American Literature Allen Ginsberg
Matt Theado
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 October 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0055


Irwin Allen Ginsberg (b. 1926–d. 1997) was born in Newark, New Jersey, to a high school teacher father who published poetry and a Russian-born mother who retained her communist roots. Both her sympathy for the labor class and her gradual mental decay deeply affected Ginsberg in his youth. Intending to study law, Ginsberg enrolled at Columbia University in 1943, but he soon turned to literature, taking classes from Mark Van Doren and Lionel Trilling. During his Columbia years, Ginsberg met Lucien Carr, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, John Clellon Holmes, and Neal Cassady, artistic influences and principal constituents of what came to be known as the Beat Generation. In 1948 Ginsberg claimed to have heard William Blake’s voice, and from then on Ginsberg emphasized the visionary aspects of his poetry. He experimented with drugs, sexuality, and meditation throughout his life. In 1949 he was arrested in connection with a series of robberies, though he did not take part. In lieu of jail, he was sent to a psychiatric institute, where he met Carl Solomon, a key figure in Ginsberg’s poem “Howl.” Ginsberg’s public breakthrough came in San Francisco, in 1955, when he read the first part of “Howl” before an audience as part of an event that launched the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance. The City Lights publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, published Howl and Other Poems (1956), for which he was arrested by San Francisco police on charges of selling obscene material; the following trial, which resulted in an acquittal, catapulted Ginsberg to international notoriety. Although Howl and Other Poems remains Ginsberg’s best-known book, many readers consider Kaddish and Other Poems, 1958–1960 (1961), dedicated to the memory of his mother, to be his best work. His Collected Poems, 1947–1997 (2006) displays the scope of his writing career and exhibits the traits for which he is known: lines often based on breath rather than on metric forms, subject matter that ranges from intensely personal to overtly political, forthright candor, and a sometimes shocking frankness.

General Overviews

Ginsberg is strongly identified with the literary and cultural phenomena of the Beat Generation, a phrase that refers to a literary stance as well as a demographic of people who came of age during the Great Depression and who felt out of place amid the growing materialism and conformity that characterized the post–World War II years. Whereas many writers are associated with groups, Ginsberg is seen as a central, formative figure for the Beats. Therefore, the numerous volumes that define, mythologize, demystify, debunk, explain, or document the Beats invariably provide grounding in the Ginsberg world. Charters 1983 is the major work of literary biography in this regard, reigning in dozens of writers who are at least loosely associated with the Beat sphere and presenting their lives and work in a way that is ideally suited for newcomers to the Beats. Theado 2003 provides a documentary perspective based on primary materials, whereas Tytell 2006 and Morgan 2010 both defend and celebrate their subjects. Parkinson 1961 and Cook 1994 are period pieces, considering the Beats before their academic recognition as serious literary figures, and Foster 1992 is a primer of the Beat literature that served to elevate their stature, especially suitable for undergraduate college courses. The Allen Ginsberg Project explores the poet’s ongoing legacy.

  • The Allen Ginsberg Project.

    Updated frequently by the directors of the Ginsberg estate, this valuable resource features news, publications, and discussions. Permanent links to web hosts of videos, recordings, essays, interviews, and articles as well as links for sites associated with Buddhism and activism. A model for making supportive literary media available to a wide audience.

  • Charters, Ann, ed. The Beats: Literary Bohemians in Postwar America. 2 vols. Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit: Gale Research, 1983.

    Academically grounded and engagingly constructed. Filled with photographs, biographical information, bibliographies, and critical perspectives, this two-volume encyclopedia explores the lives and work of dozens of writers, including those associated only loosely with the Beat Generation. See Paul Christenson’s entry, “Allen Ginsberg.”

  • Cook, Bruce. The Beat Generation. New York: Quill, 1994.

    Originally published in 1971 (New York: Scribner’s). An early attempt to clarify the record on the Beat writers. Based on personal interviews and available articles, this study positions the Beats historically and politically. Some facts are incorrect or incompletely rendered, yet the book establishes the Beats as serious literary figures. Ginsberg is the most significantly covered presence.

  • Foster, Edward Halsey. Understanding the Beats. Understanding Contemporary American Literature. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1992.

    Similar in structure to Tytell 2006, this book outlines the Beat Generation foreground, emergence, and influence before devoting chapters to Jack Kerouac, Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and William Burroughs. Aimed at an undergraduate audience, the treatment of Ginsberg’s work is rather superficial, whereas Tytell’s more sophisticated analyses assume readers share a more comprehensive background.

  • Morgan, Bill. The Typewriter Is Holy: The Complete, Uncensored History of the Beat Generation. New York: Free Press, 2010.

    Concise and helpful; not as detailed as Charters 1983 or as critically insightful as Tytell 2006. Provides background to readers new to the Beat Generation, while helping more knowledgeable readers by placing Beat figures in juxtaposition: who was with whom, where, and when. A handy reference for readers exploring the Beat canon.

  • Parkinson, Thomas, ed. A Casebook on the Beat. Crowell Literary Casebooks. New York: Crowell, 1961.

    Anthology of works by Beat writers accompanied by a collection of critical perspectives. In addition to defenses of the Beat writers, also includes the most notorious early attack on the Beats: “The Know-Nothing Bohemians” by Norman Podhoretz condemns the ethos of the Beat Generation writers, finding them to be ill-bred, anti-intellectual, and potentially violent. Podhoretz originally published in Partisan Review 25.2 (1958): 305–318.

  • Theado, Matt, ed. The Beats: A Literary Reference. New York: Carroll and Graf, 2003.

    A literary documentary of the Beat Generation that covers general events and trends before focusing on individual writers. Profusely illustrated with photos, book jackets, manuscript facsimiles, and ephemera, this book makes hard-to-find archival items accessible. The Ginsberg chapter provides letters, journal entries, interviews, and reviews.

  • Tytell, John. Naked Angels: Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs. Chicago: Dee, 2006.

    Originally published in 1976 as Naked Angels: The Lives and Literature of the Beat Generation (New York: McGraw-Hill). The first book-length academic critical analysis to treat the Beats’ production lays out the background of the Beats against Cold War politics and the social scene, followed by close critical analyses of Burroughs, Kerouac, and Ginsberg. Tytell is critical of Merrill 1988 (cited under Criticism), while strongly defending Ginsberg as an artist of high rank.

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