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Howling at America: Allen Ginsberg, “Howl” and the Rise of the American Counterculture

“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked” Allen Ginsberg, “Howl” 1956


Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems, published in 1956, was one of the cornerstone publications that came to represent an entire cultural movement of mid-twentieth century America. “Howl”, along with Jack Kerouac’s On The Road (published the following year), were to have a major impact on a generation dissatisfied with the consumerist and conformist society emerging in post-war America. The publication of “Howl” brought to light a movement of writers centered on a culture of drug use, jazz music, hitchhiking trips across the United States, and sexual freedom. This group of misfits despised the label of “The Beats”, or “Beatniks”, assigned to them by the mainstream press. The group was, in fact, a disorganized and dissatisfied conglomerate of writers who were desperately trying to get published (Madrid 4).

Allen Ginsberg became a spokesperson and a symbol not only for the Beat Generation, but also for the emerging counterculture of the 1950s that would gain momentum and achieve notoriety during the 1960s. A leader of the literary and artistic community, Ginsberg was the connective force that linked the unorthodox writers, musicians and painters not only to each other, but to a larger audience that also included the public, publishers and academic institutions (Ariel 52). Art movements, whether literary, musical or artistic, are products of the social and cultural environment in which they are born. In order to best understand Allen Ginsberg and his work, this paper will examine the social, cultural and political environment in America during the 1950s that was responsible for the creation of the Beat movement. Also included will be a short biography of Allen Ginsberg and an analysis of the poems “Howl”, “America” and “Sunflower Sutra”.

Postwar Prosperity and Consumerism

The 1950s for most Americans was a time of prosperity and comfort. With World War II over, and the Great Depression a thing of the past, America was ready to enjoy the fruits of its struggle and of its labor. The essentials needed for the war created a strong industrial economy and caused great economic growth. During the postwar era, the United States became the world’s richest country. The Gross National Product during this time grew fourteen times as fast as the population and seven times the rate of inflation. The average family income grew as much in the ten years after the war as it had grown in the previous fifty years combined. Between 1940 and 1965, average income grew from approximately $2,200 per family per year to just under $8,000; when adjusted for inflation, the average family income almost tripled (Brinkley). Automobile production tripled during this time, and due to affordable mortgages and the G.I. bill for returning soldiers, there was a massive housing boom. Also at that time, enrollment in universities rose (The Postwar Economy). Americans during the 1950s had unprecedented access to automobiles, electric refrigerators, homes, radios and television sets. This mass production of durable goods during the decade led to strong employment numbers. The highest unemployment rate of the decade was 6.8% (Madrid 5).

During the decade of the 1950s, Americans were drawn out of the rural countryside and the inner cities into new and developing suburbs. The postwar baby boom was creating a need for affordable housing in safe neighborhoods, and the suburbs provided just that. Relying on techniques of mass production such as specialization of labor and prefabricated parts assembled in factories, the suburbs were not only affordable, but they also were uniformly alike and clean. This affordability enabled many young working families to obtain part of the American Dream: homeownership.

As the suburbs grew, so did business. The concept of the shopping mall was created during this time as businesses began to move out of the cities as well and into more centralized locations that were convenient for people living in the suburbs. According to the U.S. Department of State, the number of shopping malls rose from eight at the end of World War II to 3,840 in 1960 (The Postwar Economy). With the growth of suburbs in the postwar era, one of the greatest population movements in American history was born. Eighteen million people, equal to 10 percent of the population, moved to suburbs in the 1950s. Suburbs created a massive new market and provided a crucial boost to important sectors of the economy: the housing industry, the automobile industry, highway construction, and a wide range of consumer industries (Brinkley).

With this new prosperity came an expected conformity to an emerging ideal of “Americanism”. A unique American mindset developed regarding the new opportunities for wealth and employment, and a new era of consumerism began in the 1950s that continues into modern day. In order to keep the mechanism of prosperity operating, conformity to this new American ideal was not only critical but it was expected. Thus, it meant that true Americans should be hard working, successful, patriotic and accepting of the status quo.

