Reproduced in partnership with The Common Review, the magazine of the Great Books Foundation.
All the Beat Generation writers occupy a contested space in conversations about American literature. The creators and guardians of the modernist canon dismissed Beat writers such as Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and William S. Burroughs as subliterary, mere popular culture icons, vacuous self-promoters, and even inciters of juvenile delinquency.
Illustration by Onsmith Jeremi
As Norman Podhoretz wrote in "The Know-Nothing Bohemians," his 1958 attack on the Beats in Partisan Review, "On the Road and The Subterraneans are so patently autobiographical in content that they become almost impossible to discuss as novels." Podheretz grants the Beats great, albeit negative, influence when he claims that "juvenile crime can be explained partly in terms of the same resentment against normal feeling and the attempt to cope with the world that lies behind Kerouac and Ginsberg." These attacks, along with the pop-culture image of the beatnik—as embodied by the iconic, goatee-wearing slacker Maynard G. Krebs—have worked to keep the Beats on the margins of any serious discussion about literary greatness.
But there is a clear work ethic that reverberates in their lives and in their writing, and in the eyes of many readers and critics, the Beats fostered a sustained, authentic, and compelling attack on post–World War II American culture. In their lives, they rejected the stultifying materialism and conformism of the cold war era by experimenting with drugs and public homosexuality. In their prose and poetry, they rejected the highly wrought and controlled aesthetic of modernist stalwarts such as T. S. Eliot, William Faulkner, and Ernest Hemingway. Indeed, to reject—as the Beats did—the modernist aesthetic, at the time of its coronation as the very definition of literature, would inevitably lead to their marginalization.
The academic and cultural politics that have kept these writers and their texts largely outside of the academic canon are complex, and it's an overstatement, of course, to call the Beats utterly noncanonical. They are read and anthologized, though not as widely as the Modernists. Beyond the shady groves of academe, the Beats have thrived: Ginsberg, Kerouac, and Burroughs are widely read among younger readers, many outside of the university. It's important to note as well that three urtexts of the Beat Generation—Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems (1956), Kerouac's On the Road (1957), and Burroughs's Naked Lunch (1962)—have never gone out of print since their respective publications. These texts have remained popular because they speak to perennial concerns: personal freedom, resistance to authority, the search for ecstasy (physical, aesthetic, and religious), and the nature of America.
The title poem of Howl and Other Poems is key, and its opening line famously defines the Beat Generation: "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked." The poem captured the imagination of writers and artists who were alienated from the dominant social forms of Dwight Eisenhower's America. The poem's rejection of modernist aesthetics, its return to Whitmanesque long lines and method of catalog, assured that it would be read primarily outside the realm of the great books, as those books were then understood. The modernist writers and formalist canon-makers had little use for Ginsberg and the Beat Generation. The Beats' prose and verse, according to Podhoretz, is founded on the notion that "incoherence is superior to precision; that ignorance is superior to knowledge; that the exercise of mind and discrimination is a form of death."
But Podhoretz and the other defenders of Modernism were wrong about the Beats. Take for instance the quintessential "Howl." The four-part structure—yes, it has one!—of Ginsberg's poem (including "Footnote to 'Howl' ") is essential to its interpretation. First comes a catalog of the destruction wrought upon these best minds, and their resistance to the dominant American culture. Second, the poet sings a screed against "Moloch," American culture embodied as the avatar of a pagan god to whom children were once sacrificed. The third part of the poem asserts the solidarity of the poet with the mad (in particular, the eccentric Carl Solomon, to whom the poem was initially dedicated) and gestures towards a hopeful reconciliation. Hope resonates, too, throughout "Footnote," a litany that begins with the word holy repeated 15 times and that asserts the sacred nature of all of life, redeeming madness with divinity. The poetic voice in the poem echoes Old Testament prophets, and aspects of its structure evoke various Hebrew prayers. This prophetic voice—coupled with a structure decidedly at odds with modernist control and precision—forms a powerful indictment of the insularity of Cold War American culture. The future evolution of Beat philosophy toward Eastern, especially Buddhist, mysticism begins in this prophetic voice and structure.
But beyond its status as great literature, Howl and Other Poems is a great book in another sense. It is not just a text worthy of academic study and reading for pleasure; the book itself, the physical manifestation of the text, is culturally influential and meaningful. Howl and Other Poems is a great book as well as a great text. But this distinction between "book" and "text" needs clarification.
When people talk about great books, they usually mean great texts. A poem or play or novel that survives and is read and reread over generations, acing the proverbial test of time, is our culture's standard for understanding literary greatness. Except for first editions or copies signed or filled with marginalia by a writer, the particular physical artifacts—the manifestations of texts as books—don't matter as much the abstract "text," something that can be, and probably has been, reproduced in many books.
