Wednesday, July 8, 2009

jonah raskin's "american scream: allen ginsberg's howl and the making of the beat generation"

jonah raskin's "american scream: allen ginsberg's howl and the making of the beat generation," is one of those good books that's undone by its ridiculously long title. chopping off "and the making of the beat generation" would have balanced the slim volume's physicality with the more precise description of the book, a primer on the genesis of "howl." as a big fan of allen ginsberg, there is, thankfully, very little (despite the subtitle's proclamation) on "the making of the beat generation" - and plenty on ginsberg's masterpiece.

what raskin does, and does well, is mine the ginsberg archives and constructs a detailed history of the threads and impulses that ultimately seat ginberg in front of his typewriter, where he lets loose and pours out the first part of "howl." in the process, raskin put to rest the popular misconception that ginsberg's masterpiece was one long sudden outburst of prosody that magically flowed onto the blank page.

"american scream" is similar to paul mahler's "jack kerouac's american journey: the real life odyssy of "on the road" (a book that also suffers from a too long subtitle), which documents the kerouac road trips that become the material for his novel. in "the original scroll" version of on the road," kerouac fans can read the unadulterated text and in "howl: original draft facsimile, transcript, and variant versions, fully annotated by author...." (breaking all records for the longest subtitle in history) can see the evolution of the poem. fans of ginsberg already know how much work he put into the drafting - and his continually redrafting for years afterwards - of his epic poem.

one of the best parts of the book is raskin's description of kerouac and ginsberg in the tiny san francisco cottage as allen worked on revising and editing the poem. kerouac repeatedly insists on no revisions to original text and ginsberg, total self-confident, shrugged off the endless entreaties and made the changes he thought necessary. while ginsberg had labored mightily to incorporate kerouac's "first though, best thought" mantra in his outlook - ginsberg emerged with his own voice, his own mastery of technique, and created his masterpiece.

while the interactions with kerouac are interesting, the real gems are the historical artifacts that raskin unearthed from the archives - not the least of which were high school and college essays that ginsberg wrote. i was less impressed with the brief comments raskin got from ginsberg's psychiatrist. allen himself repeated credited dr. hicks as the one person who gave him explicit "permission," said it was okay - in so many words - to be openly gay!

the last chapter briefly covered the obscenity trial - that did as much (if not more than) allen's copious efforts at self-promotion to launch the poem into the nation's attention. that trial itself was significant as one more battle in a long line of literary censorship cases from the decade that spanned the mid-50's to mid-60's. the howl prosecution case, in the larger context of the first amendment, was amply covered in, "howl on trial: the battle for free expression."

if you're a fan of allen ginsberg (or the beats in general), "american scream" is well-worth reading. check it out.

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