2013-04-04 / News

Scattering Seeds

By John A. Murphy

As improbable as it may seem to those who know little about Rhode Island, in the 1950s and early 1960s, Providence was home to a vibrant, albeit small, group of people who, for want of a better term, could be called “beatniks.”

Providence, derided by ignorami who don’t know any better as a smudge on the highway between New York and Boston, has always, even back to the earliest days of its settlement by Europeans, had a coterie of art- and literature-oriented citizens. The natural beauty of Rhode Island, oriented around Narragansett Bay and a spectacular ocean coast, and its relatively tolerant political and cultural heritage, combined to create a welcoming environment for artisans and creative people.

Add to those attractions, the presence of Brown University, the Rhode Island School of Design, several other fine educational institutions, a wealthy class of patrons, and proximity to the cultural centers of New York and Boston, Providence has long had everything needed to attract and hold those interested in a life focused on art, literature, music and other pursuits less practical than simply earning a living in a harsh world.

So, in the 1950s, Providence had a lively social and arts scene, with a lot of what one could find in Greenwich Village, except on a much smaller scale.

Before the hippies emerged in the second half of the 1960s, people who followed a nonconventional lifestyle were sometimes called beatniks. Providence had some worthy of that moniker, even if they may have been loath to apply any label to themselves.

There were also those who, perhaps not entirely into the beatnik lifestyle, were definitely involved on its periphery as enablers, hosts or hangers-on.

Lots of worlds were intersecting in this scene; all flowed together, and influenced each other. Students, teachers, artists, artisans and wealthy individuals lucky enough not to have to work, hung out together, and provided a nurturing environment for artistic expression, particularly of the unconventional sort.

Those participants of that scene have now gone on to live in the memories of its observers as legends of an era fondly remembered. Those still living seemingly have little to say about those formative days.

Return to top