Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg & Margaret Mead Explain the Meaning of “Beat” in Rare 1950s Audio Clips


In 1948, Jack Ker­ouac first start­ed talk­ing about a “Beat Gen­er­a­tion,” by which he meant a “swing­ing group of new Amer­i­can men intent on joy.” Ten years lat­er, the term, now com­mon­place in Amer­i­ca’s lex­i­con, was get­ting co-opt­ed by the main­stream media, and not for the bet­ter. “Beat” had become a short­hand for “crime, delin­quen­cy, immoral­i­ty, amoral­i­ty” and more. In 1958, Ker­ouac deliv­ered a speech at Hunter Col­lege where he tried to restore the true prin­ci­ples of the beat move­ment and sweep aside the fab­ri­cat­ed mis­con­cep­tions. You can lis­ten to a 7 minute excerpt of that speech below, or hear the full speech here:

The next year, Play­boy explic­it­ly asked Ker­ouac to elab­o­rate on the Hunter Col­lege speech. He agreed and gave them “The Ori­gins of the Beat Gen­er­a­tion,” which, too, you can read online: Page 1  — Page 2 — Page 3 — Page 4.

By ’59, Allen Gins­berg, the poet lau­re­ate of the Beats, knew there was lit­tle use in try­ing to reap­pro­pri­ate the term from the mag­a­zines and mar­keters. When asked to define the word, he effec­tive­ly refused to play the game. But famed anthro­pol­o­gist Mar­garet Mead, a more neu­tral out­side observ­er, was will­ing to take a shot. Lis­ten below, or hear a slight­ly longer audio clip here:

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  • Chuck Taylor says:

    This was great. Be sure to lis­ten to both, although the sec­ond audio clip, with Gins­berg and Mar­garet Mead, is trun­cat­ed. In the review of my books I get called some­times a beat and a beat­nik even. The sec­ond term was pop­u­lar­ized by San Fran­cis­co news­pa­per colum­nist Herb Caen, and is a spin off of sput­nik.

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