A distinctive American genius

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Allen Ginsberg, symptomatic symbol of the "beat generation" and other intellectual fads, died Saturday at age 70. He once wrote, "I'm so lucky to be nutty." Actually, his pose of paranoia was not luck, it was a sound career move.

It became big box office with his famous declamation of his poem "Howl" in San Francisco in 1955. That was the year "Rock Around the Clock," in the soundtrack to the movie "The Blackboard Jungle," helped launch what was to become the third element in the trinity of Sixties ecstasies -- sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. Ginsberg made the first two his projects. He composed "Howl" with the help of a cocktail of peyote, amphetamines and Dexedrine.


Thirty years later his reward for a career of execrating American values and works was a six-figure contract for a volume of his collected poetry. It is a distinctive American genius, this ability to transmute attempted subversion into a marketable commodity.

The adjective "beat" was appropriated by Jack Kerouac from a drug-addicted Times Square thief and male prostitute, who meant by it the condition of being exhausted by existence. (That man's existence must have been wearying.) Kerouac attached the adjective to the noun "generation," emulating Gertrude Stein's identification of the "lost generation" of the 1920s. Soon Life magazine, happy to find some titillating unhappiness in a decade defined by Eisenhower's smile, was writing about the beats as "The Only Revolution Around." That's entertainment.


Back then, poetry commanded crowds. In his book "When the Going Was Good: American Life in the 1950s," Jeffrey Hart, now a professor of English at Dartmouth, wrote:

"Robert Frost strode onto the stage at Carnegie Hall to a standing ovation from an overflow house. . . . One night in 1957, T.S. Eliot was reading his poems to an overflow audience in Columbia's McMillin Theater. Even faculty members had difficulty getting tickets, and people were crowded into the windows and doors, and listening outside to Eliot over loudspeakers. . . . Dylan Thomas stood at the podium . . . his third American tour in two years."

When Ginsberg came to Columbia "there was a vast throng that had been unable to get in. They pounded on the doors and milled around. Ticket-holders en- tered between lines of police."

Today no poet could cause such excitement on any campus, or any other American venue, so complete has been the supplanting of words, written and spoken, by music and movies as preferred modes of communication. One of Ginsberg's young acolytes, Robert Zimmerman of Hibbing, Minnesota, set the dissenting impulse to music as Bob Dylan.

Some beats wrote the way some jazz musicians made music, in the heat of chemically assisted improvisation. Truman Capote's famous dismissal of Kerouac's work -- "That isn't writing at all, it's typing" -- had a point. Granted, Kerouac revised "On the Road" for six years before it was published in 1957. However, fueled by Benzedrine, he wrote the first draft of that novel in 1951 in less than three weeks, as one long single-spaced paragraph -- 120 feet long on 12-foot strips of tracing paper taped together. Here is its beginning:

"I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up. I had just gotten over a serious illness that I won't bother to talk about, except that it had something to do with the miserably weary split-up and my feeling that everything was dead."

Typing frenzy

Does that tone of voice seem familiar? Here is the beginning of a novel published in 1951, the year of Kerouac's typing frenzy: "If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth."


Yes, "The Catcher in the Rye." Holden Caulfield, adolescent scold, strong in disapproving "phonies," was a precursor of the beats with their passion for "authenticity," which to Ginsberg meant howling echoes of whatever constituted coffeehouse radicalism of the moment. ("Slaves of Plastic! . . . Striped-tie addicts! . . . Whiskey freaks bombed out on 530 billion cigarettes a year . . . Steak swallowers zonked on Television!")

With a talent that rarely rose to mediocrity, but with a flair for vulgar exhibitionism, Ginsberg shrewdly advertised his persona as a symptom of a dysfunctional society. He died full of honors, including a front-page (and a full page inside) obituary in the New York Times, a symptom to the end.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 4/10/97