Allen Ginsberg Biography


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Irwin Allen Ginsberg was born in Newark, New Jersey, the second son of Louis Ginsberg, a lyric poet and teacher, and Naomi Levy Ginsberg, a teacher and political activist. His family moved to Paterson, New Jersey, in 1929, the year his mother was hospitalized for mental stress for the first time, and Ginsberg attended primary school in Paterson. He published two pieces in the Easter issue of the Central High School magazine, The Spectator, his first public work, in 1941.

When he transferred to Eastside High School, he became president of both the Debating Society and the Dramatic Society before he graduated in 1943. He entered Columbia University as a pre-law student, hoping to pursue a career in labor law, and he studied with Lionel Trilling and Mark Mark Van Doren, who were partially responsible for shifting his focus toward literature. His schoolmates at Columbia included Jack Kerouac, and he met William S. Burroughs in New York City during his first year there. With Kerouac and Burroughs, among others, Ginsberg formulated a philosophical discourse which they called “The New Vision,” a precursor of the Beat generation precepts he exemplified in his later work.

At Columbia, he edited a humor magazine called The Jester, was on the debate team, and helped run the literary society. In 1945, he was suspended from Columbia for permitting Kerouac to stay in his room overnight, and he worked temporarily as a welder, dishwasher, assistant at the Gotham Book Mart, and apprentice seaman in the merchant marine. He was readmitted in 1946 and became assistant editor of the Columbia Review, in which he published poems, stories, and book reviews. Ginsberg spent the summer of 1947 traveling to Colorado to visit Neal Cassady, the model for Kerouac’s Dean Moriarty character in On the Road (1957), and he graduated with a B.A. from Columbia in 1948. Later in that year, he had a vision of the English Romantic poet William Blake speaking to him directly—partially a product of Ginsberg’s fairly extensive experimentation with hallucinogenic substances, partially an expression of his intense literary and philosophical considerations of the nature of the cosmos.

Although he had no intention to break the law, Ginsberg became involved in several quasi-criminal activities as a part of an underground (or as Kerouac called it, “subterranean”) existence, and, following the counsel of several teachers at Columbia, he committed himself to an eight-month stay in Columbia Presbyterian Psychiatric Institute as a means of avoiding prosecution. During his stay he met Carl Solomon, the man to whom “Howl” (1956) is addressed, recognizing immediately a fellow enthusiast for avant-garde art and an unconventional life pattern.

After moving in with his father and stepmother in 1950, he sent a letter and some poems to William Carlos Williams, who was living nearby in Rutherford, New Jersey. Williams provided guidance and encouragement, and while Ginsberg traveled to Mexico and Europe during the early 1950’s, he continued to work on his poetry. In 1953, he moved to the Lower East Side of Manhattan, which was to become his home ground for the following five decades, and worked as a copyboy at the New York World-Telegram. He spent much of 1954 living in Mexico and then San Francisco, where he worked briefly as a market researcher and met Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the poet and publisher of City Lights Books, which would issue Ginsberg’s poetry for the following quarter century. In 1955, Ginsberg moved to Berkeley, California, where he wrote his tribute to Walt Whitman, “A Supermarket in California” (1956), and organized the now-legendary landmark reading of October 13 at the Six Gallery, where he joined Gary Snyder, Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, and Philip Whalen to read “Howl” in public for the first time. There, also, he was introduced to Peter Orlovsky, who became a close friend and sometime lover, a relationship that endured, while becoming progressively contentious, for many decades. His mother, Naomi, died in 1956, the year that Howl, and Other Poems was published, and Ginsberg spent the following two years traveling extensively, promoting the work of friends, defending the Howl volume against...

(The entire section is 1755 words.)

Allen Ginsberg Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Ginsberg worked in the tradition begun by Walt Whitman, in which the poet is not only a master of language and literature but also a singer whose voice carries the spirit of a nation’s speech and thought. A self-proclaimed “poet as priest” whose congregation was his country’s citizenry, Ginsberg never lost sight of his initial vision of a cosmos where the full range of human possibility can be made manifest through the unrestricted explorations of the mind and body. In opposition to the evils of the modern age, Ginsberg tried to create a kingdom of love leading toward a utopian universe that is alive in his poetry. Like Whitman, the “dear father graybeard” who guided him, he never lost the courage to proclaim his heart’s truth in his poetry.

