What is the Beat Generation?


Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.

February 19, 1958, Vol. III, No. 17

Which Definition of Beat?

Dear Sir:

As a probably Square who is not in the swim of Village social life at any level, I am hopelessly confused about the phenomenon known as the Beat Generation.

In your February 5 issue H.B. Lutz leaves the impression that Beats are identified with jazz, dope, indifferent sex, and a frenetic hedonism. That he finally characterizes the Beat as a (young) Square is a puzzling conclusion, as it seems a pure logical contradiction in terms.

In the same issue we find a Mr. A. Rosenberg (Letters to the Editor) referring to the Beat Generation in both quotes and the past tense. As I understand this writer, the Real Beat became passe “say six years ago.” Does Mr. Rosenberg mean that contemporary, practicing Beats are frauds, i.e., non-beat Beats?

Mike Wallace’s interviews with Jack Kerouac and Philip Lamentia (New York Post, January 21 and 22) serve only to baffle further. Mr. Kerouac here describes Beats as unique types of mystics who “love everything” yet are in despair over the “heavy burden of life.” Mr. Lamentia, in contrast, exhibits almost a Cheerful-Cherub sort of optimism. He speaks of beatness as an off-beat form of Christianity which synchronizes belief in traditional theological figures with jazz, marijuana, and mystic ecstasy. Lamentia’s claim to mysticism seems a contradiction of Lutz’ contention that the Beats are hedonistically oriented.

Finally, a Villager who would swear by his hipness and who purports to know personally classic Beat types classifies them as “pseudo-junkies.” The Beats, my informant insists, believe in nothing, do nothing, and have neither the courage to take narcotics nor the imagination to deny taking them.

These very few examples give evidence that the term “Beat Generation” means very different things to different people. How then, is it possible to communicate meaningfully about this socio-cultural phenomenon? What is the Beat Generation? Where is the Beat headquarters in New York? Could a statistically significant sample of beat-generation heads be counted? Or is the beat generation a lucrative, transitory myth invented by a few clever eccentrics to titillate the imagination and loosen the purse strings of the ideological Square slummer?

I. Horowitz

Jane Street

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]