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A guide to posts we’ve written in past years about Ginsberg’s Howl and the history of hipsters in New York:

In last year’s roundup post, I offered additional thoughts on some contexts I’d brought up in lecture but hadn’t explored fully: Diana Trilling’s famous reflections on her attendance at a 1959 Beat poetry reading at Columbia University, boycotted by several faculty members, including her husband, Lionel — in spite of the fact that he had been Ginsberg’s teacher. Last year’s post also includes some discussion of Norman Mailer’s “The White Negro” (also 1959), in which he defines the hipster as born from the confrontation of young white intellectuals in the Village (many of whom were raised Jewish) with black American culture. Both pieces are worth thinking about for their discussions of race and their competing desires for assimilates “whiteness” and for the freedom to cross racial lines. I suggested in that post that Mailer’s essay may be considered a forerunner of Patti Smith’s use of cross-racial fantasy in “Rock & Roll Nigger,” but it should also be seen as a forerunner of this famous photo of Smith’s contemporary, Lester Bangs.

Since then we’ve considered a variety of other Howl-related material, from Eric Drooker’s illustrated edition of the poem (drawn from his animation sequences for the recent film) to my initial take on the film itself. I also posted some thoughts about Ginsberg in relation to the intensive seminar I taught last summer, “The Downtown Scene, 1960-1980.” As part of that course we watched the early Beat film “Pull My Daisy,” and my post about it elicited comments from one of its actors, the musician David Amram. (I’m teaching that course again this May if anyone’s up for it.)

Part of our consideration of Ginsberg’s “angelheaded hipsters” (and Mailer’s “White Negro”) has included lighthearted looks at hipster history here at PWHNY. My favorite has always been our consideration of Jim Henson and Kermit the Frog’s role in this cultural formation. We’ve also noted a contemporary graffiti writer called “White Negro” take to the streets. We wish we had been able to attend this panel, which is now published as this book, which we wish we’d had the time yet to read. We’ve pondered whether contemporary Williambsburg attire is indebted to Mose and the Bowery B’hoys, but I’ve also wondered whether or not Sesame Street might have had something to do with it:

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James Franco’s Ginsberg

Howl, directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman (previously best known as the documentarians behind The Celluloid Closet [1995]), opens in limited release today, showing at Angelika, Clearview Chelsea, and Lincoln Plaza. I managed to catch a preview last Monday, part of a fundraising evening for Brooklyn College’s MFA program, where Allen Ginsberg taught for ten years before his death and where the film’s star, James Franco, just completed an MFA in creative writing last spring.  Here’s the trailer, followed by a few preliminary thoughts — preliminary because I do plan to see it again.

I can’t say that the trailer or other early clips I’d seen inspired a lot of confidence. Franco, though I was a big Freaks and Geeks fan and certainly respect his ability as an actor, seemed, well, too pretty to be Ginsberg. But I jumped at the chance to see the film early, even though the price tag was a little hefty, because he and the directors would be taking questions after and because I planned to take my 16-year-old daughter, also a big Freaks and Geeks fan, who has had a crush on Franco since the 4th grade and occasionally refers to herself as the Future Mrs. James Franco.

And I was more than pleasantly surprised. The film toggles between three primary structural sequences: a smart if celebratory reading of the poem (accompanied by animation based on Eric Drooker‘s visual collaborations with Ginsberg before he died); a compelling take on the poem’s autobiographical content, cobbled from published sources and delivered as an interview Franco gives to an unseen interviewer; and a clever use of Ferlinghetti’s trial for peddling obscenity by selling Ginsberg’s poem, the dialogue drawn entirely from court transcripts. The latter winds up doubling as a classroom setting for the audience to consider just what poetry is, how it can be read and misread, and why reading and writing poetry matters, fifty years ago and now. The filmmakers very wisely decided not to flesh out the trial’s participants as characters, a la Capote. The focus, that way, remains on the poem, large portions of which are featured two or three or maybe even four times — in Franco’s voice, in courtroom dialogue, in the interviews. Even viewers who aren’t familiar with the poem — my daughter, say — should walk away being able to identify key features. (We had a great conversation on the train home.) The film isn’t a Ginsberg biopic in any traditional sense; it puts the poem first, its place in Ginsberg’s life next (reading it as part of a coming-of-age story as well as a Bildungsroman), and its place in American culture last.

