The Letters of Allen Ginsberg [NOOK Book]


Allen Ginsberg (1926–1997) was one of twentieth-century literature’s most prolific letter-writers. This definitive volume showcases his correspondence with some of the most original and interesting artists of his time, including Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Neal Cassady, Lionel Trilling, Charles Olson, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Philip Whalen, Peter Orlovsky, Philip Glass, Arthur Miller, Ken Kesey, and hundreds of others.

Through his letter writing, Ginsberg ...

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The Letters of Allen Ginsberg

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Allen Ginsberg (1926–1997) was one of twentieth-century literature’s most prolific letter-writers. This definitive volume showcases his correspondence with some of the most original and interesting artists of his time, including Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Neal Cassady, Lionel Trilling, Charles Olson, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Philip Whalen, Peter Orlovsky, Philip Glass, Arthur Miller, Ken Kesey, and hundreds of others.

Through his letter writing, Ginsberg coordinated the efforts of his literary circle and kept everyone informed about what everyone else was doing. He also preached the gospel of the Beat movement by addressing political and social issues in countless letters to publishers, editors, and the news media, devising an entirely new way to educate readers and disseminate information. Drawing from numerous sources, this collection is both a riveting life in letters and an intimate guide to understanding an entire creative generation.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

In 1962 Allen Ginsberg wrote to Bertrand Russell: "All I know is, I've lived in the midst of apparent worldly events and apparent transcendental insights, and it all adds up to I don't know what." Both the worldliness and the transcendence come through in these letters by the beat poet, published for the first time. As the poet's biographer and prolific literary archivist, Morgan has selected just 165 out of more than 3,700 letters. They offer a comprehensive look at Ginsberg's life, from his earliest letter to the New York Times in 1941 to his dying message to Bill Clinton requesting an arts prize "unless it's politically inadvisable or inexpedient." Ginsberg wrote at length to just about anyone: Kerouac and other literary colleagues, of course, but also journalists and literary critics who failed (in his estimation) to fully appreciate what the beats had accomplished. The playful, experimental side of his personality comes through, from his youthful attempts to attract the attention of Ezra Pound to his experiments with LSD. Ginsberg's admirers will be glad Morgan has followed the poet's instructions not to "smooth out rough horny communist un-American goofy edges." (Sept. 15)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

Morgan, Ginsberg's biographer (I Celebrate Myself) and archivist, studied 3700 letters left behind by the poet, selecting 165 of the most significant for this edition; over 125 appear here for the first time. Always intelligent, sometimes gossipy, and occasionally cranky and impatient, Ginsberg is accurately reflected in these letters taken together. Correspondents include Ginsberg's father, Louis, and brother, Eugene; the poet's longtime companion, Peter Orlovsky; fellow Beat writers Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, and Gregory Corso; and a host of friends and acquaintances. There are also letters to newspapers and politicians, ranging from one on the League of Nations sent to the New York Times in 1941 to a short note to President Bill Clinton seeking "some sort of an award or medal," written just days before Ginsberg's death. Arranging the letters chronologically, Morgan uses headnotes to identify correspondents and provide additional context as needed. On the whole, his quest to compile "a greatest hits album" of Ginsberg's correspondence succeeds admirably. Highly recommended for all literature collections.
—William Gargan

From the Publisher
Columbia College Today, Jan/Feb 2009
“Morgan has put together the best of Allen Ginsberg ‘48’s letters to friends and fellow writers.”

Augusta Metro Spirit, 6/25/08
“A stunning display of the mind at work…A talented editor with firsthand knowledge of the subject, Morgan is able to craft a fascinating journey through the mind of one of the world’s best poetical voices…Crafted with supreme care, organized under a chronological format, and placed together in a series of thrusts from the mind of a master thinker now gone, this collection of letters serves as a collective howl into the cognitive recesses within the open-minded free thinkers of today.”

Library Journal, 9/01/08
“Always intelligent, sometimes gossipy, and occasionally cranky and impatient, Ginsberg is accurately reflected in these letters taken together…On the whole, [Morgan’s] quest to compile ‘a greatest hits album’ of Ginsberg’s correspondence succeeds admirably. Highly recommended for all literature collections.”

Q Syndicate, 8/25/08
“[A] mouth-watering sampling of correspondence across six decades…Rich and revealing...Stamp this meticulously edited collection of letters ‘transcendent.’” It was also the column’s “featured excerpt.”

