Screaming with Joy: The Life of Allen Ginsberg

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9780767902786: Screaming with Joy: The Life of Allen Ginsberg
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The first fully illustrated tribute to Allen Ginsberg--the best-known American poet of the post-war generation, mother of the Beats, and walking embodiment of Western counterculture.

Ginsberg's poetry, influenced by the writings of Walt Whitman and the spontaneous prose of his friend Jack Kerouac, is open, forthright, didactic, and written fast without revision. Much of his writing has a raw, confessional quality appropriate to his roles as one of the first gay spokespeople and a leading anti-Vietnam War activist.

From the publication of his first book, Howl and Other Poems, in 1956, Ginsberg became known as the champion of counterculture concerns: sexual freedom, pacifism, drug experimentation, opposition to censorship and authority, and acceptance of Eastern religions. The youngest of the Beat writers, Ginsberg was a lover to both William Burroughs and Kerouac and acted as the prophet and public face of the group--serving as Kerouac's unofficial agent for On the Road and helping Burroughs bring The Naked Lunch to the attention of publishers.

Screaming with Joy, overflowing with more than 150 photographs and illustrations, is a passionate documentary of Ginsberg's zealous life. His untimely death in 1997 silenced a voice that expanded the capacity of our language, and his cultural icon status makes his work and life of even greater interest today.

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About the Author:

Graham Caveney is the author of Gentleman Junkie: A Biography of William Burroughs and the coauthor of Shopping in Space, a report on the American brat-pack writers.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Introduction

There are probably more generalizations about the differences between England and America than the actual differences themselves. They bombard us via TV cliché, anecdote and humor; discourses that blend prejudice with observation, abstract theory and personalized travelogue. The earnest American versus the ironic (pronounced "iranic") European, the Old World and the New. England did not just colonize America, she invented it--another chance at Eden, a dream through which, in the words of Fitzgerald, man could come "face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder."

During the course of its great experiment, America re-invented the old world she had left behind, simultaneously glad to be free of its corruption while reluctantly acknowledging its allure. In his letters, Henry James was to write of "the difficulty of writing a romance about a country where there is no shadow, no antiquity, no mystery, no picturesque and gloomy wrong, nor anything but a commonplace prosperity, in broad and simple daylight as is happily the case with my dear native land." Innocent America may have been, but it was Europe who had the experience: the curse of God's Chosen was that they suspected it was the Devil who had the better times.

Between these two polarities a whole series of personal investments and cultural fantasies have been exchanged. For George Bernard Shaw the two cultures consisted of one people divided by a common language. D.H. Lawrence cast America as Europe's avenging infant, its literature being driven by the rage of Oedipal trauma. Most recently, the critic Jean Baudrillard has constructed America as a post-modern playpen, not so much a country as a collection of images, all reproducing themselves in promiscuous abandon: "America ducks the question of origins: it cultivates no origin or mythical authenticity: it has no past and no founding truth. Having known no primitive accumulation of time, it lives in a perpetual present."

I am not so much interested in the validity of these constructs as I am in their potency. That a culture's identity is imaginary does not necessarily make it any the less real. Indeed, one could argue that it makes it all the more so--a process of establishing "the facts" by examining the fictions that sustain them. It is within this framework--the binary of Europe and America--that I wish to introduce another set of oppositions. During the course of researching the life and work of Allen Ginsberg, it became clear that he raises yet another conversation between Europe and America: the confrontation between the biographer and the autobiographer.

In his classic novel of the 1880's, Portrait of a Lady, Henry James dramatizes an exchange that can be seen to encapsulate the divergent ways in which Americans and Europeans characterize their notions of Self. The following takes place between the duplicitous yet stately Mme. Merle and the naïve but spirited heroine Isabel Archer:

"'I don't care anything about this house,' said Isabel.

'That's very crude of you. When you've lived as long as I you'll see that every human being has his shell and that you must take the shell into account. By the shell I mean the whole envelope of circumstances. There's no such thing as an isolated man or woman; we're each of us made up of some cluster of appurtenances. What shall we call our "self"? Where does it begin? Where does it end? It overflows into everything that belongs to us--and then it flows back again. I know a large part of myself is in the clothes I choose to wear. I've a great respect for things! One's self--for other people--is one's expression of one's self: and one's house, one's furniture, one's garments, the books one reads, the company one keeps--these things are all expressive.'"

Isabel's reply could well be inscribed on Ginsberg's tombstone:

"'I don't agree with you. I think just the other way. I don't know whether I succeed in expressing myself, but I know that nothing else expresses me. Nothing that belongs to me is any measure of me; everything's on the contrary a limit, a barrier, and a perfectly arbitrary one. Certainly the clothes which, as you say, I choose to wear, don't express me: and heaven forbid they should!'

