Just Who Were The Beatniks? Literary Visionaries, Cultural Rebels, Street Thugs, or Maynard G. Krebs?
With all due respect to Greenwich Village, the epicenter of the Beat Movement was closer to Greenwich Street in San Francisco – a 20 minute jaunt to fabled North Beach. Here is where the likes of Kerouac, Ginsberg, Cassady, and Ferlinghetti roamed the streets and back alleys. City Lights was the mecca Beat book store.
In fact, “beatnik” was coined by San Francisco Examiner columnist Herb Caen. “Beat Generation” had already appeared in print and speech. Caen’s term was originally used to describe the fallout of the San Francisco Beat scene, when suburban kids began pouring in to party on the weekends. He added the Russian suffix “nik” soon after Sputnik was launched in 1957. Caen was not fond of beatniks and the name likely represented a slap at their criticism of American values. Allen Ginsberg called the term “foul.” Coincidently, it rhymes with “Howl,” first read in San Francisco.
It was here that the famous obscenity trial for Howl took place.
On March 25, 1957, Customs officials seized 520 copies of the poem imported from a London printer. No publishing house in the U.S. had dared to touch it. Soon the City Lights manager was arrested and jailed for selling Howl and Other Poems to an undercover San Francisco police officer. City Lights Publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti was next, charged with publishing the material. At the obscenity trial, nine literary experts testified on the poem’s behalf. Ferlinghetti won the case when the California Superior Court decided that the poem was of “redeeming social importance.”
That decision led to the American publication of the previously censored Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller and D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover. The trial publicity brought the San Francisco Beat Movement into the national spotlight (Life Magazine was fascinated by the ordeal) and inspired many would-be poets and lifestyle seekers to make their way out to the West Coast.
The benign television face of the beatnik in the 1950s was Meynard G. Krebs: sweet (in a stinky kind of way), cute, like…even adorable.
But cast your eyeballs on this crazy scene, Clyde.
Here was one of many “beatplotation” flicks with bylines that would have made Maynard G. Krebs cringe: “Exploding From Alleyways and Ivory Towers…Living by Their Code of Rebellion and Mutiny!…A Craze That is Sweeping the Nation!” All Maynard ever swept was the Gillis grocery store where he would ask: “Like, how can I help you, man?
Art was imitating life…as least life as the tabloids reported it.
And if it wasn’t violence being wrought by Beats, it was sex.
But for most Americans, when they envisioned a beatnik, they saw (or wanted to see):