Family Business: Two Lives in Letters and Poetry

Family Business: Two Lives in Letters and Poetry

by Allen Ginsberg, Louis Ginsberg, Michael Schumacher

A touching look into the heart and family of one of America's greatest poets.

As a literary portrait of a father and son, little can match the eloquence and honesty of this collection of letters, written between the years 1944 and 1976. The illuminating correspondence between Allen Ginsberg and his father, Louis, begins when Allen is a precocious, rebellious


A touching look into the heart and family of one of America's greatest poets.

As a literary portrait of a father and son, little can match the eloquence and honesty of this collection of letters, written between the years 1944 and 1976. The illuminating correspondence between Allen Ginsberg and his father, Louis, begins when Allen is a precocious, rebellious college student and charts his ascension as a revolutionary icon in poetry. Their letters are filled with affection, respect, and a healthy dose of argumentative zeal-they debate every major political and artistic issue that faced America in over three decades of extraordinary change.

Their correspondence also reveals the defining moments that shaped Allen's art-his experimentation with LSD, his various love affairs and obsessions, his travels around the globe. We see, from this unique perspective, the crucial process of a poet's widening experience of the world, and how these experiences are translated into his art.

Family Business is not only a personal glimpse into one of our great poets, but also a very moving story of a relationship between a father and a son set against the turbulent world of postwar America.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
This volume behind the clunky title and unkindly high price presents some of the most astonishing correspondence in American literature. Throughout his adult life, poet and cultural icon Allen Ginsberg exchanged regular letters with his father, Louis, himself a moderately successful lyric poet. They conversed freely about politics, philosophy and poetry (the book offers fascinating insights into the Ginsberg masterpieces Kaddish and Howl); they fought fiercely but without bitterness over Communism, the Arab-Israeli conflict and Vietnam. If such father-son arguments were typical of their era, few can have been so colorfully and affectionately expressed. Allen's letters (he addresses his father as "Louis" and ribs him for his "Polonious[sic]-like tirades") are marked by the vivid, freeform, punctuationless imagery of the beats. Those of his father, surprisingly the more deft correspondent, are wry and campily pedantic: he describes avant-garde poetry as "yawns ticked out in deranged verbiage" and delights in outlandish wordplay ("the hippies want pot in every chicken"). The letters themselves are sensitively edited, Schumacher (author of Dharma Lion, a well-received biography of Ginsberg) supplying biographical context where needed and including a few judiciously chosen interviews and articles. In the end, for all their virtuosity, the Ginsbergs' literary talent emerges as the lesser gift in comparison to their honesty and mutual affection. Anyone interested in either Ginsberg, the beats, American poetry or the '60s should not miss this ferociously tender and comical collection. (Sept.) Forecast; With widespread, favorable reviews, this should have peak sales early on and settle in for anice steady flow. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Like many fathers and sons, Louis and Allen Ginsberg had their differences, but they were united by their affection for each other and their love of poetry. In this judicious selection of letters written between 1944 and 1976, Schumacher (Dharma Lion: A Critical Biography of Allen Ginsberg) does a fine job of charting the course of their relationship. Many of Allen's letters describe his travels, while Louis's are often a blend of family news and fatherly advice. Poetry and politics are frequently discussed, with the nature of communism, the Vietnam War, and Israeli-Arab relations also coming in for hot debate. Angry arguments aside, however, their correspondence demonstrates a mutual respect, a strong desire for reconciliation, and pride in each other's poetic accomplishments. In addition to the letters, Schumacher reprints My Son the Poet, an article Louis wrote for the Chicago Sun Times Book World. A postscript contains several of Allen's poems to his father. Highly recommended. William Gargan, Brooklyn Coll. Lib., CUNY Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A surprisingly poignant selection of letters between Beat Generation poet-guru Allen Ginsberg and his father, Louis, a career English teacher and an accomplished poet himself. Schumacher (Francis Ford Coppola, 1999, etc.) published a biography of the younger Ginsberg in 1992 (Dharma Lion) and first approached him about this letters project at that time. Schumacher's thorough, amiable introduction sets the stage for the remarkable father-son performance that follows (Schumacher does not disappear, but like any other good editor he remains unobtrusive, emerging only to offer the occasional clarification). The letters begin in the mid-1940s. Allen matriculated at Columbia Univ. when he was 17 and displayed all the odious symptoms of the adolescent-away-from-home syndrome. Louis did not hesitate to chide his son ("You are developed intellectually; but, emotionally, you lag"), but what overwhelms throughout is the adamantine bond of affection that connected the two. When in 1947, for example, Allen wrote to say he had signed on as a common sailor aboard a ship bound for Dakar, Louis replied with love rather than disappointment: "It's O.K. Lots of luck to you, Allen." In 1948, Louis was shocked to discover that his son was gay, but soon embraced his male lovers without prejudice. When Allen's classic poem "Howl" appeared, Louis was ecstatic about his son's success, comparing him to Whitman. Throughout his years of celebrity, Allen remained devoted to his father, writing regularly from the far reaches of the globe (he once sent him some clover from Shelley's grave). Both commented freely on the work of the other-Louis was always troubled by Allen's "dirty, ugly words"; Allen continuallyurged his father to be less conventional. In later years they did popular joint readings, while they argued about Cuba, Communism, Vietnam, the Black Panthers, Israelis and Arabs, and Watergate. Louis died in 1976, and when Allen died 21 years later, some of his ashes were buried in his father's grave. An eloquent, affecting collection that offers lessons in poetry, in love, and in family.

