Silicon Valley Watcher - Former FT journalist Tom Foremski reporting from the intersection of technology and media

Saturday Post: The Beatnik To Blogger Connection...

Posted by Tom Foremski - July 10, 2010

It's interesting that blogging started off in the San Francisco area because here, there is a long tradition of new forms of writing. I've long been fascinated with the literature of the Beatniks -- a word coined by San Francisco columnist Herb Caen in 1958.

Here are a few of my prior posts exploring the Beatnik to blogger connection.

For a long while I've felt a strong connection between the culture of the Beat generation and the Blogging generation. Both celebrate a raw and passionate expression, and a use of language that is both novel and designed to snag the reader's social sensibilities.

Both communities found themselves at the forefront of major changes in their societies. And both took advantage of a lapse in the controls that societies usually place on publishing outsider ideas.

In October 1955 Allen Ginsberg performed his "Howl" poem for the first time in public at the "6poets at 6 Gallery" in San Francisco.

The performance was in a dilapidated storefront on Fillmore Street in San Francisco. Yet this small event had a huge effect on the entire country. It eventually led to a show trial on obscenity charges and propelled a small writers colony, dubbed "Beatniks" by San Francisco columnist Herb Caen, into media superstars.

This period of the late 1950s was a tumultuous one because of the escalating Cold War. Although the Beatnik writers had begun developing their ideas and their works in the late 1940s, it was now that their seed fell on fertile ground. Their message of rebellion and a world gone mad was now easily understood and the mechanisms of mass media enabled it wide distribution.

The Beatniks were mostly white middle and upper class kids and completely out of odds with the confined culture that limited nearly all forms of artistic expression. It's a familiar story to us today, of youth in rebellion, but there is much more about the 1950s that is familiar too.

The Second World War had created a massive government propaganda machine with help from newspapers, radio, TV and Hollywood. This seemed necessary during a time of war but it kept on going after the end of the war, and it created a belief that there was a permanent state of war - the Cold War. It's similar to our "unending" state of war against terrorism.

The writers of the Beat generation were initially apolitical, amoral, and hedonistic. That was all you needed to be a rebel in those days. They found they could shakeup society simply through their hedonism, their joy in the creation of literature; and the overall exploration of the edges of our mortal experience.

In the mid 1950s there was a thaw in the Cold war and this helped thaw American society and helped it discover the Beat Generation.

This thaw showed itself in events such as the Hungarian uprising in 1956, which led to liberal reforms in neighboring countries and a general cultural and artistic renaissance.

1956 is the time when my parents managed to escape Poland. There was a slight raising of the Iron Curtain that divided Europe. For the first time Poles were allowed to visit Western countries. My parents queued up for three days, (not to buy an iPhone) to get onto the first organized vacation trips to Vienna, Austria.

They were part of a group of 60 tourists. And once they were in Vienna, they and their friends snuck away in the middle of the night and took a train to Salzburg where they turned themselves in as political refugees.

They were housed in one of the refugee camps still in place from the war. Six months later I was born in that refugee camp and six months later we left for London, where I lived until I moved to the US in 1984.

This period of my parents' escape from Poland and the Beat Generation's newly found success came during a time when there was a global lifting of the normal restraints on politics and the arts.

By the mid-1950s McCarthyism had run its course and the Beatniks found themselves in the vanguard of a new culture, and become a new intelligentsia that felt able to challenge the rules of the day and win. That challenge came in the form of an authentic literature that still holds its power.

Today [March 2006] blogging challenges the rules of today -- is it journalism? Is it rubbish? Is it a new literature? Is it all those things?

I used to think blogging might be a subset of literature, a cousin to journalism. Now, I think of it as a superset of all other forms of writing because all other forms of writing can fit into its format.

We are entering another period of big changes, just as in the late 1950s, and blogging is the most revolutionary and most exciting literature to emerge since the Beat Generation, imho.

- - -

I get to meet the son of Neal Cassady, the most fascinating character of the Beat Generation...

It's a warm Wednesday evening in North Beach, San Francisco, and it is Neal Cassady's 80th birthday, and the remnants of the Beat generation, including Neal Cassady's son John are inside a small storefront.

