HONR 269J The Beat Begins: America in the 1950s

Speeding Toward Death
Neal Cassady, Charlie Parker, and Escape in the 1950s
© 1998, Jennifer Hartt

Leave it to Beaver. McDonald's. Automated dishwashers. Levittown.
Heroin. Bebop. Speed. Madness. Freedom.

A movement arose among the artists of 1950s America as a reaction to the time's prevailing conformity and affluence whose members attempted to extract all they could from life, often in a strikingly self-destructive way. Specifically, the Beat writers and jazz musicians of the era found escape from society in drugs and fast living. But what exactly led so many to this dangerous path? Why did they choose drugs and speed to implement their rebellion? A preliminary look at the contradictions that prevailed in 1950s American society may give some insight into these artists' world.

At the end of World War II, American culture experienced an overhaul that ushered in a period of complacency beneath which paranoia seethed. A generation that had lived through the privations of the Depression and the horrors of world war was now presented with large suburban homes, convenient and impressive appliances, and pre-packaged entertainment. Such wonders so soon after extended hard times were greeted enthusiastically and even treated with a sense of awe. They may have encouraged few distinctions among the middle class -- the houses in a suburb were generally as identical as hamburgers at McDonald's -- but they represented a wealth to which few had before enjoyed access. Life became automated, with dishwashers cleaning up after dinner and air conditioning easing mid-summer heat. The new conveniences left more time for families to absorb the new mass culture presented through television, records, and Spillane novels. Excitement over the new conveniences and entertainment led America to increasingly become an acquiring society. To my parents' generation, childhood in the 50s was a time when people were generally pleased with themselves and with the status quo, though there was a perpetual desire to possess a bit more. Like the wife in The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, suburbanites always wanted a larger house, a larger car, and a better refrigerator, constantly aspiring to even greater material wealth. Times were conducive to materialism and few seemed eager to change anything about their society. As Halberstam pointed out, it could be dangerous to alter a system that was "working so well" (xi).

Fear of change, as well as fear of a sudden atomic death, led to anxiety within the superficially satisfied culture. This nebulous fear of change, which needed to be directed at some enemy, found sanctuary in vehement anti-Communism (McNally 95), most extremely manifested in Senator McCarthy's witch hunts in the 1950s. Anxiety focused on Russia; as Allen Ginsberg facetiously wrote in "America," "The Russia wants to eat us alive" (43). The Cold War indirectly resulting from this anxiety brought with it the constant threat of annihilation. The fearsome power of nuclear weaponry had been demonstrated against Japan and could at any time be turned against the United States, whose citizens would then serve as sitting ducks for their own destruction. As tensions mounted, preparations of sorts were made for nuclear war. Schoolchildren crawled under their desks during air raids, probably knowing at some level that they could not hide from a bomb. A shelter was set up in rural West Virginia to which those deemed important to rebuilding the country (including my grandfather, a Defense Department engineer) would be shuttled in the event of nuclear war, leaving their families behind to die. Precautions such as these and the corresponding paranoia of the time left many with a sense of helplessness in regard to their futures. Some met this dismay by suppressing it and focusing instead on the material aspects of life, while others faced it more directly by trying to fully live, to experience all they could in what little time might remain to them (Krim 203). It is these rebels with whom we now concern ourselves.

The choice to reject an affluent society, especially one that seemed to have forsaken common sense, was not a particularly difficult undertaking, especially since spare time usually accompanies prosperity. In the 1950s, dissatisfied young artists with time on their hands tended to see society's faults as irreparable and consequently wanted simply to withdraw themselves from it (Foster 90). Like James Dean in the movies, they were often "rebels without a cause," seeking not to change the world but merely to free themselves from it and simply be. The major movements in the arts of the time: bebop in jazz, the Beat generation in literature, and abstract expressionism in visual art, all served purposes related to this attitude by deviating from accepted methods of artistic creation while asserting human individuality. Each focused on the individual artist and his unique view of the world, yet rejected tradition-mandated structure. The iconoclastic lifestyles of the artists themselves also reflected this individuality. Two major figures of the time, Charlie Parker and Neal Cassady, served as heroes to large factions of artists, in part due to their self-directed and self-destructive lifestyles. Though they were unique individuals whose life choices cannot be applied to those of an artistic movement as a whole, their lifestyles were representative of the attitudes of those movements. Much of what appealed to others about them can be summarized in one word: speed.

