentin to riff on it – Brad in depth – there’s “no hassle in the castle, man” – then Quentin, impromptu, revealing his knowledge of Jack & “the holy goof.”

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Since roughly 2019 there’s been a big Kerouac & Kesey fan in the writers’ room at the gold standard of gameshows, Jeopardy, with an inordinate number of clues where the answer was “Who is Jack Kerouac?”  And that erudite hardcore Beat insider reaching 10 million viewers an episode knows that “beatnik” is not a pejorative.

Jeopardy, July 8th, 2021

There’s been a billion negative portrayals of “hippies” over the last 50 years.  In fact, that word started out, like “beatnik,” as a putdown – as in – these people are not “hip” – they’re baby hip wannabes – teenyboppers – hippies … babiesBut that doesn’t make hippies or the word or idea uncool in my book.  I’m a hippie.  “Hippies” have been most of my best friends for the last 50 years.

Just because the straight world tries to co-opt and brand us with a pejorative doesn’t mean they win the definition.

1950s puritans tried to ban Howl — and that only ended up making it world famous.  The government developed LSD for possible mind-control of enemies … until a few Pranksters got a hold of it and turned on the world.  The establishment tried to pimp propaganda like Reefer Madness — and reefer is now legal or decriminalized in 44 states and the entire country of Canada.  When the straight-streets attempt to redefine our world and mores in their warped vision, it doesn’t work out so well for them.  The truth, and what is right and good, wins out in the end.  The old world establishment wanted to keep Blacks at different lunch counters, women in the kitchen, and gays out of wedding chapels.  And similarly, the world has moved on from their attempted putdown of “beatniks” to where the term now refers to the influential writers who are still affecting the world decades after their passing — and no one even remembers who the putdown bigmouths were.

English is a very malleable and constantly evolving language.  “Gay” … “hipster” … “trip” … “crack” … “cookies” … “shade” … “trump” and a gazillion other words all mean very different things today than they did in the 1950s when “beatnik” first appeared — which was proven out this past week in the global flurry of heartfelt tributes after Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s passing.  When journalists, poets, scholars and fans worldwide used the word while gushing their praise on the publisher of the Beats and host of their clubhouse in North Beach, City Lights Books, they were not implying a long-forgotten cliché, but rather referencing the most respected & recognizable group of his peers.

If you polled a thousand North Americans about the meaning of the word “beatnik” I bet less than 1% would identify it as the cartoon cliché of the late ’50s & early ’60s — and the vast majority who ever heard the word would say it meant a group of writers from 1950s.

To this day, I meet people who are Beat and have never read a word of any of them.

It’s a mindset.

When Ken Kesey was asked, “How does somebody become a Prankster?” he answered, “We just recognize each other.”


Merry Prankster Anonymous with On The Road‘s Big Ed Dunkel

Rather than poo-poo the term — one that is already accepted — we need to embrace it.  Wear it.  There shouldn’t be a negative knee-jerk reaction every time a person uses that word that they’re intending to denigrate the writers of the Beat Generation — because they aren’t.

We’re now decades into the 21st century, and the word is simply a commonly accepted term for the collective.

If somebody wants to call me a “beatnik” – fine.  We’re good people.

I’m a 21st century beatnik . . . and havin a helluva high time.  

Instead of a pocket notebook we’ve got pocket phones.  Instead of hitchhiking Route 66, we’re surfing the information superhighway.  What was once black & white has become full swirling psychedelic color.  Poetry readings at cafés can now reach the whole world with live-streaming video.  Instead of throwing up on peyote, we can micro-dose on locally-grown magic mushrooms.  And marijuana comes in a thousand flavors!

Those old beatniks would be ecstatic to see all the evolutions and modernizations — including of language — of the worlds they first celebrated.  We’re still going Furthur . . . and . . . 

Blessed are the Beatniks.

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In furthur reading — here’s a great piece about the only photograph ever found of Kerouac actually writing at the typewriter — in Provincetown, 1950.

