HONR 269J The Beat Begins: America in the 1950s

Allen Ginsberg, Covert Patriot
© 2004, Raanan Kagan

Allen Ginsberg is, without a doubt, most famous for his poem "Howl" which he published in October of 1956 through City Lights Books in San Francisco. "Howl", like much of his other poetry, is an intensely personal and also very complex poetic expression lacking rhyme and, to many people, also lacking reason. In actuality, however, "Howl" serves as an autobiographical sketch and it acts, in some ways, as a precursor to his lesser known poem from the same publication, "America," which is his final articulation of his love for his country and his disillusionment with its current state of affairs. Together, both of these poems form a culmination (as of 1956) of the journals he had been keeping throughout his life and are the final "howl" of the simultaneous love and discontent with his situation as well as that of his country. Through "Howl" and "America" Ginsberg is expressing his disillusionment with American culture and his own life by retelling his own life experiences; however, he is also demonstrating a love of America and American culture that he has held throughout his life and which he, finally, was able to put down in poetic verse in his compilation Howl and Other Poems.

From a very early age, Ginsberg's life was chaotic, and that, in turn, produced a disenchanted view of society. His parents were both extremely politically active and were not in political agreement. As a result politics was a subject to which he became accustomed rather early because his mother, Naomi, was a member of the Communist part and his father, Louis, was a Democratic Socialist (Miles 6). Naomi and Louis fought often about politics and the situation, no doubt, left Ginsberg both passionate and confused about politics at a very early age. During his parents' fights about politics during World War II, Ginsberg would often attempt to take sides -- usually, against his mother (Miles 24). In addition, Ginsberg was a social misfit even as early as in his primary school years when he would often do anything, including lie or destroy property -- albeit unintentionally -- to gain acceptance among his peers (Miles 14). At a very tender age Ginsberg learned that other people can be mean and unaccepting, especially of the little Jewish, goofy lanky boy with the thick glasses; although, by the time he was sixteen he had developed friends at school (Miles 25). This, predominantly negative, early childhood experience in the social and political worlds would surface again and feature quite prominently in both "Howl" and "America."

In addition to having early experiences with the political and social trends which would later surface in "Howl" and "America," Ginsberg also had a very close connection to the mentally handicapped through his mother who was, although not officially diagnosed as such in those days, a paranoid schizophrenic. His mother began to exhibit symptoms when Allen was still young and, when he was eleven years old, he witnessed his mother try to kill herself. It is interesting, and certainly not irrelevant, to note that it was at in the same year that Ginsberg witnessed his mother in this state that he began keeping careful journals (which were, later in life, to become a major published collection) (Miles 18). Naomi became dangerously paranoid -- fearing Allen's grandmother and, eventually, his father too -- but always returning to the desire to be loved by her son (Miles 30). She was eventually committed to a mental institution by Allen's father and she was in and out of such establishments for the remainder of her life. When Allen was 21 he signed papers for his mother to have a lobotomy and ever since he wondered if had been the right thing to do (Miles 94). Of course, much of Ginsberg's attitudes and feelings about his mother are expressed in "Kaddish," but it seems more than coincidental that madness would prove such an over arching theme in "Howl" and, to a lesser extent, "America."

In addition to his early childhood trauma, Ginsberg's life continued to be filled with odd, often unfortunate and traumatic incidents, all of which would resurface in his later poems and serve to further shape his discontent with the country. In the fall of 1944, after having been at Columbia University for only one year, Allen's friend Lucien Carr stabbed their mutual friend, David Kammerer, to death because of unwanted sexual advance. Carr eventually served jail time. Ginsberg's friends Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs were also arrested although subsequently released (Miles 46). Allen was enormously affected by the incident, as one would expect of a freshman in college whose friends had just been involved in a homicide. That incident, however, was only the tip of the iceberg of Ginsberg's experiences at Columbia, which later shaped his work so much.