Every era in history and its resulting paradigm has some type of a counter reaction, a movement of outliers that questions the cultural and political power structure. This often times is reflected in the arts and literature. The early part of the twentieth century saw anarchists and communists questioning U.S. imperial foreign policy and the excess of the Gilded Age. The 1930s saw a leftist movement that supported communism as a reaction to the Great Depression. The 1950s were to see the Beat movement, with writers like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, evolve into the counterculture of the 1960s, which this paper will explore.

Postwar Counterculture and the Beat Movement

The 1950s were ideal for white, middle class Americans. Beneath the shell of this prosperous nation, however, there existed another America. A subversive nation was being created just below this surface of prosperity, as different levels of the culture formulated a critique of American society and politics. African Americans demonstrated in Montgomery and other American cities. The Civil Rights movement began in the 1950s and continued to have a major impact during the 1960s. Segregation, the Jim Crow south, the Ku Klux Klan, lynchings and boycotts were also a part of the decade that gave an ugly underbelly to the prosperity of the time.

The era was not a beneficial time for improved race relations or political dissent. The Cold War and the fear of communism created a society that was ripe with paranoia and finger pointing. This, combined with nuclear power and the atom bomb, created an environment where fear ruled the day; many of the houses in the suburbs came complete with bomb shelters. Intolerance of nonconformity during the decade helped produce the oppression of dissent in various aspects of society. The McCarthy Communist witch hunts of the era caused Hollywood studio executives to blacklist writers and actors, not only because of the Red Scare, but of the executives’ own dislike of their politics. Newspaper and magazine publishers banished writers who were critical of the political and economic conformity of the time (Brinkley). Musicians such as the folk group, the Almanac Singers, were blacklisted from major performances and from radio and networks due to Pete Seeger’s sympathy and affiliation with left wing organizations during the 1930s and 40s. A congressional committee named the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) began to actively question and try alleged communists for treason or sedition.

There was a growing fear among white, middle class individuals that this prosperous, postwar society was not only socially, racially and culturally oppressive, but was destroying free expression, independence and individual autonomy. It was out of this environment that what came to be called the Beat Generation emerged. Consisting of young writers and artists, Beatniks chose to stand alone, outside of white, middle class society. Openly challenging conventional values of middle-class American society, they were critics of materialism, mainstream social values, and the political institutions of the time. They adopted alternative lifestyles with an emphasis on anti-materialism, drugs, sexual freedom, and disdain for technology. All of this was accompanied by a brooding attitude of despair regarding the nature of modern society (Brinkley).

In his article, The Politics of the Beat Generation, Eugene Burdick states that there is no such thing as a “Beat Generation”. Rather, he maintains, it was a small group of people, mostly based out of San Francisco, with an intense vision. Individuals at the center of the movement like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac dreamt:

of a generation of crazy, illuminated hipsters suddenly rising and roaming America, serious, curious, bumming and hitchhiking everywhere, ragged, beatific, beautiful in an ugly, graceful way... beat, meaning down and out but full of intense conviction ( Burdick 553).

In an interview with John Clellon Holmes in 1948, Jack Kerouac is credited with coining the term “Beat Generation”. Holmes recalls that:

It was Kerouac ... who finally came up with it ... Several years ago he said, "You know, this is really a beat generation." The origins of the word "beat" are obscure, but the meaning is only too clear to most Americans. More than mere weariness, it implies the feeling of having been used, of being raw. It invokes a sort of nakedness of mind, and ultimately of soul; a feeling of being reduced to the bedrock of consciousness. In short, it means being undramatically pushed up against the wall of oneself. A man is beat when he goes broke, and wagers the sum of his resources on a single number; and the young generation has done that from early youth. (qtd. in Tamony 274)

The Beats sought spiritualism instead of following the American herd in a quest for materialism. Many people of the older generation who lived through the depression could not understand the concept of young people not wanting to work, especially when there was an abundance of well paying jobs available for them. The Beats were the first to come out and take a stand, protesting conformity and the lack of the social and cultural purpose of the middle-class (Huddleton 7).

Allen Ginsberg

Allen Ginsberg was born June 3, 1926 in Newark, New Jersey. His father Louis was a high school teacher and a published poet. His mother Naomi was a Russian immigrant and was a member of the American Communist party. She took Allen to Communist Party meetings when he was a child. Allen’s father instilled a love for poetry in his young son which led to Ginsberg’s love for Walt Whitman, his greatest hero (Madrid 8).

