Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" and the Making of the Beat Generation
By Jonah Raskin
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS; 324 PAGES; $24.95
As far as famous opening lines in poetry go, it's hard to beat for recognition "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness." But when Allen Ginsberg first delivered Part I of "Howl" at the famous Six Gallery reading in San Francisco on Oct. 7, 1955, the then-29-year-old poet was largely unknown. That, however, would quickly change.
The day after the reading, Lawrence Ferlinghetti sent a telegram to Ginsberg offering to publish the poem and quoting a letter Emerson had written to Whitman after reading "Leaves of Grass": "I greet you at the beginning of a great career. When do I get the manuscript?"
Ferlinghetti and City Lights did, of course, get the manuscript (and, in 1957, an obscenity trial). But in the ensuing decades, as the notoriety and eventual mythologizing of Ginsberg et al (Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, Neal Cassady) increased, the work itself has often been eclipsed. What we mostly remember is the lore, the icons, the images.
Jonah Raskin's "American Scream: Allen Ginsberg's 'Howl' and the Making of the Beat Generation" seeks successfully, refreshingly to restore attention to Ginsberg's masterwork, a 3,600-word three-part salvo that shook the world of poetry (for its language and its innovations in form and content) as well as the world of postwar America.
Today, in contrast, it's difficult to imagine a poem having such a widespread impact. A song, a movie -- perhaps. But a poem? In the preface, Raskin reminisces about buying his first copy of "Howl" as a teenager, recalling how it "conferred a strange power. Reading it brought initiation into a secret society. It bound us together and gave us a sense of identity as members of a new generation that had come of age in the wake of World War II and the atomic bomb." Although "American Scream" places Ginsberg and "Howl" in their historical and cultural contexts, and provides a comprehensive inventory of the poet's personal life, Raskin keeps returning to the poem itself -- how it gestated over the years, how it came to be written when Ginsberg moved to San Francisco in 1954. The result is a masterful synthesis of the myriad influences that shaped both Ginsberg and "Howl."
A fair amount of the ground covered and cast of characters will no doubt be familiar to some readers. Yet Raskin, a professor at Sonoma State, also unearths a wealth of new material and insight. A tireless literary sleuth, he sifts through Ginsberg's journals, letters and schoolwork, culling information and searching for clues.
For instance, Raskin exhumes a previously ignored high school essay on Walt Whitman and Carl Sandburg. Young Allen's comments on Whitman's style ("similar to Herman Melville's style ... like the style of the verses of the Bible, large magnificent strophes, building up to mighty climaxes, or like a massive Bach oratorio") would later resurface in his explanations of the style he was after in "Howl."
"American Scream" is notable, too, for incorporating recently released psychiatric reports on Ginsberg and for being the first study to interview Dr. Philip Hicks, with whom Ginsberg underwent therapy at the Langley Porter Psychiatric Institute while writing "Howl." Among other things, we learn that the poet not only brought his manuscript to his sessions with Hicks but also worked on it during their time together.
Additionally, Raskin debunks the myth that "Howl" was written in a flurry of inspiration ("No 'spontaneous' poem was more thoroughly rewritten"), and charts the influence of a number of poets, including T.S. Eliot and Ginsberg's father, Louis, who has been overshadowed by Ginsberg's troubled mother, Naomi. (Raskin finds a precursor to Allen's Moloch in Louis' "fierce Behemoths" from a poem called "The Revolt of the Machines.") And unlike other chroniclers of the Beats, Raskin doesn't offer a fawning, uncritical portrait that overlooks his subject's faults, namely Ginsberg's misogyny, his paranoia, his "immense ego" and "intense longing for fame." Instead he manages to maintain the perfect balance of subjective enthusiasm and appreciation with an objective distance and clarity.
What of criticisms of Raskin himself? There are a few to mention, minor ones such as a tendency, at times, toward repetition and an ending that perhaps lingers too long on the obscenity trial and could have benefited from a better tying together of the book's many elements. It's nothing, though, that detracts from the overall power and pleasure of "American Scream." Looking back now, in 2004, you don't have to be Truman Capote to come to the conclusion that a lot of Beat writing should be forgotten. With "Howl," however, one is surprised to discover, half a century after its publication, how much of its resonance it retains . Sure, some lines might not go down so easy ("orange crates of theology"; "drunken taxicabs of Absolute Reality"), and there are those (New Yorker editor David Remnick, for example) who believe that "Kaddish" is the greater work or argue that Ginsberg, who died in 1997, isn't deserving of the recognition he's received.
No matter: "Howl" still stands as an important cultural artifact, both as a poem and as a reflection of its times, and Raskin performs an admirable act of literary restoration, crafting a proper appreciation for "Howl" and its placement within the canon of 20th century American literature.
Andrew Roe's writing has appeared in Salon.com and the New York Times.