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International Socialist Review, Summer 1958


Evelyn Sell

Really Beat?


From International Socialist Review, Vol.19 No.3, Summer 1958, pp.88-92.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


“We live in a terrible world. We do not know when the big blast will go off and, boom, we will be no more.”

Evelyn Sell is a corresponding editor of the Young Socialist. As a nominee of the Socialist Workers party, she recently announced her candidacy for US Senator from Michigan.

* * *

THERE seems to be an unwritten law in America that every generation must be labeled. The “Lost Generation” of World War I was followed by the “Socially Conscious Generation” of the thirties. Various tags have been placed on the present generation – those who grew up during World War II, fought in the war that wasn’t a war at all but a “police action,” and are now on the roller-coaster ride of an up-and-down American economy. This has been called the Brain-Washed ... the Waiting ... the Go ... the Silent ... and, finally, the “Beat Generation.”

Bewailing the apathy of today’s youth, Time and Life called them the “Silent Generation” because the young people in America seemed completely content to let the world go by while they sought regimented living in a ranch house with a swimming pool. In a symposium of college professors in the Nation last year, the same criticism was voiced. College students were characterized as “earnest but dull ... the mass of college students lead lives of quiet enervation ... many undergraduates acknowledge no heroes, profess only lukewarm admirations, shun causes, are suspicious of joinings and flinch from commitments.” The professors (and Time and Life before them) were appalled at the “indifference to either politics or reform or rebellion ...” which they noted in “our intellectual elite. In twenty years they will run the most powerful nation on earth.”

The spokesmen of the present group who “run the most powerful nation on earth” are worried not about the next set of rulers so much as the next set of “ruled.” Science fiction writers enjoy describing mythical lands where the masses are drugged into political apathy, where the dictators mold the thoughts and actions of their workers through TV. We do not live in such a push-button world as yet. We live in a world where wars – even atomic wars – must be fought by people who believe in what they are fighting for. Those who “run the most powerful nation on earth” need a generation of Americans who acknowledge heroes like McCarthy, admire brink-of-war diplomacy, believe in capitalism, like nothing better than to fight in another and another and another “police action.”

That is where the apathy hurts – young people shun, to a great extent, commitments to socialist actions but they also shun committing themselves to new Koreas, to economic insecurity, to witch-hunts. Most young people play it cool – to both sides. They are nursing their passion, waiting (in the unemployment lines), watching (uprisings throughout the world), listening (to reports of the poisoning of our atmosphere by nuclear tests).

But there are other young people who do not withhold their passion, who live fast and furiously, at fever pitch. They commit themselves totally – some to motorcycles and endless races down the roads of America, some to drugs and the sensations of “flipping,” some to the exotic intellectuality of Eastern philosophies, or to defiant homosexuality, or promiscuous heterosexuality. They are the loud-mouths of the generation. They attract the spotlight. Books are written about them. Magazines photograph and describe them. Movies are made about them. But at bottom they are not so different from their more silent brothers and sisters. They share a deep-going rejection of the values of our society and a fervent stressing of the value and importance of the human being as a person.

The label “Silent Generation” failed to win popular acceptance. Now, however, writers claiming to speak for their kind have adopted a name for themselves that seems to be catching on. In 1952, the same year that Time and Life wrote of “The Silent Generation,” John Clellon Holmes published an article in the New York Times entitled This Is the Beat Generation. Since then the phrase has gained popularity and notoriety through the literary successes of writers such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Kerouac has not only hit the best-seller lists with his On the Road, he has become touted as the spokesman of the people of whom he writes: people who live on the bum; who restlessly seek their “kicks” in modern jazz, marijuana, fast cars and faster motorcycles, crime, defiant sexual amorality, Zen Buddhism; who have as their heroes James Dean, Dylan Thomas, Charlie Parker; who say to each other, “We gotta go and never stop going till we get there.” “Where we going, man?” “I don’t know, but we gotta go.”