Prior to discussing any more of Ginsberg's experience with other people, it is necessary to examine his, now famous, Blake visions that occurred in July of 1948. Ginsberg sat in his apartment, having just read some Blake poems and glanced over one, "Ah -- Sunflower." He heard what he describes as an earthly voice that he immediately recognized as the voice of Blake himself. Ginsberg found this vision spiritually eye-opening, claiming that "this was the moment I was born for" (Caveney 54). He would then proceed to spend, by and large, the next fifteen years of his life attempting to get back to that original experience by taking every type of mind-altering drug he could (Caveney 55). While the experience frightened Ginsberg's father, who feared it was related to Naomi's sickness, Ginsberg himself insisted, as late as 1986, that the vision was the only truly clear moment he had ever had (Caveney 55). Although Ginsberg embraced his visions in ways that his mother had not, and despite the fact that they were benign and hers malignant, it can only be right to point out that, at this point in his life, Allen had personally come into contact with some form of madness -- even if he thought it was the benevolent kind -- and he would see more of this madness (in fact it would pervade his life) that eventually releases itself in "Howl."

During 1949, after having already been suspended from Columbia for offensive graffiti and (unofficially) for sleeping with Kerouac in the dorms, Allen was living with a friend, Herbert Huncke. Huncke was a thief and began using Ginsberg's apartment as a storage location for all of his stolen goods. After asking Huncke to get rid of his stuff, Huncke complied and took Ginsberg on the ride, only to be stopped for driving a stolen car (Caveney 56). As a result of the police, Columbia University, and his father (still reacting to Allen's visions of Blake), Ginsberg was placed in Columbia Psychiatric Institute, where he remained until 1950. CPI was Ginsberg's second encounter with the mentally ill, and this time it came in the form of a roommate, Carl Solomon, who was committed because he showed up at CPI demanding an instant lobotomy (Miles 118). In CPI, Ginsberg was encouraged to relinquish all individuality in addition to any ideas about visions (Miles 120). Another goal of CPI was to convince Ginsberg to pursue a more "traditional" life which entailed "becoming" heterosexual and, for a time, Ginsberg did convince himself that he was heterosexual and even had fairly significant romantic relationships with women (Miles 123, 126).

Having examined Ginsberg's life we can now examine his poetry as a reflection of his experiences.

Part One of "Howl" is Ginsberg's poetic autobiography of his chaotic life up until 1956, and it is from it that his indictment of American culture in Part Two of "Howl" and "America" stem. Ginsberg begins "Howl" by declaring, "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked" (Howl 9). Here, Ginsberg is making his initial declaration that the "madness" that he has observed permeates his life and the American experience. It can refer to his mother -- whom he, literally, saw destroyed by madness. Or to himself, his Blake visions, and his lifelong quest to recapture that feeling. Or to Carl Solomon, or Lucien Carr who killed his own friend. Or to Kerouac, Burroughs and Neil Cassady who, in their own ways, were all affected by madness.

Ginsberg further specifies that this madness is in reference to himself when he writes, "who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating... and Blake-light tragedy... who were expelled from academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the window of the skull" (Howl 9). He includes Carl Solomon specifically as well, saying, "and subsequently presented themselves on the granite steps of the madhouse... demanding instantaneous lobotomy" and he concludes, "ah, Carl, while you are not safe I am not safe and now you're really in the total animal soup of time" (Howl 18, 19). He makes specific reference to Neal Cassady as well, "N.C., secret hero of these poems" (Howl 14) and includes a plethora of other examples of the misadventures of both Kerouac and Burroughs. The entire first section of Howl oozes discontent for the treatment he and his friends have received in the cruel world of people who could not accept the goofy Jewish boy from Paterson, New Jersey. Each of Ginsberg's famous "who" lines represents another chapter -- some easily understood and others much more cryptic -- of his own life experiences and how they reflect the corruption of the "best minds" by so-called madness.

