Surfing's Beat Generation

Pat Curren (left) and Al Nelson, North Shore, 1957
Dana Point, 1950. Photo: Phil Vedder.
Surf car, late '50s. Photo: John Severson

By late 1953, during his second year in Hawaii, Buzzy Trent was the ringleader among a dozen or so California surfers living in a pair of Makaha Valley shack houses. It was the mainlanders’ third season on this side of the island, and news of their odd little commune had reached Honolulu. A 25-year-old Honolulu Star-Bulletin reporter named Sarah Park drove out to investigate. Trent told her that the surfers grew vegetables and speared fish, and that one of their group had just landed a 65-pound turtle—that night’s dinner, presumably. The kitchen, Park noted, was little more than a Coleman stove. “Overhead, surfboards hang by rope so they can be let down with ease, while swim fins hang on chairs scattered between seven beds, bunks and cots.” Parks’ tone wasn’t especially judgmental, but she took on the distancing voice of the amateur sociologist. And why not? Trent and his friends, obviously from decent middle-class stock, were choosing to live in a way that most would think of as curious, if not actually demeaning. “They are content to go without the usual luxuries of modern day living,” Park wrote, “just so they can surf.” (Park died four years later in a plane crash while reporting on a tsunami.)

The story made no mention of George Downing and the rest of the Hawaiian-born local crew; in fact, Park opened by saying that the “average Islander” had no idea as to Makaha’s actual location. While a new colony of enthusiastic mainland surfers homesteading on the West Side certainly fit the bill as a human-interest story, the implication in the Star-Bulletin article was that the Californians had “discovered” Makaha. This was wrong, but the idea stuck, and years later the Californians would consistently be portrayed as the only surfers out at Makaha in the fifties. The misrepresentation would lead Downing and his friends to eventually feel a small and justified resentment against the Californians, though at the time they remained friendly.

Park’s story ran on January 7, 1954, a little more than a year after the New York Times Magazine published a feature by Massachusetts writer John Clellon Holmes called  “This is the Beat Generation.” Holmes had no idea what was happening in the surf at Makaha or Malibu, and Buzzy Trent and his friends for sure would have resisted any comparison between themselves and the landlocked nonconformists of Holmes’ article. But there were unmistakable and probably not accidental similarities between mid-fifties surfers and the Beats. Both groups were in part reacting to the self-satisfied, slightly anxious, prosperous, and consumer-oriented middle class that was developing in postwar America. When Holmes wrote of the Beats that “there is no desire to shatter the ‘square’ society . . . only to elude it,” he might have been describing the little surfer commune at Makaha. Holmes reference to the Beat Generation’s “lust for freedom, and the ability to live at a pace that kills,” perfectly fit the image of Buzzy Trent wheeling his huge gun around and boring into a twenty-foot Point Surf screamer.

There were other similarities. Hardcore surfers and Beats were both found in equally tiny numbers relative to their influence—or as fifties poet Gregory Corso said dismissively, “Three friends does not make a generation,” alluding to the holy Beat trinity of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs. Travel was essential to both groups: the Beats migrating from New York to San Francisco, while surfers journeyed from California to Oahu and back again. More than anything, they shared a disregard for American materialism. Kerouac’s mission statement that “Everything belongs to me because I am poor” wasn’t an exhortation to steal—although Miki Dora might have taken it that way—but an invitation to set stock by experience and sensation, not money and goods.

Beyond this, however, the two groups veered off in completely different directions. The Beats were mostly educated and intellectual, politically aware and sexually open-minded (homosexuality was fine with Beats; terrifying to surfers), and connected at every point across the progressive-dissident spectrum. What the Beats stood for was largely defined by what they were against; the starting point for the entire movement was opposition. Surfers of the fifties had no such reach or complexity. Surfers wanted to ride waves and lounge on the beach—that was their starting point—and it so happened that the drive to do so was strong enough that they separated from the mainstream to a point more or less equidistant to that of the Beats. Surfing was counterculture in its narrowest, most practical form.

While there was a great advantage to having explicit, achievable goals—“Surfers are happy people because they always know what they want,” as one big-wave rider put it—creating a life to serve those goals didn’t necessarily put the surfer on the road to knowledge and insight. Plenty of Middle America’s most retrograde habits, ideas, and beliefs were carried over to the beaches and lineups. Trent, for example, used the word “nigger” in public and his boorishness toward women extended well beyond the ignoble standards of the time. Freedom and a gnawing lust for experience defined Trent’s life, and by that measure he and the rest of his fifties-era surfing peers were Beat Generation fellow travelers. But there was also at times a smallness and obstinacy to their world. In making their great watery leap for independence, a lot of other interesting developments—pretty much all other interesting developments—went right past them. “If I had a couple of bucks to buy a book, I wouldn’t,” a Malibu surfer told Life magazine in 1957, the same year On The Road was published. “I’d buy some beer.”

Freedom and a gnawing lust for experience didn't necessarily put the surfer on the road to knowledge or insight. Plenty of Middle America’s most retrograde habits, ideas, and beliefs were carried over to the beaches and lineups.