Neal Cassady and the Cult of Speed

Neal Cassady did nothing slowly. Represented as Dean Moriarty in Kerouac's On the Road, he possessed apparently boundless energy. Dean constantly

seemed to be doing everything at the same time. It was a shaking of the head, up and down, sideways; jerky, vigorous hands; quick walking, sitting, crossing the legs, uncrossing, getting up, rubbing the hands, rubbing his fly, hitching his pants, looking up and saying 'Am,' and sudden slitting of the eyes to see everywhere; and all the time he was grabbing me by the ribs and talking, talking (114).

He drove like a madman from one coast to the other without rest, made love to and married women right and left, and drank constantly. The majority of this portrayal was apparently accurate; Cassady's life did indeed adhere to the extremes of Dean's. Raised by an alcoholic father for whom he repeatedly pleaded in court, he lived with his father and a legless man called Shorty in a hotel and ate at the local mission (McNally 91). By the age of 21, his life of sex and speed was well underway: he had stolen over 500 cars, had been arrested ten times (a rather low ratio considering his many thefts), and had seduced innumerable women (McNally 91). His frantic, sometimes only thinly-masked suicidal search for experience probably stemmed from his bleak upbringing and the self-hatred it had presumably ingrained into him. After a childhood decidedly lacking in love and hope, he may have lost regard for himself and hoped his energy could, by leading him to something worthwhile he failed to see in himself, save him from living a degenerate lifestyle like that of his father.

To Cassady himself, the frantic pace of his life was a search for escape from the horrors within and without, yet to many of those who knew him, his life represented much more. Kerouac and many other Beats treated him as a hero, as a saintly figure who embodied the antithesis of American society. To be sure, he rejected all of America's expectations of its youth, including those of steady employment, monogamous marriage, a college education, and submission to the law. In accordance with these life choices, he could be said to serve as a pure representation of the id in a culture based on the controlling superego (Hoffman 493). Cassady acted mainly to satisfy his basic physical drives with little regard to the consequences ("Dean just raced in society, eager for bread and love" (Kerouac 10)), while society mandated above all else self-control. Though a fully-functional superego (or conscience) prevented most others from following his lead, Cassady's complete surrender to the demands of the id displayed the freedom for which they yearned. Freud warned against the dangers of an unchecked id and its tendency to lead to "impulsive and often dangerous" actions (Comer 55), but these actions were exactly what the bored Beats most craved. It appeared to them that Cassady had completely freed himself, not merely from the confines of society, but even from those of his own subconscious. The reason he and few others could act this way may have originated in his unique upbringing. Deviations from the normal id/ego/superego system of checks and balances are usually traced to improper parenting and stressful childhood experiences, through which Cassady surely suffered. Accordingly, his id took over, and since he could not control it, he went along with it and sought to experience as much as he could through its dictates, concurrently "trying to run [his life] out as fast as possible" (Knight 59). Deprived of meaningful positive experience during his most vulnerable years, he seemed to hope to find something that would make his life worthwhile, or die trying. He lived, according to John Sisk, "convinced that if he [went] fast enough and [had] enough violent experiences the great ultimate secret [would] be laid bare to him" (Parkinson 200). Those who placed him on a pedestal seemed to believe that his speed would indeed lead to that "ultimate secret," whatever and wherever it might be, and that knowledge of that secret would allow them to derive true happiness from oppressive times. However, since the nature of this all-important secret remained unclear, the speed of Cassady and those who emulated him had little direction, causing them to resemble "rabbits by an airfield, ... blinded by noise and light, ...more concerned with running than getting anywhere" (Rigney 155). One can easily imagine these rabbits scurrying in all directions, driven by some unnamed fear, eventually either collapsing in exhaustion or running too far and meeting horrible ends amongst the machinery of the airfield. Such a horrible end came to Bill Cannastra, an acquaintance of the Beats who somehow managed to live life even faster than did Cassady. A legend among the Beats for his outrageous activities, he died by climbing partway out of a subway window as the train left the station and quickly became a symbol of "the extremes to which conformist America drove the rebellious individual" (Foster 10). Though the rabbit analogy is a less than complimentary one, it concisely describes the pointlessness and eventual destructiveness evident in the pursuit of speed. If Cassady or any others like him had been asked to name their ultimate goal in living as they did, it is likely they would have failed to answer; they knew only that their "one and noble function of the time [was to] move" (Kerouac 133). Kerouac postulated in On the Road that what they really searched for was death. He explained that "the one thing we yearn for in our living days ... is the remembrance of some lost bliss that was probably experienced in the womb and can only be reproduced (though we hate to admit it) in death" (124). When Sal explained this to Dean, Dean recognized the desire for death but refused to have anything to do with it and continued to speed ahead and dare death without admitting he was doing so.

