In 1988 my cool older cousin took me to see the new John Water’s film Hairspray. I was 14 at the time and I was about to be introduced to a whole new world. Set in 1962 Baltimore, Maryland, the film revolves around self-proclaimed “pleasantly plump” teenager Tracy Turnblad as she pursues stardom as a dancer on a local TV show and rallies against racial segregation. Halfway through the film, Tracy and her friends find themselves on the wrong side of town and are welcomed and take refuge in a house, where they meet a couple of `Beatnix’ ( A Beatnix was a media stereotype prevalent throughout that displayed the more superficial aspects of the Beat Generation). Watch the scene below:
Now I know this is a slight parody of the whole Beat scene, at the time I was intrigued by these characters and decided to do more research into the Beat Generation.
The Beat movement was very brief, it only lasted from 1955 to around 1962. This was likely due to the artists and authors were building a life beyond just producing literature. Many of authors were fighting for sexual freedom, off studying in Buddhism and doing a lot of drugs! Many of them would end up burnt out, kill themselves, battle serious addictions, or completely reinvent themselves. The whole idea of the Beat movement was to view our most authentic, uncensored human thoughts and desires as high art. I began frantically researching in the local library for any clues to this movement and stumbled upon Allan Ginsberg’s Howl. For my 14-year-old brain it was a little too much (In 1956 the poem was seized by both the San Francisco police department and US Customs for its depiction of homosexual and heterosexual acts- it even became the subject of an obscenity trail!) but I did recognise that some of the passages were read out by the Beatnix Chick in Hairspray so I knew I was on the right track! It was soon after I discovered Jack Kerouac and his legendary autobiographical novel On the Road. Kerouac began thinking about the novel as early as 1947, it was not until three weeks in April 1951, in an apartment on West Twentieth Street in Manhattan, that he wrote the first draft. Typed out as one long, single-spaced paragraph on eight long sheets of tracing paper that he later taped together to form a 120-foot scroll, this document came to be one of the most celebrated artefacts in American literature. Despite its sense of loneliness ( or maybe because of it), the novel had a massive effect on me. I embraced the hippie culture and started wearing flares and second-hand clothes and approached life and art with new eyes- it was like my blinkers had been taken away. After our lecture on Friday, I went home and dug out my well-worn copy of the book (which I haven’t read in years). Leading up to our study trip to New York in January, I plan on escaping into the novel once again.