Where Hipsters Came From

September 8, 2014 § Leave a comment

We drove home to western Massachusetts from Portland, Maine, taking Route 495 south past Lowell. The sign welcoming you to the city tells you it is the birthplace of Jack Kerouac and James McNeill Whistler (but not Bette Davis, also born there).

A few places around the internet are celebrating the 57th anniversary of the publication of On the Road. I’m not sure what the significance of that number is, but a few writers, including John Hendrickson at Esquire, point to the emergence of the Beat aesthetic spawned by the book as the point of origin for what we now lazily and infuriatingly call hipsterdom. Only Hendrickson wisely doesn’t use the word hipster. He writes:

We still drape ourselves in denim and chambray. We still wear tweed sport coats and throw billowy plaid scarves around our necks. We still go to bars in chinos and relaxed cotton oxfords. We still own wayfarers and corduroys and dark rimmed glasses and cocked back beanies and boxy sweaters and bold, thick, plaid shirts that feel better than almost anything else on any given evening.

Was there ever a time when young people seeking to emit confidence didn’t corner the market in relaxed, effortless style?

Hendrickson’s post include a number of photographs of Kerouac and his gussied-up Beat peers. What he doesn’t mention, though, is that the Beats not only found their writing inspiration in the rhythm and culture of 1940s jazz, but that’s where they picked up a lot of their style choices as well:

Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and friends spent much of their time in New York clubs such as the Red Drum, Minton’s, the Open Door and other hangouts, shooting the breeze and digging the music. Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis rapidly became what Allen Ginsberg dubbed “Secret Heroes” to this group of aesthetes.

It’s no coincidence that hipster originally referred to one who embraced jazz culture. Cab Calloway defined that and a related term, hep cat, as “a guy who knows all the answers, understands jive.” Perhaps it is the “knowing all the answers” part, and the smugness that seems to cling to the word, that has made hipster re-emerge as a rather empty term of derision for cocky urban white kids who don’t know the first thing about jazz.

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