Beatniks and the Roots of Hipsters
In his essay “The White Negro,” Norman Mailer considered hipsters alienated and mentally destroyed by the Depression, World War II, Eisenhower’s obsession with conformity and total nuclear war with Russia. Mailer’s essay is very pretty and sometimes illuminating but I don’t feel like going down that route.
The modern hipster has its roots in the Beatniks, or mainly the top three Beatniks: Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. I would like to focus on their social values and not their art exactly.
William S. Burroughs was a homosexual, a drug addict, mostly apolitical, college educated and a dead beat dad.
Allen Ginsberg was a homosexual, did some drugs, and was political to the extent that he thought the Vietnam War should be stopped. Ginsberg had no kids and attended college.
Jack Kerouac was straight, non-racist and apolitical for the most part. He had a kid but was also a dead beat dad.
Those are obvious behaviors of those men. But to go deeper, they loved music. Mainly jazz. They loved artistic expression, and they loved different cultures and what they could learn from them. They loved sitting in bars and coffee houses talking endlessly for hours, and they loved having their own clothing styles.
They believed in serial monogamy. They believed that it was fine that people had sex before marriage and lived with people out of wedlock who they were having sex with, gay or straight. They also believed in not being racist and promoting the health and well-being of African Americans.
This was all revolutionary in terms of traditional American culture in the 40s and 50s.
What the Beats did not love or did not cherish was the American military or the Christian religion. Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs did not go to World War II. Kerouac and Burroughs went into the military, but both were released with psychological problems.
We do not recognize this today, but probably one of the main things that brought the Beats together was the fact that they did not fight in World War II. Take one look at the autobiographies of writers who came out in the 50s and the line is easily seen.
On one side are the Beatniks, who never went to the military, and on the other Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, Joseph Heller, James Jones and Richard Yates, all of whom participated in World War II. As a man, not going to the war during that time was a sign of shame and loathing. What Norman Mailer does not mention is that the Beats were alienated like African-Americans because of their lack of military service.
Another key factor was the Beatniks’ lack of concern for Christianity. The Beatniks besides Kerouac threw Christianity away. They became Buddhist like Ginsberg or believed in drugs like Burroughs.
The modern hipster maintains these same beliefs or this same paradigm. The modern hipster paradigm is that joining the military is lame. That the military is for non-artistic people who have no sense of irony. The modern hipster also believes that Christianity isn’t something to be taken seriously. The modern hipster has no religion, it just lives on this planet walking around aimlessly keeping themselves busy with work and artistic projects.
This is why there are so many Asian hipsters: in general Asian-Americans do not join the U.S. Military, care about American politics, the history of America or the Christian religion. They believe in serial monogamy because they haven’t had the Christian tradition slammed down their throats for 2,000 years like the Europeans have. The Asian-American grows up on the American landscape and seeks out other people with similar beliefs and they find the hipsters, who have similar value structures. And since hipsters are not xenophobic like many people in America, becoming a hipster is a viable option for an Asian.
This is also why many African Americans and Latinos do not choose to become hipsters—because Christianity and military service are respected values in their communities.
I think some writers could mention the hipster’s obsession with clothes or music, but every American subculture has an obsession with defining themselves with clothes and music. That is just being American.
Hipsters, generally, are people who feel lost amongst the millions of humans that live in America. There are 300 million Americans. You have to find a place in the country, and if you don’t, you are alone. Most hipsters I assume were in junior high or high school and felt that life was somewhat absurd or weird. They got ‘weirded out’ by life and wanted to escape into something and found the arts. They didn’t understand American racism or America’s obsession with the ancient Jesus character. They also found that the idea of cultural relativism, the scientific method and general positivist thinking made more sense than basing one’s thoughts strictly on one’s cultural traditions and the Bible.
The thing that saddens is the lack of military participation of the hipsters. This is the fault of the military being homophobic and completely against the arts. So as Allen Ginsberg would say, “the best minds of my generation,” or the most creative minds of our generation, aren’t participating in the military. From how Iraq and Afghanistan have turned out, creative minds are obviously in need.
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