Today, the Beat Generation. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
The Beatnik movement took
place around seven years before the Hippies, Viet
Nam protests, and Watts riots. It was literary, not
political. Most of us now remember only the crazy
'60s. But the Beatniks started a far subtler
upheaval with a trick of etymology.
You see, millions of G.I.s had come home in 1946,
craving domestic normalcy — a house, a white
picket fence, three children, and an eight-to-five
job. They wanted normalcy, normalcy, normalcy. What
they got, soon cloyed into stultifying orthodoxy.
By the mid-fifties, the young, increasingly jittery
about the smallness of the dreams around them,
would say to one another, "Hey, man, how ya doin'?"
The reply was, "Dunno, man. I'm beat." Beat meant,
beaten down and ground up by orthodoxy. This was
the Beat Generation. Hemmingway had been a member
of the Lost Generation. The young of the '20s had
been lost in a sea of excess. The young of the
fifties were now lost upon a sea of moderation.
Writer Jack Kerouac came out of the mill town of
Lowell, Massachusetts, and
reacted. He was an athlete, tall, handsome,
all-American, shy, but clear in his mind that his
generation would have to transcend a lock-step
world. He created a literary counterculture in
which the disenchanted regained their enchantment.
He gave these words to one character in his book,
On the Road:
Man, wow, there's so many things to do, so many
things to write! How to even begin to get it all
down and without modified restraints and all
hung-up on like literary inhibitions and
grammatical fears ...
Kerouac typed a hundred words a minute. To keep
from being slowed down, he taped sheets of paper
end-to-end. He wrote the first draft of On the
Road in a single scroll.
He described a great looping journey across America
— opening his senses to the land and the people.
His generation would be the blessed ones who'd
leave the gray-flannel world behind and seek beauty
indiscriminately — in city streets, and
hitchhiking across Nebraska. The word beat became
shorthand for the beatified — the blessed
ones who see God in all things. Kerouac became a
His friend, poet Allen Ginsberg, radicalized those
themes. His poem Howl describes Kerouac's
beaten people in far harsher terms. He wrote,
What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open
their skulls and ate up their brains and
We in Berkeley were still gray flannel suits.
Revolution didn't cross the Bay until later. In
both cities, we still thought revolution belonged
at the printing press, not in the Bastille. Social upheaval was a tsunami rising
silently under our feet, in the late '50s. It had
yet to reach shore.
When it did, in the 1960s, anger and tear gas swept
America. For revolution can never be kept in the
coffee houses. If a rebellion is just, the only way
to prevent it is to yield earlier, rather than
later. It's the only way; and yet, yielding to
change is difficult. It is so very hard to do.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
For more on the texture of the Beat movement and its
aftermath, see: J. H. Lienhard, Inventing Modern:
Growing up with X-Rays, Skyscrapers, and
Tailfins. New York: Oxford University Press,
August, 2003, Chapter 15.
J. Kerouac, On the Road, (New York:
Penquin Books, 1955.)
M. Theado, Understanding Jack Kerouac.
(Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press,
A. Ginsberg, Collected Poems: 1947-1980.
(New York: Harper & Row, Pub-lishers, 1984),
The second stage of revolution. Relief
sculpture from the Arc de Triumph in Paris
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H.