These are the “hipsters,” the Beat Generation. Kerouac calls them “seekers.” What are they seeking? “God,” answers Kerouac; “I want God to show me His face.” Kerouac defines Beat: “Beat means beatitude, not beat up.” The hipster is one who is on the beat, in tune with things, in the know, a cool cat who takes drugs and then says, “But, man, last night I got so high I knew everything. I mean I knew why.” In his second published novel The Subterraneans, Kerouac writes that they are “hip without being slick, they are intelligent without being corny, they are intellectual as hell and know all about Pound without being pretentious or talking too much about it, they are very quiet, they are very Christlike.”

The real hipsters, the actual “pros” of the Beat Generation, are numerically very small. The select group is swelled, however, by the curious and the bored and the sometimes rebellious who like to season their suburban solid-citizen safe lives with a dash of bitter-sweet Bohemianism.

The rest of the world lives in Squaresville. The squares don’t dig anything. They wear Brooks Park suits, drive MGs, hunger after the dollar and are

“burned alive in their innocent flannel suits on Madison Avenue amid the blasts of leaden verse & the tanked up clatter of the iron regiments of fashion & the nitroglycerine shrieks of the fairies of advertising & the mustard gas of sinister intelligent editors, or ... run down by the drunken taxicabs of Absolute Reality ...”

This last is from Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. In this poem he mourns not only the wasted lives of the squares but also that of the hipsters “who drove cross-country seventy-two hours to find out if I had a vision or you had a vision or he had a vision to find out Eternity ...”

John Clellon Holmes, in an Esquire article, defines “beat” in this way:

“Everyone who has lived through a war, any sort of war, knows that beat means, not so 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 at the bottom of your personality, looking up ... [The] conviction of the creative power of the unfettered individual soul stands behind everything in which the members of this generation interest themselves ... a generation groping toward faith out of an intellectual despair and moral chaos in which they refuse to lose themselves.”

The letters Esquire printed in response to Holmes’ article speak for themselves:

Who Belongs

In this letter the writer touches the problem of definition. Who belongs to the Beat Generation? Is the hipster clothed in the motorcyclist’s black leather jacket, or does he wear the gray flannel of disillusioned Madison Avenue sophisticates, or does he slouch in a San Francisco bar in nondescript working clothes? Although the bickering is considerable over what is a “real” hipster, these three groups are usually included in discussions of the Beat Generation: the gangs (leather-belted, sideburned, jeaned and garrison belted), the Bohemians (replete with drugs, sex, jazz, poetry and knapsack), and the sorrowfully sedate suburbanites who wander down among the dregs of society for relief from the routines of ordinary middle-class life.

The latter group can be considered more as “fellow travelers” than the hard core of hipsterism. An article in the Reporter calls them “people who are merely curious, who want to see the vision but not be in it, who have a contempt for Squaresville but live there, who dig jazz but don’t live it.”

The Bohemians and the juvenile gangs “live it.” There is no well-paid job or middle-class security for them to run back to when the last musician has played the last note or the last rock is thrown by the last standee of a rumble. They are in deadly earnest about “being with it.” In writing about the juvenile gangs, John Clellon Holmes shocked many when he said,

“Even the crudest and most nihilistic member of the Beat Generation, the young slum hoodlum, is almost exclusively concerned with the problem of belief, albeit unconsciously. It seems incredible that no one has realized that the only way to make the shocking juvenile murders coherent at all is to understand that they are specifically moral crimes ... Such crimes, which are no longer rarities and which are all committed by people under twenty-five, cannot be understood if we go on mouthing the same old panaceas about broken homes and slum environments and bad company, for they are spiritual crimes, crimes against the identity of another human being, crimes which reveal with stark and terrifying clarity the lengths to which a desperate need for values can drive the young. For in actuality it is the longing for values which is expressed in such a crime, and not the hatred of them. It is the longing to do or feel something meaningful, and it provides a sobering glimpse of how completely the cataclysms of this century have obliterated the rational, humanistic view of Man on which modern society has been erected.”

