You might well wonder what a beatnik is or who the Beat Generation were. Many people do… so what is the different between “beat” and “beatnik,” if there is one?

In late 1969, reporter Jack McClintock interviewed beat author, Jack Kerouac, at his Florida home. In the interview they discussed a wide range of topics from Ginsberg to communism conspiracies to marijuana and ultimately ended with Kerouac making his famous declaration, “I’m a Catholic, not a beatnik!” [1]  The distinction between those completely separate ideologies are obvious, but the divisions between the labels “Beats” and “Beatnik” are not so clear to the non-fanatical.

Let’s take a look and see what separated the Beats from the Beatniks…

Who were the Beats?

The Beats were a scraggly group of friends and artists who took the creative world by storm in the 1950s, and their legacy carried over into the 1960s and onwards. Yet, despite their importance, defining “Beat” or the Beat Generation is notoriously difficult. They weren’t joined together by common writing styles, and while they are often cited as being inspired by jazz music, Eastern religion, and wanderlust, that’s not exactly true for all of them. How would one ever compare Burroughs and Kerouac, except to say they were experimental, innovative writers? Perhaps the best way to define the Beat Generation is in a social sense, with Allen Ginsberg as its nexus.

Quite a few writers moved within the same social circle and their reach spanned the entire country, but ground zero was certainly New York City.  Some of the better-known Beats like Jack Kerouac, Lucien Carr, William S. Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg met and became friends at Columbia University. They spent their time together talking about art and philosophy, collaborating on writing, and surveying the city on wild, drug-filled nights. In time, Neal Cassady came into the mix of things. He was from Denver and instilled a vigor in the college friends that would eventually lead them into taking their ideas nation-wide. Eventually, some of them hit San Francisco, and from there the group grew… but conversely, defining the Beat Generation again became more difficult. Among the core group there is little unity in style, and if we are to define them by their relationships, are Brion Gysin and Bob Dylan part of the movement?

Giving a solid definition of the Beat Generation is beyond the scope of this short article, but where did the term “beat” actually come from? It did not come into play until later years when the movement came into the spotlight. Initially, the group called their ideas “the New Vision.”[2] It was Jack Kerouac who dubbed himself and his fellow writers as the “Beat Generation,” although the origins of the word go back further, probably to Herbert Huncke. Kerouac defined the word “beat” as worn down by his fellow man and beatific.[3]

In any case, one can think of the Beats as a literary group.

Who were the Beatniks?

If the Beats, then, were a literary group, the Beatniks most certainly were not. They were the hangers-on, fans, the impersonators, the wannabes. When Ginsberg wrote of “the best minds of my generation,” he spoke of the Beat Generation. The people buying “Howl” and copying Ginsberg and his friends were more aptly described as Beatniks.

“Beatnik” is the word that conservative America applied to what we now consider the Beats, as well as a general term for rebellious youths. “Beatnik” was an insult stemming from the recently launched the Soviet Union Satellite, Sputnik. It was used as a way to belittle them and snidely connect them to communists (another thing that Kerouac hated).

In time, the word “beatnik” took on new meaning and shifted from being an insult aimed at the writers from the Beat Generation into being a label for poetry reading kids who wore turtlenecks and played bongos in underground coffee shops. Similar to the grunge label in the 1990s and today’s hipster label, the term “beatnik” became less about the self-expression that was rooted in the Beat Generation and more a corporate made identity meant to push products, books, and movies. When they weren’t using the stereotype to sell products, they villainized it. Oftentimes in TV shows and films they’d portray “beatniks” as violent drug-addicts with no moral values. Ginsberg stated, “If beatniks and not illuminated Beat poets overrun this country, they will have been created not by Kerouac but by industries of mass communication which continue to brainwash man.”[4]

The genesis of the trope is indeed rooted in the Beat Generation. The writers were anti-establishment and questioned the moral standards of their time, but the whole identity of it got distorted and lost in translation. Due in equal parts to both the media and capitalism, the world took something that they didn’t fully understand and they shamed it, distorted it, and then stereotyped it. When they were done doing that they packed it back up and sold it to the masses as something safe and fun to dress up as.

So should you say Beats or Beatniks?

When talking about the writers of the 1940s and ’50s who were associated with Allen Ginsberg, you should use “Beats.” When talking about the black-clad, beret-wearing, bongo-beating hangers-on of the late 50s and early 60s, you should probably use “Beatniks.”

Footnotes

[1] “Jack Kerouac’s Last Interview,” Tampa Bay Times, October 12, 1969, accessed December 11, 2016, http://www.tampabay.com/features/humaninterest/jack-kerouac-is-on-the-road-no-more/2109689.

[2] Bill Morgan, The Typewriter is Holy: The Complete Uncensored History of the Beat Generation (Counterpoint, 2010) p.10

[3] Hassan Melehy, Kerouac: Language, Politics, and Territory (Bloomsbury, 2016) p.86

[4] Allen Ginsberg, The Letters of Allen Ginsberg, ed. Bill Morgan ( Da Capo Press, 2008)

David S. Wills

David S. Wills is the founder and editor of Beatdom literary journal and the author of Scientologist! William S. Burroughs the Weird Cult and World Citizen: Allen Ginsberg as Traveller. His next book, High White Notes: The Rise and Fall of Gonzo Journalism comes out in November, 2021.

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