Professor Marc Hewson
17 March 2015
Ginsberg and the Beats
The Beat generation and its ideas that first originated sometime in the late 40s in response to the capitalist, conservative culture that had been spawned post World War two was quite possibly best captured in Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl”, and the responses it produced by each of the two parties could not have possibly been more contrasted. It was one of the most controversial pieces of literature for its time and helped to inspire and piece together what would eventually become known as the counterculture of the 1960’s. The “beatniks” as they were called would eventually become known as the predecessors to the hippies and the counterculture movement.
The poem was first read in 1955, and the context concerning what had happened in the last 10 years and what was happening in America is of utmost importance. In those previous 10 years, Ginsberg had lived through the atomic bomb, the Cold War and the Korean War, and of course the end of the Second World War, and America had been profiting immensely from the capitalist and consumerist culture that was occurring. For Ginsberg, “Howl” was a way to express his dissatisfaction with the celebration of conformism and consumerism that was being displayed across the country. At a time when conformity and rebellion were the only two options available, Ginsberg chose the latter and in the poem he had evoked as much as he could to oppose the former; anti-war, free speech, casual sex (when at a time anything other than marital sex was considered obscene), drug use, homosexuality and anti-capitalism were all topics that were brought up. Openly discussing taboo subjects like homosexuality was not only considered obscene but also revolting, so much so that some bookstore owners were arrested and jailed for selling the book that contained the poem while also, the publisher of the book was put on trial for the supposed obscenity of the poem but won the case when the judge ruled that it had redeeming social importance. One of the most important elements of the counterculture in the 60s was the anti-war sentiment that was held by most Beat writers, Ginsberg among the most vocal of them as displayed in Howl and many others of his poems. In one passage from the line 14 he mentions “the crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox”, referencing the hydrogen bomb and how it could spell disaster for the world, or pacifists and early anti-war activists “passing out incomprehensible leaflets” on line 29. The Beats controversial opinions about war was one of the elements that helped spur the counterculture of the 60s into action, many of them having experienced first-hand what the effects of war caused throughout the country. Not to mention the strong anti-consumerist message that run throughout the poem, as on line (7) demonstrating the burning of money as a way to reject consumerist ideals and the power of the dollar. Ginsberg was trying to kill the idea that middle-class families could “buy” happiness with the incomes that they made, because in reality the only ones profiteering were the government and private corporations. In the second part of the