Product Details

Bloomsbury USA
Publication date:
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
6.14(w) x 9.92(h) x 1.56(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


When Allen began his first term at Columbia University in the Fall 1943, he was precocious intellectually, but, at barely seventeen years of age, he lagged behind his Ivy League classmates in terms of maturity and sophistication. Most of his classmates had come from wealthier families and stronger educational backgrounds. This, however, meant little to Ginsberg, who, after his youth with his mother, had great empathy for the underdog and an attraction for people who were different.

    During his first term at Columbia, Allen met a strikingly attractive, highly intelligent, and openly rebellious St. Louis native named Lucien Carr. Although only two years Allen's senior, Lucien seemed to be a lifetime ahead of him in knowledge and experience. Through Carr, Allen met William Seward Burroughs, another St. Louis native, a Harvard graduate who, at twenty-nine, became a kind of group elder. Allen also met Jack Kerouac, another friend of Carr's, a former football star who wanted to devote his life to writing. Allen immediately developed crushes on Kerouac and Carr, although he kept his feelings to himself. If the members of this group had one thing in common, it was their open disdain for what they considered to be the stifling standards in American literature and lifestyle. Burroughs was conducting his own private study of the people living on the margins in New York — petty criminals, drug addicts, the homeless, sexual deviants, and other rebellious types — while Carr and Ginsberg (and Kerouac, to a lesser extent) discussed what theycalled a "New Vision" for literature, in which the individual mind and experience would dictate the language, form, content, and meaning of a work of fiction or poetry.

    Such lofty ambitions might have been standard fare on most college campuses, where students were encouraged to stretch the boundaries of youthful preconceptions, but Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs, Carr, and other members of their circle were definitely a cut above the average. Kerouac's literary ambitions alone were awe-inspiring — according to the legend, he had written over 1 million words before he arrived at Columbia — while Burroughs's fierce intelligence, coupled with his natural distrust of all social, political, and religious institutions, provided the group with creative and intellectual sparks not often found in the usual college cliques.

    Louis Ginsberg was less than enthralled with Allen's new choice of friends, or with Allen's open rebellion. Louis might have been liberal by nature, but he still believed in an orderly standard of behavior; anything else, he'd argue with Allen, invited chaos or insanity. Besides, Allen and his friends weren't experienced enough in life to challenge the norms of a system that had been functioning so well for so long. Allen was getting an education at Columbia and in New York, but it was not the one Louis had bargained for.

    In August 1944, the group — and Carr, in particular — became the focus of a scandal that rocked the Columbia campus and literally changed the course of a number of lives. For some time, Lucien had been stalked by a former St. Louis physical education instructor and college teacher named David Kammerer, whose obsession with the younger Carr had led him to pursue Lucien from city to city throughout the United States, ending in New York. There was little question that Kammerer was deeply troubled — he went to the lengths of breaking into Lucien' s apartment to watch him sleep — but he seemed to be more tragic than dangerous.

    However, late one evening in mid-August 1944, after a night of heavy drinking, Kammerer confronted Carr in Manhattan's Riverside Park. Kammerer threatened Carr and, largely fearing for his own safety, Lucien pulled out a Boy Scout knife and stabbed Kammerer to death. He then dragged Kammerer's body down to the river, weighted him with rocks, and left him in the water.

