April 2, 1958
Jack Kerouac Reads from “On The Road”
When the Bolshevik Revolution began in 1917, the capitalistic economies of the world saw the uprising as a threat to their systems. The Bolsheviks challenged the notion of private property, private business, and personal self-determination.
When the nuclear arms race began after World War II, exemplified in particular between the United State and the Soviet Union, propaganda on both sides successfully demonized their enemy.
As Americans the suffix "-ick" became associated with Communism and thus with evil intentions. When Senator Joseph McCarthy announced that he had incontrovertible evidence of Communist infiltration into the government and the arts, he launched hearings through the House Un-American Activities Committee. The Committees hearings and accusations damaged the careers of dozens of American citizens.
A corollary of the US-Soviet arms race was the space race. While on paper it looked like a race to get humans into space, the basis for it was to design rockets to deliver nuclear weapons.
On October 4, 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik 1 and Americans had another Communist -ick to hate (NYT article).
In reaction to the horrors of World War II and the increasing emphasis of the American Dream equaling American Consumerism (the antithesis of Soviet Communism), some young Americans like Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady (future hippie and driver of Furthur), and many others developed a literary view and philosophy that de-emphasized conspicuous consumerism. They deliberately did not fit in. According to Wikipedia, "Jack Kerouac introduced the phrase "Beat Generation" in 1948 to characterize a perceived underground, anti-conformist youth movement in New York."
The Beats were already seen with suspicion when Herb Caen, a well-known and popular San Francisco Examiner columnist, published a column on April 2, 1958. In it he 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."
The term took hold immediately and the San Francisco Beats, already discriminated against, now carried the additional negative Communist association.
Ever ready to take advantage of a popular coinage, the media was able to convert the negative image of the beatnik into one to ridicule and have fun with. The Halloween costume. The TV show The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis in which Bob Denver played Maynard G Krebs, the lazy air-head beatnik. Denver acting career, as successful as it was, never recovered as his even more successful character on Gilligan's Island is simply the same beatnik without the costume.
Beatnik, beatnik, beatnik, beatnik, beatnik, beatnik
- Related link >>> Wikipedia entry on HUAC
- Related link >>> Wikipedia entry on Beat Generation
- Related link >>> San Francisco Gate article