The Beats, the Hipsters, and…EMERSON?!

They’re taking over pop culture, they’re taking over the internet, and some say they’re taking over the streets of America.

You know who I’m talking about: those vintage hunting, hotpants wearing, thick rimmed glasses donning hipsters. Living in Ann Arbor, it’s obvious from a stroll down State St that “hipsterism” is the new college cool.

Here’s the definition of the modern hipster, provided via urbandictionary.com:

“Hipsters are a subculture of men and women typically in their 20’s and 30’s that value independent thinking, counter-culture, progressive politics, an appreciation of art and indie-rock, creativity, intelligence, and witty banter.  Although “hipsterism” is really a state of mind, it is also often intertwined with distinct fashion sensibilities.”

Basically, to be a hipster today is a lifestyle choice. It’s an affinity for non-conformity in taste, dress, and interest. But, I have always wondered about the origins of this oft-used word, so I decided to do some digging and here’s what I found.

The coining of the word “hipster” first appeared in the 1950s, in referral to the Beat Generation. The Beat Generation was a group of American post-WWII literary figures who came to prominence in the 1950s, as well as the cultural phenomena that they both documented and inspired. The culture of the Beat Generation included “experimentation with drugs, alternative forms of sexuality, an interest in Eastern religion, a rejection of materialism, and the idealizing of exuberant, unexpurgated means of expression and being”.

Many theorized the origins of the Beat Generations came from the stresses of growing up in the “Age of Anxiety”. The 1950s was a time characterized by violent displays of human destruction witnessed in World War II. This pessimism in human nature inspired the Beat Generation’s opposition to Conformity. People were disillusioned by the capability for evil that societal values of the time were not able to prevent. What is the point of trying to reach human potential through society when at the end of the day, our species causes nothing but ruin?

When I look at the culture of the Beat Generation, I see numerous parallels with the transcendentalism of Emerson. Members of the Beat Generation were on a spiritual quest of sorts. God to them was not the God that was found in the Church: an institution of man. The Beat Generation saw God as experience. They looked for God in nature and in themselves. How they found God was in introspection (with or without the influence of hallucinogenic drugs). The Beat Generation didn’t care what society thought of them because they had detached themselves from convention to form their own opinions and pursue what pleased. Emerson wrote: “These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they exist with God to-day. There is no time to them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence.” Were the Beat Generation those roses?

The Beat generation was looking for a new American identity. They wanted America to be a country of inspiration, separated from the status quo of the Western World. They were looking for a nation of self-reliant individuals. They understood Emerson’s call.

Now, the virtue and vices of their non-conformity are something to be debated. Looking back, what were the potential virtues of the Beat Generation? Probably the fact that they eventually evolved into the hippies of the 60s who actively participated in the civil rights and anti-war movements. What about vices? At the time, and still today, many see them as good-for-nothings who had no contributions to society, and who lured American youth into unholy drug usage and delinquent behavior.

But an even more interesting question the Beat generation brings up is: are Emerson’s ideas really valid? I’m certain that the first Beats were really Emersonian in individuality and isolation, but the fact that history recognizes them as a group or a movement really brings up some points of concern. Even if movements start with individuals, do they eventually become un-Emersonian when individuals meet others who have conclude the same beliefs after introspection? Another way to word it is, do human beings have a natural affinity toward group life? And if so, is it impractical for an individual to maintain the level of introspection and isolation that Emerson proposes?

What do you think? When the Beat Generation broke off and created a new set of values, did that leave a positive or negative mark on the course of American history? How does their influence confirm or reject the validity of Emerson’s ideas?

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5 Responses to The Beats, the Hipsters, and…EMERSON?!