Or here’s another photo discovery story from the same year — this one of the infamous Bill Cannastra loft in Chelsea where Jack met his wife and found the scroll paper he’d use to write On The Road.

Or here’s a little sumpthin on how the Grateful Dead became Jack manifested as music.

Or here’s where you can read a whole book about following your dreams to the living rooms of your heroes in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Jack Kerouac.

Or here’s where you can check out how those pesky beatniks ended up influencing those merry pranksters.

Or here’s where you can read a whole bunch of adventure tales about that Cassady clan from New York to Hollywood to England.

Or here’s where you can read a bunch of Beats and Pranksters raving about the Hitchhiker’s Guide to Jack Kerouac book about the history-changing 1982 super-summit in Boulder.
Or there’s more here.  Or even more here!

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by Brian Hassett

karmacoupon@gmail.com   —  BrianHassett.com

Or here’s my Facebook account if you wanna join in there —

https://www.facebook.com/Brian.Hassett.Canada

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25 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jerry Cimino // Mar 4, 2021 at 1:33 AM

    This is the best article I’ve ever seen written on the topic. I love it.

    Your points are the very reason we named our event The Beatnik Shindig and not The Beat Shindig because, as you imply, for every couple of people who recognize the term Beat there are 3 or 5 times as many who recognize the term Beatnik – and as you mentioned, it no longer should be taken as a pejorative in today’s world.

    Thanks for putting The Beat Museum into the mix.

  • 2 Simon Warner // Mar 4, 2021 at 5:24 AM

    Firstly, great topic. Secondly, really good article. And thirdly, a wide-ranging and well-founded argument.

  • 3 Walter Raubicheck // Mar 4, 2021 at 11:54 AM

    I agree with you! I think for a while those who considered themselves Beats had come to accept the term “Beatnik” with a kind of affectionate irony, but by now there’s no need for the irony.

  • 4 Marc Zegans // Mar 4, 2021 at 4:53 PM

    Fun read. The distinction made when I was growing up was that beatniks were disciples and followers of the Beats, something easy to caricature, while the Beats were the source. As you say, in everyday speech and opinion the two merged long-ago, and the term Beatnik is now one of warmth and affection.

  • 5 Gubba Topham // Mar 5, 2021 at 1:49 AM

    Nice piece. Well written. I’m going to be 77 years old in ten days or so and am so proud to be recognized as a beatnik!

  • 6 Maggie Clement // Mar 5, 2021 at 6:15 AM

    Thanks for this. I appreciate all your background and history. I’ve got to get that Donovan album. Thanks again for the perspective. You’re the best.

  • 7 Brian Humniski // Mar 5, 2021 at 7:44 AM

    That clears it up. I am a beatnik since I got my first bongos in 1962 and that’s not a stereotype. Those old bongos are like me, beat, weathered, with some blemishes on the skin but still having a voice. Love Beatniks!

  • 8 Carl Macki // Mar 5, 2021 at 1:56 PM

    Doesn’t the word “beat” in this context sound a little flat?
    It seems just more euphonious to have two syllables instead of one.

  • 9 Robert // Mar 5, 2021 at 2:04 PM

    Cool & radiant like a neon sign on RT 66 EAT

  • 10 Brian // Mar 5, 2021 at 2:22 PM

    Nice point, Carl.
    Donovan seems to agree with you. 😉
    He enjoyed the two-syllable word-sound. 😉

    Check his song “Beat Cafe” 😉

  • 11 charlie rossiter // Mar 5, 2021 at 2:25 PM

    I’ll stick with Beat and keep the distinction you think is passe

  • 12 Brian // Mar 5, 2021 at 7:51 PM

    I just added this:

    Personally, I prefer, and use, “Beat,”

    to the start of the third paragraph at the top just to make my choice between the two clear. 😉

    And as to passe, I haven’t seen the ancient caricature represented anywhere by anyone in decades — but I do see “beatnik” used quite frequently, and always to mean the writers of the Beat Generation.

  • 13 Sylvia Kleindinst // Mar 7, 2021 at 8:53 PM

    Have you checked out the web site called:
    The Beats from Kansas…..There is a lot of information about the group who all were in the same class in HS in Wichita,KS and quite a few were linked to the Beat movement. I have a link there to Corban LePell that you might like.