Allen Ginsberg Biography

(Poets and Poetry in America)

Allen Ginsberg was born Irwin Allen Ginsberg, the second son of Naomi Levy Ginsberg, a Russian-born political activist and communist sympathizer, and Louis Ginsberg, a traditional lyric poet and high school English teacher. He attended primary school in the middle-class town of Paterson, New Jersey. He grew up in a conventional and uneventful household, with the exception of his mother’s repeated hospitalizations for mental stress. He entered Columbia University in 1943, intending to pursue a career in labor law, but the influence of such well-known literary scholars as Lionel Trilling and Mark Van Doren, combined with the excitement of the Columbia community, which included fellow student Jack Kerouac and such singular people as William Burroughs and Neal Cassady, led him toward literature as a vocation. He was temporarily suspended from Columbia in 1945 and worked as a welder and apprentice seaman before finishing his degree in 1948. Living a “subterranean” life (to use Kerouac’s term) that incorporated drug use, a bohemian lifestyle, and occasional antisocial acts of youthful ebullience, Ginsberg was counseled to commit himself for several months to Columbia Presbyterian Psychiatric Institute to avoid criminal charges associated with the possession of stolen goods; there, in 1949, he met Carl W. Solomon, to whom “Howl” is dedicated. During the early 1950’s, he began a correspondence with William Carlos Williams, who guided and encouraged his early writing, and Ginsberg traveled in Mexico and Europe.

In 1954, Ginsberg moved to San Francisco to be at the center of the burgeoning Beat movement. He was living there when he wrote “Howl,” and he read the poem for the first time at a landmark Six Gallery performance that included Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, and Michael McClure. His mother died in 1956, the year Howl, and Other Poems was published, and he spent the next few years traveling, defending Howl against charges of obscenity, working on “Kaddish”—his celebration of his mother’s life, based on a Hebrew prayer for the dead—and reading on college campuses and in Beatnik venues on both coasts.

The growing notoriety of the Beat generation drew Ginsberg into the...

(The entire section is 912 words.)

Allen Ginsberg Biography

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Allen Ginsberg’s earliest literary influences were his childhood experiences among the politically disenfranchised: Socialists, Communists, the working class, Russians, and Jews. His mother, Naomi, a teacher, was a Russian Jewish immigrant whose family was active in the Communist Party. Louis, his father, a teacher and poet, was a child of Russian Jewish immigrants and was active in the Socialist Party.

Ginsberg’s earliest ambition was to become a labor lawyer. As Ginsberg grew older, his concerns for class inequities continued, even when he decided to give up law school for literary ambitions. In college he became less inclined to hide his homosexuality, and in his writing he increasingly sought to legitimize gay...

(The entire section is 304 words.)

Allen Ginsberg Biography

(American Culture and Institutions Through Literature, 1960-1969)
0111201215-Ginsberg.jpg Allen Ginsberg (George Holmes, courtesy of Harper & Row) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Early Life

Allen Ginsberg’s father, Louis, was a modestly successful lyric poet and his mother, Naomi, was a communist who suffered a mental breakdown during Ginsberg’s childhood. This background, combined with his sexual attraction to other men, helped to make Ginsberg a literary rebel and a nonconformist. While attending Columbia University in New York City, from 1943 to 1948, he formed a circle of friends that included William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac. This group became the nucleus of the literary movement known as the Beat generation in the 1950’s. In 1956, Ginsberg published the poem “Howl,” which brought the poet national renown after a widely publicized obscenity trial in San Francisco....

(The entire section is 1006 words.)

Allen Ginsberg Biography

(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

Author Profile

In 1954, Allen Ginsberg, a former Columbia University student, moved to California to meet the West Coast contingent of the Beat movement. On October 13, 1955, he gave a reading of “Howl,” a long Whitmanesque poem, at Six Gallery, an outlet for Beat visual and literary arts. His poem chronicled the depressed state of post-World War II Americans who felt alienated from a prevailing materialistic and technological culture and tried to escape through alcohol, drugs, and sex. It contained language and descriptions of sexual activities that tested the mores of the 1950’s. After Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a local poet and publisher, heard Ginsberg’s reading, he offered to publish “Howl.”


(The entire section is 1040 words.)

Allen Ginsberg Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Allen Ginsberg is usually associated with the Beat generation, a literary movement popular with the counterculture of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. He was born into a fairly typical middle-class Jewish family. His father, a schoolteacher, was a poet, but the stability of his home life was shattered by his mother’s periods of mental illness. She was finally institutionalized until her death in 1956. Ginsberg himself spent eight months in Columbia Psychiatric Institute in 1949, and madness, along with visionary hallucinations, became a central image in his poetry. Ginsberg drew on memories of his mother’s illness, as well as his own experience inside the mental institution, for the raw material in “Kaddish” (1959), an...

(The entire section is 833 words.)