The press release accompanying my copy of The Cool School begins by assuring me that “From music, to television, to fashion, hipsters are everywhere today.” Actually, with the mordant wit he often displayed, the former New York Times book reviewer Anatole Broyard once argued that the hipster’s state of mind was inevitably nowhere. He might have added that the television screen is the last place one should expect to find anything hip.
Glenn O’Brien’s useful anthology, he playfully calls it his “compendium of orphans,” provides enough examples to illustrate the paradoxical metaphysics of nowhere. In a pithy but insightful introduction, he establishes his terroir, and defines the geography of the place he is exploring:
To be hip is to belong to an underground, a subculture or counterculture, an elective tribe located within a larger community, out siders inside. It is detached from the main thing and proud of its detachment.
A street person, a spiritual outlaw, an outcast, heretic, or pariah figure, the hipster is “identified by language reflecting an alternate set of values.” Like a Gnostic among the early Christians, that language is often coded, multilayered, swiftly mutating, and often deliberately ambiguous. The hipsters kept talking, as Jack Kerouac once maintained in Playboy Magazine (of all places!) in 1959, about “personal experience and vision, nightlong confessions full of hope that had become illicit and repressed by War, stirrings, rumblings of a new soul [until] Huncke appeared to us and said ‘I’m beat’ with radiant light shining out of his despairing eyes….” Kerouac got the term that would replace the “lost” of the Hemingway era from a furtive Times Square hustler and petty thief named Herbert Huncke who had initiated him, with morphine in the mainline, along with William Burroughs and Allan Ginsberg in a communal apartment across the street from Columbia University in the winter of 1944.
The hipsters, with their protective veil of detachment, saw themselves immediately after World War Two as “cool,” a relative, provisional quality that, like grace, could not be faked, but through what O’Brien calls the “swirling total immersion” culture of the late 1960’s became an attitude that spread internationally. O’Brien might have done well to have included a section from Amiri Baraka’s Blues People (1963) where he defines cool as the ability” to be calm, even unimpressed by whatever horror the world might daily propose.” Baraka’s context is a century of segregation and cool was the mask of equanimity assumed by a saxophonist like Lester Young, wearing shades on stage instead of a Sammy Davis grin.
In its heyday hip became a reactive model for the embalming conformities and insecurities that the early Beats felt in the 1950’s. Historians tend to emphasize the ways in which Cold War hysteria was manufactured, the “Take-Cover!” nuclear drills, the pervasive terrors of the Red Scare, the creepy insinuations of McCarthyism and the poisonous untruths sounded in the ears of H.U.A.C., all leading to the purges in government, in Hollywood, in the universities, and even in the civil service. The 1950’s were also a decade in which the Warren Court ended American apartheid with the Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954, and then a few years later sanctioned Tropic of Cancer (1934). In New York City, a D.J. named Allen Freed with a rhythm and blues format, started playing Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and finally Elvis. Lawrence Ferlinghetti created a new vitality for the alternative press scene with City Lights and its publication of Howl in 1956. A year earlier, Mailer had published his seminal essay, “The White Negro,” in a new magazine called Dissent, a name that signified the antinomian discontents that would help to redefine national priorities.
Of course, there was very little that could be considered “cool” about any of this, and Kerouac in his Playboy piece coyly suggested that most of his Beat writer pals “belonged to the hot school, naturally since...