Franco himself is quite credible as Ginsberg. If he comes off as a little buttoned-down in the recurring sequence set at the Six Gallery in San Francisco, 7 October 1955, it’s a useful reminder that Allen didn’t always look like a hippie prophet wandering the streets. And Franco clearly prepared for the role: in Q&A he described taking a full year to work with the directors, prepping by reading Ginsberg bios, journals, and the myriad interviews from which much of the screenplay is drawn. He has also clearly listened to a lot of tapes and watched a decent amount of video, though the latter only exists for Ginsberg’s older incarnations. All of this for a film shot in 14 days. Franco has Ginsberg’s mannerisms and tics down so well that, especially during the interview sequences, it’s not hard to forget this is him and not AG. In Q&A he had smart things to say about the poem and the process of making the film: sounding a little like a literature grad student (which he is, as of this semester, when he begins Yale’s PhD program in English), he said that he found the autobiographical reading of the poem to be surprisingly productive, but that it was important to remember it’s just one way to read the poem, not the final word. I would agree with him on both counts: I also found the autobiographical reading to open up some portions of the poem I’d not really paid much attention to, but in the end it would be a mistake to reduce the poem to a psychological milestone in Ginsberg’s development as a poet and a person: clearly it’s resonated on a much larger scale for over half a century.

The film isn’t perfect. I was skeptical of the animated sequences, especially since they begin with a cringe-inducing visualization of “Negro streets at dawn,” but as they progress the animated parts (I use the word “parts” advisedly, since the animation features a proliferation of penises) even themselves out. The score is a bit heavy-handed, if not outright maudlin, especially at moments of key growth for Franco’s character. The Six Gallery reading seemed a little tame to me, at least tamer than Michael McClure’s famous descriptions of Kerouac chanting “GO!” in cadence with Ginsberg’s delivery, but you do get the sense from those scenes that Ginsberg’s initial audience encountered the poem as something incredibly new, a decisive moment of change, of no turning back, as McClure also described it. In its finale, with the “Footnote to Howl” the Six Gallery reading takes on a slightly anachronistic feel: we can only be as introspective about the intensely personal meaning of some of those lines from the perspective of decades passed. I wanted a more raucous and less lyrical delivery of those lines. Something more like this, but by that point the autobiographical reading has pretty much determined that references to Kerouac, Cassady, Solomon, and especially to Naomi Ginsberg, will mean that Franco’s delivery slows to an introspective, hushed conclusion. Perhaps it’s a fitting finale for this particular reading of the poem. Let me know what you think once you’ve seen it.

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“who jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge this actually happened and walked away unknown and forgotten into the ghostly daze of Chinatown”

Short obit from the Times.

Previously on PWHNY.

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Today I begin teaching a two-week intensive undergrad seminar on New York’s Downtown Scenes, 1960-80. The course meets four hours a day, five days a week. It promises to be a little intense.

To set the stage, today we’ll discuss Ginsberg’s Howl, talk about the physical space and population of the Village and the LES in the 1950s and 1960s, and head out on a Beats-themed walking tour led by Cary Abrams of the Lower East Side History Project. (You can take the tour Thursdays at 2:00 if you’re interested.)

