Beatniks and the Roots of Hipsters

This is very generalized and conjecture. I do not know of any real sociological studies of hipsters to work from. If anyone knows any, I will be happy to write another article using them. But also I feel that there are many generalizations about hipsters that are not true. Not all hipsters shop at American Apparel, are wealthy or love Animal Collective. There are hipsters who shop at American Apparel, there are hipsters who are wealthy and there are hipsters who love Animal Collective. If you do all three at the same time, you are probably leaning more towards boring than hipster.

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. TC mark

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  • tracy morgan

    noah cicero tell me when you come out with a nice lighthearted book like this bro

  • http://theopenend.com/ herocious

    Good read.

  • Wiley

    This is really good, Thanks Noah.

  • wjs

    This may seem trivial, but is there an explanation someone could provide for the last couple sentences in the introduction,

    “There are hipsters who shop at American Apparel, there are hipsters who are wealthy and there are hipsters who love Animal Collective. If you do all three at the same time, you are probably leaning more towards boring than hipster.”

    How is doing/being these three things concurrently “boring”? Is any one boring alone, or is it the combination of the three? A friend and I have been debating whether this statement even makes sense and how exactly it is meant. It is the crux of a larger argument we're having.

    • Mat

      When you take it lightheartedly it is just a joke, nothing more in my opinion. But when you start thinking about it as you seem to be doing it makes no sense

      • wjs

        Thanks, Mat. I think you're right.

    • chris r

      the sentence before it, mentions someone who does all three. he then goes on to mention people that just do one of the three, i assume, to show not all “hipsters” like the same shit, so it seems to me, the final sentence in that paragraph kind of ties all of that up with, “if you DO like all three” then yeah… you're cliche, or something. my two cents.

  • Evan

    i really liked this Noah.

  • Joseph Ernest

    “Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs did not go to World War II.” Is a good sentence. Also “viable option for an asian.”

  • Matt

    I think Geoffrey Gatza was a marine or something and he's like, a hipster priest of the post-avant. Or maybe he's just some dorky guy with a mini-monopoly on the word “post-avant” because he uses it as a shameless and proud element of the BlazeVOX paratext, I dunno. I think what I'm mostly trying to say is that I'm utterly opposed to the phrase “the military is for non-artistic people who have no sense of irony” so I tried to do battle with it using a puffed up, grand sounding counter example that I know little about.

  • Madison Moore

    #1) I have never seen an Asian hipster
    #2) “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.”

    OH REALLY?! Something tells me the author hasn't done his research, has not read a little article that appeared on The Root (http://www.theroot.com/views/rise-black-hipster) and a similar article on the black hipster that aired in the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/28/fashion/28Blipsters.html). Nor has the author ever heard of bands like TV on the Radio, or people like Kele Okereke, Jimmy Hendrix, Shingai Shoniwa of The Noisettes, Solange Knowles, Pharell Williams, hasn't seen the movie RIZE, isn't familiar with the movement of young black youths in places like NYC and LA who wear bright colors, gold jewelry and oh I could just go on forever…

    • Noah Cicero

      Hello this is Noah Cicero. Madison thank you for suggesting those articles. I read both of them and like them very much. I stated at the beginning of the article that the article was conjecture. I know several African-American hipsters and know who TV on the Radio is and like them very much. And Jimi Hendrix is my favorite musician. But my minor is Sociology and have had to do learn how to do statistics and I believe that African-American hipsters would be outliers outside of the box. I mean if I made a boxplot graph using the racial and ethnic demographics hipsters I believe that African-Americans would fall outside of the boxes.

  • http://staugustine2.wordpress.com/ Steven Augustine

    “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.”

    There's always option Z) which is “don't invade other countries for domestic political/monetary reasons just because you fucking can”. You make it sound as though it's inevitable or even right that American troops will be driving tanks up and down the side streets of sad little villages around the Middle East anyway, so, wouldn't it be cooler if Hipsters were driving those tanks, blaring Grizzly Bear and The Dirty Projectors over the PA and also sort of asking permission before raping and shooting the hot chicks at the village well?

