Spontaneous Sensation Over Sensible Stability: The Beat Generation

So…What is the “Beat Generation?”

“Beat Generation” refers to the collective of writers and artists in the 1940s-1960s that felt disillusioned by American politics and culture after World War II. Beginning primarily with Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and William S. Burroughs, these writers set out to explore new forms of consciousness, rebelling against classic literary structures to encourage a greater freedom of self-expression, and defying social norms to inspire a greater spontaneity in life. “Subcultures,” as defined by Gelder in his introduction, “are groups of people that are in some way represented as non-normative and/or marginal through their particular interests and practices, through what they are, what they do and where do it” (Gelder 1). In stark contrast to the uniform suburban ideal, the Beats formed a subculture by creating an alternative lifestyle that promoted individualism, experience, and pleasure, allowing them to escape the confining borders of mainstream America. The aims of this small group became public knowledge largely upon the obscenity trials surrounding Ginsberg’s “Howl”, growing and evolving into a multi-faceted counterculture movement. At a time in American history where all things different were often deemed Communist, this new lifestyle presented a symbolic challenge to the dominant order that quickly classified them as rebellious and deviant.

Beat vs. Beatnik

Initially used by jazz musicians in the 1940s, the term “beat” embodied a sense of poverty and desperation, with Beat writers using the word to express “exhausted, at the bottom of the world, looking up or out, sleepless, wide-eyed, perceptive, rejected by society, on your own, streetwise” (Lawlor 13). Connecting this word to his own struggles and that of his fellow writers, Jack Kerouac coined the term “Beat Generation” in a conversation with John Clellon Holmes, using the word to express, “a weariness with all the forms, all the conventions” (Lawlor 13). However, it was upon this official titling of the generation that the media was then able to pick up the word “beat” and run with it, utilizing the negative connotations of what it means to be Beat to stereotypically classify the Beat Generation into a suspicious and dangerous “other”.

Columnist Herb Caen coined the term “beatnik” in 1958, combining the “-nik” from the Russian satellite Sputnik to the existing “Beat” and as a result creating a negative connotation that equated beatniks with communists (Lawlor 65). “Beatnik” came to represent the stereotyped version of the actual Beats, utilized by media for marketing a certain coolness that was more superficial in nature than tied to the essence of the Beat Generation.

Beatnik Horror(The People, 7 August 1960, reprinted in The Kerouac Connection 2 (1984), pp.6-7)

The actual Beat differed from the beatnik both in style and behavior. Beats were not interested in participating in fashion trends or in creating them. The central focus of Beats was to create meaningful self-expression through their art, priding themselves on their individualism and non-conformity. Whereas Beats were often struggling to make money through their conscious efforts to distance themselves from establishment, Beatniks were living comfortably in the system, maintaing their jobs and houses while trying to emulate the Beat state of mind. Beats dressed in clothing that was available to them, whereas beatniks spent money trying to dress cool.

lu and jackJack Kerouac (Beat)                                     Beatnik
Allen Ginsberg’s photos of Jack Kerouac and Lucian Carr                                            VS                           Typical Image of a Beatnik

Representations of Beats then and now:
“Representation is an essential part of the process by which meaning is produced and exchanged between members of a culture” (Hall 15).

Referencing magazines, television, and film, this text examines media representations of the “Beat Generation”, past and present, analyzing the different ways in which media have portrayed Beat culture and how these representations have contributed to dominate perceptions and understandings.


Life Magazine: November 30,1959

Within this issue of Life, journalist Paul O’Neil wrote an article titled “The Only Rebellion Around,” attempting to provide the public with a better understanding of Beat culture by examining the philosophy of their lifestyle.

“The wide public belief that the Beats are simply dirty people is only a small if repellent part of the truth,” states O’Neil in the first page of his article, “Hard-core Beats want freedom to disorganize and thus ensure the full-flowering of their remarkable individualities…the Beat finds society too hideous to contemplate and so withdraws from it” (O’Neil 115).

However, the article continually layers a judgmental subjectivity over its moments of objectivity with other statements such as:

“The bulk of Beat writers are undisciplined and slovenly amateurs who have deluded themselves into believing their lugubrious absurdities are art simply because they have rejected the form, style, and attitudes of previous generations and have seized upon obscenity as an expression of ‘total personality'” (O’Neil 124).

Accompanying the text of this article is the black and white photograph filled with stereotypical imagery captioned “The Well-Equipped Pad”.

