When T.S. Eliot Invented the Hipster

The original cuffed-trouser urbanite on the hunt for authenticity—and undercutting it with his own self-consciousness—was J. Alfred Prufrock.

AP / Kara Gordon / The Atlantic

January 4 marks 50 years since the death of poet T. S. Eliot. This year also marks the 100th anniversary of one of Eliot’s most famous poems, “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.

In a keen essay on the hipster at The New York Times, Christy Wampole describes the urban hipster as nostalgic “for times he never lived himself.” Before he makes any choice,” Wampole explains, the hipster “has proceeded through several stages of self-scrutiny. The hipster is a scholar of social forms, a student of cool. He studies relentlessly, foraging for what has yet to be found by the mainstream.” A pastiche of allusive, retro gadgets, hobbies, clothing, hairstyles, and facial hair—ever increasingly referential—the hipster is “a walking citation.”

In other words, he is J. Alfred Prufrock.

A true hipster would most likely chafe at this or any other neat definition. The one clearly defining characteristic of a hipster is denial that one is one. “Hipster” has been called “the most divisive characterization of our time.” No one wants to identify as one, and everyone wants to mock them. But there is more to hipsterdom than inexplicable mustaches and unblinking irony.

Whatever hipsters are, they cannot be separated from the cultural mood that birthed them or their natural habitat: the city. Neither hipsters nor Prufrock would exist without the modern urban setting that bred their sensibilities. It is in the city that the pulse of a civilization is taken. The cityscape in Eliot’s poem, with its skyline “like a patient etherized upon a table,” is, in fact, as famous as Prufrock, whose emotionally and spiritually unconsummated desire creates the central tension of the poem.

Such unmet desire is the same that contributes to the ambivalence and detachment of hook-up culture, today’s effete substitute for the drained dating rites of yesteryear. Pondering the impossibility of some kind of genuine attachment, Prufrock muses, in lines one might hear faintly echoed in Girls:

      And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while,                                            
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say: "I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all"
If one, settling a pillow by her head,
        Should say, "That is not what I meant at all.
        That is not it, at all."

Prufrock cannot bring himself to ask his companion the “overwhelming question” (which he never identifies) that carries us through the poem.  He is paralyzed by the same overwhelming fear of missing out (yes, “FOMO”) that plagues a generation facing endless options and clear few choices: “In a minute there is time / For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse,” Prufrock laments. Instead, not daring to “disturb the universe,” (“how should I presume?” he asks), he engages in one long monologue rather than dialogue.  Today, Prufrock might be a blogger—and, in his fixation on trivial objects of beauty, a social-media dilettante.

Indeed, the imagism that characterizes Eliot’s poetry—a poetic approach that employs precise images to communicate visually, creating a kind of sculpture with words—evokes the sort of pictures that fill up Instagram and Pinterest feeds (where, unlike in Eliot, devastating and meaning-ridden contexts are erased):

     And I have known the arms already, known them all—
Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
[But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!]
Is it perfume from a dress
That makes me so digress?
Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl.
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor—

Nearly a century before the age of social media, Prufrock also exhibits a very current-seeming obsession over self-image and presentation:

With a bald spot in the middle of my hair—                                
[They will say: "How his hair is growing thin!"]
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin—
[They will say: "But how his arms and legs are thin!"]

So he projects instead his chosen image of himself: “I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk along the beach.”

Prufrock of the cuffed white flannel trousers cultivates a detached earnestness that isn’t unlike the modern-day adult who is as eager to reject a hollow consumerism as he is to signify that rejection through the material signs of thrift-store chic: the trucker cap, fuzzy sweater, the thrift-store trousers, or horn-rimmed eyewear. Prufrock declares,

“I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled….”

Then broods,

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?

In these lines the central tension of hipster culture is hinted at: the claim of authenticity, a claim that paradoxically, is undermined by the very self-consciousness required to stake such a claim. This tension leads to the charge against hipster culture that it “fetishizes the authentic.” One favorite fetish is the aesthetic experience, and we see this, too, in Prufrock’s pseudo-refrain:

  In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

These lines demonstrate the way authentic experience is replaced by an objectified and fetishized experience, in this case of great art. An actual experience is surpassed by talking of it. Or posting it on Instagram or Facebook. Selfie or it didn’t happen.

Modernists are generally held responsible for having dug the deep chasm between high culture and low, and Eliot is often regarded as highbrow fare fit for college classrooms and academic journals.  But the erudite, Harvard-educated Eliot saw high culture not as opposed to popular culture, but as its fulfillment, argues Eliot scholar David E. Chinitz, whose research shows that Eliot’s extensive engagement with a variety of popular culture forms helped shape even Eliot’s most complex and difficult works. Eliot greatly influenced pop culture in return—from “bullshit” (a word the Oxford English Dictionary credits Eliot with being the first to record in an early, posthumously published poem) to Bob Dylan, from Genesis to Arcade Fire, from the Broadway musical Cats (based on Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats) to P. J. Harvey, from Wes Anderson and Spike Jonze's Her to hipster guys who—like J. Alfred—wear the bottoms of their trousers rolled.

Many observers have pointed out that hipsters’ rejection of mainstream culture has simply been turned into a new marketing niche to which they’ve unwittingly fallen prey. At Adbusters, Douglas Haddlow reported several years ago that “marketers and party-promoters get paid to co-opt youth culture and then re-sell it back at a profit. In the end, hipsters are sold what they think they invent and are spoon-fed their pre-packaged cultural livelihood.” When I took my niece to a local discount surplus store a few summers ago, she was giddy to find a rack of T-shirts selling for one-tenth the price she usually pays at that hipster mecca, Urban Outfitters.  In the futile attempt to reject mainstream consumerism, another niche channel was simply created. As Prufrock says,

The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?

Some have declared that hipsters signify “the dead end of Western civilization.” For Haddlow, hipsters are a movement that “has mutated into a self-obsessed aesthetic vacuum, stripped of its subversion and originality.” While reports of Western civilization’s death may or may not have been greatly exaggerated, whatever it’s state, it is one that the hipsters, nay Prufrock, inherited—not created. Thus Haddlow, whose incisive and imagistic writing echoes the skill of Eliot, is not unsympathetic, saying,

We are a lost generation, desperately clinging to anything that feels real, but too afraid to become it ourselves. We are a defeated generation, resigned to the hypocrisy of those before us, who once sang songs of rebellion and now sell them back to us. We are the last generation, a culmination of all previous things, destroyed by the vapidity that surrounds us. The hipster represents the end of Western civilization – a culture so detached and disconnected that it has stopped giving birth to anything new.

Eliot saw such 100 years ago, giving it voice first in Prufrock, then a few years later in his magnum opus, The Waste Land. In a culture too detached and disconnected to give birth to anything new, people turn to curation, pastiche, allusiveness, and hyper-referentiality—the hallmarks of the hipster aesthetic.

But these were Eliot’s hallmarks, too. Eliot did not create the world depicted in his poems; he merely gave it expression in the form of fragments we might shore against our ruins. Hipsters—a movement many say has passed—have perhaps done no less.

The small urban center of the region in which I live, for example, would not have experienced the revitalization it has seen over the past decade or so if not for the people who first dwelled in its rundown apartments, sat in its lonely coffee shops, played their instruments before its sparse crowds, and bought the first meager offerings of its local farmers on Saturday markets. Now nearly everyone does these things. But the hipsters were the first to return.

A good number of them have sat in my classroom. That is where I saw my first pair of trousers rolled. These hipsters have taught me some things. In return, I have introduced some of them to J. Alfred Prufrock.