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American Scream

American Scream: Allen Ginsberg's Howl and the Making of the Beat Generation

Copyright Date: 2004
Edition: 1
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    American Scream
    Book Description:

    Written as a cultural weapon and a call to arms,Howltouched a raw nerve in Cold War America and has been controversial from the day it was first read aloud nearly fifty years ago. This first full critical and historical study ofHowlbrilliantly elucidates the nexus of politics and literature in which it was written and gives striking new portraits of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and William Burroughs. Drawing from newly released psychiatric reports on Ginsberg, from interviews with his psychiatrist, Dr. Philip Hicks, and from the poet's journals,American Screamshows howHowlbrought Ginsberg and the world out of the closet of a repressive society. It also gives the first full accounting of the literary figures-Eliot, Rimbaud, and Whitman-who influencedHowl,definitively placing it in the tradition of twentieth-century American poetry for the first time. As he follows the genesis and the evolution ofHowl,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 ofHowlat 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 pervadeHowl.A captivating look at the cultural climate of the Cold War and at a great American poet,American Screamfinally tells the full story ofHowl-a rousing manifesto for a generation and a classic of twentieth-century literature.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-93934-9
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. PREFACE: Allen Ginsberg’s Genius
    (pp. xi-xxvi)
  5. CHAPTER ONE Poetickall Bomshell
    (pp. 1-24)

    In September 1955, Gary Snyder—then a twenty-five-year-old unpublished poet and graduate student—wrote to his friend and fellow poet Philip Whalen in Oregon to say that he had been backpacking in the Sierras for ten days and that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...

  6. CHAPTER TWO Family Business
    (pp. 25-43)

    His parents, Naomi and Louis Ginsberg, named him Irwin Allen at his birth in Newark, New Jersey, in 1926. Twenty-nine years later, in San Francisco in 1955—when he began to writeHowl—he liked to think that he was in a cosmos of his own creation. In fact, he was still very much connected to his parents. Wasn’t Naomi a madwoman, and wasn’tHowlabout madness? Didn’t Louis write apocalyptic poetry, and wasn’tHowlan apocalyptic poem, too? His parents haunted him in the months just before he wroteHowl—they appeared in his dreams, and he wrote about...

  7. CHAPTER THREE Trilling-esque Sense of “Civilization”
    (pp. 44-64)

    In the mid-1950s American poets rarely howled, screamed, ranted, or raved. They composed themselves and then composed odes and sonnets, or, if they happened to be innovative, like Jack Kerouac, they composed the blues—as inSan Francisco Blues(1954). Animals and savages howled. Of course,Howlwas carefully composed, as the poet Denise Levertov and others pointed out, but Ginsberg wanted readers to think of his poem as the distillation of “ten years’ animal screams”—the screams of a madman. Ginsberg conceived ofHowlas a call to arms and a cultural weapon in the war against academic poetry,...

  8. CHAPTER FOUR Juvenescent Savagery
    (pp. 65-80)

    In the merchant marine in 1945, Ginsberg became more worldly and self-confident, and for years he wore his experience at sea and among sailors as a badge of honor. A decade later, when he publishedHowland had to furnish Ferlinghetti with an autobiographical sketch, he proudly included his time in the merchant marine—along with his days at Columbia College and his nights in Times Square.

    The time he spent at Sheepshead Bay also allowed him to do penance and to show Columbia that he was worthy of reinstatement to the college. (Finishing his education always remained his goal.)...

  9. CHAPTER FIVE Just like Russia
    (pp. 81-103)

    Madness was much on Ginsberg’s mind in 1948—the year of his graduation from college, his hallucinations in Harlem, and his obsession with Paul Cézanne. At the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, he looked, with the aid of marijuana, at Cézanne’s paintings—theThe Card Playersand theRocks at Garonne—and saw “sinister symbols.” He looked at Cézanne’s life and saw a “big secret mystic” who “didn’t know if he was crazy or not.” Everywhere he looked he seemed to see himself, and everywhere he looked he saw madness. So did his Beat brothers. Madness was the Beat...

