This Is The Beat Generation
between. The peace they inherited was only as secure as the next headline. It was a cold peace. Their own lust for freedom, and the ability to live at a pace that kills (to which the war had
adjusted them), led to black markets, bebop, narcotics, sexual promiscuity, hucksterism, and
The New York Times Magazine, November 16, 1952
Jean-Paul Sartre. The beatness set in later.
Several months ago, a national magazine ran a story under the heading 'Youth' and the
It is a postwar generation, and, in a world which seems to mark its cycles by its wars, it is
subhead 'Mother Is Bugged At Me.' It concerned an eighteen-year-old California girl who had
already being compared to that other postwar generation, which dubbed itself 'lost'. The
been picked up for smoking marijuana and wanted to talk about it. While a reporter took down
Roaring Twenties, and the generation that made them roar, are going through a sentimental
her ideas in the uptempo language of 'tea,' someone snapped a picture. In view of her
revival, and the comparison is valuable. The Lost Generation was discovered in a roadster,
contention that she was part of a whole new culture where one out of every five people you
laughing hysterically because nothing meant anything anymore. It migrated to Europe, unsure
meet is a user, it was an arresting photograph. In the pale, attentive face, with its soft eyes and
whether it was looking for the 'orgiastic future' or escaping from the 'puritanical past.' Its
intelligent mouth, there was no hint of corruption. It was a face which could only be deemed
symbols were the flapper, the flask of bootleg whiskey, and an attitude of desperate frivolity
criminal through an enormous effort of righteousness. Its only complaint seemed to be: 'Why
best expressed by the line: 'Tennis, anyone?' It was caught up in the romance of
don't people leave us alone?' It was the face of a beat generation.
disillusionment, until even that became an illusion. Every act in its drama of lostness was a tragic or ironic third act, and T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land was more than the dead-end statement of a perceptive poet. The pervading atmosphere of that poem was an almost
That clean young face has been making the newspapers steadily since the war. Standing before
objectless sense of loss, through which the reader felt immediately that the cohesion of things
a judge in a Bronx courthouse, being arraigned for stealing a car, it looked up into the camera
had disappeared. It was, for an entire generation, an image which expressed, with dreadful
with curious laughter and no guilt. The same face, with a more serious bent, stared from the
pages of Life magazine, representing a graduating class of ex-GI's, and said that as it believed small business to be dead, it intended to become a comfortable cog in the largest corporation it could find. A little younger, a little more bewildered, it was this same face that the
But the wild boys of today are not lost. Their flushed, often scoffing, always intent faces elude
photographers caught in Illinois when the first non-virgin club was uncovered. The young
the word, and it would sound phony to them. For this generation lacks that eloquent air of
copywriter, leaning down the bar on Third Avenue, quietly drinking himself into relaxation,
bereavement which made so many of the exploits of the Lost Generation symbolic actions.
and the energetic hotrod driver of Los Angeles, who plays Russian Roulette with a jalopy, are
Furthermore, the repeated inventory of shattered ideals, and the laments about the mud in
separated only by a continent and a few years. They are the extremes. In between them fall the
moral currents, which so obsessed the Lost Generation, do not concern young people today.
secretaries wondering whether to sleep with their boyfriends now or wait; the mechanic
They take these things frighteningly for granted. They were brought up in these ruins and no
beering up with the guys and driving off to Detroit on a whim; the models studiously name-
longer notice them. They drink to 'come down' or to 'get high,' not to illustrate anything. Their
dropping at a cocktail party. But the face is the same. Bright, level, realistic, challenging.
excursions into drugs or promiscuity come out of curiosity, not disillusionment.
Any attempt to label an entire generation is unrewarding, and yet the generation which went
Only the most bitter among them would call their reality a nightmare and protest that they
through the last war, or at least could get a drink easily once it was over, seems to possess a
have indeed lost something, the future. For ever since they were old enough to imagine one,
uniform, general quality which demands an adjective . The origins of the word 'beat' are
that has been in jeopardy anyway. The absence of personal and social values is to them, not a
obscure, but the meaning is only too clear to most Americans. More than mere weariness, it
revelation shaking the ground beneath them, but a problem demanding a day-to-day solution.
implies the feeling of having been used, of being raw. It involves a sort of nakedness of mind,
How to live seems to them much more crucial than why. And it is precisely at this point that
and, ultimately, of soul; a feeling of being reduced to the bedrock of consciousness. In short, it
the copywriter and the hotrod driver meet and their identical beatness becomes significant, for,
means being undramatically pushed up against the wall of oneself. A man is beat whenever he
unlike the Lost Generation, which was occupied with the loss of faith, the Beat Generation is
goes for broke and wagers the sum of his resources on a single number; and the young
becoming more and more occupied with the need for it. As such, it is a disturbing illustration
generation has done that continually from early youth.
of Voltaire's reliable old joke: 'If there were no God, it would be necessary to invent him.' Not content to bemoan his absence, they are busily and haphazardly inventing totems for him on all sides.
Its members have an instinctive individuality, needing no bohemianism or imposed eccentricity to express it. Brought up during the collective bad circumstances of a dreary depression, weaned during the collective uprooting of a global war, they distrust collectivity.