Unlike his earlier poetry, it is difficult to find direct references to Ginsberg's early life in "Howl," other than the reference to his mother's madness; however, it is there beneath the surface. The unspoken political undertones of the first section of "Howl" (which later become overt in Part Two and in "America") were, in all likelihood, set in motion at an early age when he took sides in his parent's political fights. His view of all his friends as underdogs -- destroyed, unfairly, by madness -- harkens back to his childhood experiences of rejection and desire for acceptance. Now, he has moved on from his desire to be accepted and is looking back with disdain on that idea, thinking that, at thirty years old, it is okay to "wander around and around at midnight in railroad yard wondering where to go... leaving no broken hearts" (Howl 11). He has moved on from the specific childhood experiences that bogged him down in his earlier more traditional poetry; but that is not to say that the influences are not still there -- his history of governmental criticism (from his Marxist mother) continue to express itself strongly in America.

After having listed his grievances by pouring out all the experiences of his thirty years of life in long-lined verse, Ginsberg begins a second section where he squarely places the blame for the atrocities listed in Part One on "Moloch" -- the soul of greed and negativity in the world (or, more specifically, in the United States). Part Two of "Howl" is a conglomeration of imagery that Ginsberg finds offensive and which has led to the less-than-desirable situation that he and his friends are in. He mentions a "Mad generation! down on the rocks of Time" (Howl 23) and he refers to money, machinery, filth, armies, blind windows, factories, poverty, oil and hallucinations. It would be fruitless to try to analyze each specific reference because he assembles them for stylistic purposes; it is the overall picture painted by these references that is of importance to Ginsberg's overarching message. His generation is "down," caught on the rocks of Time -- their place in this society that consists of money, machinery, armies, factories and filth. Moloch is to blame for all of these things because Moloch is all of these things. For Ginsberg, Moloch is the epitome of evil, greed, and corruption -- and Moloch pervades American society in 1956.

The seeds of the political discontent that will blossom in "America" are also present in Part Two of "Howl." Ginsberg bemoans a "Congress of sorrows" and declares that Moloch is, "the stunned governments" who do nothing in the face of the ever-increasing madness that he finds in his life and that of those around him. Moloch is "loveless" and Moloch is the "heavy judger of men" because there is no love in the greed that makes up America culture (Howl 21). Moloch, he says, was with him from the very beginning -- as early as childhood he must have seen Moloch in society. There is "Moloch who entered my soul early!" and "Moloch who frightened me out of my natural ecstasy" (Howl 22). Although Ginsberg is saying that Moloch existed even when he was younger he indicates that there was, at some point, "ecstasy", which only ceased because it was crushed by Moloch. It is this optimism that will be of utmost importance in "Footnote to Howl" and "America."

Most of Ginsberg's indictment of "Moloch" can be found in his parallel indictment of his country in "America." Ginsberg begins America by declaring that he has "given [America] all and now [he's] nothing" (Howl 39). Everything that he had -- the good that he started with -- has been sucked away by the evil in America which is the Moloch in America. He beseeches America, when will it "end the human war", when will it "be angelic"? He mourns that its machinery is too much for him (Howl 39). It is no coincidence that the machinery image is repeated from Part Two of "Howl." It sounds as though, when he questions America, Ginsberg could easily be questioning Moloch. This suggests that Moloch is an integral, and very much hated, part of America. Themes of prison, money, armies, and Communism recur again as Ginsberg puts America on trial but not unlike "Howl" it is the collection of images to cry out to America rather than the individual ones.

Ginsberg returns to stories of his youth (which were lacking in "Howl") and he recounts a story of when he was seven years old in one ten-line "line" where he attends a Communist meeting and he describes how "angelic" it was. Ginsberg hints at longing for the good in America but seems to be focusing only on the bad. His charge that it is Russia and Asia that are the cause for the Cold War is, clearly, a satirical jab at the war-hawk attitude of American politics. For Ginsberg, Moloch is a part of American society, it has taken its hold of America and his poem is written to make America aware of her state of affairs.

