Pulp fiction may be fun to think about and the books’ covers are a delight, but the contents almost always get it wrong – especially when it comes to the Hippies and the Beats
It is a rule of nature, or at least of the marketplace, that whenever something cool comes along, the mainstream will find some way to put it down and/or coopt it. Take punk, for example. What started as a blanket rejection of the bloated and boring status quo, in music, fashion and language became New Wave, pre-ripped, multi-zippered designer jeans and limited-edition crocodile-skinned brothel creepers.
Or “hippie.” Before the so-called Summer of Love, there was no such entity as “hippie.” That was a construct of the mainstream media, likely a play on “hipster” and coined by God knows who—certainly not the people who it was intended to define. It was probably a confluence of sources—clueless squares, worried parents, members of the Rat Pack trying to infantilize young people who appeared to be having a better time than they were (Let’s face it: A lot of cultural prejudice derives from envy). Then Charles Manson came along and the media had a Satanic longhair with which to transform “hippie” from naïve and trippy to violent and evil. So it goes.
Or how about the generation prior to “hippie”? The Beats. What had begun in the late 1940s in the bars, jazz clubs, coffee shops and studios of New York and on the highways between the East and West coasts as an earnest attempt to define a newly emerging underground spirit in America, with its attendant arts and letters and style and language, had turned into a media caricature by the late 1950s. That caricature was of a babbling, bearded, beret-sporting “beatnik.”
The term itself, “beatnik,” was coined by Herb Caen, a gossip columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. He was mocking the suburban hipsters flooding into San Francisco on the weekends and making it hard for him to find a table at his favorite North Beach watering holes. Caen was riffing off the name Sputnik, the satellite launched by the Soviet Union in October 1957 that further fanned the breezes of the Cold War.
On April 2, 1958, months after Sputnik was launched, Caen wrote, “Look magazine, preparing a picture spread on San Francisco’s Beat Generation (oh, no, not AGAIN!), hosted a party in a North Beach house for 50 Beatniks, and by the time word got around the sour grapevine, over 250 bearded cats and kits were on hand, slopping up Mike Cowles’s free booze. They’re only Beat, y’know, when it comes to work.”
By associating “beatnik” with “Sputnik,” it also allowed the media to imply that these shiftless bohemians might secretly be Commies.
The process reached its zenith with Maynard G. Krebs (“the ‘G’ is silent”), the sidekick of the title character in The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, a popular sitcom that ran on CBS from 1959 to 1963. However, as subversively portrayed by the sweet-tempered Bob Denver (later Gilligan), Maynard G. Krebs was not easily manipulated into the stereotype the Military-Industrial Complex (Eisenhower’s perfectly coined phrase) really wanted. How could Maynard G. Krebs possibly pose a threat to national security?
Maynard was really a proto-hippie—and certainly the only thing memorable about that otherwise ridiculous TV show. He was horrified by three things: work, marriage, and the cops. Yet he is a gentle soul who does things like collect petrified frogs and tinfoil and is obsessed with the movie The Monster that Devoured Cleveland. By the end of Dobie Gillis’s four-year run, Maynard pretty much took over the show because his character was far more interesting, appealing and likeable than the strait-laced, future-accountant or future-real-estate-developer Dobie. In some ways, Maynard was THE transitional popular culture figure between the beatniks and the hippies. (For what it’s worth, TV Guide has ranked him 22 on the 50 Greatest TV Characters list).
Where the beatnik stereotype really flourished was in the pulp fiction of the day. Publishers conflated every negative sociological trend in America, including juvenile delinquency, with the beatniks, though the original Beats were all in their 30s by the time the media caught up with them.
Check out these lurid paperback covers.
Take this novel by Albert Zugsmith. He was so confident in his fictional portrait that he simply called his novel The Beat Generation. According to its cover blurb, Zugsmith’s novel is about “the restless, jaded men and women, with no aim in life except a new sensation—drugs, ‘way-out’ jazz, perverted sex, actual crime.” The main character—the head beatnik, as it were—is a rapist.
