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Who is Allen Ginsberg?

Bronwyn Harris
Bronwyn Harris

Allen Ginsberg is known for his poems, his homosexuality, his book Howl, his political views, and his FBI file, among many other things. Born on 3 June 1926 in Newark, New Jersey, Ginsberg couldn't have had parents who were more different. His father, Louis Ginsberg, taught high school, while his mother, Naomi Ginsberg, was a nudist, paranoid schizophrenic, and — what was worse in those days — a Communist.

Naomi Ginsberg had a great affect, for better or worse, on her son. When Allen Ginsberg was about nine years old, he began to care for his mother while she spent time in and out of psychiatric hospitals. Her paranoia was great enough that she both refused to believe that Allen was her son and claimed that the FBI had implanted mind control devices in her brain. Allen Ginsberg followed the advice of a psychiatrist when he was 21 years old and authorized his mother's lobotomy. He felt guilty about this for long after her death in 1956.

Allen Ginsberg was thrown out of Cuba in 1965.
Allen Ginsberg was thrown out of Cuba in 1965.

When Allen Ginsberg was in high school, he seemed to be a model, All-American boy. He did well academically and was president of his school's debate club. His father sent Allen to Columbia, hoping that his son would become a lawyer. However, in college, Allen Ginsberg met William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, two men who were soon to become lifelong friends of his as well as fellow Beat poets. With Burroughs and Kerouac, Ginsberg explored the subculture of New York, discovering drugs, jazz, poetry, and his homosexuality.

After graduating from Columbia, Ginsberg held a variety of different jobs and had unsuccessful relationships with various other men in the Beat lifestyle. Frequently depressed, he joined the Merchant Marines. However, when he was caught in a stolen car with his roommate, he was sent to a mental hospital for eight months. There he met Carl Solomon, to whom he dedicated Howl. Ginsberg spent his time in the hospital reading and writing.

In his early thirties, after spending some time in Mexico, Allen Ginsberg quit his paying job to write full-time. He wrote Howl, a free verse that was shocking for the time, including many statements about the problems in America, as well as references to drugs and sex. Howl became a best-seller, while also bringing Ginsberg and the manager of City Lights bookstore, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, to court on obscenity charges. The judge ruled that Howl was “of redeeming social importance,” and Ginsberg became famous almost overnight.

Although Ginsberg was initially known for his two books — Howl and Kaddish and Other Poems — he soon become of great interest to the FBI. The FBI had a detailed file on Allen Ginsberg — but they were not the only institution that worried about him. Ginsberg was thrown out of both Cuba and Czechoslovakia in 1965 for different reasons.

Ginsberg remained active in his writing and political efforts until the end of his life. In 1974, his collection of poems entitled The Fall of America won the National Book Award, and later, the photographs he had taken of his friends in the Beat movement were published. In the late 1970s, Ginsberg embraced the teaching of a Tibetan lama named Chogyam Trungpa. Trungpa convinced Ginsberg to give up his drugs and practice yoga and meditation. Allen Ginsberg died in 1997 of liver cancer, after Howl had been reprinted over fifty times.

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    • Allen Ginsberg was thrown out of Cuba in 1965.
      By: Stephen Finn
      Allen Ginsberg was thrown out of Cuba in 1965.