Allen Ginsberg, gay beatnik/hippie antinomian poet nomad—and American hero?
Morgan, Ginsberg’s longtime bibliographer and archivist, responsible for the sale of Ginsberg’s papers to Stanford University and thus for Ginsberg’s relative comfort in his last, dying days, is also an excellent writer and storyteller. His massive life of the poet turns out to be flawed only by its brevity. The year 1994 gets five pages, for instance; in that year, Ginsberg taught college, studied Buddhism, wrote, gave and hosted readings, starred in a Gap ad campaign to fund the Naropa Institute, released a four-CD box set of musical compositions and hung out in San Francisco and Paris, all the while nursing a bad heart. Morgan situates Ginsberg’s life in a Jewish radical tradition, in an ethnic ethic of hard work, learning and resistance to authority; sadly, Ginsberg’s corner of the shtetl was also visited by mental illness, his mother institutionalized, as the poet himself would be. A nice boy of academic gifts and even genius, Ginsberg fell into the wrong crowd on entering college, with the likes of Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and Lucien Carr; for his troubles, he would be constantly broke, be expelled from Columbia, be jailed, be hospitalized—and also be liberated to write such epochal poems as Howl and Kaddish, which, half a century on, are regarded as nearly canonical. In the great spirit of honor among thieves, Ginsberg remained poor and free for most of his life, doing very much as he wanted (as evidenced, among other things, by being treated for STDs many, many times). Some of the bits of news that float out of Morgan’s lyrical narrative: Ginsberg was one of the earliest experimenters with LSD. He traveled everywhere and knew everyone. He suffered from stage fright. He was fearless and selfless—hence the hero rubric. Oh, and Jack Kerouac never had a driver’s license.
A superb, highly readable addition to the history of 20th-century American letters.