The Beat generation of the 1950s and 1960s can be viewed as a close group of friends and intellectuals who helped shape the future of literature simply by being themselves. While somewhat in the realms of Jazz, Hipster, and African American culture, the Beats characterized themselves as an amalgamation of American counter-cultures that rarely fit with any other social group. Jazz and African American cultures were very closely linked, being made up of generally one group of people, and Hipster culture was made up of mainly of whites “assembled in relatively close proximity to the ghetto black” (Hebdige 48). The Beats, however, had very few African American members, most of which functioned more in Jazz culture than with the Beats, leaving the white members of the generation in an “imaginary relation to the Negro-as-noble-savage” (Hebdige 48). This state of constantly being outside mainstream views allowed the Beats to experience American culture through their own unique lens.
The highly autobiographical work that distinguishes the Beats’ intellectual output proves not only that their life adventures were important to them, but to publishers and the American public as well. The Beats’ popularity for moving against “conventional sexual and moral practices” added to their mystique, and perhaps created a sort of exoticism that caused the American public to be simultaneous repulsed and fascinated by their works (Eburne 53). At the 1960 Republican National Convention, J. Edgar Hoover went so far as to assert that ‘beatniks’; were, alongside communists and liberal ‘eggheads,’ one of the three greatest menaces to U.S. National Security” (53).
However, outside of the US, the Beats stand “among the most popular writers in translation and have been read by audiences around the world,” which attests to their importance as a way of viewing American culture, whether audiences agree with their opinions or not (Adams 60).
This reflection of American culture manifests itself at all levels, including the slang words used by the Beats in their literature. While many terms used by the Beats came directly from or where adapted from Jazz and Hipster slang, they reflect the mindset of the Beat writers. Many of the words appropriated by the Beats are still used in mainstream America speech, which attests to the Beats’ lasting impact on culture.
Their words, as with many Hipster words, served to re-edit the world through their societal views. All Beat words hold either a strong negative or strong positive connotation, so that every word has a job of “evaluation as well as designation,” a trait that adds to the Beats’ importance in studying American society as a whole (Broyard).
Most importantly, this group of writers and thinkers should be seen as the Beat generation, not as a generic movement, or as the shallow Beatniks modern culture tends to characterize them with. While the “‘beatnik’ image which was used by the media in the fifties to make fun of them” is discussed here, it should not be considered a lasting impact of their generation, but merely a single facet of their influence on mainstream society (Fox 1).
The generation, as Jack Kerouac defined it, contained “members of the generation that came of age after World War II-Korean War who join in a relaxation of social and sexual tensions and espouse anti-regimentation, mystic-disaffiliation and material-simplicity values, supposedly as a result of Cold War disillusionment” (quoted in The Beats xv) Kerouac’s assessment of his own generation should not in any way be doubted, and taking his statement into account makes an even stronger argument for studying the terms, events, and people, that were encompassed by the Beats.
Studying the Beats’ slang words, as I have done, presents two slight problems. First and foremost I have a sense of guilt over homogenizing their words with normal modern standards because I feel that this cheapens their language and widens the gap between their lexicon and ours. The second and least scholarly problem I have run into is that my views of whether or not Beat terms are still used in American culture is based solely off of the people encountered in my white, middle-class life. Many of the terms I have identified and more may still flourish in societies more inclined towards Jazz and Punk movements than what I have encountered.
However, I have not let these obstacles deter me from compiling what I believe to be the essential terms of Beat literature. Any fear I hold of homogenizing this distinct group of writers can be solved by the drive to understand their terms in relation to ours and in doing so gain knowledge of a somewhat-foreign culture. Comparing Beat terms with modern mainstream terms also allows for a kind of juxtaposition prevalent in some Beat literature, which I have also contained in this dictionary.
Including a collection of Beat writers, thinkers, works, events, and influences adds additional context for understanding the terms that Beats frequently used. As we better understand Beat culture, we not only gain a greater appreciation for their lives and works but also gain a lens for understanding our own culture. The Beats Dictionary is not meant simply to define foreign terms, but to explain points of view slightly different from our own.
Part I – General Terms and Concepts
Abomunist: term created by Kaufman combining the words atom, bomb, communist, abomination, and Bob Kaufman, used in the extended conceit of Kaufman’s words regarding Abomunism.
