They’re taking over pop culture, they’re taking over the internet, and some say they’re taking over the streets of America.
You know who I’m talking about: those vintage hunting, hotpants wearing, thick rimmed glasses donning hipsters. Living in Ann Arbor, it’s obvious from a stroll down State St that “hipsterism” is the new college cool.
Here’s the definition of the modern hipster, provided via urbandictionary.com:
“Hipsters are a subculture of men and women typically in their 20’s and 30’s that value independent thinking, counter-culture, progressive politics, an appreciation of art and indie-rock, creativity, intelligence, and witty banter. Although “hipsterism” is really a state of mind, it is also often intertwined with distinct fashion sensibilities.”
Basically, to be a hipster today is a lifestyle choice. It’s an affinity for non-conformity in taste, dress, and interest. But, I have always wondered about the origins of this oft-used word, so I decided to do some digging and here’s what I found.
The coining of the word “hipster” first appeared in the 1950s, in referral to the Beat Generation. The Beat Generation was a group of American post-WWII literary figures who came to prominence in the 1950s, as well as the cultural phenomena that they both documented and inspired. The culture of the Beat Generation included “experimentation with drugs, alternative forms of sexuality, an interest in Eastern religion, a rejection of materialism, and the idealizing of exuberant, unexpurgated means of expression and being”.
Many theorized the origins of the Beat Generations came from the stresses of growing up in the “Age of Anxiety”. The 1950s was a time characterized by violent displays of human destruction witnessed in World War II. This pessimism in human nature inspired the Beat Generation’s opposition to Conformity. People were disillusioned by the capability for evil that societal values of the time were not able to prevent. What is the point of trying to reach human potential through society when at the end of the day, our species causes nothing but ruin?
When I look at the culture of the Beat Generation, I see numerous parallels with the transcendentalism of Emerson. Members of the Beat Generation were on a spiritual quest of sorts. God to them was not the God that was found in the Church: an institution of man. The Beat Generation saw God as experience. They looked for God in nature and in themselves. How they found God was in introspection (with or without the influence of hallucinogenic drugs). The Beat Generation didn’t care what society thought of them because they had detached themselves from convention to form their own opinions and pursue what pleased. Emerson wrote: “These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they exist with God to-day. There is no time to them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence.” Were the Beat Generation those roses?
The Beat generation was looking for a new American identity. They wanted America to be a country of inspiration, separated from the status quo of the Western World. They were looking for a nation of self-reliant individuals. They understood Emerson’s call.
Now, the virtue and vices of their non-conformity are something to be debated. Looking back, what were the potential virtues of the Beat Generation? Probably the fact that they eventually evolved into the hippies of the 60s who actively participated in the civil rights and anti-war movements. What about vices? At the time, and still today, many see them as good-for-nothings who had no contributions to society, and who lured American youth into unholy drug usage and delinquent behavior.
But an even more interesting question the Beat generation brings up is: are Emerson’s ideas really valid? I’m certain that the first Beats were really Emersonian in individuality and isolation, but the fact that history recognizes them as a group or a movement really brings up some points of concern. Even if movements start with individuals, do they eventually become un-Emersonian when individuals meet others who have conclude the same beliefs after introspection? Another way to word it is, do human beings have a natural affinity toward group life? And if so, is it impractical for an individual to maintain the level of introspection and isolation that Emerson proposes?
What do you think? When the Beat Generation broke off and created a new set of values, did that leave a positive or negative mark on the course of American history? How does their influence confirm or reject the validity of Emerson’s ideas?