Politics and the Beat Generation


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January 28, 1959, Vol. IV, No. 14

The Beat Generation

By Jerry Hopkins

“The beat smokes marijuana, chews piote, and drives a motorcycle because he wants to live by experience,” the speaker said. “The only way he can define himself in his society is through experience. This proves that he is alive.”

The speaker was David McReynolds, editorial secretary of Liberation magazine and last November’s Socialist candidate in the 19th Congressional District. He was lecturing January 15 on “Politics and the Beat Generation” at Columbia University.

“The beats are looking for reality and want to relate themselves to it,” he continued. “They are looking for honesty and integrity. But they say: ‘What is the point of being a reasonable person in a world which could cease tomorrow?”

McReynolds said the cold war created the beat generation. How is a person supposed to act, he asked, when he lives in a time when total war could end civilization at any moment…

McReynolds, only half a dozen years older than many of the students in his audience, said there was a real religious significance in the beat generation. The religion, he quoted Norman Mailer as saying, was a search, a “search for meaning in life.”

This search is not just American, he added. The beat generation is an international generation. In Poland, jazz concerts have been attended religiously, the Socialist said, and in England pre-New Orleans jazz called skiffle has become popular.

“Jazz has had political interest for many of us for many years,” he said. “The cool sounds, the intensity with which people attend concerts—this is similar to the intensity that surrounded rebellion in the 20s and radical political interests in the 30s.

But the beats in America have disengaged themselves from politics,” the lecturer said. “They have rejected all effective political action because they haven’t seen any leadership they think is worth following.”

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