    Carr eventually turned himself in, two days later, but first he paid visits to Burroughs and Kerouac. Burroughs urged Lucien to surrender to the authorities, but Carr was worried about getting "the hot seat." Kerouac helped Carr dispose of the knife and Kammerer's glasses, and then the two spent what they felt would be their final hours together, wandering around New York. Then Carr went to the police and led them to Kammerer's body.

    Allen was horrified and saddened when he heard the details of Kammerer's death. He had liked Kammerer and was appalled by the way his life had ended. He worried about Carr, who was certain to face prison time; in addition, Kerouac and Burroughs were being held for failure to report the crime. The immediate future looked very bleak.

    The following letter is very revealing, not only for the details that Allen selected to provide his understandably concerned father but also for what it reveals about Allen's personality and state of mind at the time. Dramatic to the point of hyperbole, yet framing the core of his letter with small talk, Allen displayed a naïveté that would haunt and embarrass him when he was reminded of it many years later. Taken as an introduction of the correspondence that follows, the letter leads one to a better understanding of Louis Ginsberg's frustrations with Allen, and his concerns for his son's direction in life.

Allen Ginsberg to Louis Ginsberg

{ew York City}
n.d. {ca. August 1944}

Dear Louis:

Your visit last night I remember only as a rather surprising dream. I was pleased to see you, but felt quite contrite, when I fell back to sleep, that you'd have to travel all the way back for such a short talk.

    I have been reading Dickens' Great Expectations in my spare time.

    The time seems to be out of joint — oh, cursed spite! — but is slowly readjusting itself to normality; or at any rate, it is becoming as normal as it can be under the circumstances. I don't remember what I told you last night. I was at the D.A.'s office, and was asked routine questions about Character — that was compositively unimportant. I also had a long talk with Kerouac. He told me all about the following days — how, says he, the two rode around in taxicabs discussing the ramifications of the deed — emotional, moral, and artistic. Carr cried a little without knowing it and kept saying, perhaps a bit distracted, "He died ... this is the way the world ends: not with a bang but a whimper."

    There were a few heroic scenes, as well: Before Carr went upstairs to his mother, he shook hands with Kerouac, bidding him goodbye for the last time. As Kerouac grasped his hand, he found several dollar bills between their palms. Carr withdrew his hand irritated and flung the money away into the street, then shook hands, turned, and went upstairs. Kerouac added, with a smile, that Carr knew he would pick up the money later.

    Celine is taking it all rather well. She saw Carr today, and said that he is chastened and serious, that he is much like old L. Carr when he dropped his attitudes and masks and defenses, and waxed serious. He seems to be, for the first time, openly considerate of others, without consciousness of being what he would have called "Bourgeois," as Celine said. He worried about Jack, whether he would get out, etc. He asked about me, about my interview with ———-, and even very solicitously hoped that I didn't get burned.

    Celine is the only one to have seen Carr: the attorneys have forbid any other visits. I may, however, be allowed to go next week. If I have time, I shall go, for I really pity Lucien under the circumstances, and, although I would profess to be a moralist, I can't find it in me to condemn him.

    Celine also asked him, as she put it, a rhetorical question, which he took up: "Why did you do it." He told her in confidence that the reason given was the true one — that Kammerer had suddenly become more violent than ever before, and that Lucien, frightened, had drawn his knife. Lucien told her that for the most part he could not remember what had happened. He said his mind, to use the usual phrase, was blank — and that, as an artist, he was sorry to have lost so much of the experience.

    School otherwise is coming along. Chemistry was trouble, as usual. I've about 5 books to read in the very near future, and I've got to apply myself now or be lost, so I've been applying myself for the past few hours.

    Any letters from Eugene?

    I spent most of the $5 on phone calls, newspapers, carfare, and (the first evening) drinks for Edie and myself when we heard the news. Can you send me a dollar to tide me over to next Friday?


From the beginning, Louis Ginsberg disapproved of his son's new friends, whom he considered to be bad influences. The talk of Rimbaud, derangement of the senses, a New Vision for modern literature, the "junkies and geniuses" of the subculture — all offended Louis's sensibilities, particularly in the aftermath of the Carr-Kammerer episode. In Louis's opinion, Allen's new obsessions were dangerous invitations to disaster.