Be-Bop: a derivative of jazz prevalent in the 1940s that focused almost completely on improvisations, so complex that dancing or singing with the music became impossible, characterized best by Charlie “Bird” Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. This is most often what the Beats refer to when mentioning “Jazz.”
Beat*: as applied to the generation, there are three slightly differing definitions.
1: As used in Jazz slang it means down, poor, and exhausted.
2. As described by Huncke, the originator of the movement, it means exhausted, rejected, and streetwise. 3. As described by Kerouac, the front man of the movement, it derives from ‘beatific’ and means “something mysterious or spiritual.”
Beatnik*: derogatory term for the Beats coined by journalist Herb Caen on 2 Apr 1958 by combining the words “Beat” and “Sputnik,” both of which held negative connotations within mainstream American society. His famous sentence reads: “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 Cowle’s free booze.”
Big Three: refers to the three most popular Beat figures—Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs.
Bohemian*: originally referring to gypsies, actors, and other people of less respectable professions during the 1850s, later used by critics to describe the Beats in the sense that they refused to conform to mainstream society and lead generally artistic lives
Bug*: Beat term for an annoyance that has permeated into modern mainstream culture, ex.: “Her nose really bugs me.”
Cat°: a respectable individual within the Beat, Hipster, and Jazz movements, usually referring to a male, ex.: “Met a very nice English Car named André”
City Lights Booksellers & Publishers: independent bookstore founded in 1953 by Ferlinghetti and Peter D. Martin, a popular attraction for mainstream tourists hoping to spot Beatniks, and where the “Beats’ legacy of anti-authoritarian politics and insurgent thinking continues to be a strong influence in the store, most evident in the selection of titles.”
Chick°: a woman within the beat community, not quite the parallel to ‘Cat’ because it does not presuppose any respect within the Beat movement, ex.: “…the chicks who are willing to support a whiskery man are often middle-aged and thin.”
Columbia: The Columbia University in the City of New York where Ginsberg (’48) and Kerouac (’44) met and discovered their love for a new genre of writing. The areas of New York surrounding Columbia were home to many of the East Coast Beats. Today Columbia considers itself “one of the top academic and research institutions in the world, conducting pathbreaking research in medicine, science, the arts, and the humanities.”
Cut-Up Method: the method of writing developed by Burroughs and Brion Gysin wherein the author chooses a newspaper or magazine article relevant to the subject he wishes to write about, cuts apart each word and chooses them at random, placing everything together to form a work of deeper meaning that addresses the original subject; “the method combined literal and metaphorical ideas about how language means”
Dig*: Beat term for understanding and/or enjoying something, usually an experience, ex.: “…I had four hours to dig Hollywood alone.”
Dharma: central philosophy of Hinduism and Buddhism about the ways of the universe, or the essential functions of things; used by the Beats who appropriated Buddhism, notably Kerouac in his novel The Dharma Bums.
Fuzz°: derogatory Beat and Hipster term for the police, usually in reference to being pursued by the police, ex.: “…fuzz broke up two of my poetry readings last night.”
Goof^: Beat term with two forms. As a noun, it refers to an incident, remark, or person that was comedic or a mistake, ex.: Kerouac referring to Cassady in On the Road as the Holy Goof. As a verb, it refers to being comedic or not completely serious.
Hipster°: movement parallel to the Beats, more closely resembling “ghetto black” than other white movements, characterized as rebellious in a more violent manner as the beats, viewed somewhat condescendingly by the Beats though often categorized with them by critics, ex.: “…longhaired hipsters who’d reached the end of the road and were drinking wine.”
Jazz: the first truly American art form, beginning in New Orleans in the early 20th century through blending classic European and African music, based heavily on improvisation yet meant mainly for dancing, prevalent among African Americans, characteristically idolized by Beats as free and hip music of a new generation.
Junk^: Beat word, notably a Burroughs word that refers to any sort of drug not generally accepted by mainstream society ex.: “This is a cap of poison junk sold to addict for liquidation purposes.”
Man*: Beat and Hipster term for casually referring to any individual, usually the person being spoken to, ex.: “Hey man, did you see that?”
Moloch: Ammonite’s God of child sacrifice referenced in the second section of Ginsberg’s Howl where Moloch is compared to America, with the Beats as the child sacrifice, also found in the Old Testament (1 Kings 11:5) as a false God; “For Solomon went after Ash’toreth the goddess of the Sido’nians, and after Milcom [Moloch] the abomination of the Ammonites.”
