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A Person Named Allen Ginsberg
In September 1955, Gary Snyder-then a twenty-five-year-old unpublished poet and graduate student-wrote to his friend and fellow poet Philip Whalen in Oregon to say that he had been backpacking in the Sierras for ten days and that he'd thoroughly enjoyed the isolation of the outdoors. Now, he was living in a small cottage in Berkeley, he said, baking his own bread and studying Japanese. Moreover, he was preparing to read, with several other poets, at a place called the Six Gallery, perhaps the leading showcase for young artists in San Francisco. (In 1955 the Six Gallery exhibited the innovative work of Jay DeFeo and Richard Diebenkorn.) Whalen was in on the "deal," Snyder wrote. He had pulled a few strings and made all the necessary arrangements, and he was delighted to be able to report that they'd share the stage together after so many years of writing poetry together. Then, too, Snyder was delighted to tell Whalen that his poems had been well received by the San Francisco literary underground. They had even reached a "certain subterranean celebration," Snyder wrote, thanks to Kenneth Rexroth, the Bay Area's bohemian impresario and veteran poet. Whalen had better "come as soon as possible" and join the festivities, Snyder urged. The reading at the Six Gallery, which was scheduled for the first Friday in October, was not to be missed.
Rexroth himself would be the master of ceremonies and Philip Lamantia, a successful young poet who was born in San Francisco in 1927 to an Italian American family, was to be the featured performer. André Breton, the French surrealist, had published Lamantia's work in 1943, and Erotic Poems, Lamantia's first book, had been published in Berkeley, with its small but lively poetry scene. Also on the program, Snyder added almost as an afterthought, was "a person named Allen Ginsberg," whom he had recently met and was just getting to know. Snyder had not read widely in Ginsberg's work-Ginsberg had almost no published work to read. But he was familiar with a letter that Ginsberg had written to William Carlos Williams, the grand old man of American poetry, a letter that Williams had thought well enough of to include in his long poem Paterson. Ginsberg was largely unknown and yet had a certain cachet among the poets in the West because he was a friend and disciple of Williams. Williams had even written a letter of introduction for Ginsberg before he left the East Coast, and that letter had gained him access to Rexroth's salon, where artists met anarchists, workers met intellectuals, and there were plenty of literary fireworks.
Snyder predicted that the Six Gallery reading would be a "poetickall bomshell"-his liberties with the spelling of the words were meant to be playful. Snyder proved to be prophetic. The Six Gallery reading turned out to be a big bombshell in the world of poetry, and in the world at large, a world that was preoccupied with atomic bombs, hydrogen bombs, blonde bombshells, and the classified secrets of the bomb-almost everything but poetical bombs.
The Six Gallery reading was a direct and deliberate response to the culture of the bomb and to American power and wealth. To understand the cultural and political significance of the reading, it might be helpful to look at the United States in the era after World War II, an era that profoundly shaped Ginsberg and the Beat writers. Like On the Road and Naked Lunch, Howl was a product of the Cold War. During World War II, American writers were, on the whole, enthusiastic about the global battle to defeat fascism. Most novelists, poets, and playwrights were patriotic and optimistic. Some worked directly for the government at agencies like the Office of Strategic Information. Others wrote literature that celebrated American democracy. Allen Ginsberg was only seventeen in 1943, but he cast himself as the voice of his generation, and in high school wrote poetry that looked forward to the defeat of the Axis powers and the birth of a better world.
When the war ended in 1945, there was a sense of euphoria and liberation among writers and intellectuals as well as in the population as a whole. The troops came home. Families were reunited. Overt U.S. government censorship ended. The promise of peace and prosperity at home instilled an infectious sense that a new day was dawning. The euphoria was short-lived, however. In the aftermath of the war, citizens began to realize that the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki not only ended the war; they also ushered in a new and frightening era. The horrors of the German concentration camps were revealed. The Iron Curtain descended on Europe and the Cold War began. As Americans became more aware of the dark side of the postwar era, and the dark side of humanity, too, the mood in America shifted and writers reflected it. It was the era of the noir novel and film noir.
