The Meaning of Beat
Photo by Larry Keenan

The word “beat” originally derived from circus and carnival argot, reflecting the straitened circumstances of nomadic carnies. In the drug world, 'beat' meant robbed or cheated. Herbert Huncke picked up the word from his show business friends on the Near North Side of Chicago, and in the fall of 1945, he introduced the word to William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. He never intended it to be elevating, but the opposite; 'I meant beaten. The world against me.'

The word acquired historical resonance when Jack Kerouac, in a November, 1948 conversation with fellow writer John Clellon Holmes, remarked, "So I guess you might say we're a 'beat' generation." Appropriating this conversation, Holmes introduced the word to the mainstream public four years later, in a November 1952 article for the New York Times Magazine entitled This Is The Beat Generation. “It involves a sort of nakedness of mind, and ultimately, of soul,” Holmes wrote, a feeling of being reduced to the bedrock of consciousness.'

By the early 1950's, Kerouac and Ginsberg had begun to emphasize the “beatific” quality of “beat,” investing the viewpoint of the defeated with mystical perspective. “The point of beat is that you get beaten down to a certain nakedness where you are actually able to see the world in a visionary way,” wrote Ginsberg, “which is the old classical understanding of what happens in the dark night of the soul.” “Beat” became widely disseminated after the publication of Kerouac's On The Road in 1957, when the media promoted the Beat Generation as a cultural phenomenon.

For an entry in the Random House Dictionary, Jack Kerouac provided an apt historical definition: “Members of the generation that came of age after World War II, who supposedly, as a result of disillusionment stemming from the cold war, espouse mystical detachment, and relaxation of social and sexual tensions.” As the twentieth century was drawing to a close, the Beat Generation had outlived that historical moment, surviving notoriety and media blitz to become classic literature for succeeding generations.

Excerpted from The Birth of the Beat Generation

Copyright 2002-2008 by Steven Watson/

The life and times of Jim Morrison of the Doors, explored through original articles, exclusive interviews, special features, his creative influences and legacy, and other resources.
Beat Generation poets, history and work that inspired Jim Morrison
Beat Beginnings: The Meaning of Beat