This unconscious search for death within a conscious search for experience led naturally to the use of amphetamines. When using various forms of speed, particularly Benzedrine, the Beats could forego sleep and food and devote 24 hours a day to their experiences. Driving all day and night or writing steadily for days and nights on end, as Kerouac was known to do, became simple tasks with these chemical aids. If the goal was to experience as much as possible, amphetamines were a natural means to this end, since they allowed their users to live even faster and thereby theoretically see and do twice as much as they could sober. Other drugs also fit logically into the experience-seeking Beat lifestyle, though not because they accelerated the pace of life.

If Cassady and others were searching for the one experience that would open them to some greater truth, then "all varieties of experience -- all kinds of sexual activity, drug addiction, criminality, depravity -- [were] equally valuable" (Hynes 559), since anything could, unpredictably, be the key for which they searched. Marijuana, peyote, and various other hallucinogenic substances found common usage among the Beats, since they allowed their users to undergo all varieties of abnormal experiences and thereby open their eyes to previously-ignored pieces of the world. Marijuana was considered a means to more intensely perceive the present (Foster 95) and thus to get more out of each moment, while peyote, celebrated throughout Beat literature, caused effects such as synaesthesia and was thought to provide special sorts of insight into the world (Parkinson 155). This insight, in turn, found its way into literature, especially that by those, like Philip Lamantia and Michael McClure, who believed "true poetic effects [were] best achieved through an 'ecstatic illumination' induced by... 'the heroic medicines:' heroin, opium, mescaline, marijuana, peyote" (O'Neil 123). Writing influenced by drug use was therefore highly valued and this esteem for drugs encouraged others to follow established writers down the path to complete, chemically-induced experience. The complete man and artist, to the Beats, emitted an unchecked stream of energy and art and possessed some deep insight into life gained through experience. The energy necessary to obtain this understanding, all too often, led one to effectively self-destruct.

Sidenote: Jack Kerouac, Outsider

Jack Kerouac, one of the foremost Beat writers, led the movement to idolize Neal Cassady, yet could never capture his spirit himself. A strict Catholic upbringing and constant failure to live up to the saintly standard set by his brother Gerard, who died of rheumatic fever, fostered in the young Jack a sense of discontent with himself that followed him into adulthood (McNally 15). He held a deep belief that life itself was flawed, yet agonized over always failing to fit into it (McNally 106). This outsider quality is clearly visible in the Kerouac character, Sal Paradise, in On the Road, who refers in frustration to the "raggedy madness and riot" of life (254). This chaos makes Sal, "an imperfect man in an alien world, brooding, lonely, seized by moments of self-hatred, ...want to withdraw from the world" (Tytell 314). Kerouac effectively faced this desire for escape by living a life of extremes. He either took no drugs or took them steadily and in excessive quantities, he treated alcohol as an integral part of life, and he viewed the world only in terms of extremes: everything was either "the greatest ever" or absolutely horrifying (McNally 7, 128). Kerouac's self-hatred and dichotomous thinking probably led him to deify Cassady, a living package of extremes, and to actively, though somewhat subconsciously, seek to end his life. He finally met this goal when his long alcohol use caused his liver to give out in 1969, when he was only 47.

