Portrait of the Beatnik

eyeballs$$$Discovered in the June 1959 issue of Encounter, edited by Stephen Spender and Melvin J Lasky, is this extraordinary pen portrait by Caroline Freud of that fifties phenomenon the Beatnik.

Subtitled a ‘letter from America ‘the article is ostensibly a view of the Beatnik from an American perspective, and indeed it would probably have made  greater sense to someone who was studying  the Beat movement as it was developing in fifties America, than it would to a casual observer of the scene in the UK. However, looking back at it today, as a piece of social anthropology, it is fascinating. It is particularly interesting to see how the argot of the beatnik in 1959 had so much in common with that of the hippy movement, both here and in America, that flourished from around 1966.

In this regard, it is significant that certain words which originated with the beatniks –such as ‘ cat ‘ , ‘dig ‘, ‘ wigs ‘, ‘ wail’, ‘ bends’ and ‘ muggles ‘ had dropped out of use by the mid sixties, whereas other beatnik slang, notably ‘ chick’, ‘ far out’, ‘pad’,‘ split’, ‘ square ‘ etc continued to be popular within the hippy culture, and indeed has become accepted today. I don’t know whether other terms, notably ‘ down beat ‘, ‘ and ‘hustle’ ( which has changed its meaning slightly from doing paid work to looking for opportunities to do something, not necessarily paid work ) originated with the Beat movement. Certainly, the term ‘down beat‘ has entirely lost its slang status.

The Beat term ‘hipster’, of course, has recently been revived and applied to men who might share some, but by no means all, of the characteristics described by Ms Freud.

Incidentally, Lord Buckley, the Beat performance poet mentioned by Freud, must be seen to be believed. You can see and hear him on You Tube. In some ways he has more in common with a modern day rapper than he has with an academic poet like Allen Ginsberg. [R.M.Healey]

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