The Advocate, 9/9/08
“The Beat poet comes alive in his first letter to the editor of The New York Times at age 15, the desperate breakup note to writer Neal Cassady, and throughout his lifelong engagement with politics, literature, and famous friends.”

Beat Scene, 9/08
“Ginsberg was the central information centre for the Beat Generation and that is so evident from these letters…A major collection…Any self respecting observer of the Beat Generation should have this book.”

“Worshippers of Howl and the Beat Generation will revel in this impressive collection of correspondence between Ginsberg and myriad other luminaries…The letters…are extraordinary in their quality, in their content, and in their revelations about his personal and poetic desires, his struggles and success.”

Washington Blade
, 8/22/08

“A historical epistolary novel…A guide to the Beat generation.”  

New York Post
, 9/14/08

“Full of wonderful tidbits about Ginsberg.” 

San Francisco Chronicle
, 9/20/08

“This wonderfully rich collection of 165 letters from the 1940s until the poet's death in 1997, put together by his longtime archivist, Bill Morgan, gives us a firsthand view of the man behind the poems, someone of whom it can be truly said that the personal was political…This remarkable collection by someone who perhaps invented the concept of ‘oversharing’ long before it became fashionable, reminds us of why he mattered then, and still does now.”

Details, October 2008
“Morgan has catalogued 165 of the poet-activist’s letters to people you’d expect and some you wouldn’t.” 

USA Today’s Pop Candy, 9/26/08
“Good stuff!”, 10/08
“Will surely interest anyone who read [Ginsberg’s] work.”

Electric Review, September/October 2008
“The art of Ginsberg’s letters is captured in stunning form…Indispensable to all serious students of literature…A book that embraces the wonders of communication, each selection reveling in the sheer excitement of the connection…Followers of the Beat Generation will find countless hours of enjoyment here.”

Reference & Research Book News, November 2008
“From topics as personal as a recommendation of medicine for dysentery to Kerouac, to his excitement at discovering the painter Francis Bacon, to frank comments on his own work and that of others, the letters are captivating. Through them we see not only into the mind of a seminal poet but also into the society that shaped him.”

Curled Up with a Good Book, 10/08
“Since [Ginsberg’s] friends and correspondents included some of the great figures of his times, this epistolary collection has a deep footprint…If you want to understand the Beat generation, the hippies, the intellectual drug scene, the intellectual gay scene and poetry, this is a must-read.”, 10/30/08
“To Ginsberg fans and scholars, his letters provide insight into his personality, his creative process, and his works.”

Gay & Lesbian Review, 11/08
“Will doubtless serve a purpose for the many scholars and students of the Beat generation.”

January, 11/24/08
“Morgan has—once again—done a terrific job with Ginsberg’s words. In many ways, what we have here is the very heart of the Beat Generation. A wonderful book.”, 12/2/08
“We are served the spectrum of Ginsberg’s many moods and interests and his who’s-who guide of a rolodex…Some of the letters from the early ‘50s, pre-Howl, provide remarkable insight into the poems written around the same time…What The Letters offers that previous editions of Ginsbergalia, including the two biographies that have come out recently, cannot is the raw glimpses into the poet’s love life.”, 12/08
“A superb collection that mirrors the beauty, humor, and energy of Ginsberg's work, and will serve well those who entered, and maybe never left, their Beat stage.”

Magill Book Reviews
[The letters] indicate just how thoroughly Ginsberg often thought about a subject or situation, and just how much control he had of the rhetorical devices which make non-fiction prose an informative and illuminating form…A fascinating glimpse into an important part of American cultural history, as well as a kind of autobiographical account of the poet’s primary political and aesthetic concerns…[Morgan’s] concise, knowledgeable explanations and contextual formulations are invaluable in leading the reader, even one familiar with Ginsberg’s life, to a more complete understanding of the writer’s thoughts and emotional condition at the time of the writing. Ginsberg’s life has been adequately covered in various biographies and commentaries, but this volume adds to and complements all of them, a compilation of enduring interest to anyone interested in the poet’s life and times.”