Charlie Parker and Hard Bop

Another idol of rebellious 1950s artists exhibited a sort of self-destructive madness similar to that of the Beats. Charlie Parker, a brilliant and prolific jazz improviser and equally prolific heroin user, served as a model to jazz musicians in particular and escape-seeking young people in general. It has been suggested, however, that Parker's more outrageous actions were more like those of a spoiled child than of rebellion, basically due to his largely supervision-free childhood (Koch 5). His father was usually absent even before his parents divorced, and circumstances forced his mother to work much of the day and night in order to provide for herself and her son. Parker therefore had complete control over his time and became acquainted with the Kansas City jazz scene at a very early age. He began taking drugs as an ignorant and curious boy rather than as a consciously self-destructive man; as he himself said, he had not been "mature enough to know what [was] happening" (Koch 13). Unfortunately, by the time he began to fully understand his actions, he was hooked on heroin. Heroin had become the drug of choice for many a jazz musician, mainly because of its isolating effects. According to one musician of the time, heroin replaced stage fright with daring and confidence, all the while providing a calming sort of euphoria that helped turn one's attention inward (Courtwright 234). If heroin turned musicians more into themselves, it allowed for a more direct focus on improvisation, which was necessarily an individual art and the very soul of the jazz of the 1950s.

Though heroin was considered in many ways an asset to jazz, Parker learned firsthand in the course of his long addiction of the problems that also tended to accompany its use. He had an impressive tolerance for substances, yet still experienced many negative physical effects, from falling asleep onstage to suffering uncontrollable muscle spasms. As time progressed, the drug took its toll on him socially and psychologically as well: he became violent and set at least one fire, his marriages and musical groups broke up, and he lost much of his ability to write music (Woideck 42, 175). He was diagnosed with schizophrenia shortly before his death; whether this caused his self-destructive behavior or was induced by long drug use may never be known.

Still, to an onlooker, he remained a fantastic musician, one surely worth emulating. Younger musicians looking to establish themselves in the jazz world often mimicked Parker's style, including his choice of drugs. They tended to see him and other famous addicts, such as Billie Holiday, as unlike the "average addict;" they were clean, employed, and respectable (Courtwright 67). Believing that such reputable people wouldn't commonly choose something completely detrimental, they often allowed curiosity to lead them to drugs until they, too, were addicted. Interestingly enough, even as others respected Parker's heroin addiction, he tried to escape it. Unfortunately, he repeatedly turned to excessive alcohol use to alleviate his withdrawal symptoms and always found his way back into heroin's embrace, leading to his death at the tender age of 35. Perhaps, integrated as he was into jazz culture, the pressures of fitting into the scene and more physical pressures combined to impel him to continue his drug use and fast living. The "hard bop" of the postwar era was associated with racial anger and overall intensity, and heroin was thought to provide a musician with a greater drive, leading one man to say, "to be a real solid jazz musician, you had to be into something, and whiskey wasn't it" (Courtwright 238). The true severity of drug addiction was either unknown or ignored (many believed cocaine was not addicting in the least) while rebelliousness was valued far above health at any rate (Peretti 105). If heroin use had become thoroughly tied to the type of music being created at the time, Parker and others may have found it difficult to imagine a life in jazz without drugs.

Reasons for any particular individual's choice of a self-destructive lifestyle can be found in a set of factors unique to that individual; however, the general trend toward self-destructive behavior in the 1950s occurred due to the interplay of many social factors common to the generation as a whole. Persons most susceptible to their influence, for whatever personal reasons, then tended toward a similar dangerous path. A number of theories have been advanced to suggest causes of the phenomenon of fast living in the 1950s, and these postulations are most likely only the tip of the iceberg of possibilities. The ideas tend to fall under two general points of view. Individuals may have followed self-destructive paths out of a deep-seated and oft-repressed desire for death fostered by society and/or their own personal failings. Alternatively, social conditions may have led them to seek experience with no relation to death, but in such an extreme way that destruction was sometimes an accompanying side effect.