    Allen countered that literature needed to take a new direction, moving away from the mannered, constrictive approach of the past, though he was not certain what the new approach might be. He had only recently informed his father that he was writing poetry — an announcement that pleased Louis more than Allen had anticipated — and their correspondence was now filled with discussion, sometimes contentious, of literature and what might be appropriate subject matter for it. In his letters to Allen, Louis maintained a balance between intellectual discourse and his duties as a father dispensing advice to his son, yet, as the following two letters — one to his sister and one to one of Allen's favorite teachers — reveal, Louis was growing increasingly distressed about the path his son was taking.

Louis Ginsberg to Hannah Litzky

324 Hamilton Ave.
Paterson, NJ
January 16, 1945

Dear Hannah,

Relative to our phone conversation, I'd like you to show this letter of Allen's to Saltman.

    Allen, as classwork, is writing a novel whose hero is a fictionalized Lucien Carr, a twisted eccentric. In addition, Allen regards any protest against his use of vulgar words in the novel as questioning his artistic integrity. I remonstrated that (a) Carr is not a desirable protagonist and (b) vulgar words do not necessarily prove artistic integrity.

    His letter was an answer to my criticism. [...]


Louis Ginsberg to Lionel Trilling

February 21, 1945

Dr. Lionel Trilling
Columbia University
Morningside Heights
New York City

Dear Dr. Trilling:

I wonder whether I may take the liberty of writing to you about my son, Allen Ginsberg, who is one of your students.

    Allen, whom I am trying to appraise objectively, is a brilliant youngster, precocious intellectually, but lagging, I fear, emotionally. He dramatizes himself as a writer, though he does have some potentialities.

    At present, he is making clever but false verbal rationalizations that the immoralist way of life (à la Gide, I think) is a valid one. He thinks merely to rationalize some inner tendency proves a satisfactory way of life, harmonious with what we might term normal values. He seeks to philosophize abnormality into normality. I am not sure whether I make myself clear to you.

    Since Allen holds you in high esteem and places great value on your dicta, I wonder whether, if it is not inconvenient for you, I might meet you. I feel that you could exert a salutary influence on Allen, who, by the way, has fallen in with some undesirable friends.

    I believe Dean N.M. McKnight has some knowledge of the situation.

    May I hear from you?

Sincerely yours,
Louis Ginsberg

Louis Ginsberg to Allen Ginsberg

n.d. {ca. 1945}

Dear Allen,

Received your letter. On the whole, it was a clever and even brilliant one; but it was subtly infected with fallacy.

    Even if normal values are rationalizations as well as abnormal ones, the latter, as normal values qua normal ones, result in a better and safer adjustment to society and a greater integration of the person. According to your blanket statement, you would bracket the rationalizations of a homosexual or an insane person as satisfactory for society and for the person. The homosexual and the insane person is a menace to himself and to society. Danger and disaster lie that way! Your clever verbal solutions are incongruous with reality of life. You are developed intellectually; but, emotionally, you lag.

    You exaggerate my own tendencies. I find compensation in the development of my own inner being in accordance and in harmony with salutary, social values. My personality is dominant in my own way; i.e. in achieving a poetic life of modest but definite accomplishments. I fail to discern a sadistic force.

    No, I disagree with you — but definitely — that an immoralist can confirm "enduring human values," in chaos, "democratic civilization." You're all "wet," Allen. You simply have little experience in life. Where is your former, fine zeal for a liberal progressive, democratic society? Your sophistry — for that is what it is — is a series of half-truths, verbal cleverness, and dangerous ideas expressed in specious and dexterous verbiage.

    I don't think, at bottom, Burroughs is serious. Even granting, for the sake of argument, that he is, it is the sincerity of a fundamentalist, hell-and-brimstone, bigoted preacher whose ways sow hatred and distortion. He rationalizes his malice resulting from his maladjustment, does Burroughs. He's dangerous not because he rationalizes but because his end product of thought and attitude results, eventually, if carved out in action, in danger and disharmony and chaos. You don't know enough of life to separate his non-conformity from truth or realities. Frankly, I shall be — justifiably — disappointed in you, if you persist in your intimate relation with him.

    You are wrong that Trilling, Weaver, and Van Doren will side with Burroughs. Some of his art values they may like better than T. D. Adams; but Burroughs' social values those teachers will reject. I challenge you to present Burroughs' views, art and social, to Trilling or Van Doren!!! I dare you to take them up to Trilling.

