In November 1956, the first copies of Howl and Other Poems went on sale at City Lights bookstore in San Francisco, and Allen Ginsberg marveled that his publisher, fellow poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, had decided to print a thousand copies. How would they ever sell that many? Howl, of course, proved to be an explosion in consciousness heard round the world, and nearly a million copies are now in print. It’s hard to imagine a poem—or poet—having such impact ever again.
The Beats were the first bohemian movement born under the eye of mass media, thus also the first to gain huge fame that flattened them into images, or caricatures. In Ginsberg, detractors saw merely the most infamous of the bearded bathless Beats, while admirers saw a visionary, Dharma seeker, fearless activist, and master of the long buoyant line. Who was the human underneath it all? Two new books about Ginsberg’s life address the question. I Celebrate Myself (a biography) and The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice (selections from his earliest journals) have just been published to coincide with Howl‘s 50th anniversary.
Endlessly social, curious, and peripatetic, Ginsberg spent less time holed up with his work than most writers. He probably also led one of the best-documented lives in American letters, cranking out loads of correspondence and journals. He saved everything. “If some future historian or biographer wants to know what the genius thought and did in his tender years, here it is,” Ginsberg wrote in his diary in 1941, when he was 14. “I’ll be a genius of some kind or other, probably in literature. . . . Either I’m a genius, I’m egocentric, or I’m slightly schizophrenic. Probably the first two.”
At that age, he recorded no genius thoughts about what probably most troubled him: his mother’s mental illness and his nascent queer identity. In Martyrdom and Artifice, he’s struggling to find his voice like most young writers. He’s self-conscious, confused, certain he should date women, speculating that he’ll lead a quiet life and write prose.
But Ginsberg’s formative years were the formative years for a whole movement, making his juvenilia more interesting than most. He met both Kerouac and Burroughs when he was just 17—first impressions not recorded, unfortunately. But by the time Martyrdom and Artifice ends, in 1952, he’s encountered nearly all the angel-headed hipsters he will someday celebrate. The big exception: his longtime companion Peter Orlovsky, whom he met in ’54.
He devotes many pages to incidents that are now a familiar part of Beat lore: for example, David Kammerer’s death at the hands of Lucien Carr (no relation to this writer). While Ginsberg was upset over that tragedy, he also seemed to think that it would make a good novel and began a fictional account in his journal. The first real soul-searching comes during Ginsberg’s affair with Neal Cassady. (How is Neal’s mind different from mine? he wonders. Let us count the ways.) Then, he reads Kerouac’s first novel (The Town and the City). “My world—finally given permanent form,” he decided. He also experienced the famous vision in which, he believed, William Blake spoke to him; he did not write about this immediately but refers to it later in the journal. There’s also a long account of the incident that got Ginsberg committed for seven months to a psychiatric hospital: He’d permitted Herbert Huncke and a couple of Huncke’s lowlife companions to warehouse stolen property in his apartment, then avoided jail by going into the asylum.
In I Celebrate Myself, each year of Ginsberg’s life gets a chapter, which makes it a handy reference. Author Bill Morgan was Ginsberg’s archivist and bibliographer, so he’s read every scrap the poet saved. He also seems to have interviewed about 300 people. Like the previous Ginsberg biographies by Barry Miles and Michael Schumacher, this one weighs in at over 600 pages. And that’s without any critical analysis of the poems. Morgan forgoes that, but names the poems Ginsberg was working on at appropriate places in the margins. Great chronology is not the same thing as a great narrative, however. Morgan just isn’t a storyteller, and parts of I Celebrate are a slog through a frenzied list of activities.
More importantly, I occasionally distrusted his take on people and what their actions meant. One tiny example: Morgan says that when Cassady got married for the second time, Ginsberg was so unnerved he asked Kerouac to beat him up. In Ginsberg, Barry Miles suggests that with Cassady remarried, the poet began to focus his sexual yearning on Kerouac and, desperate for any kind of contact, asked Jack to hit him. I’m in no position to say which is accurate, but only the second has any emotional logic.
It’s like Morgan doesn’t get the nuances. Or maybe just doesn’t allow himself the space to deal with them. This is critical when Morgan tries to explain such complexities as Ginsberg’s relationship with Peter Orlovsky. Morgan isn’t the first to comment on how dysfunctional that connection often was, or how strained the sexual relationship, since Orlovsky is basically heterosexual. In Morgan’s account, however, Ginsberg comes off as a bully and exploiter, while Orlovsky had simply never been “strong-minded enough to break away.” Did Orlovsky really get nothing from this relationship? The recurring theme of insensitive Allen/trapped Peter needs more elucidation, at least, like much else in this flawed, if voluminous, bio.