The Small Soul of Beat G

Allen GinsbergHistorians regularly pump out alluring swamp gas that lacks even a feather of genuine worth. Opinions become facts, mole hills are made into mountains, important events are forgotten or overlooked, individuals are swept aside, everything gets depersonalized. Geez. I suppose the History Channel is here to stay, so why bother to delve deeper? Well, because there’s always another face to history, a human face.

Let’s take it a little deeper, down to a very personal level of American history.

I’m talking about the Beat Generation here. Gagging up a few words about how the historians got it all wrong, all the way down the line. How they forgot why Beat G came about in the first place. I’m thinking about the human side of past times, the heart of the story that may actually make sense to real people.

Remember, it’s an individualized tale, shared by a few but usually overlooked by the history spinners or media dancers.

The word art of the Beat Generation evolved from personal encounters with a small soul. From the San Francisco point of view, looking back, it wasn’t a movement at all. In fact, the essence of Beat G eschewed the very concept of a movement, in the formal sense. And it certainly wasn’t an entire generation, or anything close. It was a small collective, centered on two opposite coasts, whose members did a lot of traveling and made lots of noise. The essence of Beat G was tiny, a bare whisper yelling out from a crowded, faceless, enormous stadium.

To be Beat G back in the day was to search out your own small soul, to touch the only point of reality of which you could be relatively certain. It was never much more than a primal personal journey. But, for whatever reason, it left its footprint across our literature and social landscape. Beat G infiltrated the national consciousness, which was never intended or even seriously considered. A personal journey turned into a “movement” because history deemed it so. The historians made it happen but they missed the boat long after it had already left the dock.

City Lights BeatBeat G was very much a 1950s protest of the most personal kind. It was a re-invention of the timeless “dark night of the soul” that every serious word artist knew and eventually confronted. What made it more pressing, more critical, is that the entire world seemed to be teetering on the edge of that same dark night. What we felt on a deeply personal level was also threatening the entire planet, and doing so without good reason or common sense. That was our view. That was our shared pain.

The 1950s were ugly and frightening in so many ways. Materialism was rampant. The Cold War threatened the entire planet. Segregation kept us apart from each other. McCarthyism proved that fascism was alive in our own, historically free country. Censorship was everywhere, promoted and fostered by our own government. All the promises of renewal from the horrendous sacrifices of WWII were squandered. It seemed as though America was asleep in the 1950s, unaware of how far we had strayed from our traditions of individualism, personal freedom, and a willingness to reach out to those beyond our immediate family. As a society, we had closed ourselves off, become fearful and paranoid, unwilling to even hear an alternative point of view. No one wanted to rock the boat, unless it was to blow up the planet.

There were big issues, everywhere. Too many to confront, too complex to even understand. The only reasonable way to deal with them was on a deeply personal level. To find a way out by finding a way in. We would start with the basics. We would start with our own small souls. This was our home turf.

We were a fractured generation back then but generally insisted that all was going along according to some grand, undefined plan. It was a time when dissent was simply not allowed, not tolerated. Questions were not to be asked, especially if they challenged the prevailing opinions of the sea of sleepers of the 1950s. It was a time to keep your head down, figuratively and literally. If you didn’t, there was always some Joe McCarthy out there ready and willing to lop off your brow.

City Lights BookstoreWell, that just wasn’t the way we viewed our country, or ourselves. We saw America as having a long, honored tradition of pursuing individuality, exploring, exercising our right to free speech, experimenting, moving ahead and taking risks. This was our communal history and there was no reason to put it out to pasture in the interests of comfort and conformity. But, for many reasons, the 1950s shunned all of this, turned these courageous urges into something dark and threatening. We didn’t appreciate that point of view. In fact, we felt beaten down by it. That was the essence of Beat G, from a soul-deep point of view.

We wanted to re-evaluate the entire mess, to re-draw the borders through our own experience and knowledge. It made no sense to tow a party line that was poorly defined, depersonalized, dangerous, obviously not working for our country, and that clearly disregarded the primal concept of individual freedom. It was us, each as individuals, who had created our country. It was not America who created us. We needed to re-discover that truism and do it as unique individuals in search of our own souls.

Did we go too far? Yes. We pushed the limits all the time. Many of us killed ourselves in the process. We broke the law left, right, up and down. Some of it was justified, some was just silly. We were doing an inside-out search for ourselves. If it stirred in our soul, if it had any direction at all, we chased it in the real world. It wasn’t so much that we held a deep disdain for the social norms of the time. It wasn’t that simple. We just didn’t find any sense in putting artificial restrictions on a life that should be led as genuinely as possible. We wanted to know life and know it truly, not as defined for us by others.

The Beat Generation

It wasn’t that we hated all rules, just the rules that broke our backs. Just the rules that kept us separate from each other, unable to speak freely, and unaware of ourselves. Our leaders were not taking us down a healthy path. That was obvious. Mutually Assured Destruction was, from our point of view, complete insanity. Censorship by the federal government was taking a reasonable concept much too far. Turning in your neighbor as a suspected communist brought us right back to the Nazi Party atrocities of our parents’ generation. Our parents suffered and died to ensure this craziness could never again happen, anywhere. Little of America’s behavior made sense on either a personal or grand scale. Hadn’t we learned from the horrors of WWII? Why were we going down this dangerous, deadly road yet again? Looking around, we found the dominant society fearful, tired, bored, over-fed, segregated, isolated, complacent, sometimes dangerous and just plain comatose. We didn’t want any of that for ourselves.

No, Beat G was never a movement in the classic sense. It was a journey of discovery, a search for the little soul within. The big questions became personal issues of a frightening, painful kind. That was the only way they could be handled. We could never be free if we were incapable of dealing with how the problems of our day impacted our personal lives. And, if these issues were so personal, so critical, they must also be vital to the larger society. We could not accept being separated, manipulated, so often the target of politics and lies when the stakes were so high.

We didn’t plan to be renegades, upstarts, doo-doo disturbers, or anything of the kind. We just wanted to be in touch with our small souls and, in doing so, touch the large societal soul that seemed to be struggling with itself.

Did we go too far? Sure. We paid a heavy price.

Did we make some good art along the way? You bet we did.

Did we change the world? Of course not.

But we did make a dent in our own small souls.

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8 thoughts on “The Small Soul of Beat G

  1. Beat G was still around to some extent when I was about junior high age. I was fascinated, but out of the loop. By the same token, I was just a little too old for the hippies when they arrived. Always a day late (or early), a few dollars short, and not a clue. But happy. So happy.

  2. Unfortunately, nobody ever understands the pain and sacrifice of anybody else. And so we end by being resentful little swine. To me, the loveliness of the beats was an appreciation of that, and a willingness to love anyway, anyhow.

  3. Many elements of the climate you described back then could be copied and pasted directly into an essay about today. Nowadays, perhaps, there is enough bread (and Doritos Locos Tacos and energy drinks) and circuses (and media and Facebook and iPhones) to avoid getting too riled up about things. Oh well, time to go churn out an absurd Phonyon post to keep from screaming.

  4. You said Beat G was a small bicoastal group of people, and that’s true when you think of the cultural icons like Kerouac, Corso, Ferlinghetti, and others; Even the St. Louis bunch, including Burroughs, flowed downstream toward bigger water. But stuff like that was happening everywhere, all in small groups of people, almost cells, in beat-up bars, in the “Negro streets” across the country. Not big, as you said, but pervasive, subversive. Those buttoned up bastards were right to be worried.

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