Santa Fe New Mexican, 12/19/08
"A fascinating story...Morgan deftly injects notes before many of the 165 letters to give readers a sense of context. This turns Ginsberg's most private thoughts into a cohesive narrative...Watching Ginsberg mature as an artist in his private letters is a pleasure.", 1/25/09
“Reading The Letters of Allen Ginsberg is an unexpectedly moving experience…His letters show that…there was something rare and genuine about Allen Ginsberg. He may have been a fool, but he was a holy fool; and next to his holiness, the maturity and realism of his critics can look a bit unlovely.”, 1/24/09
“[An] extraordinary collection.”

Choice, 3/09
“Given that the academy still slights the Beats and that collections of letters frequently disappoint, this volume is a rewarding surprise…The letters develop narrative pull…The volume reminds the reader that despite his deference to Jack Kerouac, Ginsberg played a significant role in the Beat movement and era…Recommended.”

“Writing in the Mountains,” 1/30/09
“Interesting to read, just to get a glimpse into Ginsberg's life and the inner workings of his rambling mind. I found much humor throughout but also a lot of self-inflicted pathos which made the pages turn a bit faster.”

Hudson Review, Spring 2009
“Beat fans who aren’t sated by the Ginsberg-Snyder correspondence will also want to purchase, or steal, The Letters of Allen Ginsberg.”

“Full of everything one could hope for in a book of letters…The letters are informative, juicy, and poetic…A uniquely pleasing work.”

The Barnes & Noble Review
The Letters of Allen Ginsberg, deftly selected and strung precisely on a narrative thread by Beat scholar Bill Morgan, Ginsberg's biographer and literary archivist, reads like a mutigenerational epistolary novel peopled by literati of all stripes. Ginsberg, whose "Howl," "Kaddish," and "Wichita Vortex Sutra" rearranged the DNA of American poetry, was a literary gadfly whose letters are lush with poetry-world gossip, travel musings, riffs on his various exploits and indiscretions, political commentary, and strong opinion.

Morgan begins the book with the earliest letter he could uncover, Ginsberg's December 28, 1941 letter to the editor of The New York Times, written three weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Ginsberg, then a self-possessed 15-year-old, begins, "I have long believed, in principle, the ideals of Woodrow Wilson...." He goes on to regret that fact the U.S. never joined the League of Nations, which might have saved millions of lives. This was the first salvo in a 60-year correspondence between the poet and his hometown newspaper.

Elsewhere, there are gems like a 1955 letter to Eugene Brooks, the first letter in which Ginsberg quoted lines from "Howl." He is living in San Francisco and writing a "long prose poem, sort of surrealist.... This is more or less Kerouac's rhythmic style of prose, ends 'the actual heart of the poem of life butchered out of their own bodies good to eat a thousand years.' Elegy for the generation, etc.." He adds that he intends to apply "this form of elliptical semisurrealist imagery to rhymed blues type lyrics."

A few months later, Ginsberg organized the legendary reading at the Six Gallery with Kenneth Rexroth, Michael McClure, Philip Lamantia, and Gary Snyder, where "Howl" was first performed. In 1956, Ginsberg's buddy Jack Kerouac published his novel On the Road. And so the Beat movement, with its iconoclastic search for ecstatic experience, began.

While Kerouac, William Burroughs, Neal Cassady, Gregory Corso, Michael McClure, et al. logged in scores of escapades, captured in print and in rumor, Ginsberg became the primary documentarian of and spokesman for the Beat movement. He archived copies of letters, manuscripts, and his photographs with meticulous handwritten captions. (From 1953, for instance, a shot of William Burroughs at his bookshelf/window on the fire escape on East 7th street, and a shot of Jack Kerouac across from Tompkins Square Park. [Editor's note: While there are no photographs in the book, Ginsebrg's images can be viewed here:] He made films with Robert Frank and Bob Dylan, among others, and wrote letters to editors, presidents, newspapers, and foundations. In December 1962, while in Calcutta, he wrote to the Harvard Crimson regarding a reference to LSD and other "mind distorting drugs," suggesting it would be more accurate to write "mind expanding or consciousness-widening" drugs, a correction he based on his own "about thirty experiences (with LSD-25, psilocybin, mescaline, peyote and banisteriopsis caapi) spaced out over the last decade." In January 1971, he addressed fellow National Book Award poetry judges in a lengthy letter supporting Corso (a "Genius") over Mona Van Duyn: " duty as poet judge here is to disrupt present consciousness and convenience including my own and resist what appears to me to be your tendency to make the same life-mistake again, wet blanket Poesy..."

