Allen Ginsberg’s Howl was one of the key works of the Beat Generation and its debut at the famed Six Gallery reading in 1955 marked the coming out of a new dissent in American poetry and culture. In American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and the Making of the Beat Generation, Jonah Raskin analyzes both the text of the poem and its key themes to demonstrate how they reflect the Beats’ uncertainty about and critique of American society. The Beats’ critique and departure from the stifling conformity of the 1950s represented the start of the cultural revolution of the 1960s and provided the initial glimpses of the radicalism that would become prominent during the decade of the sixties.
The Beats had an important influence on American society, and from the start of the Beat movement, many of the Beats most prominent writers identified themselves with the strong non-conformist literary figures and traditions in the United States, drawing their own parallels with poets such as Walt Whitman, and eventually, becoming nearly as influential. The Beats were profoundly influenced by the realities of the 1950s-they lived in the shadow of the nuclear bomb and were haunted by the possibility of death at the hands of nuclear machinery and by the state of the world. The major themes identified in Howl–madness, nakedness, and secrecy, were omnipresent features of the United States in the 1950s and the Beats took it upon themselves to recognize and challenge these themes through art. The Beats hoped that they could foster a generalized awakening of the populace and Ginsberg specifically sought to “jolt America awake” with the content and form of Howl, and in many ways, Howl would both echo cultural changes already under way and usher in new ones as the 1950s moved into the 1960s.
Aside from the historical realities, Howl was also influenced extensively by Ginsberg’s personal life. In his personal life and in his relationships, both with his parents and his fellow writings, a sense of madness pervaded-Ginsberg’s mother was in a mental institution, Ginsberg himself spent time in one, and numerous acquaintances committed suicide. As Raskin points, out “madness was the Beat badge of honor in a world gone insane with bombs, dictators, terror, and tyranny,” and Ginsberg, like many other Beats embraced the madness in his life and in the world and incorporated it into Howl. Ginsberg’s philosophy of personal liberation and desire to break down boundaries of expected behavior also influenced Howl, as did his life among the bohemians and political radicals in San Francisco.
Fans of Allen Ginsberg will find much to enjoy in American Scream, as Raskin does an excellent job collecting material from a variety of sources–Ginsberg’s journals, interviews with Ginsberg’s psychiatrist, and psychiatric reports from the 1950s–all of which contribute towards a clear and complete analysis of Howl and the milieu from which it came forth. For the casual reader who has not had considerable exposure to Ginsberg or the history of the Beat Generation, Raskin has included some history, a history that is necessary to fully understand Howl. Unfortunately, some of the historical information is fairly superficial and lacks the detail that readers not familiar with the period would likely desire. Nevertheless, American Scream provides an insightful look at the roots of the Beat Generation and the period of dissent that followed in the 1960s.
Jonah Raskin, American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and the Making of the Beat Generation, (University of California Press, 2004).