Inklings of communism, and primitive strains of marijuana

the 1950s Beatnik was absolutely the hipster of his day.

Photo of Beatniks in Natural Habitat, 1958.
  • Photo of Beatniks in Natural Habitat, 1958.

Dear DJ:

You write of the east. I am from the east, born in 1957. My parents and their friends were beatniks. As an avid hipster watcher I enjoy reading your recent field guide series. Especially useful for identifying a casual! However, I notice that, while today’s hipsters remind me so much of the beatniks I grew up around, one amazing difference stands out. Long ago, once beatniks had removed themselves to more rural locales, they couldn’t remain beatniks. They naturally and steadily evolved into craftsmen, hippies, farmers, or squares. Beat-ness was helpless against the forces of nature. How does the hipster do it? To endure in all environs? What is his secret? How does he adapt and thrive, yet retain his hipness in whatever territory he finds himself?

— David A.

Even though I can’t be 100 percent sure of what you mean by a “casual,” I absolutely hope that I am not one, and I accept your comment as the shining compliment I know it is.

bows graciously

Okay. Having expelled the last vestiges of residual smugness that linger after a hard day of eating grass-fed burgers and arranging my substantial collection of 1980s Japanese dub singles that even I’ve never heard of before, I believe your inquiry merits a substantive answer.

Giving credit where credit is due, the 1950s Beatnik was absolutely the hipster of his day. He even hated being called a Beatnik. Roaming free and unfettered throughout the concrete jungles of the mid-Twentieth Century, the Wild Beatnik hungered for the freshest innovations of a youthful and rebellious culture: non-rhyming poetry, color field paintings, modern jazz, occasional homosexuality, inklings of communism, and primitive strains of marijuana. But Beat culture lived in the cities, and died somewhere along the county line, because it was an academic, top-down revolution. Fed up with a hundred years of industrialization and nothing to show for it but two world wars and growing discontent in Asia, the Beats were going to change the world with their ideas, man! Unless you control the means of production, ideas don’t get a lot of traction without a lot of like-minded people to share them with.

By contrast, the modern hipster, fed up with 150 years of industrialization, two world wars, and growing discontent in Asia (plus bonus Middle Eastern instability) is just fucking, like, over it, man. Stick him in a cabin in the woods somewhere and nothing changes except it’s actually slightly easier to roll your eyes at the world’s absurdity when you’re not actively participating in it. Even so, the modern hipster cannot endure indefinite separation from the hipster community, which is why, like the astronaut terraforming Mars from within the antiseptic confines of his biosphere, the hipster slowly remakes the world around him in his image. Unlike the generations of cool kids who came before him, the hipster is a colonist, not an exile. Perhaps it’s evolution, or perhaps I’m a filthy liar and an apologist, but I suspect the hipster owes his social tenacity to this very facet of his nature.

Time will tell, but unlike the Beatniks (remember beatniks?), Hippies (remember legit hippies?), Greasers, Punks, Mods, Riot Grrls, and Juggalos (remember all of them?); something about the hipster suggests that he will always be with us, rather than fading to a cultural ghost.

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Long before Beatniks, there were Bohemians.

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