Holmes points out that what the juvenile gangs are turning to, in their search for a code of ethics, is one of the oldest types of human organization, the tribe. The inviolability of comradeship, the high regard for personal courage, the oath to present a united, fighting front to the rest of the world, the concept that you and your brother belong and the others are all enemies to be destroyed or circumvented – these are the mores of the primitive tribe. What Holmes does not point out is that these are also the ethics of the capitalist society we live in drawn out to their most crude and saddening extremes. In trying to find his way in this world he never made, the juvenile gang member responds to the society that condemns him, “OK, you made the rules. I’ll go you one better.” In a class society, where one group is constantly engaged in struggle against another, the juvenile gangs plot rumbles, one gang against another. In a society that fosters prejudice, the juvenile gangs make raids on the “sheenies,” or the “niggers,” or the “wops,” or the “japs.” In a society of permanent war, the gang member has his own versions of flame throwers, bazookas, bombs and grenades.

The third group included in the Beat Generation is the Bohemians. In The Social History of Art, Hauser writes of the difference between the Bohemians of the romantic and naturalistic periods. What he says of the latter could be published about the hipster today in Playboy or the Nation:

“The bohème was originally no more than a demonstration against the bourgeois way of life. It consisted of young artists and students, who were mostly the sons of well-to-do people, and in whom the opposition to the prevailing society was usually a product of mere youthful exuberance and contrariness ... [they] parted from bourgeois society, not because they were forced, but because they wanted to live differently from their bourgeois fathers. They were genuine romantics, who wanted to be original and extravagant. They undertook their excursion into the world of the outlaws and the outcasts, just as one undertakes a journey into an exotic land; they knew nothing of the misery of the later bohème, and they were free to return to bourgeois society at any time. The bohème of the following generation, that of the militant naturalism with its headquarters in the beer cellars ... was ... a real bohème, that is, an artistic proletariat, made up of people whose existence was absolutely insecure, people who stood outside the frontiers of bourgeois society, and whose struggle against the bourgeoisie was no high-spirited game but a bitter necessity. Their unbourgeois way of life was the form which best suited the questionable existence that they led and was in no sense any longer a mere masquerade.”

It is the Bohemian artist of the Beat Generation who has established his headquarters in San Francisco. That city is being hailed by some as the Paris of this generation; and the “San Francisco School” of art is lauded as the fountainhead of a renaissance in American art today. Those associated with this school include Kerouac, Ginsberg, Rexroth, Ferlinghetti.

Most San Francisco poets and writers are in the ranks of the longshoremen, migratory agricultural workers, seamen, and others whose work keeps them on the move. Allen Ginsberg, for example, makes a trip to the Arctic and then has enough money to go to Mexico and Europe for a while. Jack Kerouac, after achieving a minor success with a novel years ago, became disgusted with the New York literary life and said, “I have to make my choice between all this and the rattling trucks on the American road. And I think I’ll choose the rattling trucks ...” He chose the trucks and the odd-job life of the lumpen-proletariat. Young writers of the San Francisco school don’t debate the theoretical questions of the class struggle in Bohemian coffee shops – they engage in that struggle on the picket line. They don’t join the picket line to soak up atmosphere – they work at the place being struck.

The ranks of this artistic proletariat have been swelled by the conscientious objectors who were quartered nearby during the war. The anarcho-syndicalist traditions of the once powerfully influential IWW have reasserted themselves somewhat as the disillusionment with Stalinism has grown. Add to this a strong anti-war movement and you have the political temper of the San Francisco Bohemian climate. The school has been aptly termed “the new anarchist Bohemianism.”

