"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness," howled Allen Ginsberg in 1955, and with those words redirected the gaze of American literati from the sun-dappled tract houses of Levittown to smoky Greenwich Village coffeehouses. The Beats — who were so-named not only to evoke the rhythms of jazz and poetry, but also the feeling of being beat up by life and the beatific possibility of transcending ordinary reality — have become immortalized as the opposition to the supposed vacuous nothing at the core of the 1950s American soul, an alternative ethos to 2.3 children and a mortgage. (Not, of course, that they were any more evolved in their treatment of women than were
men in mainstream America, as they also expected their wives and girlfriends to perform the traditional roles of cook and housemaid, and often those of breadwinner and pistol target, as well.)
Rather than Norman Rockwell’s cardboard cutouts of America, the loose-knit group of writers, which was initially composed of Ginsberg, Lucien Carr, William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, painted a picture of dirty, imperfect beings who sweated, bled, ran from their demons with the aid of various mind-altering substances, and, in the tradition of the Marxists, the Anarchists and other angry young men, gave at least the illusion of footloose sexuality. Even worse, several of the Beats, most notably Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Kerouac, were unashamedly gay or bisexual.
None of this was a particularly new or original way to rebel. The idea of the battle between the Artist and Society as spectator sport goes all the way back to the Romantics. Indeed, "Bohemian" culture, which may be defined as the tendency of relatively well-off youth to rebel against their parents by self-consciously posing as starving intellectuals, may be said with some degree of truth to go back to the wandering medieval scholar-poets known as Goliards or even that Holden Caulfield of the first century B.C.E., Catullus. The word took on its modern meaning in Paris of the 1830s, where Victor Hugo organized his "romantic army" of disaffected young bourgeois
café-goers and Henry Murger and George Sand made their names by writing about the lifestyles of the poor and obscure (the young idealists were called "bohemian" because Bohemia, in the modern Czech Republic, was then in a state of nationalistic political uproar). Even in their poverty, though, these Parisian proto-bohemians were eminently genteel: Disdaining money to produce art for art’s sake was an upper-class conceit; professional craftsmen were more concerned with earning enough for their next meal.
Though they went nowhere Byron hadn’t gone before, the Beats, who had coalesced around that bastion of upper-class respectability, Columbia University, were blessed with an intuitive ability to exploit this archetype. "With the exception of the early Allen Ginsberg, the Beat writers were essentially celebrity-artists, Hemingways minus the extraordinary talent, whose ‘immortality’ was insured not by their work but by their lifestyle," Maura Mahoney neatly observed in that sublime volume of cultural criticism, Thomas Frank and Matt Weiland’s Commodify Your Dissent. As much as the amphetamine-fueled, twenty-day stream-of-consciousness typing session in which Kerouac created the first, 120-foot-long typescript of On the Road may be redolent of some cosmic ejaculation from a primitive creation myth, the book wound up being published because Kerouac had his well-connected friends put the manuscript on the desk of an editor at Viking, the eminent literary critic Malcolm Cowley — quite a difference from Fitzgerald’s postage stamp and a prayer. Cowley, for his part, was interested in Kerouac not only as a writer, but as a conduit to hipness: “I wanted him to show me the new dives in Greenwich Village with which I was totally unfamiliar, not having been a Villager for twenty years,” as he later remarked about his would-be protégé.
Cowley’s remark is telling. Whereas the reality of being a disaffected, impoverished writer who supposedly loves his or her art more than he or she loves money may, as I can attest, suck, the identity of being a "Villager" is of utmost importance. The mythical bohemian, so in love with his or her world of ideas that he or she can exist on moonbeams and cheap wine, liberated both from the workaday world and bourgeois sexual hang-ups, is a seductive myth we have bought into as whole-heartedly as we have that of romantic love. After all, it combines the sexiest aspects of two competing myths — that of Plato’s transcendental philosophical lover, and (because bohemianism, at least in our fantasies, is a temporary state — at a certain point, it simply becomes "refusing to grow up" — and starving artists inevitably make it big) the promise of later material
prosperity and social status. Little wonder, then, that the Beats eventually became a marketing gimmick for khaki pants and espresso, or that Starbucks entertains its patrons with elevator music that might be mistaken for jazz by the culture- or hearing-impaired. The identity of the urban hipster has become just another choice in consumption for those in need of self-transformation.
Despite its artificiality, our image of the bohemian lifestyle has become so pervasive that we have come to take it for granted that the creator of any work of artistic genius must have produced it by slaving away in some cheap garret located in a colorful neighborhood filled with strangely dressed individuals — and we take it for granted, as well, that young professionals, trying to "make it" in the Big City at romantic careers such as graphic design or bond trading, will forgo creature comforts such as apartments large enough to turn around in. This is the real accomplishment of the Beats: to inextricably intertwine in mainstream American consciousness the concepts of artistic bohemianism and that of the state of being an unmarried person in an urban area, and to establish this lifestyle as an antithesis to the notion of married, suburban bourgeois respectability. Looking back more than half a century later, the Beat movement seems more and more like just another marketing trick to drive up real-estate prices and sell would-be intelligentsia the illusion of being avant-garde — the café society equivalent of prefab rock ‘n’ roll rebels. n°
©2007 Ken Mondschein and Nerve.com
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|Ken Mondschein is a Ph.D candidate at Fordham University and the author of A History of Single Life.|