We’ve all heard the word “beatnik,” but what exactly does it mean and how are these people connected to Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and the other writers of the Beat Generation? That’s the subject of today’s article.
Where does the term “beatnik” come from?
In the 1940s, a group of young writers began to use the word “beat” to describe themselves. Later, by the early fifties, they were calling themselves “a beat generation.” This group included Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs. (Read about the possible first use of “beat” here.)
Throughout the fifties, these writers pursued their literary ambitions, attaining some degree of success. This was accelerated with the publication of “Howl” in 1956 and On the Road in 1957, with the Beat Generation quickly becoming a cultural phenomenon.
The Beats were so popular, in fact, that on April 2nd, 1958, San Francisco Examiner columnist Herb Caen wrote:
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. They’re only Beat, y’know, when it comes to work . . .
This was the first time that “Beatnik” appeared in print. It was a portmanteau of “Beat” and “Sputnik,” bringing together these two culturally relevant terms. (On the Road was released in September 1957 and Sputnik was launched the following month.)
The inference, of course, was that the Beats were essentially communists. It played into the notion of these supposedly angry young bohemians as un-American. It was mocking and denigrated the young artistic movement. It also mocked them by referring to the hipster expression “far out,” connecting the supposedly space-brained Beats with the satellite outside of Earth’s atmosphere.
As William Lawlor writes in Beat Culture, “The term found instant acceptance in the media and has been confused with ‘Beat’ ever since.”
Beat Generation vs Beatnik: What’s the difference?
As we have seen, “Beatnik” was originally a pejorative term used to describe the writers of the Beat Generation, along with their peers and readers.
Most Beat scholars and serious fans of Beat literature, however, bristle at the use of the term, at least in regards the actual Beat writers. We would define “Beatnik” as something like this:
Beatnik (noun) – a hanger-on at the fringes of the Beat movement; a poseur or wannabe hipster with no real artistic credibility; someone more interested in bohemian fashion than innovative art
In other words, you have the serious writers and artists (the Beat Generation) and then the people who engaged in a largely superficial sense (the Beatniks).
The Beatniks were the layabouts who dressed like their Beat idols and frequented coffee shops, but they were not the creators of great art that the Beats were. The Beats devoted their lives to creating original work, whilst the Beatniks rode their coattails briefly and just for fun. The Beatniks were, at best, mere fans and copycats of the real Beat writers.
Considering all that, don’t be surprised when a Beat enthusiast rolls their eyes at you for saying you love “beatnik writers like Kerouac.” It is a profound insult and denigrates the work, effort, and integrity of real artists.
How did the Beats feel about being (mis)labelled “Beatniks”?
It is true that Beat scholars despise the conflation of Beat and Beatnik. We can get pretty snooty about it, to be honest. Of the Beat writers, though, it was only really Kerouac who disliked these people. Allen Ginsberg explained in a lecture:
The beatnik wave bugged Kerouac because people would come up to him and say that they could drive faster than Neal Cassady and get him in their car and try to kill him.
Still, he did occasionally use the term, but tended to reject it or use it only ironically.
Ginsberg himself seemed to change his opinion over time. During the Beatnik era, he despised it, calling it a “foul word.” That same year (1959), he drew a sharp distinction between Beat and Beatnik:
please don’t get me confused with the image of a beatnik disseminated via mass media. I am not responsible for other people’s bad poetry.
Later, however, he occasionally used the term to describe himself. We can see in interviews Ginsberg referring to himself and his peers with this pejorative term, although often it is mocking and sometimes it appears he just wants his reader/listener to understand and so this might be the easiest term for them.
Diane di Prima, of course, referred to herself as a Beatnik in the title of one of her books, Memoirs of a Beatnik. However, this was published in 1969 and had been specifically requested by Maurice Girodias of Olympia Press, for whom di Prima had anonymously written sex scenes. It was largely written to capitalise on countercultural tropes and Girodias demanded that it be filled with as many sex scenes as possible.
Bob Kaufman used the term “Beatnik” to refer to himself as well, but Matz McLaughlin, in a recent issue of Beatdom, argues that this was “a means of empowerment” because by adopting a derogatory term he has robbed it of its ability to hurt. He relates this to other oppressed groups reclaiming slurs as a means of diminishing the damage that those words pose.
Beat Poetry vs Beatnik Poetry
In the previous quote, you can see Ginsberg referring to “other people’s bad poetry.” This is of course a reference to the Beatnik poetry scene of hipster coffeeshops that sprung up following the sudden infamy of the Beat poets.
It should be obvious by now that the Beatniks were essentially just a fashion movement comprised of empty-headed hangers-on who dug the bohemian look and wanted to flirt with rebellion. I mentioned above that the Beats created art and the Beatniks did not. I suppose one could argue that they did attempt art… but perhaps that is being overly generous. The Beatnik scene was too derivative to really be called artistic.
Beat Poetry is hard to define because the Beats were not really a coherent literary movement. However, that’s a discussion for another day. (You can read about what the Beat Generation was here. We also have a whole book that explains Beat poetry here.)
Comparing Beat and Beatnik poetry, though, is a bit easier. Beat poetry was the product of original thought by men and women who devoted their lives to their art. Beatnik poetry was just a cheap imitation. (Think berets, bongo drums, and all the other stereotypes, as a finger-snapping hipster lays down cringey lines.)
Conclusion – Beat or Beatnik?
To put it simply, the Beatniks were superficial trend followers trying to make the most of the Beat craze following the sensational releases of “Howl” and On the Road. The Beat Generation was an artistic movement comprised of people who dedicated their lives to their art while the Beatniks merely sought to copy them because they felt it was the cool thing to do.
In choosing which term to use, think about it this way: Are you talking about a writer or one of their immediate peers? Then use “Beat.” Are you talking about the short-lived movement that followed, made up of goateed hipsters of the Maynard G. Krebs variety? Then used “Beatnik.”
 Lawlor, William Beat Culture: Lifestyles, Icons, and Impact, p.45
 Morgan, Bill, The Best Minds of my Generation: A Literary History of the Beats, p.51
 The Letters of Allen Ginsberg, p.222
 The Letters of Allen Ginsberg, p.224
 Beatdom #23, p.237