Could any depiction of the Beat Generation be less authentic than this? Well, yes, in fact. The movie BASED on Zugsmith’s novel, by the same name, fills that bill more than adequately.
The Beat Generation film was rescued by Maila Nurmi (who later gained fame as Vampira) reading a beatnik poem.
Another poetess, played by the lovely Philippa Fallon, recited a beatnik poem, “Tomorrow is a King-Sized Drag,” in the teen-sploitation flick High School Confidential (1958). The film was produced by the ubiquitous Zugsmith.
Or, how about A Body for McHugh? Featuring a temptress who “was beautiful, beat, loaded for love.” But…wait…what’s this? “Why did the Mafia want her dead?” How did the Mafia get into this beatnik idyll? All this book needed was a swastika on the cover and you’d have the trifecta of pulp fiction pandering: sex, violence and Nazis.
Or, Pads Are for Passion by “Sheridan Lord,” a pen name of Lawrence Block who went on to fame and riches as a mystery novelist. Pads features Anita who “was a virgin—till the hipsters got hold of her!” and is “an uncensored novel of love among the Beats.”
Even Jack Kerouac, the so-called “King of the Beats,” was given this treatment in the paperback editions of his massively popular On the Road, The Dharma Bums and The Subterraneans.
The front-jacket blurb on the first paperback edition of On the Road, which came out in early 1958, tried to cater to rock ‘n’ roll generation. After all, in 1958, rock ‘n’ roll was in its ascendancy, dominating the charts and sending the lounge crooners and Rat Pack to the bottom of the charts. Young people were not clamoring to see Kerouac’s jazz gods Charley Parker or Max Roach nor were they looking for epiphanies in the words and antics of Slim Gaillard, Lord Buckley and Dizzy Gillespie. Elvis was the new King and his court included Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry. By late 1958, though, Elvis was in the Army, Jerry Lee Lewis’s career was paralyzed by scandal for his marriage to his 13-year-old cousin and Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper were dead in a plane crash.
Still, the book’s blurb states, “the explosive bestseller that tells all about today’s wild youth and their frenetic search for Experience and Sensation.” The back jacket blurb takes it further: “Wild drives across America…buying cars, wrecking cars, stealing cars, dumping cars, picking up girls, making love, all-night drinking bouts…wild parties, hot spots…This is the odyssey of the Beat Generation, the frenetic young men and their women restlessly racing from New York to San Francisco, from Mexico to New Orleans in a frantic search—for Kicks and Truth.” Time magazine called it, “A kind of literary James Dean.”
These blurbs, of course, bear little resemblance to the actual contents of the book’s narrative or the lives of any of the Beats. But the media was, by this time, folding everything into the beatnik box, including juvenile delinquency, leather jackets, switch blades, James Dean and Marlon Brando. The “Beat Generation” was not unlike a semantic vacuum cleaner, pulling all manner of rebellion together in one place. Even motorcycle rebels like Brando’s character or leather-jacketed juvenile delinquents like James Dean and Sal Mineo in Rebel without a Cause (1955) were pulled into the beatnik orbit, partly because the label gave the media something around which to weave narratives of youthful rebellion.
Like the “hippie” banner of the 1960s, the term “Beat”—in the eyes of the mainstream media—came to include anything maladjusted, inarticulate, rebellious, lazy and/or delinquent and threatening.
The caricature of the babbling, bearded beatnik was captured, satirically, by the brilliant Del Close, as “Geets Romo,” on an album with John Brent, How to Speak Hip.
“Field Trip No. 1”
Bulwinkle helpfully offers his thoughts on “How to be a Beatnik”:
The ultimate indignity was to be put down by another cartoon, Rod McKuen, the worst poet to ever reach a wide audience in world history.
Here’s McKuen’s attempt at beatnik-bashing humor, “No Pictures, Please”: