10 Apr All You Should Know About Beatniks

The other day, the college students I teach informed me that they had never heard of beatniks. If you’re as old as I, you may find this surprising, even confounding. I assume, as you probably assume, that — immersed as they are in the high-tide of internet information — these kids know most elements of pop culture. What could be more fundamentally pop-cultural than the beatniks?

Granted, the beats were a long time ago, actually even before my time, but they were so integral to our stock of stereotypes for so long, it’s hard to believe they have disappeared finally as a point of reference. To give my students a clear snapshot of the beatnik, I played a clip of Maynard G. Krebs from “The Dobie Gillis” show — one of my early childhood TV favorites: I watched Maynard and Dobie re-runs every day. Maynard, you may recall, was played by Bob Denver — AKA Gilligan of “Gilligan’s Island,” which I also watched as a child.

With his goatee and ratty sweatshirt and hipster talk (“like, dig it!”) and aversion to work (“Work!”) and passion for jazz, Maynard epitomized the counter-culture circa 1960. But he wasn’t at all threatening. More than a decade old by this time, the beatniks had been domesticated, reduced to this comic character: little more than a benign bum. It was clear that they weren’t insidious like the Commies or even competitive. In fact, they seemed as passive as zoo animals. Children were playing beatniks for Halloween. And jazz? That was dismissable too. You might as well recite the periodic table of elements. What scared middle America was rock and roll and all the bad boys that came with it: Elvis Presley and his ilk. And that’s why American teens turned to big hair, big cars, and the new sound. Rockers were about sex. Beatniks were about, well, it wasn’t clear: poetry? dance? theater?

Nonetheless, the beatnik influence was tremendous.
1) Their dressing down aniticpated the way the hippies would dress down and, ultimately, the punks.

2) Their facial hair anticipated all the hairy experiments of the ’60s and 70s.

3) The beatnik male allowed teenaged boys to care about painting, literature, and theater — a role model that would help nuture many significant male artists, like Mick Jagger, who got his start as an art student.

4) The beatnik female allowed teenaged girls to pursue the intellectual life. (Despite the beats’ obvious sexism, their notion of liberation had its effects on gender roles.)

5) Beatniks were countercultural enough to embrace racial equality.

6) Beatniks pioneered spoken word and performance art, which (among white folk) would influence rap.

7) Beatniks, unlike the rock-n-rollers, were protestors who influenced the folkies like Bob Dylan (he hung out with Allen Ginsberg): you can hear beat poetry in songs like “Highway 61”

8) Beatniks place a premium on reading and writing — and made poetry accessible (seemingly easy) and relevant (topical) — and, as a result, helped launch a thousand would-be American writers, some of whom made good on that dream.

Even though my students don’t know about beatniks, the beat aesthetic lives on in these kids’ retro fashions: berets, leotards, black tights, ballet flats, oversized sweaters, porkpie hats, sandals with long pants, all-black outfits, Wayfarer sunglasses (worn indoors), soul patches, and so on. And coffee shops: the beats made the coffee shop a cultural center for youngsters, and so it remains today. So let’s celebrtate the beatniks. Though they are long gone, daddy-o, we can still feel their groove.