The event also marked the opening of the Beat Museum. I've lately become very interested in the Beat generation, the mostly East Coast/New York intellectuals that came to San Francisco in the 1950s and were chosen by the media to represent the rebellious youth of those times.

From Wikipedia:

"The members of the Beat Generation were new bohemian libertines, who engaged in a spontaneous, sometimes messy, creativity. The beat writers produced a body of written work controversial both for its advocacy of non-conformity and for its non-conforming style..."

The Beat Generation influence has lasted a long time, reflected in the Hippie and Punk cultures, and I see its influence in blogging too.

The Beat Generation created a literature that was passionate, raw and emotional. Blogging can be like that too.

I've become interested in Neal Cassady who was somewhat of a mysterious character because his writings are rare. Yet Neal Cassady became a very important muse for many, influencing the writings of many of the Beat Generation such as Jack Kerouac, Michael McClure, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and in later generations Ken Kesey, Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson and many more. Yet Neal Cassady did not write much himself.

What makes him even more interesting is that Neal Cassady was not of their world -- the privileged, well educated, middle class world of the Beat Generation's intellectuals. He was a working class kid, or rather a skid row kid.

When he was six he came under the care of his alcoholic father, a part-time barber, and lived with him in Denver's skid row. These were depression times and brutal to families living on the edge. He learned the survival skills of a hobo, train hopping, etc.

I had just finished reading a book by Neal Cassady, called the "The First Third" so it was great thrill to chat with his son John.

John Cassady looks to be in his mid-50s, white hair, lots of energy, and he talks a mile a second. I asked him about the book. "That was something we found in the corner of his closet, very little of his writing survived. But I'll tell you what happened to his writings...I don't think this story has been published yet."

Brilliant. A potential scoop.

John tells me that most of his father's written work was lost when he parked his car for two weeks at a friend's place then took off for two or so weeks of carousing -- in the very same North Beach neighborhood that we are standing. When he returned to pick up his car it was gone. And so was nearly all of his father's literary work.

Wow. I wondered if they might still exist in some garage, attic or in the trunk of some car in a junkyard.

John Cassady went on to tell me about how the term "Beatniks" was hated by his father and his friends.

John adds, "The bongo playing, dressed in black, and beret wearing Beatnik was a complete invention of the media. The closest they got to bongos was one time at a rent party just around the corner from here. ...[A rent party charged a modest admission to help the hosts pay their rent]. Jack (Kerouac) was handed some bongos and he noticed the skins needed tightening so he went to the kitchen and lit the gas burner to heat and tighten the skins. He was distracted and he burnt right through the skins."

More stories followed and then Wavy Gravy showed up and held court, telling more stories as people passed a jug of red wine around... Neal Cassady would be very pleased.

- - -

Evelyn Rodriguez, a blogger friend at Crossroads Dispatches, found a fascinating essay about writing authored by Jack Kerouac. In it you can see some of the connection between Beatnik and Blogger.

Here is an extract of Jack Kerouac's writing advice from "Essentials of Spontaneous Prose." It's worth reading the essay in full.

PROCEDURE Time being of the essence in the purity of speech, sketching language is undisturbed flow from the mind of personal secret idea-words, blowing (as per jazz musician) on subject of image.

METHOD No periods separating sentence-structures already arbitrarily riddled by false colons and timid usually needless commas-but the vigorous space dash separating rhetorical breathing (as jazz musician drawing breath between outblown phrases)--"measured pauses which are the essentials of our speech"--"divisions of the sounds we hear"-"time and how to note it down." (William Carlos Williams)

SCOPING Not "selectivity' of expression but following free deviation (association) of mind into limitless blow-on-subject seas of thought, swimming in sea of English with no discipline other than rhythms of rhetorical exhalation and expostulated statement, like a fist coming down on a table with each complete utterance, bang! (the space dash)-Blow as deep as you want-write as deeply, fish as far down as you want, satisfy yourself first, then reader cannot fail to receive telepathic shock and meaning-excitement by same laws operating in his own human mind.

- - -

There are more posts like this in my new book:

In My Humble Opinion


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