'You dress very well,' Madame Merle lightly interposed.

'Possibly; but I don't care to be judged by that. My clothes express the dressmaker, but they don't express me. To begin with it's not my own choice that I wear them: they're imposed upon me by society.'

'Should you prefer to go without them?' Madame Merle inquired in a tone which virtually terminated the discussion.'"

The point being, of course, that this does not terminate the discussion. For Ginsberg's answer, like so many American Selves, is a resounding "Yes!" Being naked, whether a metaphor or occasionally in his performances, is a testament to America's sanctity of the self. Clearly, the genre in which the Self is most fittingly celebrated is that of the autobiography; and for Ginsberg's work to be rescued from charges of self-absorption and confessional verse, he must first be located within a tradition that is as old as America itself, a tradition wherein Americans wrote using their experience not as private memoir but as public declaration. Ginsberg is a poet who denounces the world around him by placing his naked ego at the center of it, an accuser who was complicit with his own charges. In placing his queer shoulder to America's wheel, he forces us to consider the queerness of the wheel itself.

Before considering why Ginsberg's legacy survives, it is necessary to look briefly at what came before.
It is not unreasonable to assert that the founding father of American literature was autobiography itself. Of course, Europe also has its tradition of the genre--John Stuart Mill, Augustine, Rousseau, for example--but all these texts were written after the authors had reached some level of prominence and social standing. What I would suggest is that, for
the American, it was precisely through writing autobiography that such things were achieved. Mme. Merle's contention that the self is essentially a connected one seems anathema to a nation who believes not only in the self-made man, but also in the self-written one.

Autobiography is American ideology writ large.

From the very beginnings with the Puritan settlers, the writing of a conversion narrative was the key to forging a separate identity. The Puritans' covenant with God and country necessitated that they describe both their earlier debauchery and the moment of revelation that brought about their conversion. Figures such as Jonathon Edwards and John Winthrop did not write their autobiographies because of some national interest in their personae, but rather as a means of constructing them.

Again, whereas eighteenth-century European narratives tended to be fictionalized biographies and autobiographies (Swift's "Gulliver," Fielding's "Tom Jones," Richardson's "Pamela"), America turned instead to the confessional tales of real-life conmen such as The Memoirs of the Notorious Stephen Burroughs of New Hampshire or to memoirs of captivity amongst the native Americans--John Hunter's journals being, perhaps, the most famous example. The list goes on. America's emphasis on self-reliance and rugged individualism finds its aesthetic voice in the (auto)biographies of Benjamin Franklin, Thoreau, Henry Adams and Norman Mailer. For all these writers, the Song is of Themselves. For Ralph Waldo Emerson, "There is no history: there is only Biography. We are very clumsy writers of history. The great value of Biography consists in the perfect sympathy that exists between like minds." Put another way, the individual is not a product of history, but its agent; the writing of their experience not a reflection on becoming, rather its very fabric--a (w)rite of passage, as it were.

To the self-effacing European, such an outline might sound like triumphalist chest-beating. Indeed, one could argue that it does not take much straining to hear Whitman's "Song of Myself" (I celebrate myself, and sing myself/And what I assume you shall assume) echoing through the villages of Vietnam. Yet it is worth remembering that American self-exposure has also opened up spaces in which competing voices can be heard, in which the self-composed subject serves as a damning acronym for its society. The slave narratives of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs can be read as testaments to the triumph of self-invention, but in so doing they provide accusatory evidence of the obstacles that have been placed in the way of that self same journey. Their explanations of their own experience hold up a mirror to the same society that sought to deny the reality of such reflections.

The democratic promise held out by autobiography has received many unsolicited replies from a myriad of women writers--a lineage that stretches from Margaret Fuller and Sojourner Truth through to Maya Angelou and John Didion.

If one side of the American Self could be said to lead to Vietnam, the other takes us to the politicized prison memoirs of George Jackson and Alexander Berkman. As Malcolm X succinctly put it: "If I honestly and fully tell my life's account, read objectively it might prove to be a testimony of social value . . . history may even say that my voice helped to save America from a grave, or fatal catastrophe."

Against this backdrop of radical selves, of aggressive egos and bruised solipsists, emerged Allen Ginsberg. His life transformed itself into poetry to the point of a Siamese connection--each taking its cue from the other. He flaunted his damage as America's own, measuring the health of the nation by the yardstick of his own psyche. His persona contained the multitudes of the culture, his repertoire of selves a reflection of America's multiple personalities. Gin...

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