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@*#%!!! The Irreverent Beat Generation’s Howl

A Review of Jonah Raskin’s American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and the Making of the Beat Generation

In the years following WWII, when the Iron Curtain descended and the Cold War was heating up, America was ripe and ready for a new counterculture. It was a time where the faintest whiff of communism, the smallest taint of a liberal streak, was cause enough for arrest and trial. Under the suspicious eyes of the government, most dissidents sought to keep their heads down and avoid suspicion. However, some refused to conform and an undercurrent of dissent grew until, at San Francisco’s Six Gallery in 1955, Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl and the Beat Generation exploded onto the scene. It was a profane flare, an obscene howl, a “poetickal bombshell” that shook America 1. In his book American Scream: Allen Ginsberg and the Making of the Beat Generation, Jonah Raskin chronicles this unveiling of Howl and the steps that led up to it. He relates how the experiences and background of each Beat figure – Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs etc. – contributed to the content and theme of this definitive Beat poem.

Raskin starts out by setting the stage for the making of Howl. San Francisco, “a sanctuary for American bohemians and radicals”, was where the pent-up creativity and bitterness finally erupted after a decade of repression, and the Six Gallery Reading was both product and poster-boy of the frustration towards American militancy, materialism, and mundaneness 2. It was here, too, where Allen Ginsberg, the author of Howl and central Beat figure, realized his dream of becoming a famous poet. Born to Louis and Naomi Ginsberg in 1926, Ginsberg went through, to say the least, a harrowing childhood. Mother Naomi went insane early in Ginsberg’s childhood, an experience that haunted Ginsberg for the rest of his life. Indeed, Naomi “in her madness…seemed poetic”, and the theme of madness would be featured prominently in Howl 3. His traumatic childhood, coupled with his feeling “uncomfortable in his body and embarrassed by his mind” meant that by the time he entered college, Ginsberg had already acquired serious psychological scars 4. The only release he knew from this pain was poetry. Taught by his father Louis (also a poet), Ginsberg learned to turn madness and pain into poetry- a technique he would thereafter use to craft his poems; Howl indeed would draw its power and imagery from Ginsberg’s journey through adversity. Thus, arriving at Columbia University as an aspiring poet, Ginsberg would soon meet other similar intellectuals – Lucien Carr, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs etc.-, the first gathering of the great Beat figures. It was here at Columbia too, with his friends, that Ginsberg started to experiment, resulting in experiences later immortalized in Howl. He began to take personas, seeing himself “as a character in a Kafka novel” or a Dostoevsky novel 5. He explored his hitherto repressed homosexuality by starting a relationship with Neal Cassady. He saw Lucien Carr would capitalize on American homophobia and get away with murdering a homosexual schoolteacher. And ultimately, Ginsberg would be expelled from Columbia for writing obscenities on a school window.

Ginsberg then enrolled in the Navy, where he played at being heterosexual, cussing and adopting the maverick stereotype- it ultimately failed due to his bookishness and refined demeanor. However, his tenure at the Navy allowed him to reenroll in Columbia, where he experienced a Beat legend- his 1948 epiphany. The story goes that one day, as Ginsberg sat in a drug-induced daze, he envisioned poet William Blake come and read poetry to him; as a result of this vision, Ginsberg overhauled his style and started writing symbolically, imitating Blake; his poems would become increasingly personal and vague, layers of meaning hidden behind arbitrary symbols. However, while Ginsberg developed as a poet, he lived an increasingly volatile life, haunting Greenwich bars for gay sex and living with Herbert Huncke, “a petty thief, drug addict, hustler, [and] convict” 6. Eventually, Ginsberg was arrested for riding in a stolen vehicle filled with stolen goods, and his precarious lifestyle landed him squarely in the New York State Psychiatric Institute. It was here that yet another piece of Howl would fall in place: in the madhouse, Ginsberg met Carl Solomon, a fellow patient and intellectual who denounced both the US and the Soviet Union. To Solomon, both countries were repressive police states, where the KGB and FBI respectively suppressed unorthodox ideology. Ginsberg, admiring Solomon, accepted this fringe idea, and this vision of America as a tyrannical police-state became a theme in Howl. After his release from the madhouse, Ginsberg met Williams Carlos Williams, a renowned poet, and finally crystallized his writing style. Williams urged Ginsberg to drop his symbolic style and write directly and in the vernacular, advice which struck a chord with Ginsberg who was frustrated with his own abstract, obscure poetry.  Thus, he proceeded “to extricate himself from the tangle of abstract symbols” and instead write “using the real language…of the everyday world” 7.  This dramatic change in style would be the last, solidifying the manner in which Howl would be written – not with obscure symbols but with blunt, cutting, and sometimes obscene language and imagery.