For the giggling nihilist, eating up the highway at ninety miles an hour and steering with his
But they have never been able to keep the world out of their dreams. The fancies of their
feet, is no Harry Crosby, the poet of the Lost Generation who planned to fly his plane into the
childhood inhabited the half-light of Munich, the Nazi-Soviet pact, and the eventual blackout.
sun one day because he could no longer accept the modern world. On the contrary, the hotrod
Their adolescence was spent in a topsy-turvy world of war bonds, swing shifts, and troop
driver invites death only to outwit it. He is affirming the life within him in the only way he
movements. They grew to independent mind on beachheads, in gin mills and USO's, in past-
knows how, at the extreme. The eager-faced girl, picked up on a dope charge, is not one of
midnight arrivals and pre-dawn departures. Their brothers, husbands, fathers or boy friends
those 'women and girls carried screaming with drink or drugs from public places,' of whom
turned up dead one day at the other end of a telegram. At the four trembling corners of the
Fitzgerald wrote. Instead, with persuasive seriousness, she describes the sense of community
world, or in the home town invaded by factories or lonely servicemen, they had intimate
she has found in marijuana, which society never gave her. The copywriter, just as drunk by
experience with the nadir and the zenith of human conduct, and little time for much that came
midnight as his Lost Generation counterpart, probably reads God and Man at Yale during his
Sunday afternoon hangover. The difference is this almost exaggerated will to believe in
no single attitude. The failure of most orthodox moral and social concepts to reflect fully the
something, if only in themselves. It is a will to believe, even in the face of an inability to do so
life they have known is probably the reason for this, but because of it each person becomes a
in conventional terms. And that is bound to lead to excesses in one direction or another.
walking, self-contained unit, compelled to meet, or at least endure, the problem of being young in a seemingly helpless world in his own way.
The shock that older people feel at the sight of this Beat Generation is, at its deepest level, not so much repugnance at the facts, as it is distress at the attitudes which move it. Though
More than anything else, this is what is responsible for this generation's reluctance to name
worried by this distress, they most often argue or legislate in terms of the facts rather than the
itself, its reluctance to discuss itself as a group, sometimes its reluctance to be itself. For
attitudes. The newspaper reader, studying the eyes of young dope addicts, can only find an
invented gods invariably disappoint those who worship them. Only the need for them goes on,
outlet for his horror and bewilderment in demands that passers be given the electric chair.
and it is this need, exhausting one object after another, which projects the Beat Generation
Sociologists, with a more academic concern, are just as troubled by the legions of young men
forward into the future and will one day deprive it of its beatness.
whose topmost ambition seems to be to find a secure birth in a monolithic corporation. Contemporary historians express mild surprise at the lack of organized movements, political,
Dostoyevski wrote in the early 1880's that 'Young Russia is talking of nothing but the eternal
religious, or otherwise, among the young. The articles they write remind us that being one's
questions now.' With appropriate changes, something very like this is beginning to happen in
own boss and being a natural joiner are two of our most cherished national traits. Everywhere
America, in an American way; a re-evaluation of which the exploits and attitudes of this
people with tidy moralities shake their heads and wonder what is happening to the younger
generation are only symptoms. No single comparison of one generation against another can
accurately measure effects, but it seems obvious that a lost generation, occupied with disillusionment and trying to keep busy among the broken stones, is poetically moving, but not
Perhaps they have not noticed that, behind the excess on the one hand, and the conformity on
very dangerous. But a beat generation, driven by a desperate craving for belief and as yet
the other, lies that wait-and-see detachment that results from having to fall back for support
unable to accept the moderations which are offered it, is quite another matter. Thirty years
more on one's capacity for human endurance than on one's philosophy of life. Not that the
later, after all, the generation of which Dostoyevski wrote was meeting in cellars and making
Beat Generation is immune to ideas; they fascinate it. Its wars, both past and future, were and
will be wars of ideas. It knows, however, that in the final, private moment of conflict a man is really fighting another man, and not an idea. And that the same goes for love. So it is a
This generation may make no bombs; it will probably be asked to drop some, and have some
generation with a greater facility for entertaining ideas than for believing in them. But it is also
dropped on it, however, and this fact is never far from its mind. It is one of the pressures
the first generation in several centuries for which the act of faith has been an obsessive
which created it and will play a large part in what will happen to it. There are those who
problem, quite aside from the reasons for having a particular faith or not having it. It exhibits
believe that in generations such as this there is always the constant possibility of a great new
on every side, and in a bewildering number of facets, a perfect craving to believe.
moral idea, conceived in desperation, coming to life. Others note the self-indulgence, the waste, the apparent social irresponsibility, and disagree.
Though it is certainly a generation of extremes, including both the hipster and the radical young Republican in its ranks, it renders unto Caesar (i.e, society) what is Caesar's and unto
But its ability to keep its eyes open, and yet avoid cynicism; its ever-increasing conviction that
God what is God's. For the wildest hipster, making a mystique of bop, drugs and the night life,
the problem of modern life is essentially a spiritual problem; and that capacity for sudden
there is no desire to shatter the 'square' society in which he lives, only to elude it. To get on a
wisdom which people who live hard and go far possess, are assets and bear watching. And,
soapbox or write a manifesto would seem to him absurd. Looking at the normal world, where
anyway, the clear, challenging faces are worth it.
most everything is a 'drag' for him, he nevertheless says: 'Well, that's the Forest of Arden after all. And even it jumps if you look at it right.' Equally, the young Republican, though often seeming to hold up Babbitt as his culture hero, is neither vulgar nor materialistic, as Babbitt
was. He conforms because he believes it is socially practical, not necessarily virtuous. Both positions, however, are the result of more or less the same conviction -- namely that the valueless abyss of modern life is unbearable.
For beneath the excess and the conformity, there is something other than detachment. There are the stirrings of a quest. What the hipster is looking for in his 'coolness' (withdrawal) or 'flipness' (ecstasy) is, after all, a feeling on somewhereness, not just another diversion. The young Republican feels that there is a point beyond which change becomes chaos, and what he wants is not simply privilege or wealth, but a stable position from which to operate. Both have had enough of homelessness, valuelessness, faithlessness.
The variety and the extremity of their solutions are only a final indication that for today's young people there is not as yet a single external pivot around which they can, as a generation, group their observations and their aspirations. There is no single philosophy, no single party,
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