The Subculture of the Beats: A Sociological Revisit

By van Elteren, Men | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

The Subculture of the Beats: A Sociological Revisit


van Elteren, Men, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


Introduction

Much has been written about the literary works and life-histories of key figures of the Beat Generation: Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, William S. Burroughs, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, John Clellon Holmes, Gary Snyder, and others (for overviews, see Charters, "The Beats," and Penguin Book of the Beats). More recently, lesser-known figures in the literary Beat movement (including women and black Beats) have also been studied more closely from such a perspective (Knight; Lee, Beat Generation). Many intimate details about the vicissitudes of daily life within the inner circle of the Beats, and their interactions with the outside world, have been disclosed. These historical "facts" are now well established, but little has been done in terms of assessing the movement sociologically. With the benefit of historical hindsight based on increased scholarly understanding of cultural developments in the United States during the 1950s and early 1960s, it may be worthwhile to look back at the Beats from a sociological perspective,1 despite the explicit admonition against such "sociologizing" written by a Beat poet in 1959 (JOY). On the other hand, we will seek to go beyond an observer's view at the time who found it hard to imagine that Kerouac's writings "in the far future" would be read for anything except sociology: "this is what it was like to bum around the country with junkies and supposed Zen addicts; this is what it was like to live in a typical Beatnik's pad; this is what it was like to be sent by a Charlie Parker record, and so on" (Moore 385). Undoubtedly, the writings of Kerouac and other Beats can stand on their own, having intrinsic literary merits, but this essay is not concerned so much with the aesthetic qualities of Beat artistic products. Instead, the primary focus is on the Beat subculture and its constituting enclaves and scenes. Borrowing partly from contemporary sources and critical studies of autobiographical and selfreflective writings by participants, an analysis will be made of the basic sociological characteristics of the Beat underground.

First, I will introduce the Beats as a Bohemian subculture and expressive social movement. Second, I will take a closer look at the intricate interplay between the media images and the "real" identities of the Beats, because of the former's impact on the Beats' life-world. Third, I will elaborate on the Beats' ethos (beliefs, values and attitudes), through a critical revisit of a sociological analysis of the Beats done at the time. This will be followed by a similar analysis of the substance of the Beats' cultural practices. Last, I will present my conclusions about the Beats as a complex sociocultural phenomenon.

A Bohemian Subculture and Expressive Social Movement

From a historical and sociological perspective, the Beats were a part of post-World War II Bohemian culture in the U.S. and constituted a subcultural movement that opposed "square," bourgeois culture; the Beats dubbed people "squares" whom previous Bohemians called "Philistines" and "bourgeoises" (Moore 378). In various respects, the Beats were a continuation of a Bohemian movement that has an extended history in itself. More generally, Bohemians can be defined as persons who as writers or artists are living an unconventional life usually in a colony with others (Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary 124). Bohemianism as such has always had a strong affiliation with the development of avant-garden as movements within art; significantly, Bohemia has been called the "underworld of art" (Snyderman and Josephs). Historically, there have also been interrelationships between artistic and sociopolitical vanguards which have tended both to converge and to diverge from each other. The Bohemian culture itself "is characterized by an active, though perhaps, irregular communalism and group dynamic. In this sense, the Bohemian subculture can also be read in terms of a movement, or an interwoven artistic community" (Allan 257. …

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