The Beat Pad The Beat Pad 2
Footnote 1Footnote 2

The first problem with this representation of Beats is that the photograph is completely staged using a studio with paid models instead of actual Beats in an actual pad. The rest of the problems lie within the composition of the photograph. Each object and person in the room is marked by a footnote that is then explained in brief detail according to its corresponding number at the bottom of the page. The woman is labeled a, “beat chick dressed in black”, with the man labeled a, “bearded Beat wearing sandals, chinos and turtle-necked sweater…studying a record”, and the baby labeled a, “Beat baby who has gone to sleep on the floor after playing with beer cans” (Life). Adding to this, other stereotyping occurs in the labeling for objects including: “coal stove for heating baby’s milk, drying chick’s leotards”, “marijuana for smoking”, “ill-tended plant”, and “bongo-drums for accompanying poetry reading” (Life).

In his work, “Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices,” Stuart Hall states that, “Representation connects meaning and language to culture” (Hall 15). Therefore, in order for people to understand something it must be expressed to them through intelligible images and words that they can comprehend. By using a studio set and paid models, Life is not presenting an authentic image of Beats, but rather a strategically constructed image of Beats encoded with stereotyped messages that lead audiences to decode and generate meanings in a specific manner.

“Visual signs and images, even when they bear a close resemblance to the things to which they refer, are still signs: they carry meaning and thus have to be interpreted” (Hall 19). When considering the possibility of interaction between the general public and members of a subculture, it is more likely that a person will gain knowledge of a subculture based on their media representation than from actual experience. Through such imagery the Beats are conceptually classified stylistically by the media, appearing as dirty, lazy, deviant, and unpredictable, allowing these representations to dominate the majority of minds based on the ease of its translatability in comparison to the more complex reality that is the authentic Beat.

Splitting “sign” into two elements, Saussure argued that one was the “signifier”, “the form (the actual word, image, photo etc.)” and the other was the “signified”, “the idea or concept in your head with which the form was associated” (Hall 31). Whereas the signified would usually be left up to the viewer to construct on their own, Life provided brief explanations of what is in the photo, guiding the viewer in their construction of the signified and linking Beats to a predominantly negative characterization.

Maynard G. Krebs from “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis” (1959-1963)

Played by Bob Denver, Maynard G. Krebs is a character in the American comedy “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis,” functioning as the beatnik sidekick to Dobbie Gillis, the show’s main character. As Bonnie J. Dow notes in her piece “Prime-Time Feminism: Television, Media Culture, and the Women’s Movement Since 1970, “The portrayal of social conflicts and their resolution through comedy can lend guidance to a culture that faces adjustment to social change” (Dow 37). The social conflict in this case could be viewed as Beats versus the average American in the late 50s/early 60s. The American ideal was based on the idea that one could achieve happiness through a job, marriage, family, home, and material possessions. The Beats, however, saw many problems with this ideal, choosing to create an alternative lifestyle that focused on individuality and freedom of expression. However, due to the surrounding historical context that labeled everything different as potentially Communist, it was not long before the media begin picking and choosing facets of the Beat culture, embellishing certain details while ignoring others, and creating stereotypical caricatures of Beats that were more beatnik than Beat.

Maynard G. Kerbs

With his messy black hair, his goatee, his ripped and tattered clothing, and his playing of the bongo drums, Maynard G. Krebs stylistically exemplified the beatnik stereotype. The strangeness of his appearance was highlighted by the juxtaposition of his best friend Dobie, a clean well-dressed teen focused on money, cars, and girls. Adding to this, his diction often included “like” and his behavior on the show continually promoted the idea that Beats were illogical and lazy, having Maynard shout in terror “WORK!?!?” every time someone mentioned the subject. Watch Maynard’s Reaction to Work Below:

Through this representation Beats did not positively contribute to society, except possibly for entertainment. The power of the comedy genre lies in, “its ability to channel meaning, or to ‘control the audience’s reaction by providing an interpretive context”” (Dow 36). By labeling Maynard a beatnik and portraying him as not only disinterested with work, but actually scared by it, viewers constructed a specific image of beatniks that largely influences how they conceptualize Beats in general. The show used comedy to subdue the radicalness of Beats, making their lifestyle appear as more of a joke than a serious and legitimate alternative.

Despite efforts to visit coffee shops and develop his character based on personal observation, Denver’s Maynard remained a stereotypical caricature of the Beats, stylistically bohemian and distanced from the literature, religion, and history that fueled the authentic Beat being (Lawlor 191).


Howl (2010): Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman, James Franco

“Howl” brings life to Allen Ginsberg’s famous poem by graphically animating its words, inserting flashbacks of a dramatized interview with Ginsberg as well as moments from his personal past, while simultaneously cutting between his reading of the poem in a coffee shop and the poem’s obscenity trial in court. Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, the film’s directors, are well known for utilizing documentary to explore topics with gay themes, as seen with “The Times of Harvey Milk” (1984) and “The Celluloid Closet” (1995). By choosing to focus specifically on Ginsberg’s poem, the directors stray from the typical structuring of a biographical film, drawing upon their experience with documentaries to weave different materials together in a manner than resonates with the Beat philosophy of spontaneity and individualism. The filmmakers use cuts strategically to, “produce unexpected juxtapositions…[that] establish fresh insights…[and] new metaphors,” examining the ways in which the poem itself challenged the literary standards of the time, and how this challenge impacted the larger society.

