Noted scholar of Beat Generation authors, Professor John Tytell writes at the Chronicle of Higher Eduction on the flurry of activity revolving around the Beats and Allen Ginsberg this season, including the James Franco-starring Ginsburg biopic Howl (released September 23), the publication of several new books on the Beats and the photography show at the National Gallery of Art, “Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg.”
From the article:
Ginsberg’s ride on that wave has perhaps ebbed and flowed since his death 13 years ago, but it is cresting once more, with the recent publication of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg: The Letters (Viking) and The Typewriter Is Holy: The Complete, Uncensored History of the Beat Generation (Free Press), by Ginsberg’s archivist and biographer, Bill Morgan; an exhibition at the National Gallery of Art, “Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg” (with an accompanying catalog, published by Prestel); and the movie Howl, starring indie heartthrob James Franco, about Ginsberg’s most famous poem and the 1957 obscenity trial challenging its publication in the United States. That trial, along with the simultaneous publication of Kerouac’s On the Road, catapulted the Beats into literary and cultural history.
The intense, candid letters that Ginsberg and Kerouac wrote to each other capture the emergence of that literary and cultural moment when America, and American literature, would change irrevocably. The letters are often elated with aspiration, extravagant—even hyperbolic—with language sometimes soaring for its own sake; at other times, they plunge into despair: “God knows what oblivion we’ll wind up in like unpopular Melvilles,” Ginsberg ponders.
The correspondence begins in 1944, when the two young men met in New York City, where Ginsberg was an undergraduate at Columbia University and Kerouac a dropout living nearby, and continues until 1963, six years before Kerouac’s death, in 1969. Although they were greeted by American media as barbarous buffoons at the cultural gates—“I go rewrite Whitman for the entire universe,” Ginsberg boasted—the letters demonstrate a committed literary perspective. Allusions to Melville, Balzac, and Dostoevsky, Pound and Eliot, Joyce and Henry Miller establish the tradition they were committed to continue.
Some of the letters describe the daring literary ambitions they had for their friends, especially Ginsberg’s for William S. Burroughs, whom he regarded as a genius. Others, written from Mexico in the early 1950s, reveal how their views were deepened by living in a country “beyond Darwin’s chain,” as Kerouac put it. Fortified with tequila and peyote, Kerouac praised pastoral Mexico, and both men saw it as a foil to an American obsession with acquisition and consumption. Occasionally the letters crawl with dense Buddhist philosophy; inevitably they race again with reports of the latest recklessness of friends like Neal Cassady and Gregory Corso. Later letters, more ominously, are full of the hysteria that overwhelmed Kerouac after the notoriety of On the Road. As he reported to Ginsberg, with some of the cascading presumption that galvanized his prose—repeating what he had announced in a television interview—“I am waiting for God to show his face.”
Read more: Howl’s Echo (Chronicle of Higher Eduction)