Allen Ginsberg in America

At the Howl trial in San Francisco the prosecutor asked one of the witnesses, “You say this book is not pornographic. What kind of a book would you call it?” The witness answered, “It could best be compared to one of the prophetic books of the Bible, especially Hosea, which it resembles in more ways than one.” The prosecutor, taken aback, dismissed the witness.

It is very true — Allen Ginsberg is in the direct line of the nabis, those wild men of the hills, bearded and barefoot, who periodically descended upon Jerusalem, denounced king and priesthood, and recalled the Chosen People to the Covenant. If any writer in America is true to his tradition, it’s Ginsberg. Behind him stretches away for generations the prophetic, visionary and orgiastic tradition of Hassidism. He is a Zaddik. Immediately behind him stands Whitman and the founders of communal groups from Oneida to New Harmony, from the Schwenkfelders to the Mormons, those noble souls who almost won, who almost established America as a community of love. It is the Whitman of “Passage to India” who appears to Ginsberg in a supermarket. Immediately in Ginsberg’s own childhood, as he says in Howl, was what we used to call “the revolutionary movement” before it became a minor department of the Narkomindel, the Russian Foreign Office, when the region in which he grew up, Passaic and Paterson, was a land of promise as well as a place of the “dark Satanic mills” of Blake, where thousands of Jewish and Italian and Appalachian migrants hoped to build Jerusalem in New Jersey’s green and sullied land. Unless Ginsberg is understood as a religious leader of the same kind as his younger colleague, Gary Snyder, he cannot be understood at all. Although it was his fame and his loyalty to his old friends from Columbia, who used to get drunk in the San Remo on MacDougal Street, that launched the actually very small Beat movement, he was anything but a beatnik, and it is only as the counter-culture has caught up with him that he has come to play his full role.

Just as the Ginsberg of ten to fifteen years ago was an hallucination publicitaire of the news weeklies and picture magazines, so Jane Kramer’s Ginsberg in Allen Ginsburg in America is a New Yorker “Profile.” This is a strange animal which resembles the window mannequins in Saks, the movie stars of the Silents, or the creatures who advertise whiskey in the periodicals with the most expensive advertising rates. Amongst poets the most scathing term of contempt is “New Yorker verse,” even though some of the leading writers in the country have been published in its pages. There is a kind of Winnie the Pooh whimsy that spreads over everything and turns it all into something synthetic made of polyesters and cloying soybeans. Jane Kramer is unquestionably a woman of very good will indeed. She obviously worked extremely hard to be just, sympathetic and illuminating in her three-part New Yorker “Profile” that makes up this book. In the process she obviously developed great affection and respect for Ginsberg. Yet it’s all unreal. Her description of the sessions of the leaders of the great Golden Gate Park Be-In, which was the Coming of the Kingdom of the Flower Children before the Mafia took over the Haight-Ashbury, reads like nothing so much as Pooh, Piglet, Rabbit, Owl, Eeyore, Tigger, Kanga and Roo all running around with their clothes off, high on pharmaceuticals beyond the fondest dreams of Huxley, Watts and Leary rolled into one. Said Dorothy Parker, “Tonstant Weader thwowed up.” I know all these people, most of them very well indeed, and believe me, they are in deadly earnest. There is nothing whimsical about what they propose to do to the old culture. The counter-culture may be distorted and turned into its opposite or coopted by the voices of the Establishment, and of course when Big Business in the form of the Mafia discovered that it could sell methedrine and heroin to adolescents as enlargement-of-consciousness sacraments of a new religion, they discovered the most profitable counter-revolution in history, but none of this is what Ginsberg or Gary Snyder or Lenore Kandel or the other people Jane Kramer writes about are about.

Probably the best journalistic picture of Ginsberg available is Paul Carroll’s many-page interview in the April 1969 issue of Playboy, and the real kernel of that is Allen’s little discourse on the ecological breakdown that threatens the extinction of the human species within a comparatively short time, and the necessity for an ecological revolution against the life-destructive forces that are corroding everything about us. The point is Ginsberg is a very serious man. He actually believes with Whitman and with Whitman’s master, “I am come that ye might have life, and that ye might have life more abundantly.” He may be mistaken as he has made many mistakes along the way that he is now trying to correct and at the end he will probably be crucified in some socially acceptable way, one of the ways of the American Way of Life, but it won’t be for not trying. It is quite impossible to domesticate a person like this, even in the most sophisticated stately homes of Scarsdale where New Yorker “Profiles” go when they die.

This is not really to put down Allen Ginsberg in America. It is unquestionably written with a full measure of affectionate sympathy and a large half-measure of understanding. Perhaps deliberately it is designed to domesticate Ginsberg, to smuggle him into the glass-table breakfast nook surrounded by the conservatory where he will turn the crisp bacon and coddled egg and crispies into honey and locusts and the sugar cubes — well, you know what Timothy Leary does with sugar cubes. I suppose this is all to the good. If the junior elite embrace Ginsberg because he is lovable, who knows what will happen? There is nothing false about Jane Kramer’s lovable Ginsberg, there’s just a lot more to him than that, as there was more to Hemingway than shadow boxing in Abercrombie and Fitch.

I see I have done just what bugs Allen, written of him as a sociological phenomenon rather than as a great literary artist. Oh well. Jeremiah and Isaiah are great poetry as well as great prophets. Ginsberg’s verse broke the iron crust of custom of the self-styled Reactionary Generation, deprovincialized American verse and returned it to the mainstream of modern international literature. So, Allen, you’re a great literary artist.



This review of Jane Kramer’s Allen Ginsberg in America originally appeared in the New York Times Book Review (1969) and was reprinted in With Eye and Ear (Herder & Herder, 1970). Copyright 1969. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

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