News Release — February 21, 2008
Harry Ransom Center Offers Online Beatnik Questionnaire in Conjunction with Exhibition "On the Road with the Beats"
The Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin is offering an online beatnik questionnaire in conjunction with its exhibition "On the Road with the Beats." The questionnaire can be accessed at hrc.utexas.edu/beatnik.
Within the exhibition, visitors can see an original "Beatnik Questionnaire" sent from Gerard Malanga to Daisy Aldan in 1960, with Aldan's answers, from the Malanga papers housed at the Ransom Center.
A young Malanga sent the questionnaire to his mentor, poet and publisher Aldan, probably not long after she published the works of several Beat writers in her anthology "A New Folder" (1960). Malanga was soon to become an important member of Andy Warhol's circle and was a cofounder of Interview magazine. Aldan's responses to the questionnaire are surprisingly earnest and thorough. She returned the completed form to Malanga, who filed it with his correspondence.
The exhibition highlights the distinction between "beat" and "beatnik" and the origin of the term "beatnik."
The term "beatnik" was coined in 1958 by the San Francisco Chronicle's witty man-on-the-street columnist Herb Caen, who used it to describe "bearded cats and kits" who were "only Beat, y'know, when it comes to work." It soon spread throughout commercial popular culture. In artifacts from the height of the beatnik phenomenon, between 1958 and 1961, the cliché varies: a beatnik man might be a motorcycle-riding, knife-brandishing juvenile delinquent or a bearded pseudo-philosopher in sandals and beret speaking in jazzy rhyme. A beatnik woman might be a highly sexualized, cynical risktaker lounging in a seedy hotel room or a naïvely pensive girl with long hair and loose black clothing singing folk songs in a smoky espresso bar. Most of the Beats were dismayed with the neologism and attempted to correct those who termed them "beatnik" writers, but couldn't stop the rising tide.
"On the Road with the Beats" traces the travels of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs and their friends across America and the globe. Manuscripts, books, photographs and visual art from the Ransom Center's collections tell the story of the Beat Generation and the literary and social revolution they inspired.
Events such as the publication of Kerouac's novel "On the Road" and the obscenity cases of Ginsberg's poem "Howl" and Burroughs' novel "Naked Lunch" brought the Beats to the attention of a broad public. These artists who had worked for years in obscurity were suddenly spokesmen for a generation. Young people flocked to cities like San Francisco and New York, seeking the unconventional way of life represented in profiles of Beat writers and artists in print and on television. At the same time, the Beats soon became stand-ins for existing controversial subjects represented in lurid magazine exposés of the "counterculture": drug addiction, interracial relationships, juvenile delinquency and other threats to the suburban respectability of mainstream 1950s life.
Those who complete the online beatnik questionnaire by Feb. 29 will be eligible to win a private tour of the exhibition with curator Molly Schwartzburg, who will guide the winner and 10 friends through the exhibition after public hours and discuss how the exhibition was organized and created.