AMERICAN SCREAM: ALLEN GINSBERG'S HOWL AND THE MAKING OF THE BEAT GENERATION by Jonah Raskin, University of California Press (2004), 295 pages, $24.95
What was the American dream of the 1950s? For many young people it was a good job in business, home in the suburbs, car, television, country club membership, upward mobility. Other Americans, particularly artists, were repelled by the soul-deadening conformity of this dream. Allen Ginsberg's response was a scream. In the face of the dominant culture purveyed by the mass media he howled the truth as he knew it, and learned that he was not alone.
Jonah Raskin's new book, American Scream: Allen Ginsberg's Howl and the Making of the Beat Generation, takes a close look at Ginsberg and the forces, both personal and cultural, that led to his landmark poem. "Howl emerged from the fissures in American society after World War II," writes Raskin, "as well as from the fault lines in the author's own secret, volatile life."
A problem facing any writer nowadays who seeks to probe the interconnected lives of Ginsberg and his friends Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs is that much of the story has been told and retold in previous books. Raskin's solution to this problem is to admit it and then state ways in which he is breaking new ground. In particular he uses information obtained in an interview with Dr. Philip Hicks, the San Francisco psychotherapist who gave Ginsberg "permission" to be a homosexual poet. He makes good use of the Ginsberg archive at Stanford University, and Kerouac archives at the University of Texas and the New York Public Library. He brings in writers such as T. S. Eliot, W. H. Auden, Tennessee Williams and Sylvia Plath-writers not generally associated with the Beats-and shows how they influenced the young Ginsberg. By pulling in material and ideas from outside the usual Beat context Raskin is able to show Ginsberg's life in a clearer light and give his poetry sharper definition.
If this book does nothing else it should convince Ginsberg's detractors that, far from being a naïf who got lucky once and tapped the zeitgeist, he was a working poet from an early age, in fact the son of a poet, who carried on "the family business," but had to break away from formalism and symbolism in order to find the best way to express his vision. Ginsberg in his late teens and early twenties is portrayed as a neurotic intellectual and poet, reading "Karl Marx, Oswald Spengler, Antonin Artaud, Jean Genet, Arthur Rimbaud, Thomas Wolfe, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, Marcel Proust, and Buddha."
Raskin's research turns up some interesting tidbits, such as a 1947 letter from Ginsberg to psychologist Wilhelm Reich; college essays on Rimbaud, Shelley and Baudelaire; poems in imitation of Donne, Marlowe and Marvell; and a book-length manuscript, The Character of the Happy Warrior, an "anti-epic" with a six-page preface. The accumulated evidence, with lines like "I am the brutish agonist," suggests that there are good reasons why the bulk of this material remains unpublished, but it is very revealing of the transformation Ginsberg had to undergo before he could write Howl. And in light of current events some of it appears quite prescient. Indeed this book is timely, and reading it one can't help but wish Ginsberg were here now to help rouse the rabble and shock the bourgeoisie. Certain uncanny parallels make it possible to conclude that he wrote Howl not about the Cold War reality of the 1940s and '50s but, prophetically, about the post-9/11 world of the early 21st century.
American Scream is not without flaws. It begins with a nicely handled description of the famous Six Gallery reading in October of 1955, Ginsberg's debut performance of Howl, then backtracks to trace the events and influences that got the poet to that point. After this crescendo at the beginning, some parts of the book come across as decidedly anti-climactic. At times too there are rather abrupt transitions, as when the college student Ginsberg is suddenly the merchant seaman Ginsberg, or, after the publication of Howl, when Ginsberg returns to New York and is suddenly living in Europe. At times a bit more biographical detail seems needed to help complete the picture.
But this book's few weaknesses are more than outweighed by its strengths. Raskin's handling of the Howl obscenity trial, and of Ginsberg's and Kerouac's differing interpretations of spontaneous composition are particularly enlightening, as is his section on the critical reception of Howl. Ginsberg's relationships with the poem's dedicatee, Carl Solomon, and with Neal Cassady, it's "secret hero," are nicely drawn. The writing style is conversational and accessible. At the same time the book is thoroughly and unobtrusively footnoted, making it a smooth read as well as a valuable resource. Ginsberg is clearly shown to be a "genuinely popular genuine poet" and Howl a classic poem that began to shape popular culture even as it offered a pointed critique of same.
"In Howl," Raskin concludes, "Ginsberg realized a great deal of the genius of the American language. Like Leaves of Grass, Howl was an experiment with language. Ginsberg combined the vernacular with the lexicon of holy men, mixed obscenities with sacred oaths, linked the slang of the day with the rhetorical flourishes of the founding fathers of the Republic. He spoke the language of immigrants, natives, New Yorkers, hipsters, and transcendentalists; he borrowed from Latin and broke new verbal ground. Ginsberg honored the language of dead poets, but also the language of the living street. As he wrote Howl, he became intoxicated with words and the sound of words-'boxcars boxcars boxcars racketing through the snow toward/lonesome farms.' Even today, reading the poem yields a feeling of intoxication. The words produce an electrical charge that is exhilarating."
Jonah Raskin is Professor and Chair of Communication Studies at Sonoma State University. His books include For the Hell of It: The Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman; My Search for B. Traven; Natives, Newcomers, Exiles, Fugitives: Northern California Writers and Their Work; and Out of the Whale: Growing Up in the American Left.
(This piece originally appeared in The Redwood Coast Review, Volume 6, Number 4, Fall 2004)
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