From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Beatnik is a media stereotype that borrowed the most superficial aspects of the Beat Generation literary movement of the 1950s to present a distorted (and sometimes violent), cartoon-like misrepresentation of the real-life people and the spirituality found in Jack Kerouac's autobiographical fiction.
Since 1958, the terms Beat Generation and Beat have been used to describe the antimaterialistic literary movement that began with Kerouac in 1948, stretching on into the 1960s. The Beat philosophy of antimaterialism and soul searching influenced 1960s musicians such as Bob Dylan, the early Pink Floyd and The Beatles.
At the time that the terms were coined, there was a trend amongst young college students to adopt the stereotype, with men wearing goatees and berets, rolling their own cigarettes and playing bongos. Fashions for women included black leotards and wearing their hair long, straight and unadorned in a rebellion against the middle class culture of beauty salons. Marijuana use was associated with the subculture, and during the 1950s, Aldous Huxley's The Doors of Perception further influenced views on drugs.
By 1960, a small 'beatnik' community in Newquay, Cornwall, England (including a young Wizz Jones) had attracted the attention and the abhorrence of their neighbours, for growing their hair to a length that was then quite abnormally long (past the shoulders), for which they were interviewed by the BBC's Alan Whicker for national television.
The Beat philosophy was generally countercultural and antimaterialistic and it stressed the importance of bettering one's inner self over and above material possessions. Some Beat writers began to delve into Eastern religions such as Buddhism or Taoism. Politics tended to be liberal; with support for causes such as desegregation (although many of the figures associated with the original Beat movement, particularly William Burroughs, embraced libertarian/conservative ideas). An openness to African-American culture and arts was apparent in literature and music, notably jazz. While Caen and other writers implied a connection with communism, there was no obvious or direct connection between the beat philosophy (as expressed by the leading authors of this literary movement) and the philosophy of the communist movement, other than the antipathy that both philosophies shared towards capitalism.
Beatniks in literature and film
The character Maynard G. Krebs, played on TV by Bob Denver in The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (1959-63), solidified the beatnik stereotype, in contrast to the rebellious, Beat related images presented by popular film actors of the early and mid-1950s, notably Marlon Brando and James Dean.
The subculture surfaced on Broadway as musical comedy in The Nervous Set (1959) by Neurotica editor Jay Landesman and Theodore J. Flicker with music by Tommy Wolf and lyrics by Fran Landesman; this was the source of two jazz standards, "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most" and "The Ballad of the Sad Young Men" (recorded by Gil Evans, Anita O'Day, Roberta Flack, Petula Clark, Rod McKuen, Shirley Bassey and others). The show opened with the song, "Man, We're Beat".
Stanley Donen brought the theme to the film musical in Funny Face (1957) with one Audrey Hepburn production number revamped into a Gap commercial in 2006. In yet another Madison Avenue manipulation, one of Jerry Yulsman's photographs of Kerouac was altered for use in a Gap print ad by airbrushing Joyce Johnson right out of the picture.
The Beat Generation (1959) made an association of the movement with crime and violence, as did The Beatniks (1960). The notion of violence or other criminality possibly arose because hardcore outlaws and criminals were popularly portrayed as using many of the same jive terms in their speech, and this distortion could also be seen in popular TV shows with regard to hippies a few years later.
Among the humor books, Beat, Beat, Beat was a 1959 Signet paperback of cartoons by Phi Beta Kappa Princeton graduate William F. Brown, who looked down on the movement from his position in the TV department of the Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn advertising agency. Suzuki Beane (1961), by Sandra Scoppettone with Louise Fitzhugh illustrations, was a Bleecker Street beatnik spoof of Kay Thompson's Eloise series (1956-59).
The Looney Tunes cartoon character Cool Cat is often portrayed as a beatnik, as is the banty rooster in the 1963 Foghorn Leghorn short Banty Raids. In the television cartoon Scooby-Doo, the character Shaggy is a portrayal of a beatnik. Similarly, the Beany and Cecil cartoon series also had a beatnik character, Go Man Van Gogh (aka "The Wildman"), who often lives in the jungle and paints various pictures and backgrounds to fool his enemies, first appearing in the episode, "The Wildman of Wildsville." In the animated series The Simpsons, the parents of character Ned Flanders are beatniks who have him placed in a mental institution as a child after they have trouble disciplining his bad behavior (Complains his mother: "We've tried nothin', and we're all out of ideas!"). Also, in the animated television series, Doug, Doug's older sister, Judy Funnie, is characterized as a beatnik.