The letters also deal regularly and thoroughly with Ginsberg's work in progress and publication history. He famously wrote a lengthy letter to poet/critic Richard Eberhart in advance of the publication of Howl, giving him notes on its construction and on his own aesthetic philosophy: "You heard or saw 'Howl' as a negative howl of protest...the poem itself is an act of sympathy, not rejection." Also here is his letter of advice to Lawrence Ferlinghetti of City Lights, which published Howl in 1956, when the book was seized by Customs for obscenity (written from Tangier, where he was visiting Burroughs, on April 3, 1957): "I guess the best way publicity wise is prepare some sort of outraged and idiotic but dignified statement, quoting the Customs man, and Eberhart's article and [W. C.] Williams, and Nation review, mimeograph it up and send it out as a sort of manifesto publishable by magazines and/or news release.... Copyright it under City Lights name -- only thing is, if you ever make your money back and make some profit from all your trouble...we divvy the loot."

Pick up the book and open to any page, and you'll find surprises, revelations, wit, and passion. From the 1960s alone, there's his intimate correspondence with Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, Corso, Kenneth Rexroth, Peter Orlovsky (when the two were apart), LeRoi Jones, Gary Snyder, Lionel Trilling (asking for a Guggenheim reference), Robert Creeley (writing to Creeley from Calcutta, he described a pilgrimage: "...the main thing everybody does all day here is smoke ganja, everybody, that's all I did 4 days straight morn till nite [sic ], sitting around in huts and tomb-cells with saddhus, singing Baul religious songs and passing the pipe -- just like Mill Valley writ large and 1000 years old tradition.") He describes the "huge clownish Utopian gang" masterminded by Ken Kesey -- and their big bus -- in a letter from San Francisco to Herbert Huncke in December 1965 and mentions his meetings with Bob Dylan to "talk about poesy and fame and Eden Desolation..." He writes to Monarch Notes in December 1966 to complain about the "Beat Literature" pamphlet he "read with a good deal of dismay," finding it incomplete, inaccurate, arbitrary, and dated.

By 1975, he was writing to Gary Snyder in Nevada City from Boulder, Colorado, to urge him to visit the newly founded Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Colorado's Naropa Institute. In an editor's note, Morgan points out that this poetry department at Chogyam Trungpa's new Buddhist College took up much of Ginsberg's time in the following decades.

By 1992, when he wrote Paul Bowles in advance of a visit to Tangiers, Ginsberg reported the deterioration of some of their circle (Peter Orlovsky, he wrote, was "in and out of Bellevue"). He also described his own retrospective CD box set of poetry and music works done with "Elvin Jones (Coltrane drummer), Don Cherry (jazz trumpeter), and Bob Dylan singing backup on Blake and playing tunes to my vocal lyrics." Three years later, he writes Gary and Carole Snyder from Amboise, France, en route home from the Venice Bienniale, where 108 of his photos were shown. He was traveling with artist Francesco Clemente, with whom he had worked on projects for ten years, and the painter's wife, Alba -- "intelligent sensitive couple who honeymooned age 21 in India for 2 years." He mentions a call from Timothy Leary, who had terminal cancer, and adds that he had bought Larry Rivers's loft after selling his archives to Stanford for $1 million.

The last brief letter in the collection, was sent to President Bill Clinton, on April 1, 1997:

Enclosed some recent political poems.
I have untreatable liver cancer and have 2-5 months to live.
If you have some sort of award or medal for service in art or poetry, please send one along, unless it's politically inadvisable or inexpedient. I don't want to bait the right wing for you....

It's a fitting capstone to an engrossing collection, reflecting Ginsberg's genius for somehow managing to be always current. --Jane Ciabattari

Jane Ciabattari is president of the National Book Critics Circle.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780786726011
  • Publisher: Da Capo Press
  • Publication date: 9/2/2008
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 1,086,198
  • File size: 618 KB

Meet the Author

In 1956, Allen Ginsberg published “Howl,” one of the most widely read and translated poems of the twentieth century. Ginsberg was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and cofounder of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa Institute.

Bill Morgan, Allen Ginsberg’s literary archivist for many years, is the author of a biography of Ginsberg and editor of The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice, Ginsberg’s early journals. He lives in New York City.

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