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Was Nick Carraway a 'Beat' Nick?

Rob Kyff on

Q. I remember hearing or reading that the beatniks took their name from the last sentence in "The Great Gatsby" -- "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past." Any idea whether that's true? -- Mike, West Hartford, Connecticut.

The notion of a literary link between F. Scott Fitzgerald's wistful epigram for the Lost Generation and the name of the Beat Generation is as enticing as the plaintive lilt of a saxophone in a Greenwich Village coffeehouse. As Ernest Hemingway wrote in "The Sun Also Rises," "Isn't it pretty to think so?"

Alas, the Gatsby-atic origin of "beatnik" is just a fantasy. But the "beat" in Fitzgerald's last line and the term "beatnik" do derive from the basic meaning of "beat": "to strike or pound something (or someone) repeatedly."

As Louis Menand explained in a 2007 New Yorker article, the "beat" in "Beat Generation" and in "beatnik" was originally carnival slang for "the condition of being beaten down, poor, exhausted, at the bottom of the world." Jack Kerouac used this sense of "beat" often in his novel "On the Road."

Legend has it that Kerouac and his fellow beat writer Allen Ginsberg picked up the term in 1939 from Herbert Huncke, a street hustler and drug addict from Chicago, and that Kerouac first used the term "Beat Generation" in a 1948 conversation with writer John Clellon Holmes.

By the early 1950s, the terms "Beat Generation" and "the Beats" were being used widely to describe disaffected postwar writers who rejected conformity and materialism and explored heightened sensory experience through drugs, sex and jazz. Oh, yeah, and Eastern religions.

But whence "beatnik"? The mischievous San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen coined this term on April 2, 1958, six months after the Soviets had launched their Sputnik satellite, when he described a party in the North Beach neighborhood "for 50 beatniks."

 

Within a few weeks, Caen's facetious and mildly derisive "-nik" suffix was being attached to the stray dog launched aboard Sputnik 2 ("muttnik") and the U.S. Vanguard rocket that exploded on the launch pad ("flopnik," "kaputnik," "dudnik"). Soon it was being extended to nonspace contexts as well ("no-goodnik," "peacenik," "refusenik," "neatnik").

In fact, the groundwork for the derogatory, Sputnik-inspired "-nik" had already been laid by a Yiddish word popular among Americans since the 1940s: "nudnik," meaning "someone who's a nuisance."

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the pest.

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Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Connecticut, invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to WordGuy@aol.com or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Copyright 2019 Creators Syndicate Inc.
 

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