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The Word is Beat: Jazz, Poetry & the Beat Generation

Jakob Baekgaard By

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However, the word was already in circulation among Beat-personalities like Herbert Huncke who used it to describe a certain state of mind, meaning tired, without money or a place to stay, like "do you have any money? No, I'm beat." The word was related to the outsiders in society, those having a hard time getting by, but at the same time, they were kind of streetwise people. In Beat circles, the word also had a more optimistic ring to it, something Kerouac pointed out when he connected beat with "beatific" and "beatitude," meaning a state of utmost happiness and bliss. The double-meaning of the word accurately describes the complex state of being beat, which means that, at the same time, you can be nakedly sensitive, rejected from society, full of existential despair, and still be wildly enthusiastic about the world, trying to see and describe it in all its diversity, spirituality and poetic beauty.

Of course, the mass media did not get the nuances in the word. Instead, it was often twisted in a negative direction where being beat was seen as something negative, with the beatnik being portrayed stereotypically as an unintelligent loser who spoke in a funny language that was ridiculed, an unemployed artist-type pothead with a goatee and a beret and without a sense of direction in life.

The Beat Muses: Huncke & Cassady

The Beat way of life was far more complex than the reduced media image. Two of the pioneers of Beat living, and a profound inspiration to Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs, were Herbert Huncke and Neal Cassady. They were both storytellers, who also wrote and were published, but they were not actual authors as such. Instead, their writing came as a byproduct of their intense living. It is not a coincidence that both of them wrote biographies, although Cassady never finished his. His book The First Third (1971), as the title implies, only told about the first third of his life, and one could be tempted to say that he was too busy living to write his own biography. Huncke also wrote about his life in a book with the revealing title Guilty of Everything (1990), but these works were not as influential as Cassady's epic letters from his many journeys and Huncke's raw stories, scribbled down on the toilet.

Huncke and Cassady had the thing in common that they were influenced by oral language. Their writing was uncensored, mixing high and low style, literary and colloquial language that included slang and swearwords. This authentic, uncensored, flowing language became an immense inspiration to Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs, but they took different things from these writers since Huncke and Cassady talked in two different ways and portrayed two different worlds.

Huncke, a junkie and a hustler, was first and foremost a city-dweller. He was the hero of the streets, a genuine con man who lived and depicted life in the city. He was a cool talker whose reports from the underworld influenced the nightmarish and surreal junkie-tales of William S. Burroughs.

Cassady, on the other hand, was the fast and smooth talker, "the Adonis of Denver" as Allen Ginsberg called him, with a voracious appetite for adventure and sex. He was the journeyman with a car as his home and the whole scenery of America as his setting. He became a role model for Kerouac, who portrayed him as Dean Moriarty in the quintessential Beat novel On the Road (1957), and who modelled his style of writing on Cassady's rambling letters.

Themes of the Beat Generation

The less than ordinary lives of Huncke and Cassady point in the direction of some of the most important themes of the Beat Generation: travelling and exploration (both the inner and outer journey), spirituality, sexual liberation (including gay liberation), drugs, freedom and revolt against capitalism, the literary establishment and middle class values. The literature of the beat generation takes the perspective of the outsider and the discriminated, whether it is the drug addicts, the insane, the poor, the homosexuals, the artists or the Afro-Americans. In spite of this progressive approach, the movement was quite patriarchal when it came to women, who were often abandoned and seen as sexual objects. The Beat Generation was predominately a male movement, even though writers like Diana DiPrima, Joyce Johnson and Carolyn Cassady provided a welcome female perspective.

Jazz and the Style of the Beat Generation


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