The 1950s, as mentioned previously, were a decade of profound anxiety masked by material excess. Those who recognized the underlying anxiety and saw that, as Allen Ginsberg remarked, America was "having a nervous breakdown" (Parkinson 25) often reacted with an extreme sense of pessimism regarding the future. William S. Burroughs, like many other artists of the time, sensed a "hideous new force loose in the world like a creeping sickness, spreading, blighting," and felt that the symptoms of this sickness were the controlling, individuality-destroying features of the era (Foster 161). In such a disintegrating, even sick, society, with the constant threat of annihilation looming over all, artistic creation could earn respect only if it showed enough discernment to reject American culture. Obviously, few would look smilingly upon art that celebrated collectiveness, uniformity, and mass destruction. In my opinion, such support within artistic circles for pessimism may have effectively brought the artists down with their art, leading to a prevalence of depression and self-hatred in their personal as well as professional lives. Of course, this is merely a chicken-and-egg sort of issue; whether the internal or external pessimism came first, it surely appeared. Associated with this pessimism was a rejection of nearly every integral part of American life. As Hobsbawm explained, the hipster (whether white or black), "was beyond the law, beyond human emotion, beyond ambition, and money, beyond good and evil; he was against the white and black status quo... but he did not know what he was for" (183). The hipster felt negatively about many aspects of the world but harbored no positive feelings to balance things out; the result was a sort of nihilism that could easily have led to oblivion-seeking in the form of substance abuse or any other form of self-destruction. As Seymour Krim remarked, the 1950s were the Age of Suicide (12). For those not prepared to directly act to end their lives there were always drugs, which by providing oblivion from a world their users found no place in approximated death. Lacking anything concrete to believe in, the artists became mere shells of human beings, what Kenneth Rexroth referred to as "the emptied-out hipster[s]," who had been "put through the atom smasher" by the ruling generation, leaving them with only the despair of shipwreck victims (Parkinson 193). This desperate mood can be clearly observed in drug use and in the pointless, feverish flight of speed. People following this course wanted nothing to do with life in American society; perhaps, seeing no alternatives to this society, they wanted nothing to do with life itself.

The fast-moving 1950s artists may have sought not to end their lives but instead to find meaning in those lives before external forces acted to end them. Again, they may have seen nothing worth supporting in American society, but they certainly hoped something out there could provide them with the excitement they craved. Just as Dean Moriarty rejected Sal's idea that he ultimately sought death, they may have sought sensations while denying the possible consequences of their actions. As mentioned before, though some of the medical disadvantages of heroin use were known, the respectable nature of many addicts seemed for impressionable youth to negate the drug's dangers. In addition, drugs like Benzedrine were available over the counter in neighborhood drugstores and so were unlikely to be regarded as hazardous. Dangers from drugs and other forms of speed may have simply been subordinated to the importance of experience, especially when this experience allowed a man to get in touch with himself (Tytell 313). As Van Den Haag said, in the conformist 1950s, "one [had] to find some proof of one's own existence" (657). Since those who followed self-destructive paths failed to find support in the rational, suspiciously complacent society, they transcended rationality to search for the reality by which they could define themselves. The threat of death was simply not a consciously-considered factor.

Another possibility is that they recognized that death could result from their fast lives and drug experimentation but felt that their quest for true life was worth the risk. As John Clellon Holmes explained, many admired the lives and deaths of those such as Charlie Parker and James Dean because these men "went their own uncompromising way, ... celebrating whatever they could find to celebrate, and then willingly paying the cost in self-destruction," yet were not martyrs because a necessary risk of "going so fast, and so far, is death" (Krim 23). Their lives may have been short, but they contained much of what the typical 1950s "square" missed out on in his focus on material possessions and conformity. It is also possible, in my opinion, that death had been trivialized by the long World War II era and therefore seemed a less harsh price to pay than it would have in a time more removed from war. In addition, if they recognized the possibility, or even probability, of death due to nuclear war, the artists may have hoped to make the most of whatever time they had left and worried very little if their actions hastened their demises. Norman Mailer described the hipster of the age as a man who knew he lived with the opportunity to die, either suddenly by the atomic bomb or slowly by stifling conformity, and could therefore survive only by accepting his impending death and even using it to stimulate his actions, since "in motion a man has a chance" (Hoffman 480). This motion is clearly evident in the appeal of the road, of rootlessness, of daringly fast music, and of chemical stimulants. Death constantly stalked the hipster and guided many of his actions but was not chosen; it chose him.

In 1950s America, extreme conformity and material excess drove the artistic factions of a generation down an unhealthy road. Dissatisfied with the lives America offered them, they searched for experiences that could define the self and free it from the confines of society. This sensation-seeking, an easily-recognized "mark of an overcomfortable and sterile generation" (Ciardi 12), generally involved accelerating life to an unsafe pace, often through the use and abuse of heroin, amphetamines, and other substances. It was the drug addict who, according to Dan Wakefield, faced head-on the "deepest questions of existence" (94), the questions that supporters of mainstream culture could not begin to imagine. Escape from society, by flooring the gas or obtaining chemical oblivion, gave the freedom necessary for meaningful artistic experience and creation.


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