The question of the day was: Do you know what a beatnik is? “They’re, like, hippie dudes,” my father voiced with the timbre of one who is unsure of what else to say. Grilling my parents on the topic of the Beat Generation and other writers of that time period proved to be a task more difficult than typed homework instructions set it out to be.
Having already asked my mother and receiving a noncompliant shrug in return, I sought my father’s help in the hope that his infinite knowledge of mid-20th Century pop culture could provide some insight. I didn’t expect him to be familiar with any of the poets or books mentioned on the assignment sheet, given that daddy dearest is not much of a reader, but I knew the angle in which to direct the conversation: retro television programs.
A loyal fan of TV series like Happy Days, The Waltons, and The Andy Griffith Show, my father thrives on nostalgia. Ever since I was a mere shadow of a girl, he would quote lines from characters that existed outside my general knowledge and sing mysterious theme songs that I had a feeling could be heard if I watched re-runs on TV Land long enough. It’s a wholesome quirk that I have always loved about my father.
On the topic of long-cancelled shows, I asked if he had ever heard the word “beatnik” used in any episodes. After a brief pause, my father gave me the name Bob Denver—which, to me, sounded like it belonged to a folk singer of the 60’s who advocated the slogan, “Make love, not war.” It turned out, I wasn’t too far off in my deduction.
Bob Denver played some part in the 1960’s counterculture movement, but he was not by any means a folk singer. My father informed me that Denver’s claim to fame was his role as Gilligan on the hit sitcom Gilligan’s Island, but before he was known as the accident-prone First Mate of the S.S. Minnow, he played a beatnik named Maynard G. Krebs on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis in 1963.
My father went on to describe the appearance Denver sported while portraying this beatnik persona: shaggy hair, turtleneck, goatee, and a mouth that would spout slang such as “cool cat” and “daddio.” Hippie was the best word my father could use to describe this character at the time. The way Krebs looked, talked, and acted was different from the social norm reflected in the public sphere, almost as if he was protesting against civil conformity.
From my father’s input, I affiliate “beatnik” with the idea of sitting at a café bistro, sipping an herbal mocha Frappuccino and leafing through the pages of a controversial piece of literature as you wave to your black-beret-wearing friends, Moon Doggie and Mystic Sunset, who are hollering at you from the back of their Mystery Machine-esque van whilst simultaneously banging on bongos to feel the rhythm of Mother Earth resonate through their lanky, vegan bodies.
Obviously, I have a lot more research to do before I come in contact with Allen Ginsberg.