New York Beats: the writers and thinkers most prevalent within the east-coast Beat circles, including Burroughs, Carr, Cassady, Ginsberg, Holmes, Hunke, Johnson, Kerouac, di Prima, and Solomon.
Pad°: Beat word for household, usually in reference to a sub-standard place of residence, parodied famously in Life magazine’s photograph “The Well-Equipped Pad”
Reed College: small art school in Portland, Oregon where Snyder (’51) and Whalen (’51) and developed their love of poetry.
San Francisco Beats: the writers and thinkers most prevalent within the west-coast Beat circles, including Ferlinghetti, McClure, Rexroth, Snyder, and Whalen, who have received less fame than their New York counterparts.
Six Gallery reading: San Francisco poetry reading on 7 Oct 1955 by five prominent Beats: Ginsberg, Lamantia, McClure, Snyder, and Whalen and introduced by Rexroth; notably the first public reading of Ginsberg’s Howl.
Square°: derogatory Beat term for a mainstream American individual who does not understand Beat culture; “the mainstream, the nonbeat,” ex.: “Abomunists do not use the word square except when talking to squares,” or the popular phrase “Be there or be square.”
Tea^: Beat term for marijuana, earning a separate word from junk due to its popularity and relative acceptance in society, ex.: “He was a ritual tea smoker and very puritanical about junk the way some teaheads are.”
Part II – People and Events
Attorney General v. A Book Named “Naked Lunch” (1966): Obscenity trial within the Massachusetts High Court, charges against Naked Lunch were its being preoccupied with sex, “utterly without redeeming social value,” and “affront[ing] contemporary community standards.” The book was considered not obscene by a majority of judges because “a substantial and intelligent group in the community believes the book to be of some literary significance.” Ginsberg and Mailer testified on behalf of Naked Lunch during the trial.
Baraka, Amiri: b. 1934, see also Jones, LeRoi. Baraka changed his name to reflect his newfound Muslim faith, though the transformation also encompassed a political change a “Marxist-Leninist Third World Socialist” frame of mine. Voted Poet Laureate of New Jersey and then disbanded in 2002 after his controversial poem Somebody Blew Up America of his reached his superiors.
Burroughs, William S: 1914 – 1997, one of the most prominent members of the Beat generation, famous mainly for his semi-autobiographical writings and drug usage although he was also an essayist and painter. Unlike the other two of the Big Three, Burroughs was educated at Harvard and allowed his life to revolve mainly around drugs. Aside from accidentally shooting his wife in 1951, Burroughs is most famous for his two novels Junky, sometimes spelled Junkie, (1953) and Naked Lunch (1957).
Carr, Lucien: 1925 – 2005, Beat who introduced Burroughs, Kerouac, and Ginsberg together, although he is not known for producing any of the Beat generation thinking of writing himself, most famous for murdering his old Boy scout leader, David Kammerer, for making repeated sexual advance at him.
Cassady, Neal: 1926 – 1968, icon of the Beat generation, known mainly for introducing many of the New York Beats to one another and for starting the all-night conversations characteristic of the Beat movement, most famously represented as Dean Moriarty, con-man and Holy Goof, in Kerouac’s On the Road.
Cowen, Elise Nada: 1933 – 1962, seldom-recognized New York Beat poet most famous for befriending Ginsberg and typing his poem Kaddish. After a life-long history of depression, she committed suicide by jumping out of a window. Her parents destroyed most of her work, adding to her relative obscurity within the Beats. However, she does figure prominently in Johnson’s Minor Characters.
Ferlinghetti, Lawrence: b. 1919, Beat writer and painter, influential mainly with the San Francisco Beats but also in the larger Beat movement, founded City Lights Books, wrote (most notably) A Coney Island of the Mind (1958).
Ginsberg, Allen: 1926 – 1997, Beat writer responsible for keeping many of the thinkers of the generation together, popular throughout his life for his poems, political activism, and attachment to his mother Naomi. He entered Columbia in 1943, and after being expelled twice, he graduated in 1948. Buddhism and general spirituality figure prominently in his works, of which the two most famous poems are Howl (1955) and Kaddish (1961).
