Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 523

Howl and Other Poems became the bible of the Beat generation, the group of counterculture writers who surfaced in the United States during the 1950’s. The Beats, who included Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Gregory Corso, and others, criticized the conformity and materialism that they saw developing in American...

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Howl and Other Poems became the bible of the Beat generation, the group of counterculture writers who surfaced in the United States during the 1950’s. The Beats, who included Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Gregory Corso, and others, criticized the conformity and materialism that they saw developing in American culture during the post-World War II years. During a time when many young Americans enrolled in colleges or corporate training programs, married and started families, and purchased homes in the suburbs, the Beats and their followers drank to excess, experimented with illegal drugs, engaged in nontraditional sexual practices, worked odd jobs (mainly to support their fondness for travel), and condemned America’s corporate culture. The Beats were cultural rebels.

“America” is a Beat anthem. In this poem, Ginsberg presents the Beat critique of a nation gone wrong—an entire culture obsessed with waging war, making money, and fostering a stifling conformity. Ginsberg’s speaker sets himself against this cultural tide. He will not join the Army or take a job in a precision parts factory. He will not allow his own cultural values to be set by Time magazine. He will continue to engage in activities frowned upon by individuals within the mainstream culture—engaging in sex, smoking marijuana, reading Marx. The speaker in “America” represents the disillusioned youths of post-World War II American society.

Yet Ginsberg’s poem is not wholly anti-American. His jeremiad contains the sincere hope that his nation will change its ways. “America when will you be angelic?/ When will you take off your clothes?” Ginsberg asks early in the poem. “America why are your libraries full of tears?” he asks a few lines later. He interrupts his critique of America to remind it that “the plum blossoms are falling.” He wants the nation to take notice of its natural beauties. Ginsberg is serious when he says, “America after all it is you and I who are perfect not the next world,” as well as when he admits, “It occurs to me that I am America.” He pleads with America to commit itself to justice—to free Tom Mooney, spare Sacco and Vanzetti, and recognize the Scottsboro boys’ innocence. He knows that America does not really want to go to war against the Russians. Ginsberg wants America to change its ways; he does not want to destroy the nation. He is actually a patriot in the tradition of Henry David Thoreau, the nineteenth century philosopher who recognized America’s many wonders yet pointed critically to its shortcomings.

“America” anticipates the critique leveled against the United States by the 1960’s counterculture. The poem, along with Ginsberg’s other poetry, became popular during that decade, when young Americans protested America’s Vietnam policy, condemned the nation’s corporations, experimented with sex and drugs, and rejected the values of mainstream society. During the 1960’s, Ginsberg became a leading counterculture figure, reading his poems before large crowds at leading American universities and participating in anti-Vietnam War rallies. By the time of his death in 1997, Ginsberg had been embraced by the literary culture that once looked at him as a radical and an outsider.

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