All the publicity about the school has resulted in a tourist invasion into the Bohemian life of the city. In a “fanzine,” RUR, put out by David Rike of Berkeley, California, it is explained that the Beat types

“aren’t pleased about all the publicity since that means commercialization, the turning of North Beach into a tourist hang-out, higher rents, and the coming in of all sorts of squares, and week-end Bohemians and out-right gawkers. With commercialization, their bars are no longer places where you know you can meet all of your friends at since they are now squeezed out by the tourists who simply have to dig these cuh-razy people they read about in Life, Playboy and Esquire. The rents have gotten so high that even Lawrence Ferlinghetti has moved out of the Beach and down to the Potrero Hill district, besides numerous other persons. And the squares; you know the type, they have a nice Respectable job, white-collaring it somewhere, during the day, but wow, man, they gotta be with the Crowd and be Hip and, like that, so they don their turtle neck sweater, sandals, and frisco jeans and drive out to the Beach in their MGs (discreetly parking them in some dark alley, of course). But that’s the way things go here in America.”

As Hauser pointed out, the bohème consists of both artists and students. Student beats usually refuse to admit any ties to either the slum hood or the arty hipster. During a discussion held by the Young Socialist Club in Detroit, the question was asked by one of these Beat-type students, “Is this movement progressive or reactionary?” The consensus among those present was that the movement is progressive in that it questions and rejects the capitalist philosophy of life. Its reactionary features consist in the inability to do more than reject, in the lack of understanding of the social forces spawning the movement.

The observation was made during this discussion that young people generally are beginning to seriously question the status quo, that they are restlessly turning this way and that in search of a guide to life in keeping with the ideals of democracy. The youth of the thirties went through the same process of questioning and seeking. The answers came then in the shape of the powerful upsurge of industrial unionism, which rallied to its struggle the youth, the intellectuals, artists and middle class of that day. The present generation seeks but has not yet found such an answer.

A word much in popularity among students today is “humanism.” Over and over they insist on their belief in humanist principles. One of them said to me, referring to a mutual friend,

“He is what I call a real socialist. He really believes in helping people. When he talks about sharing the wealth he really means it. I don’t know if you’re a real socialist. You call yourself that but I don’t know how you really feel about other people.”

David Rike made the following observations about the Beat types:

“... they want a Change; they want to be able to Dig-the-Scene as human beings, before there isn’t any Scene to dig at all. If it was October, 1956 and we were in Hungary, they’d be behind the barricades with the Freedom Fighters and participating in the Workers’ Councils that sprang up. Some of them would very much like to be down in Cuba, with Castro. And, on Easter Sunday of this year, a lot of them were marching in the pouring rain in front of the AEC offices in Oakland, protesting nuclear tests.

“H-Bomb protests and maybe they’ll, in the future, come out and give support to strikes and labor struggles, especially when there might be students scabbing ... Deep Down, they’re Waiting. Waiting for something like Spain, 1936; or Berlin, 1953; Budapest, 1956; or maybe even San Francisco, 1934 or Oakland, 1946 ...

“When I first dug the Beach and the Beat-types more than a year ago, I noted that they appeared to be no more than Pachucos who read books, had social consciousness, and didn’t resort to violence so readily. This isn’t coincidental, because as intellectuals, they play a vanguard role in Awareness. In Hungary, 1956, things got started by mass action on the part of the students, but when the chips were really down and the Russians moved into Budapest, it was the young workers from the factories who were manning the barricades, chucking molotov cocktails at tanks, and directing actions in the Workers’ Councils. And the Beat-types have the potential for doing the same thing in this country.”

The middle-class “fellow traveler,” the juvenile hood, the Bohemian – this is the Beat Generation. And yet there is one other member of this group that is included as a kind of minister without portfolio, the Negro. Norman Mailer and Herbert Gold in magazine articles have stressed the relationship between the Negro and his struggle in society and the hipsters. In fact, the argument is that to be a hipster is to be a white Negro. Mailer has written that when the Bohemian and the juvenile delinquent came face to face with the Negro the “hipster was a fact in American life.”