Despite the undeniable negativity displayed prominently in parts one and two of "Howl" and in the allegations that Ginsberg brings against America, there is an undercurrent of optimism present in both "Footnote to Howl" and "America" which reveals Ginsberg's positive and, surprisingly, patriotic side. "Footnote" begins with fifteen repetitions of the word "Holy" and then immediately declares "the world is holy" (Howl 28). Ginsberg goes so far as to proclaim some of the very things that he declares to be wrong with society -- those things which are Moloch -- as holy. He writes that, the "mysterious rivers of tears" are holy as is the "vast lamb of the middle class." These seem at first to be things that Ginsberg would more likely have included under the category of "Moloch," rather than the category of holy. However, Ginsberg is making the point that even within these streets that flow with tears and within the catastrophe that is the conforming thoughtless middle-class America, there is holiness. There is kernel of goodness, truth, and value -- or at least something worthy of praise. There is something from which America, as a whole, can be salvaged. He goes on to cry, "Holy forgiveness! mercy! charity! faith!" (Howl 28). Despite all of the horrible atrocities of Moloch, there remains forgiveness, mercy, and charity in America. A duality, he suggests, exists between the evil side which is Moloch and the good side which, he proclaims, is "holy." Furthermore, there is "faith" -- faith is holy and he has faith in the good side of America.

Ginsberg ends his epic poem "Howl" on a note that is much different than that on which he started -- a positive and guardedly optimistic one. Ginsberg's final line of "Footnote" reads, "Holy the supernatural extra brilliant intelligent kindness of the soul" (Howl 28). This line can be seen as, both, a adoration of the human soul as the uplifting, powerful, kind, intelligent and benevolent force in humanity. In this way, it can be understood that humans -- the Americans -- can bring themselves out of this era of Moloch that dominates the country. Moreover, this soul can be seen as the soul of the country, a sort of kind underbelly to the society which, Ginsberg would say, is overrun by the spirit of Moloch. The difference between the two is significant. If it as seen as the human soul then it is with individuals that the holiness of the country truly lies, whereas if it is to refer to a country-soul, then the redeeming qualities of America are inherent in the country itself. It doesn't matter, however, whether one chooses to see Ginsberg, in this sense, as a Humanist or as a supernatural patriot (so to speak), because the significance, for the purposes of this discussion, is that he does believe that the there is a soul. There is a redeeming quality to America which will allow the country to rebound from the ugliness of its domination by Moloch and greed.

Before delving into the meat of "America," it is important to pause to consider the opinion that the poem has no meaning whatsoever -- which has been suggested seriously in the past. "That book [all of the "Howl" poems] was organized according to abstract questions of form rather than political or personal matters and was to be read by poets as an exploration of the metrical and structural possibilities" (Foster 106). Foster claims that the only purpose behind "America" was to "attempt to make combinations of short lines and long lines, very long lines and very short lines" (Foster 106). Surely Foster is right in pointing out Ginsberg's use of rhythm and line length in both the "Howl" booklet as a whole and in "America" specifically; however, it seems ludicrous to suggest that the poems contained in this work are neither political nor personal. Leaving aside, for sake of argument, the fact that they are explicit references to Ginsberg's life and that it is, arguably, impossible to write a non-political poem which address an entire country, it should be undeniable that any poet -- or any writer at all -- cannot help but include personal matters in his or her poetry even if that is not his or her primary goal, which it seems, quite clearly, to have been in this case. It is not necessary to explore the deeper meaning of the positive and patriotic side of Ginsberg's poetry to show that Foster has, for all intents and purposes, missed the mark in his assessment of Ginsberg's work. He has written a marvelous work on Ginsberg's experimental and influential use of line length but, in doing so, he has failed to grasp the deeper meaning of the text which is of great importance in understanding both the meaning of the poems and, more importantly, in understanding Ginsberg himself.