    I will not even address the friendly racism or ambiguities-in-meaning-due-to-grammar-problems in this article; don't even need to. But the crypto-hawkishness is srsly fucked up. Go shoot some squirrels if you want To Be A Man. Or, better yet, punch a Hipster.

    • Brittanyjwallace

      lol

  • Dan

    the original hipster was as boundless as the jazz they self described

  • Shanehleach

    i think you dont know what you are talking about but ok

  • http://www.yahoo.com Alec Baldwin

    You think it is bad that young creative people are choosing not to kill people in the name of a country….

  • Chelsea

    Man, everybody is getting all upset and taking this so incredibly seriously. I thought it was interesting and entertaining. No need to get all up in a tizzy guys…

  • http://twitter.com/michaelmallette Michael Mallette

    This really could have been written with much more thought, research and sounded less ignorant, generalized and statistical.

  • http://newhandsweepstakes.com/contributors/brian-mcelmurry/ Brian McElmurry

    When I think of hipsters, I think of the 50's Beatniks. Interesting fact, the word Beatnik came from a newspaper writer. He wrote it in 57' at the same time as the Beats and the 1st Russian satelite “Sputnik” happened, so he added the “nik” to “beat” to imply some Communist connection. The Beats preffered the word Beat, meaning beatitude, a Catholic reference, and to be beat-down, taken from street-hustler/junky Herbert Hunke.

    I'm sure Noah knew this.

    Also, Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady shared their women. If you look at the bios and “Big Sur,” Jack is always fucking Neal's girlfriends and wives; mostly because Neal set it up. Jack claimed to love Carolyn Cassidy, and while Jack lived with Neal and wife in Los Gatos, CA, Jack and Carolyn often had sex when Neal was away. Jack Kerouac also had an affair with John Clellon Holmes wife (he's the author of “Go”). Jack liked to have relations with married women because he was poor and couldn't support a child, or himself for many years.

    Also another interesting fact. In Tom Wolfes “Electric Acid Kool Aid Test” where he writes about Ken Kesey's compound, and his friendship with the Hell's Angel. And at one of the acid-parties, attended by Neal Cassidy, Carolyn Cassidy (his wife, or just divorced wife), Hunter S. Thompson and the rest of the Merry Pranksters–there was a gang bang that Tom Wolfe writes about, and that Hunter S. Thompson had recorded audio of. Tom Wolfe doesn't say it, but the women who is having sex with a series of the Hell's Angels is Neal Cassidy's wife, Caorlyn Cassidy. In the book Wolfe writes that the ex-husband/husband didn't care, and that the women was willing. I saw a documentary which filled in the blank. Tom Wolfe said he was very careful to leave that out. But you know what happens at an acid-test, stays at an acid-test–until forty years later and there is a documentary.

    Enjoyed the article too!

  • Christian Mirande

    the last paragraph; where did you get the information to make that assertion? i'm curious because i like the stranglers and sonic youth and i wear stripes on my sleeve once a month. what would you like your military to look like? a force that is monolithic in every way (which is what you seem to assume it is anyway), or a diverse and representative force (which, i would offer, it is)?

  • Brian

    this is such a stupid article. nobody wants to be jammed into the same lame group that's been around since the 20's and has lost all meaning. that would be like if in 50 years jocks are viewed as academic perfectionists again. it's just not gonna happen. likewise, nobody wants to be grouped into a clique known for being unanimously “not cool… enough”. dumb article. waste of time, and research. no wonder you had little to work with.

  • Cucumber

    Perfect deadpan, really caught me off guard.

  • Boboshakespeare14

    I would argue that most of the hipsters out there are more closely related to yuppies than to beatniks; they are, almost, urbanized hippies; often white, highly educated, and (like almost all youth social groups) defiant of their parents, who figured out that 'monkey suits' and the office jobs that go along with them are 'lame'. The roots of hipsters are more, I think, in the 90s than in the 50s.
    By the way, Noah Cicero, I am also from Youngstown and very impressed by your work. I'm studying literature and would hope to work in it someday, but realize the difficulties.

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