Beat-Bashing

April 2: The term”beatnik” was coined on this day in 1958 by Herb Caen in his columnfor the San Francisco Chronicle. Caen said that “the wordpopped out,” a flip comment inspired by the recent Sputnik launch, but thecontext and tone of the coinage reflect the Beat-bashing then current:

Lookmagazine, preparing a picture spread on S.F.’s Beat Generation (oh, no, notAGAIN!), hosted a party in a No. Beach house for 50 Beatniks, and by the timeword got around the sour grapevine, over 250 bearded cats and kits were onhand, slopping up Mike Cowles’ free booze. They’re only Beat, y’know, when itcomes to work….

Jack Kerouac caught thederogatory tone and complained to Caen that he was “putting us down andmaking us sound like jerks.” Kerouac had published an article in Esquire magazine the previous month inwhich he had presented his vision of the Beats as busted-out “Bartlebies,”an allusion which links Herman Melville’s malcontented, office-bound scrivenerto post-war road rage:

The Beat Generation…ageneration of crazy, illuminated hipsters suddenly rising and roaming America,serious, bumming and hitchhiking everywhere, ragged, beatific, beautiful in anugly graceful new way…. It never meant juvenile delinquents, it meantcharacters of a special spirituality who didn’t gang up but were solitary Bartlebiesstaring out the dead wall window of our civilization….

But until the bongo-beardimage replaced it, the juvenile delinquent image stuck, especially inHollywood. In the 1959 movie The Beatniks,billed as “the screen’s first story of a mutinous generation” and an “answerto the beatnik question that all America is asking,” a hepcat who onlywants to sing gets dragged down into coffeehouse crime. In The Beat Generation, also from 1959, the villain is a beatnik-serialrapist.

NextGen Beat poet AnneWaldman was born on this day in 1945. She and Allen Ginsberg co-founded theJack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, and her Beat Book anthology includes an excerpt from Kerouac’s “TheOrigins of the Beat Generation,” first published in 1959. Here Kerouactakes the long view, tracing the Beat spirit from his Breton ancestors throughhis defiant French-Canadian grandfather to America:

Like my grandfather thisAmerica was invested with wild selfbelieving individuality and this had begunto disappear around the end of World War II with so many great guys dead … whensuddenly it began to emerge again, the hipsters began to appear gliding aroundsaying “Crazy, man.”


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.