Behind the calm exterior, the house beautiful and the happy family, there was anxiety, paranoia, and restlessness. In fiction, poetry, and the theater, writers described, in darkly pessimistic works-Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead, Arthur Miller's The Death of a Salesman, and Robert Lowell's Lord Weary's Castle, to name just a few-the end of the American dream, the fissures in American society, and collective apprehension about the future. At the same time the mass media and the White House promulgated the idea that America was a near-perfect society-the apogee of historical progress-threatened by evil communism and all its agents.
Nineteen forty-eight was, as Ginsberg, noted, a pivotal year. Tennessee Williams, in an essay entitled "On the Art of Being a True Non-Conformist,"-published in November 1948, just after Truman defeated Dewey for the presidency-noted that "reactionary opinion descends like a ton of bricks on the head of any artist who speaks out against the current of prescribed ideas." He added, "We are all under wraps of one kind or another, trembling before the specter of investigating committees." Williams had achieved success with The Glass Menagerie (1944) and A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), but now he felt like an outcast in his own country, which seemed to be turning totalitarian at home even as it battled totalitarian nations abroad. Norman Mailer, who published his antiwar novel The Naked and the Dead in 1948, observed sadly that war was an obscenity and that government officials "were leading us into war again."
World War II, and the war economy generated by the Cold War and the Korean War, created a new class of American millionaires-a "Babylonian plutocracy," Tennessee Williams called it. A small circle of writers enjoyed financial success, but most had to struggle just to survive. The American elite was "grossly affluent," Williams noted, and it "should have exhibited a bit more concern for the fate of its young artists." In the midst of unprecedented prosperity, American culture turned increasingly commercial, and writers turned increasingly to conformity. After an extensive visit to the United States, the British author Stephen Spender wrote in 1949 that authors like Henry Miller and Kenneth Rexroth were the "last remnants of a race of independent writers." At the same time, Spender noted, American writers were often isolated and, unlike European writers, deprived of a sustaining cultural community.
The U.S. government-from the State Department to Congress-regarded writers as dangerous. Hollywood directors and screenwriters were jailed. Irish poet Dylan Thomas was investigated by the FBI and begrudgingly issued a visa; Arthur Miller was denied a passport and not allowed to leave the United States for years. Dashiell Hammett, the author of The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man, was sent to prison for refusing to knuckle under to investigators and to name names. In academia and in the leading literary magazines of the day, teachers and critics warned against innovation and radicalism. W. H. Auden-a British-born poet who had become a naturalized American citizen in 1946-urged caution. It was not the time for "revolutionary artists" or "significant novelty in artistic style," he wrote in 1951. Before any new literary works could be written there would have to be a "cultural revolution," he insisted. While Auden was dubious about any future cultural revolution, Tennessee Williams looked forward to it. In 1948 he anticipated the day when young people would discard "conservative business suits," let their "hair grow long ... make wild gestures, fight, shout and fall downstairs!" That day would be "brave and honest," he predicted.
It took nearly a decade for the brave Beat Generation to flower in this hostile cultural environment. From the late 1940s to the mid-1950s, the Beats were under wraps. Ginsberg was closer to T. S. Eliot and to W. H. Auden than he was to William Carlos Williams and Walt Whitman. William Burroughs published his autobiography Junky under the pseudonym William Lee because books that accurately described the drug world were taboo. Granted, Kerouac went on writing in his own inimitable style, but from 1950 to 1955 almost no one would publish his work. Gradually, the underground scene spread and matured. In the mid-1950s, all over the United States, young artists felt the need to experiment, rebel, and turn to bohemia. Sylvia Plath, who was only twenty-two and a Smith College student in 1954, wrote, "I need to practice a certain healthy bohemianism ... to swing away from the gray-clad ... clock-regulated, responsible ... economical, practical girl."
The 1955 Six Gallery reading was bohemianism at its best. It was something "brave and honest"-to borrow Tennessee Williams's phrase-in the midst of a society that seemed cowardly and insincere, and it marked the start of the cultural revolution that would sweep across America in the 1960s. Indeed, the Six Gallery reading helped create the conditions for both the San Francisco protests against the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1960 and the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley in 1964. The Six Gallery reading was living proof that the First Amendment hadn't been destroyed by McCarthyism and the committees that investigated artists, playwrights, Hollywood directors, and TV screenwriters. In America in the twentieth century, there was no public poetry reading that was a bigger bombshell than the Six Gallery reading. As Snyder himself noted in 1999, "That event launched all of us. It launched Allen Ginsberg, of course, and Phil Whalen and Michael McClure and Jack Kerouac. After the Six Gallery, poetry readings became regular cultural events not only in this country but all over the world." Poetry came out of the closet at the Six Gallery, and off the printed page.