  1. andycraft says:

    This is one of my favorite blog posts yet! Having read On The Road by Kerouac this semester for an English class, I find the parallels of the Beat Generations and Emersonian Transcendentalism especially apparent. The Beats appalled our nation in the fifties and sixties with their conflagration of sex, jazz, and to some, a general apathy. This apathy is often misconstrued; the Beats were full of life and wanted to experience everything. Like Emerson, the Godfather of the Hippies, the Beats were tired of the arduous lifestyle of conformity. Emerson said it best, “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity. It loves not realities and creators, but names and customs” (Emerson, 21). The Beats cast off the robes of compliance and led an intellectual movement.
    I find it interesting that you pose the question: Was the Beat Generation impactive or useless for America? I suppose it doesn’t really matter. Because the Beats slipped through the cracks of conformity and founded a movement, they reached what Emerson had been saying in the 1800’s, “Trust Thyself.”
    Emerson would be proud of the Beat Movement. He may not have appreciated the stereotypical reckless abandonment of the beats and hipsters, but would have wanted the Beats to perfect the self so that America could be perfected.

  2. Amanda Gayer says:

    I too love this post! I think that the most prominent Emersonian quality of the Beats and hipsters is independent thinking. However, I would also argue that members of these groups are not entirely independent thinkers. Their membership to a larger social group, with whom they share values and lifestyles, shows that they actually do conform to some extent. The fact that they share progressive values shows that they may be adopting these ideas from other members of their group, rather than reaching conclusions through introspection. Emerson says that in order to think independently, one must go into the closet and shut the door. He encourages people to find out what they truly believe in by being alone and avoiding being influenced by others. Since Beats are part of their own social group, they definitely seem to be influenced by others.

    I think the extreme type of introspection and isolation that Emerson encourages is rare and hard to achieve. It is hard to imagine any large number of people living the way Emerson prescribes. Thus, his ideas seem fairly unrealistic, and it is likely that very few people actually embody Emersonian ideals. However, I do like the parallel between Emerson and Beats/hipsters. These groups are probably the closest any large number of people have come to being truly Emersonian.

  3. lgeorge905 says:

    I agree with Amanda. I find groups like “hipsters” and “beats” conformist in a way that they do not intend. By agreeing to dress similarly and enjoy the same type of music they are merely starting an alternative social setting, not providing the absence of one. Why else would all of them dress the same? Hipster clothing provides no inherent advantages to make it the obvious choice of dress.

    I’m not as familiar with the Beat generation, although I have read The Road. I agree with Andy that the Beats seem to better fit the ideals of Emerson, but it is worth noting that Emerson placed little value in travel, which is a primary theme of The Road.

    I’m not certain that any factions (of which I include the hipsters and the Beats) completely fit Emerson’s ideals.

  4. Jonathan Needle says:

    I think you guys hit the nail on the head. In many ways, members of the Beat generation are a far cry from Emerson’s notion of individualism and ‘self-reliance’. They are a membership group, a union. Personally, I don’t think members of the beat generation were ‘perfect in nature’. They may have formed their own opinions that were in opposition to conventional societal values, but they were still reliant on their fellow members. Many members looked to others to form their own opinions and perceptions. I agree with Amanda when she discusses conformity within the group. I see the beats more so as a ‘club’ with like-minded members than as a coalition of independent thinkers who rally around their own singular thoughts. For the beats, as Emerson would say, “There is at the surface infinite variety of things; at the center there is simplicity of cause. How many are the acts of man in which we recognize the same character!” (History, 6) Emerson here could show a more pessimistic view of nature if it were applied to the beats. “Nature is an endless combination and repetition of a very few laws. She hums the old well known air through innumerable variations”. While the beats may have created a new set of values, what history has taught us is that there is conformity in the creation of ‘original’ institutions that wish to assert their individuality as members of a dissenting polity.

  5. krisskrosswillmakeyou says:

    It seems that everyone has really come to the same conclusion. Hispterism isn’t close to Emerson’s values because it has in its nature become too mainstream. I think a legitimate question that must be raised is can one be Emersonian and in a group. He argued for isolation from others and possessions but if people like the Beats and hipsters form groups together it hardly seems like an isolated thought process. It also begs the question, why was Emerson writing about his values? If he believes that people should have completely original unadulterated thoughts, his writing would seem to go against that. Isn’t he in a way trying to convince others of having his lifestyle?

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