The Philosophy of the Beats

The Philosophy of the Beats

The Philosophy of the Beats

The Philosophy of the Beats

Excerpt

The great historian of ideas Arthur O. Lovejoy once wrote: “The word ‘romantic’ has come to mean so many things that, by itself, it means nothing. It has ceased to perform the function of a verbal sign.” One could say the same about the word “Beat.” “Beat” encompasses such an array of meanings and contexts—cultural, social, literary, political, and philosophical—that an exact definition of the term is hard to establish. Still, we might follow Lovejoy’s trajectory. He notes that the term “Romantic” is best defined by the set of German thinkers, poets, and authors who first used it to describe not only their literary and aesthetic styles, but also their styles of life. Likewise, we may define “Beat” and its several cognates, “beatnik,” “beat-i-tude,” “beat generation,” “beat,” by the group of writers who, similarly, utilized the term to describe both their literary styles and styles of life. Since the word “Beat” refers to both a literary movement and a lifestyle, it may be helpful to use the term Beat with an uppercase B to describe the writers grouped under the genre of Beat, either willfully or not, and beat with a lowercase b to describe the lifestyle and sentiments expressed by Beat authors and adopted by those known as beat to create perhaps the most enduring American subculture to date.

The best-known Beat writers are Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs. Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs met near Columbia University in New York City in the early 1940s. John Clellon Holmes, Gregory Corso, and LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) were also among their ranks, along with the street hustler Herbert Huncke and Neal Cassady, who served to inspire the above writers. Ann Charters traces the original source of the term “beat” to jazz musicians and hustlers in post–World War II New York, who used it to characterize the lifestyles of the down-and-out, poor, exhausted, and beat-up. Burroughs first heard the term used by Huncke . . .

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