Stress on the interpretation of "the text" makes sense when one considers that, over decades or centuries, various canonical poems and novels have been issued in many editions. Professional readers, professors and literary critics, would read and re-read the same text in many different editions, indistinguishable from one another with the exception of a different foreword or preface, a few footnotes perhaps. Independent of these contributions, the paper-ink-cardboard-and-glue object seems ephemeral, a mere accident of commerce or culture.
The dismissal of the book-as-object in favor of the abstracted text also corresponds to Platonic tendencies in Western culture, the dualism that sees the essential reality of something existing in a realm beyond the shadows cast on the walls of the cave. Texts were this Platonic reality, books the shadows, mere objects in the realm of ideas, simple artifacts of commercial culture. But all acts of reading take place in a context of commerce and culture. The conflation of book and text, understandable as it is, blinds us to the way that material aspects of books operate in the social realm of readers.
Of course no one reads "texts" in some disembodied or immaterial sense: we read books, material manifestations of texts. Non-professional readers don't go looking for a good text to curl up with at night or to take on their commute to work. They don't go to textstores and have monthly text clubs. Readers want good books in the textual sense, of course, but the materiality of books matters. Books will always mean something in the world of reading and readers.
Some books are great beyond their text, beyond what the author says or how the author says it. The greatness of some books resides at least in part in the way that their materiality speaks to readers and to other writers, the cultural significance that their material form communicates. Take, for instance, how we value texts like the Bible, which we produce bound in durable hardcover form, occasionally with expensive embossing, gold leaf, or other embellishments.
We might, however, call this symbolic materialism into question, especially in the case of Allen Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems. This book—as a book, as a material object—communicates vital cultural meaning. The text mattered, obviously: It spoke to the fact that there was a counterculture in America, there were other people scattered around who had rejected American materialism and conformism, who resisted the culture of death that praised the atomic bomb as an American technological marvel. And the text taught its readers that the poets of Greenwich Village had their counterparts in North Beach and Denver and New Orleans and Chicago.
And that content first reached a public in just such a community: The San Francisco poetry renaissance was the fertile soil where the poem had its roots in performance, a reconnection to the bardic tradition of spoken poetry. Fellow poets and other audience members who were present at the first public reading of "Howl," at San Francisco's Six Gallery in 1955, report a palpable sense of change, of poetic possibility in its very performance. Michael McClure, another poet who read that night, describes the scene and its meaning in his book Scratching the Beat Surface (1982):
Allen began in a small and intensely lucid voice. At some point Jack Kerouac began shouting "GO" in cadence as Allen read it.
In all of our memories no one had been so outspoken in poetry before—we had gone beyond a point of no return—and we were ready for it, for a point of no return. None of us wanted to go back to the gray, chill, militaristic silence, to the intellective [sic] void—to the land without poetry—to the spiritual drabness. We wanted to make it new and we wanted to invent it and the process of it as we went into it. We wanted voice and we wanted vision.
Ginsberg read on to the end of the poem, which left us standing in wonder, or cheering and wondering, but knowing at the deepest level that a barrier had been broken, that 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.
One aspect of the Beat Generation that set them apart from the modernists was an emphasis on orality, on the poem as a performance rather than on the poem-for-the-page: the text living on its own, independent of the book. But that original audience was small and "Howl" would require a different kind of publisher to bring this kind of poetic vitality to a wider audience. Lawrence Ferlinghetti published Ginsberg's book in short order, and it immediately found an audience with the United States Custom Office and the San Francisco Police Department. Howl and Other Poems was first seized by customs (en route from the printer in Great Britain) and then by the local authorities due to its obscene content. The State of California stepped in, but Judge Clayton J. Horn found the book not to be obscene, and along with the Massachusetts obscenity trial for Burroughs's Naked Lunch and the Chicago trial for Big Table (a journal that published Kerouac and Burroughs), Howl and Other Poems was one of a handful of Beat books that led to the end of literary censorship in the United States. (This form of historical greatness should be kept in mind as well.)
Once the book was widely available, it spread like a virus. Many writers who have written about the Beat Generation, especially those who were young when Kerouac and Ginsberg first broke on the scene, often describe as a revelation the first moment that they held Howl and Other Poems in their hands. In Memoirs of a Beatnik (1969), Diane DiPrima writes:
The priestly ex-book-thief arrived and thrust a small black and white book into my hand, saying, "I think this might interest you." I took it and flipped it open idly, still intent on dishing out beef stew, and found myself in the middle of "Howl" by Allen Ginsberg. Put down the ladle and turned to the beginning and was caught up immediately in that sad, powerful opening: "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness. . . .
