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Roadmap in 1959

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In the 1950s and 1960s there were evolving etymologies for the word beat. In "The Origins of the Beat Generation," originally published in Playboy magazine in 1959, the year I joined the Bahá'í Faith, the beat poet Jack Kerouac wrote that the word beat originally meant poor, down and out, deadbeat, on the bum, sad and sleeping in subways. He further noted that the word had gained an extended meaning connoting people who "have a certain new gesture, or attitude.”(1) Kerouac suffused the label with positive connotations, a move he later extended into giving "beat" a religious significance. The Beats were for a time, in this evolving etymology, saints in the making who were walking the Earth doing good deeds in the name of sanctitude, holiness and the beatific. There was certainly an element of this in the Bahá'í ethos of the Ten Year Crusade of 1953-1963.

Kerouac had at one stage claimed that "beat" was the second religiousness in Western Civilization that the historian Oswald Spengler had prophesized in his Decline of the West in 1918.(2) But, by 1965, he had changed this view of the beats, the beatniks, the counter-culture and, in fact, strongly denounced its entire ethos. By the mid-soaring sixties he had come to see that generation of dissent and dissenters as the very opposite of Spengler’s second-religiousness. He called it “a soaring hysteria.”(3) -Ron Price with thanks to (1) Jack Kerouac, "The Origins of the Beat Generation," in Don Allen, ed., Good Blonde and Others Grey Fox Press, San Francisco, 1994, p. 61; (2) ibid., p.66 and (3) Ann Charters, ed., Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters 1957-1969, Penguin Books, NY, 1999, p. 464.

Your notion of Beat as a Spenglerian

second coming ended in a very bitter


whose apocalypse just never arrived.

You denied all political---collectivist

implications for the beats & beatniks.

You had used the term back in 1951 to

describe guys who ran around the land

and country in cars looking for jobs and

girlfriends, kicks and fun.You remained

an on-again off-again beat.....throughout

your life, flirting with many religions but

always infusing them with a dose of your

Catholicism to which you ultimately went

back for its order, tenderness and piety as

you put in in one of your many letters.....

The word "beat" had extended to cover

all of America by the end of the sixties

and most of the world..youngsters used

your On the Road as a search-roadmap.(1)

But you abdicated your status as King of

the Road as well as King of the Beats.(2)

(1) Jack Kerouac(1922-1969), On the Road, 1957.

(2) I thank Bent Sørensen for his: “An On & Off Beat: Kerouac's Beat Etymologies,” in philament: An Online Journal of Arts and Culture, April, 2004.

Ron Price

2 January 2010

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Fascinating information. I appreciate this post as I have spent a long time studying Krsna Consciousness, spirituality, and religion. My personal belief is that in the 60's a lot of the cultural movements were infiltrated or even created by the dark brotherhoods who get a kick out of subverting cultures and destinations of civilizations for their own profit. So whatever was pure and sincere about the hippies, beatnicks etc. was ultimately subverted into the ridiculous. That combined with the fact that esoteric knowledge is not meant for the insincere and is not meant as an undisciplined cultural fad. Esoteric knowledge used in those instances becomes a disaster. But the whole concept of the wandering beatnick shaman gypsy is good in my opinion but only the sincere and disciplined is going to stand the test of time and the rest will just be a disturbance to civilization.

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