Ginsberg was accepted to Columbia University at the age of 16. Shortly after arriving at Columbia he met Lucien Carr, who introduced him to former student Jack Kerouac. This group of friends, as well as others in their circle at Columbia, including future Beat writers and artists. William Burroughs, Neal Cassady, and John Clellon Holmes, congregated in and around the university and in Greenwich Village. During his time there he developed a reputation as a troublemaker and was expelled from Columbia in 1945 for “indecent acts”. In spite of his expulsion, he won the respect of his professors and graduated in 1948 with an A- average. In 1986, he returned to Columbia as a visiting professor (Allen Ginsberg 250 Columbians).

While in college Ginsberg began to question his sexual orientation. With this group of friends at Columbia he felt safe enough to express himself and became more comfortable with his homosexuality. At the same time, William Burroughs, began experimenting with drug use; soon Ginsberg began the experimentation as well. During the 1940s and 1950s, drugs such as Benzedrine, marijuana, LSD, mescaline and peyote were all commonly used by the Beats and were by no means as common as they would later become in the 1960s and 1970s (Madrid 9).

During this time, Herbert Huncke, a drug addict, a criminal, and an occasional member of this group, stored some goods he had stolen in Ginsberg’s apartment. Huncke was arrested; Ginsberg was also implicated in the crime and was tried. He was given the option of either spending time in jail, or being committed to Rockland State Hospital at the Columbia Presbyterian Psychiatric Institute. He chose to be committed with the understanding that he was to undergo treatment for his homosexuality, which during that time was considered a psychological disorder. It was in the institution that he suffered the atrocities committed on patients of mental institutions of the time. It was also here that he met Carl Solomon, a friend, and the poetic inspiration for “Howl” (Madrid 9).

In addition to being influenced by his father and the literary circles around Columbia, and later San Francisco, Ginsberg was heavily influenced by the poets William Blake, Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams. Blake wrote about the dehumanization of industrialized England. His influence on Ginsberg is seen in his writings and attitudes against McCarthyism, conformity to societal norms and racial intolerance in the United States (Madrid 11). In 1948, while living in Harlem, Ginsberg experienced an auditory hallucination where he claimed to have heard the voice of God reading Blake’s poems “Ah Sunflower”, “The Sick Rose,” and “Little Girl Lost”. Later Ginsberg convinced himself that this voice was truly William Blake’s. The experience lasted several days and Ginsberg believed he had experienced the interconnectedness of the universe through Blake’s voice (Miles). As previously mentioned, Ginsberg grew up reading Whitman and he directly references him in his poem “A Supermarket In California”. The poem was written in 1955, the centennial anniversary of Leaves of Grass and was written in Whitman’s long line style.

William Carlos Williams was Ginsberg’s direct mentor and he spent some time under the tutelage of Williams in Paterson, New Jersey. Williams is recognized for his images and simple language that uses the casual tone of everyday conversation that, by its nature, strays from the common rhyme structures and traditional stanzas. Ginsberg was greatly influenced by this and used this in his writings. Ginsberg approached his poetry as a non-academic endeavor; rather he used the spontaneous bursts of phrasing and creativity that he admired in jazz musicians and Jack Kerouac’s writings. All of these are noticeable in his most famous poem, “Howl” (Madrid 11).


“Howl”is widely considered to be one of the greatest works of American literature. It was written during the years 1954 and 1955 and was first read by Ginsberg at the Six Gallery in San Francisco on October 7, 1955. Lawrence Ferlinghetti of City Lights bookstore published it in 1956 in San Francisco as part of a collection titled Howl and Other Poems. Initially, Ferlinghetti decided that “Howl” part I was too short and incomplete to be published. He agreed to publish it, however, along with some of Ginsberg’s other works, as soon as he completed part II and “Footnote”. The other poems in the book such as “America” and “Sunflower Sutra” are also considered to be some of his most famous and influential works. Based on the title, and with some knowledge of the context and times from which it came from, “Howl” is exactly what one might expect: an aggressive statement that takes a critical stance against mainstream society.

