Allen Ginsberg Additional 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...

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(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 and bisexual experience. These identities—Socialist, Communist, gay, bisexual—are most fully realized in Howl, a major poem that broke the hegemony of the impersonal, academic poetry that had dominated much of the century. The poem eulogizes “the best minds” of the era, those imprisoned or driven mad by their resistance to the sexual and political uniformity of postwar American capitalist culture. In 1957, Howl was seized by San Francisco authorities and declared obscene.

Ginsberg won the subsequent trial, the first of his many encounters with political and legal establishments. In 1965 he was expelled from Cuba and Czechoslovakia because of his adamant support for gay civil rights in those countries. His later poetry, including The Fall of America and Plutonian Ode (1982), is influenced by his work in the United States in support of gay rights, the peace movement, freedom of speech, and drug decriminalization.

Ginsberg’s career was marked by the convergence of Western and Eastern religious practices. He took vows as a Tibetan Buddhist in 1972. In 1974, he co-founded the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute, in Boulder, Colorado, the first accredited Buddhist college in the Western world.


(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....

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(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.”


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(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...

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