  • 14 Brian // Mar 8, 2021 at 10:16 AM

    Thanks, Sylvia. Wasn’t aware of the site.
    I talked to McClure a lot about his native Kansas. Me being from Manitoba then moving to Manhattan, we could connect on the Midwesterner to the coastal city experience.

    “Kansas” also showed up at the first Lowell Celebrates Kerouac festival I went to.

    You might enjoy this Beat Adventure Tale . . . 😉

    https://brianhassett.com//2015/10/lowell-celebrates-kerouac-2015/

  • 15 Odeen Rocha // Mar 8, 2021 at 11:29 PM

    Great writing, man! Thanks!

  • 16 Brian // Mar 9, 2021 at 3:00 PM

    The Beat Museum just notified their global mailing list about this piece, saying . . .

    Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s passing two weeks ago brought an avalanche of media coverage. The SF Chronicle, The New York Times, The Washington Post—all had major stories, as did hundreds of other newspapers worldwide. Major television networks and radio stations had their stories as well.

    With all the accolades pouring in for Lawrence, among the things many people noticed was the casual interchanging of the words “Beat” and “beatnik” from around the globe. Many writers even called Lawrence himself a “beatnik”—which anyone who knew him would tell you was a major faux pas. Within the Beat community these articles reinvigorated the longstanding controversy about when and how to use the term “beatnik,” and to whom exactly does it apply.

    Into the arena of the condescending internet stepped our good friend Brian Hassett with what is, to my mind, the clearest and most important article ever written on the topic. You think you know Beats from Beatniks? Brian invites you into places no other writer has ever dared to take you.

  • 17 Johnny Kaye // Mar 9, 2021 at 6:05 PM

    I live in Nashua, NH …….grew up near the Cemetery where Jack’s parents are buried, used to party with his nephew Brian Kerouac, his side of the family had a pizza place called Bob’s Pizza……been to many a Jack Kerouac Festival in Lowell Ma…best one was when Bob Weir and Ratdog played there in 2007 and Dennis McNally came and they talked about Jack & Neal.

    https://glidemagazine.com/10106/ratdog-honoring-neal-cassady-hero-of-jack-kerouacs-on-the-road/

  • 18 Richard Modiano // Mar 10, 2021 at 1:25 AM

    Terrific article!

  • 19 Dave Steel // Mar 10, 2021 at 1:14 PM

    Brianland – a mystical place were you click your heels 3 times and land in North Beach, between everything and nothingness, a Dharma Bum place where Mount Vesuvios 86s you and you know not why … so you go across the street to Specs.

  • 20 Robin "The Hammer" LeMartel // Mar 10, 2021 at 10:30 PM

    So good.

  • 21 William Hodgson // Mar 12, 2021 at 11:57 AM

    Well written. I dug this very muchly.

  • 22 Shiv Mirabito // Mar 14, 2021 at 4:31 PM

    It’s like the LGBTQ community revitalizing the word QUEER as an invocation of power – or the PUNKS taking back the word which was once a derogatory jail term – word meanings obviously change over the decades & essentially everyone should be called the name that they want. ⚡

  • 23 Joe // Mar 28, 2021 at 8:15 PM

    Thank you. I loved this. Except for my late, beloved father who called me “Daddy-O” when I would wear a black turtleneck, the old stereotype is pretty much gone except to evoke a grin.

    As someone who has long felt beat but yearned to be more beatific, I found these writers later than most of my peers did, in the 90s when I was in my 30s. What a difference they made for me.

  • 24 Patrick Depauw // Apr 17, 2021 at 4:15 PM

    A real gold mine! Thank you so much. ☮️✌️☮️

  • 25 Jack Moon // Jul 12, 2021 at 9:41 PM

    That’s brilliant and nails it. Rather than seeing it as a term of insult I see it more as simply fun, Bohemian, artistic/musical/poetic… jazz typewriters in rhythm with bongos—ha!

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