Hipster Parents from Literature (Before it Was Cool)
If you've slalomed through the stroller-filled sidewalks of Portland, Ore., Park Slope, or San Francisco, chances are you've encountered the hipster parent phenomenon: moms and dads as devoted to their too-cool style as they are to their babies swaddled in locally sourced diapers. Novelist Monica Drake is especially familiar: Living in the hipster haven that gave rise to Portlandia, her brand of hipster parenting was passed down from her own parents, poets who kept not only multiple typewriters but also a salvaged mimeograph machine.
In Drake's novel, The Stud Book, a group of friends in Portland figures out how to be new parents. There are plenty of literary precedents—as Drake points out, literature has been littered with hipster parents from the beginning: The donkeys of The Bible prefigured fix-gear bike culture; War and Peace features "an early mustache fetish" and Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote the book on "rewilding."
How many lit-hipsters does it take to birth a trend? I'll hazard a guess and say generations. Gen-er-ations! It's a mingling of the Beats, Bohemians, Moderns and your grandpa's old sweaters, spilling a PBR on that worn copy of Bukowski's Factotum and calling it art, calling it meta.
You don't get generations without a few parents in the mix. As a strategy, hipster parenting is an effort to cling to a cultural foothold—crank out the zine, play music, make a film—while giving in to the homogenizing process of changing eco-friendly (or not) diapers, each of us parents suddenly a servant to those endearing little poop machines.
Literature is full of role models, and it's here we turn, gentle reader, to learn how to raise our kids and at the same raise ourselves. I'm a parent and an author, and I'm sure I'm continuing a variation of hipster parenting (from before it was cool) handed down to me by poets, my mom and dad. They kept multiple typewriters around the house and a salvaged mimeograph machine on the front porch. They hosted small-press stapling parties and poetry-reading keggers.
Now as I write, publish, and parent, I thought I'd consider the stories that shaped my view of parenting and creative work. I hope these books might help you in the dark of the night when the baby cries, or in the morning facing the blank page, or in those awkward bar moments, or just at the beach when sand gets in your beer and the nachos run out. Cheers.
As the King of the Hipsters before there were hipsters—a natty dresser with the best Royale typewriter in town—Ernest Hemingway sets the pace. In this memoir, he leaves his baby son with only the cat as a sitter, while he, the author, goes off to compose in a café. Ah, those were different days! With very different parenting manuals.
It's multi-generational, questions the status quo, and shows an early mustache fetish—particularly when the mustache is on Princess Lisa Bolkonskaya. So go ahead! Throw your kid an ironic mustache party! Don't forget the War and Peace party hats.
This novel recognized the cool caché of Portland, Oregon's particular stripster scene early. Parents in the Binewski family don't screen political slogans on their kids' tee shirts. Instead, they don't need to. They breed their children as living sociopolitical statements. And, there's a bonus: art school! (Based on the school where I teach, by the way, where Katherine Dunn once worked as a nude model.)
Here's the ultimate in Montessori lesson plans: A child is given a never-ending hands-on zoology project, complete with chart-making and travel. He's left with his bumbling, adventurous tutor, who teaches him to fail and fail better in the spirit of creative practice.
Dolls can be both cool and creepy. Harriette Arnow's protagonist, a displaced farm wife, cares where her kids' food comes from and spends pages debating the urban/rural divide. She's got cheap digs in industrial Detroit, too. But this book will break your heart in all non-ironic ways. You'll cry like an emo kid knowing his movement is over.
The father is a proto-hipster complete with anti-corporate tirades and DIY ethic, who totally almost kills his family with his complete folly.
I'm pretty sure a donkey was the pack animal of choice for what would later become the fix-gear bike culture, and "having a baby in a manger" might be a metaphor for tipping one back. Beyond that, there's the whole facial hair thing, examples of polyamorous marriage experiments, and the acceptance of people who wear deck coats of many colors, which might be men in dresses. Live and let live! YOLO, unless you resurrect. (Aka YOLOUYR.)
Lastly, any book written on a typewriter while kids clamor in the next room. Because that—persisting—is really what hipster literary parenting is all about, right?
Monica Drake is author of Clown Girl, which has been optioned for film by Kristen Wiig (SNL, Bridesmaids) and won an Eric Hoffer Award and an Independent Publisher Book Award. She has an MFA from the University of Arizona and is currently on the faculty at Pacific Northwest College of Art.
This piece originally ran in April 2013.