Like the 1940’s, the 1950’s was a time hostile to change, and the Beats were making little headway; Jack Kerouac had already published his novel The Town and the City, but no one read his book and he remained an obscure figure; William Burroughs was in a heroin-addiction, hitting rock bottom when he killed his wife. Ginsberg’s friends were spiraling out of control, and Ginsberg felt he needed to escape “before his own sanity [also] crumbled” 8. But where? For Ginsberg, to whom artistic and personal freedom was paramount, San Francisco offered much- a fresh start, a nurturing atmosphere, and the company of friends (Cassady and Kerouac were in San Francisco too). Thus, Ginsberg set out from New York in 1953, first journeying through Mexico for inspiration. There, removed from American society, Ginsberg gained a fresh perspective on America and began to appreciate his native country. Walt Whitman, a distinctly American poet, especially resonated with Ginsberg, so when he arrived in California in 1954, Ginsberg “identified himself as an American poet in the tradition of Whitman” 9. In San Francisco, the liberal atmosphere stimulated Ginsberg, who finally set about writing Howl. For the poem, Ginsberg would “mythologize” his past experiences– weaving them into his poem. Indeed, “Howl was shaped by a host of writers” whom Ginsberg admired: “T.S. Eliot and Walt Whitman; Arthur Rimbaud and William Carlos Williams” 10. Kerouac would dominate Howl, with Ginsberg drawing from his intellectual quarrels with him. Neal Cassady would also appear in the guise of Howl’s sexual hero, a stallion who seduces both men and women. Carl Solomon made his mark on Howl too, evident in the refrain “Carl Solomon! I’m with you in Rockland!” 11 Ginsberg’s own sexual journey manifested itself in the poem’s sex imagery.  William Burroughs, Naomi Ginsberg, Louis Ginsberg…all of Ginsberg’s friends and family, dead and living, would find a way into Howl.

When Howl was published, it had serious repercussions. First, it catapulted Ginsberg from obscurity to the national spotlight – the first Beat figure to do so. Although Ginsberg initially had to fight an uphill battle to promote Howl (the City Lights Bookstore did not have advertising), eventually it started garnering widespread attention. The New York Times even dispatched a reporter to San Francisco to review Ginsberg’s book, Howl and other Poems, and Ginsberg found his work sold in New York, America’s literary epicenter, where “sales of Howl were brisk” 12. In the wake of Howl, the Beat Generation finally received the recognition it deserved, and before long Kerouac and Burroughs were able to publish their works – On the Road and Naked Lunch respectively; previously, publishers had rejected their manuscripts, but now the Beats were hot and every publisher wanted a piece. However, Howl was not without its critics. Some lauded its angry and apocalyptic tone, while others objected strongly to its numerous profanities; indeed, Howl’s obscene text often frustrated publishers, who wanted Ginsberg to censor Howl. The issue came to head in 1957, when Howl came on trial for “violating…the penal code of the State of California, which made it a felony for any citizen to write…any obscene or indecent writing, paper, or book” 13. The ensuing trial, which questioned whether Howl was a work of obscenity or literature, garnered an intense following, and the publicity only served to promote Howl. Indeed, in the wake of its acquittal, Howl came to be recognized as a classic and Ginsberg as a genius. After Howl, Ginsberg would keep writing in next few decades, and the Beats would continue to challenge, shock, and sometimes outrage American society.

