Did T.S. Eliot invent the hipster?

ELIOTI’ve never known exactly who is hipster and who is not, nor paid attention to hipster culture or couture.

I do find entertainment in the occasional snotty infographic or well-done meme but beyond that, hipsterism is at the outer edge of my world.

New York magazine declared the hipster dead some time ago (story here).

It is true, though, that fascination with hipsterdom survives, from Tumblr (Dads are the original hipsters) to scholarly research ( Covert distinction: how hipsters practice food-based resistance strategies in the production of identity, 2014 ).

But hipsters have never been front of mind for me, until a few days ago when the 50th anniversary of T.S. Eliot’s death occurred.

The renowned poet and Nobel laureate is the subject of a piece by gifted writer and English professor Karen Swallow Prior, who posits that Eliot – a favorite of so many in my generation –  essentially invented the hipster.

That caught my attention.

In her Atlantic piece, Karen Swallow Prior cites “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,”  the work that thrust Eliot onto the modernist stage:

“An embodiment of turn-of-the century angst wrought by a world sucked dry by skepticism, cynicism, and industrialism, Prufrock bears striking similarities to a subculture of mostly white, urban, detached-yet-sensitive young adults at the cusp of our own century. One might say Eliot invented the hipster.”

I bow to Karen Swallow Prior’s knowledge of Eliot, and her readable explanation of how the 100-year-old poem connects with the hipsters of today. There is much to explore here, clearly.

But I do not know whether Eliot invented the hipster, even inadvertently.  His poems are so timeless and universal they could resonate with any sub-culture, including hippies.

So, I’m a No to the contention that the poet and the hipster share sensibility and depth.

Hipsterism remains for me a superficial cult that does not reconcile with the masterful power of Eliot’s stream-of-consciousness work.

Image: Detail, portrait of T. S. Eliot, 1938, by Wyndham Lewis, National Portrait Gallery, U.K.


0 Comments on “Did T.S. Eliot invent the hipster?”

  1. I agree, hipsters are in another jargon word posers. Their focus is on the surface (which is not say they lack depth) whether it be clothing or what is on their coffee table.

  2. I’m afraid Hipsters are still a style of jeans to me. Jargon has well and truly left me behind some time ago.
    However, I thought you might be interested in my series of letters to Dead Poets, which I wrote for the A-Z Challenge. It includes TS Eliot but I found my research into Roald Dahl really enlightening. Well, they all were but they’re a very long read. Here’s the link to the index: https://beyondtheflow.wordpress.com/2016/05/09/atozchallenge-reflections-66-652-words-wiser/
    Hope you’re having a great week!
    xx Rowena

    1. Wow, what an amazing series your letters are. I have only read a few, but the rest are on my reading list now and thank you so much for pointing them out. Fabulous idea, and so interesting. Appreciated.

      1. You’re welcome and thanks for reading. They were such a massive undertaking both in terms of the research but mainly in building that empathy and really immersing myself in each poet and that became very intense and then I was changing poets everyday and switching shoes. It took me a few weeks to get back to the real world and functional again but it was so worth it. Thanks for your encouragement. xx Rowena

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