At once a caustic rejection to American materialism and an embrace of hedonism and madness, Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl” was also a celebration of creativity and life, a poem that agonized over the prospect of lost brilliance and hope. In his new book, “American Scream,” Jonah Raskin details Ginsberg’s writing of “Howl” and the mystique of the Beat Generation and San Francisco during that time period. Though it offers little new information, “American Scream” is a comprehensive overview of Ginsberg’s career and America immediately before, during, and after the writing of “Howl.”
“Howl” was responsible for many things; it jump-started the Beat movement and a new avant-garde movement in poetry, and it was also a colossal screw-you to the established literary world. As Raskin states, Ginsberg was “the modern mad poet, speaking for all the madmen and madwomen the world over.” The poem was also a critical indictment of the conservative, stifling environment for the art and literary world as well. Ginsberg’s poem was a slap in the face to the emerging TV-nation and American imperialism, and perhaps the timing of the publication of this book should come as no surprise.
That being said, one of the best things that “American Scream” has going for it is the timing of its publication. With America’s esteem effectively tanking in the world’s eyes and corporations sucking the souls out of everyday life, “American Scream” is a reminder about a time and people who didn’t just roll over and take it. Raskin is able to imbue the book with a fresh perspective on Ginsberg, though at times it feels more like a recap of the mad adventures of Ginsberg and his merry crew of brilliant buffoons. People such as Jack Kerouac, Bill Burroughs, and Neal Cassady dot the landscape, and their own larger than life personas often loom as large as Ginsberg.
The book also relies on quotations and retelling of events a bit too much. The quotes help to buffer Raskin’s key points, but they also lend too big of a formal air to the book. At times it feels like a bit of a seminar on Ginsberg, and the book lacks the outrageous air of spontaneity and desperation that Ginsberg’s work so famously captured. The book also seems to go in circles at times. For all its formality, there’s not a well-defined structure to the book, and the book is never driven to one clear, defining point. Instead, we’re left with a loose structure of vignettes and intense looks at specific events that, while fascinating, lead the reader in a few circles.
Still, many of these vignettes, like a good short story, offer insightful details into Ginsberg’s life and the time period in which he wrote “Howl.” Particularly fascinating is the history of his visions of “Moloch” in the legendary Sir Francis Drake Hotel. Residents of San Francisco, if reading about this for the first time, are likely to never quite look at the building the same again. Even more compelling is Raskin’s focus on Ginsberg’s time in therapy and his tempestuous relationships with literary lions such as Lionel Trilling, William Carlos Williams, and even his own father, a well-known poet in his own right.
The freshest material, however, concerns Ginsberg’s struggle with his homosexuality and his eventual acceptance and celebration of it. Raskin succeeds in not painting Ginsberg as overly tortured because of his sexuality and neuroses. Indeed, Raskin rightly draws the parallel between “Howl” and its insistence on not idolizing its misfit junkies and whores and Ginsberg’s own over-dramatization of his life. Still, when it came to being gay in the forties and fifties, Raskin rightly points out that life was simply hell. The fact that Ginsberg was able to write proudly about being queer just after that time period is an amazing fact that should not be lost on anyone in the current movement.
Too often, however, Raskin glosses over parallels from this time period to present day. When speaking of San Francisco as a beacon for alternative thought and free expression and how “Howl” was really born in our city, he fails to explicitly connect the relation to San Francisco’s present safe haven for free thought and dissent during the Bush administration. Similarly, Raskin time and again subtly leads the reader to believe that the time and culture Ginsberg wrote “Howl” in is in some way similar to America today, but he never comes right out and says it.
“American Scream” flits around that periphery for its duration. It never digs quite as deep as it could or should, and when Raskin really starts to penetrate, it’s a reminder of how good the book could have been. Instead, it feels a little underwhelming. While it’s a necessary book for those new to Ginsberg or his masterpiece, it feels a little overwhelming for a work of art that came to be a symbol for an entire period of time.