Upon first glance, the poem seems to be sprawling and disorganized. It is, however, very structured into three distinct parts; each has its own distinct theme. The first section is the longest and the theme is madness. Ginsberg claims that modern society has driven the most promising men of his generation insane, and then is devotes himself to telling us just who these people are that have been driven mad by modern society.

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by

madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn

looking for an angry fix, angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly

connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night, who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat

up smoking in the supernatural darkness of

cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities

contemplating jazz (Ginsberg 9)

In this first section of the poem, the people who are identified as being driven mad are not middle class conformists or the best minds of society. They are all dissidents, world travelers, poets, and drop outs. Numerous vague references to things that do not appear to mesh together fill the poem, and are left open for interpretation, allowing the reader to decide the connection. An example of this disconnection appears in Part I: “who jumped in limousines with the Chinaman of Oklahoma on the impulse of winter midnight streetlight smalltown rain” (Ginsberg 12)

Part II written separately from the first part, but in the same time and environment, uses abundant symbolism and metaphor to make political statements. In 1955, while walking around San Francisco under the influence of peyote with his partner Peter Orlovsky, they stopped in front of the Sir Francis Drake Hotel. The hotel seemed like a monster to Ginsberg, specifically the Phoenician god of fire, Moloch. This experience made such an impression on him that, allegedly, he was able to write the second part in one sitting (Madrid 12). Moloch symbolizes all of the great evils in society, and represents the oppression and destruction of the best minds of the day.

What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?

Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies! Moloch whose breast is a cannibal dynamo! Moloch whose ear is a smoking tomb (Ginsberg 21)!

Part III of “Howl” is a message to Carl Solomon, to whom the poem is dedicated. Ginsberg met Carl Solomon during his earlier stay in Rockland, Colombia’s mental institution. In order to stress empathy for Solomon, Ginsberg switches the poem from speaking in second person perspective to an emphatic first person voice.

Carl Solomon! I’m with you in Rockland where you’re madder than I am I’m with you in Rockland where you must feel very strange (Ginsberg 24)

He puts himself in Rockland, experiencing the events that would drive a person crazy,

I’m with you in Rockland where fifty more shocks will never return your

soul to its body again from its pilgrimage to a cross in the void

(Ginsberg 25)

He then moves to show the extent of Solomon’s insanity,

I’m with you in Rockland where you accuse your doctors of insanity and

plot the Hebrew socialist revolution against the

fascist national Golgotha (Ginsberg 25)

The poet Michael McClure wrote that with “Howl”, "a human voice and body had been hurled against the harsh wall of America and its supporting armies and navies and academies and institutions and ownership systems and power support bases" (qtd. in Anderson). In 1957, an obscenity suit was brought against “Howl's” publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The trial was based on homosexual content contained in the poem. Eventually it was ruled that the poem was not obscene: "An author should be real in treating his subject and be allowed to express his thoughts and ideas in his own words” ( Anderson). Howl and Other Poems, along with the trial, made Ginsberg a radical figure in the eyes of the public and assured his notoriety within the beat movement as well as the counterculture movements of the following decades.

While “Howl”, of all of Ginsberg’s poems, receives the most attention and is considered a masterpiece, his poem, “America”, also contained in Howl and Other Poems, is just as powerful. “America” was written in Berkeley, California in 1956. The poem is considered one of the first widely distributed and read political statements of the years following the war. The poem contains many cultural and political references and is a sharp critique of the post war years about which the Beats were critical. That disparaging attitude is reflected here:

America I've given you all and now I'm nothing. America two dollars and twenty-seven cents January 17, 1956. I can't stand my own mind. America when will we end the human war? Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb I don't feel good don't bother me. I won't write my poem till I'm in my right mind. America when will you be angelic? When will you take off your clothes? When will you look at yourself through the grave? When will you be worthy of your million Trotskyites? America why are your libraries full of tears (Ginsberg 39)?

Ginsberg’s dissatisfaction with America is countered towards the end of the poem when he indicates and hints at the idea of getting to work. He proclaims to be dissatisfied, yet in the end, he states that he will get down and get to work. By announcing that he will “put his queer shoulder to the wheel” he is declaring that although he may be gay, he is ready to get to work, although not through the hard physical labor as he indicates, and make a change for the country.