I was too turned on to concern myself with the stew. I handed it over to Beatrice and, without even thanking Bradley, walked out the front door with his new book. Walked the few blocks to the pier on Sixtieth Street and sat down by the Hudson River to read and to come to terms with what was happening. The phrase "breaking ground" kept coming into my head. I knew that this Allen Ginsberg, whoever he was, had broken ground for all of us—all few hundreds of us—simply by getting this published. I had no idea yet what that meant, how far it would take us. . .
For I sensed that Allen was only, could only be, the vanguard of a much larger thing. All the people who, like me, had hidden and skulked, writing down what they knew for a small handful of friends—and even those friends claiming it "couldn't be published"—waiting with only a slight bitterness for the thing to end, for man's era to draw to a close in a blaze of radiation–all these would now step forward and say their piece. Not many would hear them, but they would, finally, hear each other. I was about to meet my brothers and sisters.
We had come of age. I was frightened and a little sad. . . . But for the moment regret for what we might be losing was buried under a sweeping sense of exhilaration, of glee; someone was speaking for all of us, and the poem was good. I was high and delighted. I made my way back to the house and to supper, and we read "Howl" together, I read it aloud to everyone. A new era had begun.
Writers like McClure and DiPrima show the ways in which, as a text in the traditional sense, Howl and Other Poems is a great book in the canonical sense. It opened doors for other artists to follow, it captured its era unmistakably, it broke new aesthetic ground, it revisited lost forefathers like Whitman. It enabled an entire generation of aesthetic and ideological outsiders to conceive of themselves as a generation—underground, perhaps, but not alone.
With all the passion and drama surrounding Howl and Other Poems, it's interesting to consider that the bulk of the cultural weight that it carries comes not from its text but instead from its material form. First, it was a paperback, published by City Lights Press, based in Ferlinghetti's North Beach bookstore of the same name. City Lights was the first American bookstore that sold only paperback books, and this matters.
"Paperback"—especially in the context of 1950s literary culture—is not just a neutral term for the material manifestation of a text. The paperback, like Howl and Other Poems, was both the product of and the producer of a revolution in literary culture.
While the paperback revolution was not of the same magnitude as Gutenberg's, there are real parallels. Advances in the technologies of printing, papermaking, and binding, as well as methods of distribution, made books radically cheaper and more widely available in both cases. Paperbacks are now ubiquitous and unremarkable, but when Howl and Other Poems was published, paperbacks as an economically viable literary form had existed for less than two decades. Paper-bound books have a history extending back to the late middle ages, but until Robert de Graff founded Pocket Books in 1939, paperbacks could not hold up to their hardcover competitors in the American marketplace. (Penguin preceded Pocket Books in the United Kingdom by a few years). Copyright and distribution problems killed the dime novels of the 19th century, and until de Graff managed to create an effective distribution system—by using newsstand magazine distributors to sell his 25-cent books far and wide—most books sold in America were expensive hardcovers. Bookstores were few and far between, more like high-end boutiques than the café-style franchises so common now. Even how bookstores arranged and displayed books was different before the advent of the paperback: Books were displayed spine-out, and sorted by publisher rather than by genre. Bookstores were as staid as the canon.
Paperbacks changed all that, making books available in every train station, five-and-dime, and drugstore in the nation. Traditional bookstores initially resisted stocking paperbacks at all, not seeing the sense in underselling their own more expensive stock (just as most bookstores today stock new or used books, but not both). At first, bookstores would add a "paperback corner" or other small selection of the new kind of book, but soon economic demand overwhelmed snobbery and paperbacks came to dominate the literary marketplace.
Yet due to material aspects of their distribution—their newsstand roots—paperbacks still carry more than a hint of literary illegitimacy. The 25-cent paperback killed off the lurid pulp magazines that had thrived from the 1920s through World War II, with their steamy covers and genre fiction. The term paperback original soon took over the pulps' spot as the scorned and disreputable literary stepchild, above only graphic fiction (née comic books) in the hierarchy of intellectual prestige. Mainstream authors were divided over paperbacks: glad for the extra income that paperback reprint contracts provided, but acutely aware that cheap editions with lurid covers could damage their reputations as serious writers. Politically engaged fiction writers such as James T. Farrell, Erskine Caldwell, and Nelson Algren especially suffered from being sold in packages that made their work seem like urban exposé, backwoods pornography, or juvenile delinquent novels.
Writing about the obscenity trial of Howl and Other Poems, the journalist David Perlman notes the significance of the fact that City Lights was a paperback-only bookstore:
Ferlinghetti's bookshop sells no hardcovers, but it does stock all the quarterlies, all the soft-cover prestige lines of the major publishers, a lot of foreign imprints and periodicals, and just about every other sort of pocket book except the kind whose bosomy covers leer from the racks of drugstores and bus terminals.