Throughout the book, Raskin strives to paint a picture of Howl’s development and show that it was not a product of sudden inspiration: it came from the amalgamation of Allen Ginsberg’s life, his friends’ lives, his diverse ideology, and a formidable array of poets he idolized. Indeed, Raskin wryly points out that “no ‘spontaneous’ poem was more thoroughly rewritten” 14. He proves his point by meticulously going over the numerous influences in Ginsberg’s life and how each shaped Howl. For example, from Ginsberg’s insecurity about his body sprung the theme of a “mind/body dichotomy…[where] minds were somehow separate from the bodies of real people”15.Raskin’s focus on minutiae, from childhood experiences to poetical heroes, successfully- albeit repetitively – demonstrates his thesis: contrary to popular opinion Howl was a carefully crafted, well thought-out piece of literature that can trace it roots back many years. Raskin aptly states in his introduction that for American Scream he “[has] tried to explain what it was like for Ginsberg to write Howl16.

Raskin’s depth of detail in American Scream indicates a broad understanding of the Beat Generation, and his involvement in 70’s counterculture certainly explains both his knowledge of the Beats and his sympathetic attitude toward them in American Scream. Having participated in the anti-war protests, Raskin possess a rebellious streak; this penchant for rebellion manifests itself when Raskin, in the American Scream, describes the depraved lifestyles of Ginsberg and the other Beats with barely any criticism. Indeed, he is able to keep a straight face when relating Ginberg’s and Cassady’s homosexual affair, where Ginsberg confesses in letter that he ‘dream[s] beautiful sexual dreams and wake up burning with ardor…of Cassady” 17. His tolerance of such obscene and fringe attitudes stems from his previous involvement with similarly obscene counterculture movements. Furthermore, while on one hand Raskin doesn’t want to criticize the Beats, on the other hand he can’t advocate the Beats. American Scream, published in 2004, was written after the conservative resurgence of the 80’s and 90’s, and American attitudes were for the most part hostile to the radical Beat ideology and lifestyle; especially in years immediately following 9/11, the Beat’s opinion that “America [is] a prison and a concentration camp” would, like the 1950’s, invite a firestorm of criticism18. Another sign of Raskin’s wariness of the conservative American mood is the book’s lack of overt profanity. Indeed, for a book about as profane a movement as the Beats, American Scream rarely utters an obscenity, opting to use “politer” language instead. Thus, between the diametric forces of Raskin’s pro-Beat sentiments and the anti-radical mood, American Scream strikes a middle ground, providing a dry, factual approach to Howl’s shaping without any commentary or opinion.

The Beats are a popular and often overused topic, so when Raskin set out to chronicle Howl’s shaping, he took a big risk. Two reviews however, one by The Redwood Coast Review and one by The San Francisco Chronicle, find very little fault in Raskin’s book and affirm its success at making new the old. Andrew Row of The San Francisco Chronicle, states that American Scream “provides a comprehensive inventory of the poet’s personal life…[and] a masterful synthesis of the myriad influences that shaped both Ginsberg and ‘Howl’” 19. Similarly, Daniel Berth of The Redwood Review concludes that “the book’s few weaknesses are more than outweighed by its strengths” 20. Both reviews praise Raskin for incorporating new information, such as the just-released psychiatric records of Allen Ginsberg, and for bringing in “writers not generally associated with the Beats… [and showing] how they influenced the young Ginsberg” 21. They both conclude that Raskin avoids falling under the shadow of other similar books by making novel insights into how  Ginsberg’s attitudes – his “misogyny, his paranoia, his ‘immense ego” -  shaped Howl 22. However, the book is not without its faults. The Redwood Coast Review finds trouble with American Scream’s structure, stating that “some parts of the book come across as decidedly anticlimactic… [and] at times there are abrupt transitions” 23. Similarly, The San Francisco Chronicle also criticizes Raksin’s occasional repetition and somewhat loose structure, commenting that the book needs “a better tying together of [its] many elements.” 24. Ultimately though, Raskin’s American Scream receives unanimous approval for its fresh, insightful look into the shaping and influence of Howl.