This kinship with the Negro is often expressed. Kerouac writes,

“At lilac evening I walked with every muscle aching among the lights of 27th and Welton in the Denver colored section, wishing I were a Negro, feeling that the best the white world had offered was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music ...”

Highly romanticized, yes, but indicative of the bond between the Beat Generation and the Negro – two groups who are forced to live on the edges of society. The most obvious bond between them is their common language and their common responsiveness to jazz. Hip, cool, man, beat, to be with it – these terms originated among and through those who created and those who dig jazz.

The members of the Beat Generation are spread across America (and, if the reports are accurate, it seems they may even exist in England’s Teddy Boys, Japan’s Sun Tribers, and in Russia). The dominant characteristics of the group have emerged and crystallized since the end of World War II. The exact number is difficult to determine although Norman Mailer has estimated that 100,000 Americans are conscious hipsters and millions more are Beat and don’t know it, or refuse to admit it. Holmes’ Go was published in 1952 but it wasn’t until several years later that books such as his became popular, touted and commented upon in large-scale fashion. By the time On the Road was presented to the public, growing numbers responded to sentiments expressed in these works with, “Yeah, man, that’s the way it is. You’re hip, you’re hip.”

What we see today is not a qualitative change in the phenomena of the Beat Generation but a growing recruitment to its ranks. Young artists and students turn to a Beat way of life as an expression of their revulsion against capitalist society and their indetermination about what to do about it. They are caught in the vacuum caused by the relative apathy of the working class and its failure as yet to take the road to independent political action.

And their literary spokesmen say, “Man, don’t bug me about dope. What hallucinations could I have that could compare with the reality of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Don’t get horrified at my little crimes – stealing cars to play chicken, cutting up a few people here and there. What could I do that could compare with World Wars and the theft of security and shelter and sustenance from millions? Don’t tell me I live a crazy life, man. What’s more insane than sealing up food in caves or dumping it in the ocean when millions are starving? What’s crazier than laying off tens of thousands of workers when they want to and could be producing cars and refrigerators and clothes and homes?

“Don’t stop me from living it up. I’m me, you’re you. You get your kicks your way; I’ll get mine my way. So don’t push me into the organization, man. I’m not one of the bunch. Each one of us is something beautiful and wonderful. Cherish each little spark, let each blaze up in his own way. Don’t smother anyone under the ashes of conformity.

“Don’t tell me to live in Squaresville – the squares themselves know that underneath the slick suburban surface there’s a sickness that can’t be cured and every sweet dream of love and tenderness is long gone. Don’t give me the-little-wife-and-sweet-kiddies-around-the-fireplace bit. Man, like that went the way of dodo-bird things like free enterprise, the horse and buggy and the worship of tree spirits. We’re living in the now – and the now is changing so fast we have to run faster and faster just to stay in one spot!

“So, don’t hold me back. I gotta go and keep going till I get there; where? I gotta find out where – and I can’t find out if I can’t go, go, go, if I’m caught like those ‘who chained themselves to subways for the endless ride from Battery to holy Bronx on benzedrine until the noise of wheels and children brought them shuddering mouth-wracked and battered bleak of brain all drained of brilliance in the drear light ...’”

Those who gasp and raise their eyebrows over the antics of the hipsters see only the negative, run-away-from-it-all, self-destructive aspects of this group. “Why don’t they live normally?” the raised eyebrows ask.

Wouldn’t it be the negation of all personal worth, wouldn’t it be really self-destructive, really horrifying if they did live by the rules of a society where war, depression and the suppression of the individual have become normal? If they didn’t thumb their noses at a moral code that no longer satisfies the needs of our changed human relations?

The Beat Generation does more than reject a world they never made and don’t want. They are seeking for a world worth living in. Their search has led them into blind alleys so far, it is true, but over and over again, they affirm,

“There must be an answer to the whys and wherefores of life. Maybe the next kick I go in for will reveal the truth behind it all. The answer is somewhere. I’ll find it ... in my own way ... in my own time.”

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