Having seen the glimmer of something more positive at the end of "Howl," we can move on to "America" in which Ginsberg is, much more directly, addressing what he sees as wrong with the country and, finally, drawing the same conclusions as before -- there is hope for America yet. It is obvious that "America" is poem which puts the country on trial. Though he drifts in and out of personal experiences and more general political accusations about America's faults, it is clear that Ginsberg is dissatisfied with America thus far in his life. He is very upset about World War II and about the Cold War, and they are both featured prominently in "America." He says to the country, "go fuck yourself with your atom bomb," and he asks when it will end the "human war" (Howl 39). It is difficult to isolate which parts of "America" are the important accusations that Ginsberg brings against the country because, as has been mentioned, the nature of his poetry is to be understood as a collection of images, rather than for each image to be seen on its own (as with traditional poetry).

It is significant, however, to point out the section towards the end of the poem where Ginsberg takes on the voice of America and he reduces to caveman-like grunts about the Russians and the Chinese. Communism and the war against it are big issues for Ginsberg, and he holds America almost entirely responsible for the wars that they claim are "in the name of democracy." He uses a sarcastic tone to make his point on this issue even harsher, "America you don't want to go to war/ it's them bad Russians / Them Russians them Russians and them Chinamen. / And them Russians" (Howl 42).

Before turning to the underbelly of patriotism that is exposed in "America" it is necessary to show that "Footnote to Howl" is really the antecedent of "America." Many of the themes from "Footnote" continue into "America" -- including, but not limited to, the war and Communism themes that have just been discussed. The theme of machinery that played such a crucial role in all the parts of "Howl" surfaces again in "America" as Ginsberg continues his illumination of the role of Moloch in the country. Ginsberg's reference to machinery in "America" is short; however, its implications are significant. He says, "Your machinery is too much for me" (Howl 39). The machinery, or the Moloch, in society has overcome him -- it is too much. At the same time, though, this suggests that the mere existence of machinery is not, inherently, evil; there is just, surely, too much of it to the point that it overwhelms him. This is a very subtle indicator of the optimism that is more prevalent in "America"

Despite the apparently negative tone that Ginsberg takes towards the country in "America," there is ample evidence that he is patriotic and positive about America's future. In questioning America, he uses the form "when will" rather then "why aren't you" implying that he does believe that, at some point, the holiness will prevail and America will become angelic -- America will take off her clothes. In addition, he says that America made him "want to be a saint" and he confesses that he is sick of America's "insane demands." Ginsberg is suggesting that America has demanded too much of itself, it has forgotten that everything is inherently holy (the point he made in "Footnote") and, as a result, Moloch has taken over the country. He asks America, "this is the impression I get from looking in the television set / America is this correct?" as if to suggest that, despite the impression he (and no doubt others) have about the negative aspects of America, it may not be the full picture (Howl 43). There may be, and indeed he hopes and believes that there is, something else to America that is not what he has seen through the television. Finally, Ginsberg ends his poem the same way he ends "Howl" on a positive note that implies change is possible for the Moloch-afflicted country. "America I'm putting my queer shoulder to the wheel" he proclaims (Howl 43). He is committing himself; he will work and do his part for the betterment of the country. He is "getting right down the job" which, in this case, is the job of fixing the broken country which he loves dearly.

It has been suggested, by scholars of Ginsberg, that this optimism is nothing but a reflection of Whitman's optimism and love for America; however, this seems intuitively false. Merrill suggests that, "first and foremost is the souring of Whitman's exuberant optimism toward America into a disillusionment that suggest[s] the breaking of the covenant" (Merrill 65). While it seems that Merrill has probably hit the nail on the head with regard to Whitman's influence on Ginsberg regarding optimism, it is to underestimate Ginsberg as a poet and as a human being to assume that all of the optimism that he expresses comes merely as an echo from his readings of Whitman. Moreover, Merrill has chosen to read the poem in a very negative (and much more traditional) light, whereby the initial optimism turns into disillusionment and hatred of society as Moloch-ridden. Merrill seems to neglect completely the optimism that ends both poems, demonstrating a clear progression from the negativity at the beginning of the poems to a proverbial light at the end of the tunnel at their conclusions. Finally, there is one more source to which we can turn to verify that Ginsberg, all along, had positive hopes and dreams for America.