  10. CHAPTER SIX Ladies, We Are Going through Hell
    (pp. 104-120)

    As late as 1952, Ginsberg still thought of himself as a novelist in the making, and that isn’t surprising since American novelists—not American poets—had real cachet in the early 1950s. So, in 1952, he prepared the outline for an autobiographical novel in which he was the hero. The novel—it never did have a title but it might have been calledMy Metamorphosis—was meant to begin in 1940. In the opening chapter the teenage hero would appear as “an introvert, an atheist, a Communist and a Jew.” Later, he would aspire to become the president of the...

  11. CHAPTER SEVEN Another Coast’s Apple for the Eye
    (pp. 121-142)

    In the 1950s,Howlshocked the middle-class Pollyannas and the pundits of positive thinking. Ginsberg aimed to wake Americans from what seemed like a narcotized slumber. “God damn the false optimists of my generation,” he raved in his journal in the winter of 1955, as he was readying himself to write what he hoped would be a big new poem about America. The state of the nation troubled him, and he wanted to say something to the country at large about how much America had promised and then disappointed the world. “America is new,” he wrote in his journal shortly...

  12. CHAPTER EIGHT Mythological References
    (pp. 143-157)

    Howlwas shaped by a host of writers, many of whom belonged to antithetical literary traditions: John Donne and William Blake; T. S. Eliot and Walt Whitman; Arthur Rimbaud and William Carlos Williams; the prophets of the Old Testament and Herman Melville. It was a complex heritage to which Ginsberg belonged and it was constantly shifting. Probably no two writers influenced him more profoundly than William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac. Of what use was the literary past, he wondered when he settled in San Francisco, if the present moment was so exhilarating? At times, Burroughs and Kerouac seemed to offer...

  13. CHAPTER NINE Famous Authorhood
    (pp. 158-188)

    In San Francisco in the summer of 1955, Ginsberg was surrounded by friends and lovers—Peter Orlovsky, Sheila Williams, Peter Du Peru, Robert LaVigne, Natalie Jackson, Neal Cassady, and Al Sublette. He loved them dearly and needed them for support, but they came between him and his work. A literary circle was essential, but so was solitude. More and more, he began to turn his back on the group, withdraw into his own private world, and type at his desk, even while Neal, Natalie, and Peter drank, talked, smoked, and made love. Finally, by the height of summer, he had...

  14. CHAPTER TEN This Fiction Named Allen Ginsberg
    (pp. 189-208)

    For decades, Louis Ginsberg had been far more famous than Allen. The elder Ginsberg taught poetry at Rutgers and played a leading role in the prestigious, though stodgy, Poetry Society of America. He had two books of poems to his name, dozens of poems in anthologies, and publications in most of the leading literary magazines. Then, in 1956 and 1957, with the advent ofHowl, attention suddenly shifted from father to son. Allen was the bright new star in the literary firmament. Never again would Louis outshine his son, though for a brief time in the late 1960s and early...

  15. CHAPTER ELEVEN Best Minds
    (pp. 209-230)

    In the winter and spring of 1957—as the media discovered the Beats—Ginsberg, Kerouac, and company made a series of pilgrimages to honor the writers and artists they admired. Oddly enough, though they celebrated their own generation, they reached out to men from an earlier generation, as though they consciously wanted to belong to a tradition of nonconformists. Their first stop was Manhattan, where they met the Spanish surrealist Salvador Dalí. Then it was on to Rutherford, New Jersey, to visit William Carlos Williams, then seventy-three years old and an enthusiastic supporter of the Beat Generation’s literary revolution. Williams...

  16. Notes and Sources
    (pp. 231-262)
  17. Index
    (pp. 263-296)
  18. Back Matter
    (pp. 297-297)