Within his work, Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in DocumentaryBill Nichols analyses documentary modes of representation, examining the ways in which this filmic style is used to construct reality. “Howl” is presented in a documentary-like style, allowing the film to use the power of the interviewing technique to grant, “considerable authority to those interviewing…[and provide] the essence of the film’s argument” (Nichols 270).

Franco Ginsberg Ginsberg

(Left: James Franco as Allen Ginsberg in “Howl”, Right: Allen Ginsberg)

After carefully studying archival footage and transcripts, James Franco magically embodies the young Ginsberg, capturing the oddness and vitality of the blossoming Beat poet and breathing life back into the poem’s words and his recounting of Ginsberg’s past. Through this acting and direction, viewers feel exposed to the “thoughts, impressions, feelings, and memories of the individual” in a more personal matter that results from the effect of a documentary (Nichols 54). Despite its dramatization, the interviewing technique resonates with Nichol’s idea of “pseudomonologue,” placing the viewer in a position of “subjective engagement” that allows them to feel as if talking with Ginsberg directly (Nichols 54).

In order to create the most realistic representation of the Six Gallery, the café where Ginsberg first reads his poem, Epstein and Friedman interviewed Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter Orlovsky, two people who were actually present at that time (AV). By recreating the set based on the memories of these men, the representation is impregnated with a certain level of authenticity that would not have the same affect if simply imagined by someone who had not been there.

My Media Artifact

In order to combat misconceptions of Beat culture, I believe that an online magazine would be a great way for people to learn about Beats from the perspective of Beats themselves, rather than from the perspective of mainstream media.

Beatific: Where Every Creation is Meaningful

I want to apply zine’s emphasis on the personal to this online lifestyle magazine. There would be a submission section on the site that welcomes everyone to submit any writing, art, video, or music to be published online. The site could be organized according the type of material, for example:

  • Writing: opinion, fiction, poetry…
  • Art: painting, drawing, sculpture, photography…
  • Video: experimental, documentary, short…
  • Music: recordings, live-stream

The site would be art-based, but there would be no restrictions to style or content, creating an open space for a variety of opinions, ideas, and visions to be shared. As Stephen Duncombe comments with regards to zines, “The message isn’t: You should do this. Instead it’s: Look what I’ve done” (Duncombe 35). Beats were not interested in reforming society, but rather in creating an alternative lifestyle. Therefore, the site would function provide people with a safe space to say what’s on their mind, allowing a cathartic release through this expression that may otherwise remain bottled up by fear of judgment.

The main focus of the website would be to create an open space where individuals are free to express themselves and enjoy the self-expressions of others. Like zines, the site would not be used, “as a medium to broadcast discontent to the dominant society” but rather, “as a way to share personal stories of living on the outside quietly with other disaffected individuals” (Duncombe 30). Instead of creating to please an audience, creation would be based on an individual’s expression of self or personal reflections about the world around them. Real thoughts and real feelings.

The site would be funded and maintained on a voluntary basis, avoiding the use of ads and any attachment to the commercial mainstream. This self-funding would allow the site to regulate its own content and feature topics on taboo subjects that other sites might not be able to explore.

Users could create their own profile with whatever information about themselves they choose to share, or they could remain anonymous. They could also choose whether or not they would like all of their submissions to gather in a page attached to their profile or remain scattered and anonymous.

In order to create a community aspect, the site would have a chat application that allowed people to connect with one another. If a person really liked a poem or a video that they saw on the site, they would have the ability to reach out to the creator.


Gelder, Ken. “Literary Subculture Geographies.” Subculture: Cultural Histories and Social Practice. By Ken Gelder. Abington: Routledge, 2007. 66-82. Print.

Epstein, Rob, and Jeffrey Friedman. “Howl Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. “Interview by Keith Phipps. A.V. Club. Onion Inc., 29 Sept. 2010. Web. 10 Nov. 2013.

Hebdige, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. London: Methuen, 1979. Print.

Howl. Dir. Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. By Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman. Perf. James Franco, Tod Rotandi and Jon Prescott. Werc Werk Works, Telling Pictures, RabbitBandini Productions, 2010. Netflix. Web.

Lawlor, William. Beat Culture: Icons, Lifestyles, and Impact. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2005. Print.

Nichols, Bill. Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary. Bloomington:Indiana UP, 1991. Print.

O’Neal, Paul. “Only Rebellion Around: Beat Generation.” LIFE 30 Nov. 1959: n. pag. Google Books. Web. 11 Nov. 2013.

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