As noted earlier, Ginsberg kept a journal for nearly all of his life, and it is from that journal that the very first (known) draft of "America" can be found. Ginsberg's initial draft of "America" is just as full of hope and patriotism, but it too is just below the surface. Like the final version, the later draft starts with negativity as well, "inspire me tonight with dream like poem / ...the fate of this country I hide in / penniless and lovelorn waiting for the barren doom of my own days" (Journals 36). The imagery here is different than the final draft -- which indicates that it was probably altered to be more related to "Howl" -- but the imagery is no less dark. Awaiting the "barren doom of his own days" while he sings of "America and Time" is quite overtly a statement that there is no chance for America and that all there is to do is await ones immanent doom. Machinery, as in the final draft, is featured prominently; he writes, "witness the downfall and roar of daily life, / in riches and despair amid great machinery" (Journals 36). Yet more proof that, although his style changed drastically over time, the ideas did not, and that consequently they were Ginsberg's own, rather than, simply, an extension of the long-lined work of Whiteman.

The end of the original version of "America," which dates to 1954, is not nearly as hopeful as the end of the final version, but the kernel of hope is there which demonstrates that even in the formative phases of the poem there was light at the end of the tunnel for what otherwise would seem to be a doomed America. Ginsberg ends the first draft of his poem by declaring, "Dark America! toward whom I close my eyes for prophecy, / and bend my speaking heart! / Betrayed! Betrayed!" (Journals 36). Although calling America "dark" and calling himself "betrayed," Ginsberg implies in these remarks that he turns to America for "prophecy" and, in turn, for hope. Furthermore, in order to be betrayed by America, he must first have put his trust in America, which implies a pre-existing patriotism. An enemy cannot betray you because you never trusted him -- only a friend can commit betrayal. Ginsberg, therefore, proclaims America his misguided friend but confesses that he still bends his heart to her and has sympathy for her while looking to her future, still, in the form of her prophecy.

Ginsberg's poetry came a long way, both stylistically and ideologically, from the original draft of "America" in 1954. Those supremely important ideas of the destruction of America by Moloch, however, remained constant and in fact became much more prominent. Ginsberg is often touted as a poet who writes with no revisions; however, this is commonly known to be inaccurate. How could he attempt to sift through thirty years of life experiences and mounting anger with only one draft? The published versions of his work, therefore, should reflect his most fine-tuned expression of his ideology. It would not have fit for Ginsberg to have said explicitly that he loved America. The impact of his poems would have been too blunted. It was necessary for Ginsberg to rehash his entire life -- everything that he ever felt was wrong, unfair, dirty or corrupt -- and create a scathing indictment of America, in order to juxtapose it with his deeper, more compassionate, feelings that there is still life left in America. Without Parts One and Two of "Howl," "Footnote" and "America" lose much of their meaning. Likewise, without Ginsberg's unique and rather unpleasant life there could have been no beginning of "Howl." Someone who had not experienced those whos first hand surely could not have written about them as he did, and it is the shock of the lengthy assault of all of those images that builds up to the opposing ideas of Moloch and Holiness. Although it is easy to dismiss Allen Ginsberg as a cynic, it is crucial to remember that, both as a poet and as a person, he is much more complex, as is his view of the country. Ginsberg was not anti-American, he loved a great deal about America and felt awful about its situation in the 1950s. Ginsberg was simply another man who wanted change.


Caveney, Graham. Screaming with Joy: the Life of Allen Ginsberg. New York: Broadway Books, 1999.

Foster, Edward Halsey. Understanding the Beats. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1992.

Ginsberg, Allen. Howl and Other Poems. 57th printing San Francisco: City Light Books, 2001.

---. Journals Mid-Fifties 1954-1958. Gordon, Ball Ed. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1995.

Merrill, Thomas F. Allen Ginsberg: Revised Edition. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1988.

Miles, Barry. Ginsberg: A Biography. London: Virgin Publishing Ltd., 2000.

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