Does history repeat itself? Indeed it does. What we find cool today, no matter how innovative we think we are in culture, seems to always stem from some movement in the past. Hipsters are no exception, although they may pride themselves on doing something first, they truly did not.
In fact, the real hipsters were the Beat poets. In the 1950’s the Beat poets and writers redefined popular culture and set the wheels in motion for several notable counter cultures, including today’s hipsters. They were the Cold War Generation, growing up knowing that a Soviet attack was always a possibility. This mentality that destruction was always possible instilled within the Beats a need for reckless behavior. If their lives were always at risk why not live it to the fullest? Does this remind anyone of YOLO?
During this time of red scare, these new Americans were beginning to explore different religions. They were not only experimental in their religions, but also in their drug usage. Drugs were used to open their minds and their points of view, including those points of view on their sexuality. Although the Beats lived in a time where sex was seen as taboo, they sought to revolutionize this and did so by sharing partners, experimenting with the same sex, and claiming risky titles such as “gay” with pride. The Beats strove to transcend the world they knew and discover what could lie beyond, particularly in San Francisco.
But the Beats were not the types to stay in one place. Instead they traveled across the country, seeing the United States as it truly was. (You can read all about it in On The Road by Jack Kerouac). They were dedicated to their art and artistic expression, but more than anything else they were dedicated to depicting their lives as they happened. Much of Kerouac’s writing reads like a memoir with names changed and events exaggerated, while Allen Ginsberg references several of his friends in his poetry, and William S. Burroughs documented his heroin fueled adventures in Naked Lunch. These poets and writers were redefining what culture was, and in doing so they were creating bonds so strong that they gave birth to an entire movement. A movement that would continue to affect popular culture for decades to come.
The core group of poets met in their time at Columbia University in New York City and eventually picked up several friends as they moved west. The Beat poets serve as a reminder to us all that a dedicated group of people who live passionately, albeit a bit dangerously, and remember to love can create an influence which can be felt by millions, even if their numbers are small. The Beats are a symbol for our generation, but they are also an example. Many of the Beats died young, practicing reckless behavior and getting themselves into trouble. Although they stressed the importance of community and brotherhood, their actions cannot always be applauded. They may have redefined what culture was, introduced new religions to the populace, and created writings that would be read for generations but they were also lost, confused, and often broke. Many of them lived in excess and let their addictions get the better of them, however they were still intelligent and deliberate when needed. They may have made their legacy living young, wild, and free, but it burned them out quickly. My question is what will our legacy be? Will we learn from history or are we bound to repeat it?