If only the hipsters of today knew where their style, attitude, and trends originated. They may be enlightened, or horrified. Regardless, the title “hipster” was originally used by Jack Kerouac to refer to himself and his fellow Beats back in the 1950s. Kerouac pulled the term from the jazz scene of 1930s and 40s in America. “Hip” as defined by the unholy Wikipedia: “Hip, like cool, does not refer to one specific quality. It refers to being fashionably current and in the know.” “Hip” comes from “hep,” a term generously used by Harlem Jazzman, Cab Calloway. If you are so inclined, take a listen to his scattered lyrics:
Calloway preached the holiness of what it meant to be “hep” in an obsessive trance singing of the hep. He preached to a society that was riddled with normatives – racial, sexual, political, philosophical, whathaveyou, normatives. As part of the swing and be-bop movement, Calloway used music to transform how audiences viewed music, especially how they danced and felt the music.
The Beat Generation evolved from the fusion of literature, music, and art that circulated a group of young writers and poets. Prior to becoming canonized by works such as On the Road, Naked Lunch, and Howl, the Beats were an unkempt group of bohemian hedonists who wrote free verse poetry and experimental prose. The three works listed all drew the Beats into the spotlight in infamy (infamy, at least, can be the best publicist). Each work was censored from the public at one point or another and each work benefited greatly for it. The attention these works got enabled the Beats enough press to actualize a counterculture, one who preached nonconformity, alternative spirituality, free speech, and a rejection of the middle-class lifestyles. In an interview with William F. Buckley, Jr., Jack Kerouac (and William S. Burroughs somewhat) explains in (slightly drunken) retrospect what the Beat Generation was:
The Beats were born from war. Post-World War II America was a climate of meglomania, victory and pending change. In the 1950s, the Communist threat produced a culture of tension, one that revived the trauma of the past for many by producing an uncertain future. Using the political climate as a backdrop for their works, the Beats sought spiritual revival from the fringes of society. Many, including Kerouac and the Buddhist writer, Gary Snyder, searched for meaning in nature and made famous treks across America in order to capture the America that the political upheaval at the time had forgotten.
The publication of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl was a turning point for the Beats. Howl instigated bad press as soon as it was published by City Lights Publishers in 1957. Upon publication, the poem was censored and put on trial for obscene content. The poem was eventually deemed to have “redeeming social importance” and published on mass through a network of publishers. By the 1960s, the poem came to represent a lost generation of young individuals who had become conscientious of the violence, corruption, and civil rights issues facing them in the coming decade.
Howl illuminated, through its winding, absurdist verse, the confusion and anxiety of the time, while also serving as a semi-autobiographical account of Ginsberg’s life.
By the 1960s, the Beat Generation made way for the tumultuous decade to come; however, their works initiated change in how their readers thought, spoke, and lived their nationality. In part 2, I hope to look into some of the Beat writers who emerged in the 60s.