Indeed, overall American Scream provides a comprehensive, insightful chronicling of the journey of Howl and how people, ideas, and books shaped this definitive piece of Beat literature. However, one problem with the book is its wealth of sources. Although as whole they contribute greatly to the depth of Raskin’s analysis, sometimes they overwhelm the reader and slows the book’s pacing. Repetition also plagues American Scream at times; for example, Raskin states throughout the book that Ginsberg “identified with…W.H Auden” and that “ he lost track of his work and embraced…Auden” and again that it was “W.H Auden, whom he had adored” 25 26 27. In the end though, Howl’s faults are only excesses of its virtues. The book does use many sources, ranging from journals to psychiatric studies to essays, which reveal the origins Howl. Furthermore, the chronological structure of the book for the most part keeps a cohesive narrative that looks at how Howl developed in Ginsberg’s mind over time. Finally, the casual tone and diction both make the book accessible and enjoyable, making up for its lengthy discussion of minutiae. Taken as a whole, American Scream provides a nearly all-encompassing look at the forces and figures that created Howl.

Howl, written during the Cold War era, was indeed a reflection of the times. It incorporated the fear of nuclear war, the shallowness of mass media, and the feeling of “living under martial law, that America was an occupied country” 28. It was a result of the troubling nexus of emotion that ran underneath America’s shiny veneer of happiness. It -Howl- was a product and a protest against all that was wrong with America when Americans believed themselves perfect. Howl created a chink in the conservative armor, which allowed  the Beat Generation and other dissidents to burst into mainstream society; in other words, Howl introduced a whole movement of counterculture and was the first “visionary scream against a century of murder” that attacked American society 29. Because of Howl, other Beat writers like Kerouac and Burroughs were able to find publishers for their works, introducing a whole generation of youths to jazz, drugs, and nonconformity. Indeed, Howl would jump-start the Beat Generation, who would later give rise to the Hippies, who would play an integral part in shaping today’s pop culture. Thus, ideas of non-conformity, of youth’s power, of free sex – these all stem from the Beat Generation and Howl; taboos in the 50’s became commonplace today because the Beats introduced them to mainstream society decades ago. The Beats were one of the main precursors to modern pop culture today, and Howl was the Beat’s first act. So, Howl is not only a classic piece of literature but also a historical turning point.

Howl revolutionized both accepted standards in literature and accepted values in society, and it was a pivotal point in the underground counterculture’s breaking through the surface into visible American society. It drew from many sources and immortalized the exploits of the Beats in its passages; it catapulted Allen Ginsburg from obscurity to international recognition. Most importantly, it ushered in the youthful, liberal, and rebellious culture loved and hated today. Truly, Howl was and is a “poetickal bombshell” 30.


  1. Raskin, Jonah. American Scream: Allen Ginsberg's Howl and the Making of the Beat Generation. Berkeley: University of California, 2004. Print. 2
  2. Raskin, Jonah. 11
  3. Raskin, Jonah. 30.
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  8. Raskin, Jonah. 114.
  9. Raskin, Jonah. 119.
  10. Raskin, Jonah. 143.
  11. Raskin, Jonah. 155.
  12. Raskin, Jonah. 188.
  13. Raskin, Jonah. 218.
  14. Raskin, Jonah. 168.
  15. Raskin, Jonah. 35.
  16. Raskin, Jonah. xxii.
  17. Raskin, Jonah. 147.
  18. Raskin, Jonah. 92.
  19. Roe, Andrew. "The 'Howl' Heard round the World." San Francisco Chronicle,   04 Apr. 2004. Web. 04 June 2012.
  20. Barth, Daniel. "Rebel Yell: The Voice That Wouldn't Die."  The Redwood Coast Review, Fall 2004. Web. 04 June 2012.
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  22. Roe, Andrew
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  30. Raskin, Jonah. 2.