The Name of the Game

There was a feeling in the first years after World War Two that is difficult to evoke now. It was a feeling of expectation without reasonable hope, of recklessness without motivation, of uniqueness seeking an image. Probably mine was the last generation to feel that its shared experience had produced an attitude so widespread and so peculiar to us that it could be expresses in a single descriptive term – in other words, the last postwar generation. (After the next war, no one is likely to be plagued by terminology.) As writers, we had the example of the twenties to encourage us in this, because the creative renaissance of that decade seemed to have resulted in large part from another postwar generation finding its distinct voice in the act of finding a poetic image for itself. The thirties had produced nothing so good (it seemed to us), nothing so cohesive; and by 1947 the mass-magazines, as well as the literary journals, were alike speculating about the new postwar generation, and its prevailing mood.

We speculated no less. In bars and classrooms and jazz clubs and wild parties, we argued, and joked, about our own identity as an age group. What was produced, while the debate went on, was mostly imitative. The first war novels appeared, but the hand of Hemingway and Dos Passos was so heavily upon them that these books might have been describing their war rather than ours (as a comparison of The Naked and the Dead [1948] and Catch-22 [1961] makes immediately apparent). Equally secondhand, our political and social attitudes were almost wholly in the emotional style of the thirties, and the only philosophic insight that seemed to smack exclusively of our time was existentialism – though its bleakness and absurdities seemed more suited to a ruined and embittered Europe than to the America we knew, so powerfully flexing itself in its forenoon on the world stage.

Yet we felt our distinctness even if we couldn´t describe it. In a few non-intellectual areas, we were already becoming ourselves. As an example, one of the key conversion experiences of that time involved Bop, which was not merely expressive of the discords and complexities we were feeling, but specifically separated  us from the times just passed, for even out jazz idols of the thirties mostly loathed it. when you “went over” to Bird, when you “heard” him all of a sudden, you were acknowledging that you had become a different sort of person than the Swing or Dixie fan you had been, because, with Bird, you had to dig to know; your consciousness had to be at a certain level of evolution; you had to be able to intuit on the bias, to hear music being music, to comprehend the difference between the confining intelligence and the soul directly recording its own drift. No one who was not involved in the Bop revolt can know all that it meant to us. If a person dug Bop, we knew something about its sex life, his kick in literature and the arts, his attitudes toward joy, violence, Negroes and the very process of awareness.

Equally, we felt our distinctness in our immediate attraction to all those far-out experiences, about which society has the most stereotyped aversions: madness, drugs, religious ecstasies, dissipation and amorality. When pressed to explain why these experiences attracted us so, the most we could come up with, even to ourselves, was a feeling that they were somehow “more real” than anything else around. They were still unstained, in our minds, by all that alphabet soup of soggy verbalism and cerebration that we were beginning to find unpalatable. They suggested unexplored territories of consciousness that exerted a pull on us fully as strong and as mysterious as the pull of the Far West earlier.

As tyro writers, we sought out distinctness in these things, for writers tend to define their minds against the obdurateness of their material, and so instinctively gravitate to experiences they don´t quite understand. This may be the primary reason why American writers in this century compartmentalize themselves into “generations”, for American life alters from top to bottom almost every ten years, and each new group of writers is compelled to discover its own America, if it would discover itself. So it seemed only natural that we should seek our identity as a generation in experiences for which there existed no older literary tradition.

Jack Kerouac and used to sit up most of the night with quarts of beer in my apartment on Lexington Avenue, talking about all these things. Though he knew much more about them than I did, I think I was more concerned than hw was with isolating the common element in them. He would tell hours’-long stories about the “wild kids” he had seen everywhere in his travels since the war – all the junkies, musicians, collegian sailors, con men, teen-age Raskolnikovs, parking-lot hipsters, and their rootless, willing girls; stories that excited and disturbed me with a feeling of eminence, stories that seemed to be describing a new sort of stance toward reality, behind which a new sort of consciousness lay; stories that struck me just as Gorki´s first tales must have struck young Russians in the nineties.

I responded instinctively to these stories. I seemed to know (without knowing) the youthful thirst, the restless exuberance, the quality of search, that pulsed in them. I felt it myself. Everyone I knew felt it in one way or another – that bottled eagerness for talk, for joy, for excitement, for sensation, for new truths. Whatever the reason, everyone of my age had a look of impatience and expectation in his eyes that bespoke ungiven love, unreleased ecstasy and the presence of buried worlds within.

I kept goading Jack to characterize this new attitude, and one evening he described the way the young hipsters of Times Square walked down the street – watchful, cat-like, inquisitive, close to the buildings, in the street but not of it – I interrupted him to say that I thought we all walked like that, but what was the peculiar quality on mind behind it?

“It’s a sort of furtiveness,” he said. “Like we were a generation of furtives. You know, with an inner knowledge there’s no use flaunting on that level, the level of the ‘public’, a kind of beatness – I mean, being right down to it, to ourselves, because we all really know where we are – and a weariness with all the forms, all the conventions of the world… It’s something like that. So I guess you might say we’re a beat generation,” and he laughed a conspiratorial, the Shadow-knows kind of laugh at his own words and at the look on my face.

All other legends, rumors and claims to the contrary, this was how that much-misunderstood and maligned name for our generation was first coined – in the middle of a long, intense, only half-serious conversation in November, 1948. The subsequent history of the term is a matter of record, and the three pieces that follow are offered to make clear my personal complicity in, and disagreements with, that record.

The first, This is the Beat Generation, was written at the behest of Gilbert Millstein. While reviewing my novel, Go, he became intrigued by the phrase (which was casually mentioned in the book several times), and wondered if I would do an article on the subject for The New York Times Magazine. The piece appeared on November, 16, 1952, thereby earning itself the dubious distinction of being the first attempt to name the generation. It caused a ripple of curiosity, prompted a few hundred letters, and then it was forgotten.

Five years passed, during which “Howl” and On the Road appeared, putting the term back into general circulation again, and the second piece included here, “The Philosophy of the Beat Generation”, was published in Esquire in February, 1958, and constitutes a deeper and more detailed look at the Beat point of view as it had solidified since the first article was written.

Both these pieces, have been slightly abridged to remove hournalistic repetitions.

The final article, “The Game of the Name”, was written to supplement and amend the other two in the light of more recent developments. It deals with the so-called Beatniks and their critics. It also attempts to indicate a few of the contributions which th Beat attitude of my generation bequeathed to the generation that has succeeded it.

Try to categorize the experience of one´s own group (what I call “generationing”) is an urge that most fiercely besets you when you are young and the rage for order is at its most intense. I, for one, am not sorry for having given in to that urge. Not for the fact that it as passed from me now.


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