Holmes, John Clellon: 1926 – 1988, his essay This is the Beat Generation (1952) defined early Beats to mainstream culture, best known for getting the Beat generation started, though not playing an integral part of the larger movement, author of Go (1952), The Horn (1958)
Hunke, Herbert: 1915 – 1996, a Times Square hustler, the original Hipster who defined ‘Beat’, part of the New York City Beat movement, known more for talking than writing, though his journals were published in 1965 and he wrote Guilty of Everything: The Autobiography of Herbert Hunke (1990), both of which received minimal fame.
Johnson, Joyce: b. 1935, one of the most famous women of the Beat generation, though mainly due to her relationship with Kerouac. She functioned mainly as an outsider and observer in the Beat circles, allowing her to write Minor Characters (1983).
Jones, LeRoi: b. 1934, poet and activist not so much a part of the Beat generation as various African American movements, founded Totem press in the 1950s, and left his wife and children after Malcolm X was assassinated in 1957 to transform into Amiri Baraka.
Kaufman, Bob: 1925-1986, poet most often associated with the San Francisco Beats, although his works gained popularity without attachment to the Beat generation. Born in New Orleans, Kaufman held a fanatical love for jazz, and wrote most of his work about that type of music and lifestyle.
Kerouac: 1922 – 1969, 1. Jean-Louis: affectionately called “Ti Jean,” this French-Canadian child grew up in Lowell, Massachusetts, and learned English as a second language and showed promising skills as a writer. After securing a football scholarship to Columbia University, he transformed into John Kerouac.
2. John: student at Columbia for a short while, until he joined the Merchant Marines. After befriending Cassady, Burroughs, and Ginsberg, he wrote The Town and the City (1950) shortly before transforming into Jack.
3. Jack: front man of the Beat movement, hailed by critics both positively and negatively as the voice of a new generation, wrote long stream-of-consciousness lines and generally disliked revision of his work, author of at least a dozen novels, but most famously On the Road (1957), The Subterraneans (1958), and The Dharma Bums (1958).
Lamantia, Philip: b. 1927, began writing surrealist poetry at an early age, and was first published in 1943, although he gained more fame after reading at the Six Gallery.
Lee, William: Burroughs’ pseudonym used to publish his first works, carried on to his personas in his novels, such as Naked Lunch. This is also the basis for Kerouac referring to Burroughs as “Old Bull Lee” in his novel On the Road.
Mailer, Norman: b. 1923, novelist, journalist, and playwright considered influential in the creation of the genre creative nonfiction, often associated with the Beats and Hipsters due to his essay The White Negro (1957), and his testimony on behalf of Naked Lunch during the obscenity trial.
McClure, Michael: b. 1932, San Francisco Beat poet, became involved with the Six Gallery and took part of the legendary reading there, although he later moved our of the Beats into the Hipster movement. His poems portray his love for nature and his use of psychedelic drugs.
Obscenity Trials: 1. Regarding Howl: customs officer Chester MacPhee confiscated copies of Howl and Other Poems that City Lights Books had published in England because he deemed Howl to be obscene and unfit for children mostly due to the line “who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy.” The American Civil Liberties Union “informed Mr. MacPhee that it would contest the legality of the seizure,” and the book’s first amendment rights were upheld in court. However City Lights published a new version of the book domestically, thus negating the dispute.
2. Regarding Naked Lunch: see entry for “Attorney General v. A Book Named ‘Naked Lunch’ ”
di Prima, Diane: b. 1934, perhaps the only woman of the Beat generation famous for her works rather than her relationship to a Beat man, she is known for her strong rebellious spirit, feminist views, and adoption of Buddhism. Her novel Memoirs of a Beatnik (1969) stands as her most popular work both when it was written and today.
Rexroth, Kenneth: 1905-1982, poet and painter that served as a precursor to the Beat generation, as he was considered mainly one of the most prominent West Coast anarchist poets, and was later given the title “Godfather of the Beats.”
Snyder, Gary: b. 1930, San Francisco Beat poet connected mainly with poet fellow Whalen through their education at Reed College. Snyder found Buddhism attractive eventually went to Japan to pursue its study, where he discovered himself to be “firstmost a poet, doomed to be shamelessly silly, undignified, curious, cuntstruck, & considering… the disorder of my own mind sacred.”
Solomon, Carl: 1928-?, Beat most famous for inspiring Ginsberg’s Howl, spent long period of time in mental intuitions where he regularly endured shock therapy. Solomon worked for a time publishing books, where he “signed Burroughs’s Junky but rejected Kerouac’s On the Road.” He is most important for inspiring the Beat writers than writing himself, although he did write three novels indicative of his psychosis.