    No, pleasure is not the final reference of morality. Were it so, chaos, confusion, anarchy would result, not communism or socialism or a better society or a better man. License is not liberty. Pleasure, if it harms the individual or society, is bad. I tell you, Allen, you are living in an Ivory Tower.

* * *

    Your poems: The one about the rose I don't care for. You don't have enough warrant for the reader to glean that the rose refers to a vaginal one.

    I didn't care for Poem II. "No Soap" to me.

    Poem III is good. I like it: it has subtle and epigrammatic aspects, well-knit meter, a valid idea.

takes a century or two for the effects to sink into the social body of the common man.

    I've been reading a variety of items: essays on Kafka, a book on the electron microscope, the poetry of Hart Crane, essays on modern and modernistic poets, etc.

    Feel well — and keep your shirt on!


Louis Ginsberg to Allen Ginsberg

September 14, 1945

Dear Allen,

Received your letter.

    Glad you are O.K.

    Sorry you won't be in for the Jewish Holiday. When do you expect to be in Paterson next?

    Am doing a bit of reading lately rather than writing, as I am lying fallow a while. Read or re-read Edmund Wilson's The Triple Thinkers with interesting interpretations of Henry James, especially his tale, The Turn of the Screw. There is also a good essay on mannerism and literature. Have also dipping into Stefan Zweig's autobiography, The World of Yesterday. I'll read soon Farrell's new book of essays, wherein he cudgels the genteel writers.

    All are well in Newark and send their regards to you.


P.S. I re-read some of your recent poems. They have good qualities: have good ideas with penetration. However, your verse is at times a bit amorphous and not focused enough into concrete images which sum up and unify and integrate your ideas. I suggest you 1. use concrete images; 2. concentrate more; 3. watch the grammar for greater simplicity and clarity. L.

Louis Ginsberg to Allen Ginsberg

November 2, 1945

Dear Allen,

Received your interesting letter, that is, what I could decipher of it. In pencil and in scrawls: I was barely able to decode it all.

    You say: "In part I agree with Shapiro. The rest, I differ." Me too — with Shapiro and with you.

    As for S.'s poem, it is not a poem but clever verse à la Pope.

    A fine poem — to continue our discussion — has indirection and allusiveness; it operates on different levels. But too much modern, or rather modernistic poetry, is willfully obscure; it hides in private occult allusiveness, which leads to dadaism and echolalia. This obscurity and cerebral mumbo-jumbo has widened the gulf between the poet and the intelligent reader.

    I realize well enough that the modern poet has to cope with difficulties which did not lie in wait for him in previous epochs. The disorder of modern life;; the explorations of Freud, Einstein, Marx; the mechanization and [...] of many activities; the pluralism of many conflicting values — all these make the poet shrink into himself. The enormous expansion of science, anthropology, sociology, psychiatry; the influence of the radio — all frighten the poet into hiding in his obscurity. He is afraid of clarity, not finding clarity in life. So he thinks he says something profound when he achieves the verbal duplicity of imitating clever associations. Life may be that way but not the best art.

    Rimbaud was an intense seeker but not after adequate normal values. He sought absolute moral values. That's a horse of a different color. Anybody who seeks absolute values gets stalled! He must resign himself to pragmatic values or commit suicide. No one ever will or can find, with infinitely microscopic minds, the designs and meanings in the macroscopic vastness. Pragmatic values have not brought us to chaos; it is the indifference of the masses to those values and it is the amoral cynicism power-ridden moguls and tycoons, aided and abetted by the unorganized masses, that has brought us to the past war.

    I don't say that our modern problems are properly faced as they should be; they are solved in a hugger-mugger, bad fashion; but to wait till you get absolute values which you'll never ever achieve — that is infantilism or quixotic incompetence, to say the least.


Excerpted from FAMILY BUSINESS by ALLEN AND LOUIS GINSBERG. Copyright © 2001 by Michael Schumacher. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Meet the Author

Michael Schumacher wrote Dharma Lion, the acclaimed biography of Allen Ginsberg, and is also the author of the biographies of Eric Clapton, Phil Ochs, and Francis Ford Coppola. He's been researching Family Business since 1994, when Ginsberg first agreed to the project.

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >