Not so long ago I had a large book collection/library that filled two large book shelves in my living room and contained a very large collection of Beat writings and writings on the Beats. All that has changed and I now possess very few books due to circumstances that has absolutely nothing to do with the contents of this article but my telling of it is to forewarn that what follows is a memory piece and is thus open to the corruptions of a memory slightly long of tooth and well known to be obstinate. At one time I had planned to write this piece with included footnotes and quotes to defend my position and conclusions but that is now impossible with all my books gone and so I propose to have fun instead.
The first known reference to the Beat Generation was made by Herbert Huncke to Jack Kerouac in a bar in New York city in a passing comment concerning the patrons of the bar and their generation in general in that they were “beat”, meaning in the first instance that they were beat down or beaten by the system under which they lived and had thus become outsiders to some degree from the system. This beatness implied living at a lower level of one’s own instincts and desires. Huncke by the way was dubbed “the greatest story teller ever” by Jack and Burroughs too if memory serves me well. Later in conversation with John Clellon Holmes, Jack elaborated on Huncke’s comment in special reference to those who were hanging out together and exploring new frontiers of literature — Jack, Allen, William S., Hal Chase, and including the hipsters, muscians and hustlers that the core group were attracted to. Gregory was a later addition who was quite possibly cooling his heels in juvie detention at the time. After the publication of Go Holmes undertook a series of articles for The New York Times Literary Supliment which proposed to explain or at least give some indication of what this new at the time phenomenon of the Beat Generation was about and consisted of. Holmes credits Jack with creating the term but makes no mention of Huncke’s original comment nor is there any indication that Jack, in the conversation with Holmes, made any reference to the seed Huncke had planted.
Which brings us to the question or questions concerning the meaning of the term. It is my conviction that the original meaning was contained in Huncke’s perception in the bar that afternoon with Jack and the comments of the beats being “Beatified” or having attained of state of religious “Beatitude” is a later addition to the term and its usage. This consideration comes from the reflection that Jack’s and Allen’s interest and studies of the Buddhist religion came later in the lives of all involved than did the above-mentioned conversations and indeed came later than most of what is recorded in On the Road. That being beat or beaten down could lead to the state or state similar to that of Beatitude is not one that I will entertain here but I do see some validity in it.
And there you have it!