Most American readers—inside and outside of the system that created canons—also associated paperbacks with bosomy leering, not high literature. "Paperback" was not just a neutral description of the physical form a text happened to take but rather a cultural symbol associated with the lowbrow rather than the high, with wire racks in a grubby bus station instead of a fireplace mantle in a Park Avenue brownstone.
As with other commodities, the differences in the physical form of books communicate different social statuses. As hardcover sales fell and paperbacks became more widely read, the material form morphed again. Paperbacks diverged into the reputable "trade paperback," with its higher status represented in its material form: almost the size of a hardcover, with sturdier binding, heavier paper, and higher production values. The old disreputable paperback became the "mass market" paperback: smaller, cheaper paper, with lower production values, likely to sport a more lurid cover, and hence to be of lesser status. But this status is arbitrary and about the book, not the text, for the exact same text can be printed in either book format: The material form points readers in one interpretive direction or another.
But it is important to remember that in 1956 when Howl and Other Poems appeared, the Paperback Revolution had yet to occur. For City Lights to sell and publish nothing but paperbacks was a culturally meaningful act, a way of creating a counter-canon that meshed perfectly with the Beats' antimaterialist and countermodernist aesthetic.
Yet an aspect of irony attends this method of production. To publish serious poetry in paperback original form asserts that greatness is not manifest in hard covers and dust jackets and higher prices. Ferlinghetti's Pocket Poets series suggests that greatness resides in the text itself. The books in the Pocket Poets series were slim, undersized volumes, about 6 by 5 inches, usually with simple black-and-white cover design and typography. Symbolically, the material form of the Pocket Poets suggests that the book holds something written for everyone, regardless of class or educational status. The Pocket Poets were designed to fit in the palm of the reader's hand and in the back pocket of a pair of blue jeans.
These physical signs matter: They speak to the nature of poetry and its audience. In the 21st century, blue jeans are worn by just about anyone, but in 1956, they were still associated with working-class jobs and status. In postwar America, poetry was anything but working-class. Poetry came in staid hardcovers with print runs in the low hundreds, or, worse, bricklike anthologies to be lugged around campus by undergraduates being introduced to William Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity.
So, a book of poems designed to fit in one's hand, to nestle comfortably in one's back pocket, made the book itself a symbolic rejection of contemporary poetic sensibilities. (Today, this division between popular and ivory tower poetics exists in the fault line between the performance and slam poets on one hand, and the getters of Guggenheims on the other.) The production of Pocket Poets as a series with similar (though not identical) design acted as a material representation of a counter-canon, poems by poets who wouldn't be taught in the university.
Of course what sort of books one reads is also an indicator of social status. This is another realm in which Howl and Other Poems is a great book—it betokens its readers' status as rebels and nonconformists. This status inheres in the physical design of the book beyond its being a paperback original. The size and shape of the book itself, along with the content, speaks to issues of class and conformity. Even today, the power of this counter-canon is made evident by the simple fact that the design for the Pocket Poets edition of Howl and Other Poems hasn't changed in the 62 years since its publication.
So what are we to make of the fact that, in 1986, Allen Ginsberg and Barry Miles produced an Annotated Facsimile edition of "Howl," clearly and admittedly modeled on the Facsimile edition of T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, issued by Valerie Eliot in 1971. This physical resemblance (with the light-police-blue- cover of Howl being, of course, more colorful than the muted browns of The Waste Land) asserts a canonical continuity, a connection between the generation-defining poems of the Modernists and the Beats. Where the original Howl and Other Poems asserted its independence from the modernist giant, the facsimile edition insists on connections between the two poems. The content of "Howl" certainly rejected modernist poetic sensibilities as exemplified by Eliot and as promoted by his critical progeny, but these two oversized books, these two editions of generation-defining poems, fit together quite nicely on the bookshelf—both the literal shelf in my office and the metaphorical shelf of canonical American poetry of the twentieth century.
This variant package also changes the experience of reading the poem in ways that demonstrate the importance of the physical form a text takes. The small and almost-square format of Ferlinghetti's edition makes the many long lines in the poem read like short paragraphs with idiosyncratic indentation. Laid out across a wider page, the lines just go on till their end, and the few that are too long even for this wider page shift over in a visually jarring way. The physicality of the text matters: The book that a text appears in changes the experience of reading the text.
Because, finally, we don't read texts. We read books. Beyond the always arguable greatness of any particular text, some books are great for historical and material reasons. Howl and Other Poems—and also On the Road and Naked Lunch—helped define the Beat Generation and helped end government censorship of literature: reasons enough to stand as a great book in the historical sense. But its particular materiality, its status as a paperback, its design features, and its ubiquity in certain cultural and social venues, also contribute to the ways in which Howl and Other Poems should be understood as great.