Another powerful poem found in Howl and Other Poems, “Sunflower Sutra”, speaks of environmental issues. According to the poem, modern America has created its own destruction, desolation, and loneliness. Written in 1955 in Berkeley, and unlike many of his poems from the time that end with a feeling of despair or hopelessness, this poem ends on a positive note of hope. Sutra, a form of literature found in Buddhism uses quick and simple lines to make a simple statement. Although Ginsberg’s poem lacks the use of quick and simple statements, in the end the message is quite simple. The sunflower represents an America that was once beautiful, but is now damaged and worn out. The sunflower, America, consists of beliefs such as freedom of speech, political freedom and prosperity, and has the potential to shine and be beautiful if only people would seek to find this beauty. Ginsberg sits down with Kerouac and they survey the grim destruction around them until they spot the sunflower. Ginsberg ends with a glimmer of hope,

So I grabbed up the skeleton thick sunflower and stuck it at my side like a scepter, and deliver my sermon to my soul, and Jack’s soul too, and anyone who’ll listen, —We’re not our skin of grime, we’re not dread bleak dusty imageless locomotives, we’re golden sunflowers inside, blessed by our own seed & hairy naked accomplishment-bodies growing into mad black formal sunflowers in the sunset, spied on by our own eyes under the shadow of the mad locomotive riverbank sunset Frisco hilly tincan evening sit down vision (Ginsberg 38).

Allen Ginsberg, a very charismatic figure, was very influential during his time as well as after. He also was very much a man of his time and were he not, his life and influence would have been greatly diminished or perhaps nonexistent. Like all great artists, his surroundings influenced him greatly, creating in him intense emotions, which resulted in intense expressions. In a less modern era or setting, his life would have taken a radically different course, and he would have been unable to fulfill the cultural role that he did for five decades up until his death in 1997 (Ariel 64). Throughout his life he was a part of the anti-war movement and the movement for sexual freedom. He was a spiritual leader for the hippie counterculture movement of the 1960s and was a binding force that helped hold together a generation of activists, writers and poets (Madrid 23). Most importantly, he served as a voice of dissent that caused others to think critically about the machine of a prosperous American culture that sometimes values the tenets of greed and capitalism over those of human kindness and tolerance.

Works Cited

"Allen Ginsberg, 250 Columbians Ahead of Their Time." Columbia 250. Columbia University, 2004. Web. 19 June 2016.

Anderson, Stacey. "Allen Ginsberg, Howl and the Voice of the Beats." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 27 May 2016. Web. 20 June 2016.

Ariel, Yaakov. "Charisma and Counterculture: Allen Ginsberg as a Prophet for a New Generation." MDPI Open Access Publishing. Department of Religious Studies, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 25 Jan. 2013. Web. 18 June 2016.

Brinkley, Alan. "The Fifties." The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, 2009. Web. 18 June 2016.

Burdick, E. "The Politics of the Beat Generation." Political Research Quarterly 12.2 (1959): 553-55. JSTOR [JSTOR]. Web. 18 June 2016.

Ginsberg, Allen. Howl, and Other Poems. San Francisco: City Lights Pocket hop, 1956. Print.

Huddleton, Diane M. "The Beat Generation: They Were Hipsters Not Beatniks." American Popular Culture Commons. Cultural History Commons, 2012. Web. 19 June 2016.

Madrid, Valentin D. "A Countercultural Vision of America: Allen Ginsberg and the Beat Generation." Trabajo Fin De Grado A Countercultural Vision (2015): 4-27. Trabajos Académicos De La Universidad De Jaén. Universidad De Jaén, 2015. Web. 18 June 2016.

Miles, Barry. Ginsberg: A Biography. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989. Print.

"The Postwar Economy: 1945-1960." United States History - The Postwar Economy: 1945-1960. Country Studies/U.S. Department of State, Web. 18 June 2016.

Tamony, Peter. "Beat Generation: Beat: Beatniks." Western Folklore 28.4 (1969): 274. Web. 18 June 2016.

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