In October 1955, Allen Ginsberg had almost no published work to his name-except for a dozen or so poems that had appeared in his college literary magazine, a few book reviews in Newsweek and the New York Herald Tribune, and a playful poem about sex entitled "Song: Fie My Fum" that he had written with Kerouac and that had been published in Neurotica, the notorious magazine edited by Jay Landesman. Kerouac had a bit more to show for his literary efforts. Six months before the Six Gallery reading, in April 1955, he published, under the pseudonym "Jean-Louis," a work of fiction entitled "Jazz of the Beat Generation" from a novel in progress he called The Beat Generation. Eventually that novel would be published as On the Road. Five years earlier, in 1950, he had published, under the name Jack Kerouac, a novel entitled The Town and the City. Now, it was nearly forgotten; Kerouac was not widely known in Berkeley or San Francisco. At the Six Gallery almost no one knew him except for Ginsberg, Cassady, Rexroth, and a handful of local poets, including Robert Duncan. But by the end of the evening the crowd knew a great deal about Kerouac. As he himself noted in The Dharma Bums (1958), "I was the one who got things jumping." He was Ginsberg's co-conspirator, the essential link between the performers on stage and the people in the audience. It was Kerouac who helped break down the barriers.
The Six Gallery reading was-to borrow from Gary Snyder's letter to Phil Whalen-a "subterranean celebration." It was a gathering of underground poets and writers from the East Coast (Kerouac, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti) and from the West Coast (Snyder, Whalen, Lamantia). It was a festival of cross-continental and cross-cultural pollination. East met West. The urban poets who had been shaped by the culture of New York-the epicenter of American arts and letters in the 1940s and 1950s-met and mingled with their contemporaries who had been shaped by the culture on the western edge of the continent. The Six Gallery reading was also a pivotal moment when the subterranean world of dissident, nonconformist American writers defied the chilly climate of the Cold War and came out into the open. The voices that had been ignored, dismissed, and repressed came to the surface and began to be heard by the culture at large. Even the New York Times noticed and sent a reporter to cover the cultural explosion.
It was no accident that the Six Gallery reading took place in San Francisco in 1955-and no accident that Ginsberg wrote Howl in San Francisco, either. San Francisco, with its spectacular location on the Pacific Ocean and its exuberant recklessness, had long been a hotbed of bohemian activity. And there was something about the city that encouraged poets and novelists to draw creative work from their innermost depths. "San Francisco is a mad city-inhabited for the most part by perfectly insane people," Rudyard Kipling exclaimed. Frank Norris noted, "Things can happen in San Francisco ... there is an indefinable air." And John Steinbeck observed, "I felt I owned the city as much as it owned me." In the 1950s, Kerouac felt much the same way. "San Francisco ... always gives you the courage of your convictions," he wrote. For Kerouac, as for Kipling, it was a mad city with mad people, and he loved it for its madness. "The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved," he wrote in On the Road. San Francisco gave Kerouac the courage to write San Francisco Blues, his first book of poetry, and he praised the city to Allen Ginsberg, who experienced it as a kind of creative irritant that stirred up his worst nightmares and darkest memories.
San Francisco was a long way from the political and cultural establishment in Washington, D.C.,
Excerpted from American Scream by Jonah Raskin Excerpted by permission.
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As he follows the genesis and the evolution of Howl, Jonah Raskin constructs a vivid picture of a poet and an era. He illuminates the development of Beat poetry in New York and San Francisco in the 1950s--focusing on historic occasions such as the first reading of Howl at Six Gallery in San Francisco in 1955 and the obscenity trial over the poem's publication. He looks closely at Ginsberg's life, including his relationships with his parents, friends, and mentors, while he was writing the poem and uses this material to illuminate the themes of madness, nakedness, and secrecy that pervade Howl.
A captivating look at the cultural climate of the Cold War and at a great American poet, American Screamfinally tells the full story of Howl--a rousing manifestofor a generation and a classic of twentieth-century literature.