Whalen, Philip: 1923-2002, San Francisco Beat poet who served in the Army during World War II, attended Reed College after the war, and became a Buddhist priest in 1973. His work stand in opposition to the mainstream of Beat works because of its “reverential treatment of the mundane, its self-deprecating humor, and its generally apolitical tone.”
Part III – Works
Abomunist Manifesto (1959): one of Kaufman’s only works not dealing directly with jazz, the Manifesto functions for the purely fictional Abouminist movement, stating laws and ideologies. The work is hailed for extending his “his eclectic aesthetics into prose fiction and programmatic prose poetry.”
Coney Island of the Mind, A (1958): Ferlinghetti’s second book of poems, expressing “the way he felt during a short period in the 1950s.”
Go (1952): Holmes’ first novel originally titled “The Beat Generation” and considered the first work of the Beat generation, though it received little fame. The work describes the lives of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Cassady before they became famous and the type of world in which they lived.
Guilty of Everything: The Autobiography of Herbert Hunke (1990): Hucke’s ill-fated autobiography that received poor reviews from contemporary critics as boring and ill-written, although it does relate his relationships with many of the New York Beats.
Horn, The (1958): Holmes’ second novel, the hero of the work is a saxophone player who retraces his life to recount the history of jazz for the reader. This work, like Holmes’ others, received little recognition.
Howl (1955): Ginsberg’s groundbreaking three-part poem considered one of the foremost works of the Beat generation, dedicated to Solomon. It discusses people and events of Ginsberg’s life, and relies heavily on long lines, anaphora, and juxtaposition. Part I somewhat ambiguously delineates scenarios describing the Beats and their antics. Part II is a complaint of modern civilization characterized as the ancient god Moloch. Part III specifically addresses Solomon and represents hope after the Moloch section.
Junky (1953): Burroughs’ first novel, written in a standard linear style, describes the author’s experiences with junk in the underworld of an anti-drug culture.
Kaddish (1961): Ginsberg’s poem, dedicated to his mother Naomi, and based off of the traditional Hebrew mourning prayer. Much in the same style of Howl, Kaddish uses long lines and juxtaposition to mourn Naomi and cope with the sudden loss in Ginsberg’s life.
Memoirs of a Beatnik (1969): di Prima’s semi-autobiographical novel concerning “the bohemian community of young writers, artists, musicians, and dancers in Manhattan” which she joined after dropping out of college .
Minor Characters (1983): Johnson’s most famous work regarding her relationship with the New York Beats and especially Kerouac as he became famous after the publication of On the Road. The title refers to women of the Beat generation, who were largely marginalized due to the patriarchal society in which they functioned.
Naked Lunch: 1. Burroughs’ 1957 cut-up method novel amalgamated from letters written to other Beats, personal experience, and a hard-boiled detective story he had only begun writing. The non-linear narrative takes place in the Interzone, and works off of the assumption that anything can be acquired for a price.
2. The 1991 Film titled Naked Lunch is not an adaptation of this novel, rather, a combination of Burroughs’ life and the themes presented in his novel.
3. For the obscenity trial, see entry for “Attorney General v. A Book Named ‘Naked Lunch.’ ”
On the Road: written in 1951 and published in 1957, Kerouac’s most second and most famous, also semi-autobiographical, novel based off of his cross-country trips with and inspired by Neal Cassady. Along his road trip Kerouac introduces the reader to many Beats including Ginsberg and Burroughs. Part of the novel’s success is due to Gilbert Millstein’s review praising the work as “the most beautifully executed, the clearest and most important utterance yet made by the generation…”
Subterraneans, The: Kerouac’s 1958 semi-autobiographic novel about his relationship with African American woman Alene Lee, focusing heavily on jazz and jazz culture, written “in a three day and three night Benzedrine-fueled burst right after the love affair ended.” The work is most often criticized for its unfavorable portrayal of African Americans and adds to the idea that the Beats held a superficial and almost mythological view of African American people and culture. Adapted in a 1960 film wherein Alene was changed into a young French girl; exemplifies the way in which Beat works were not fully acceptable to mainstream culture.
Town and the City, The (1950): Kerouac’s first published work, semi-autobiographical but to a lesser degree than his other novels. Written before he developed his own style, including distaste for revision, the novel discusses the juxtaposition between the New York City Beats and his home in Massachusetts.