We’ll also, assuming the new super-smart business-school classroom we’re meeting in has something as old-fashioned as a VCR, watch Alfred Leslie and Robert Frank’s 1959 film Pull My Daisy, considered a watershed in avant-garde American film. Narrated by Jack Kerouac and adapted from his play, the film stars Ginsberg and Gregory Corso as themselves and also features the musician David Amram, both as music director and actor. Amram discusses the film in this three-part interview, which includes enough clips to give you an idea of what the film’s like:

And here’s the film in its 26-minute entirety:

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This morning in lecture I mentioned that I’d be posting links to some additional discussion relevant to our discussion of Ginsberg’s Howl and its multiple cultural contexts. Though most of the lecture was devoted to situating Ginsberg, following Ric Burns, who followed Marshall Berman, within the Jacobs/Moses melodrama on the theme of “urban renewal,” I also wanted to spend a little more time tracing connections from Howl back to some earlier material from the course: The Jazz Singer in particular. There’s a melodrama of assimilation/alienation that runs alongside the tension between Moses’ modern city and Jacobs’ defense of traditional neighborhood life that relates to what Diana Trilling famously identified as Ginsberg’s self-deprecating ethnic humor. Here are a couple paragraphs from Trilling’s account of Ginsberg’s reading at Columbia University in 1959, which her husband, the famous critic Lionel Trilling and Ginsberg’s former teacher, along with several other Columbia English department members, refused to attend:

How different it might have been for Ginsberg and his friends if they had come of age ten or fifteen years sooner was one of the particular sadnesses of the other evening . . . as the poets read their poems, whose chief virtue, it seemed to me, was their “racial-minority” funniness, their “depressed-classes” funniness of a kind which has never had so sure and live a place as it did in the thirties, the embittered fond funniness which has to do with one’s own impossible origins, funniness plain and poetical, always aware of itself, of a kind which would seem now to have all but disappeared among intellectuals[.] . . .

I hadn’t quite realized how much I missed it until Thursday night when Ginsberg read [his poems] . . . and they were still funny in that old racial-depressed way but not nearly as funny and authentic as they would have been had they been written before the Jews and the Italians and the Negroes, but especially the Jews, had been awarded a place as Americans-like-everyone-else instead of remaining outsiders raised in the Bronx or on Ninth Avenue or even in Georgia.

But they have their connection with us who were young in the thirties, their intimate political connection, which we deny at risk of missing what it is that makes the ‘beat’ phenomenon something to think about. As they used to say on Fourteenth Street, it is no accident, comrades, it is decidedly no accident that today in the fifties our single overt manifestation of protest takes the wholly nonpolitical form of a group of panic-stricken kids in blue jeans, many of them publicly homosexual, talking about or taking drugs, assuring us that they are out of their minds, not responsible, while the liberal intellectual is convinced that he has no power to control the political future, the future of the free world, and that therefore he must submit to what he defines as political necessity. . . . [T]he connection between “beat” and respectable liberal intellectual exists and is not hard to locate: the common need to deny free will, divest oneself of responsibility and yet stay alive.

Lots of stuff going on here: her simultaneous apology for and dissatisfaction with the Cold War cowardice of her erstwhile comrades, the uptown/downtown drama that would continue to play out for the next few decades, her discomfort with the openness of Ginsberg’s sexuality, the narratives of ethnic identity and assimilation. It’s the latter I’m most interested in for the purposes of this post: I’m curious to know whether readers think it makes sense to draw a connection between Trilling’s simultaneous nostalgia and shame for an earlier unassimilated, even “ethnic,” Judaism, on the one hand, and the Beats’ cross-racial identification with African-American culture on the other.

That last note, signaled by Ginsberg’s reference to “negro streets” in the first few lines of the poem, was the subject of several posted on PWHNY last year around this time. One had to do with Norman Mailer’s infamous description of the “hipster” (sometimes conflated with the Beats, but ultimately a broader social type, I think) as a “White Negro.” From that post the following seems relevant, and if I’d had time I would have put the quote from Mailer up in lecture today. Writing last year about last year’s Beats lecture I said:

In parsing the poem’s invocation of “angelheaded hipsters” “dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,” I wondered aloud in lecture what relation Ginsberg’s imagery had to Norman Mailer’s infamous essay “The White Negro: Superficial Reflections on the Hipster,” which appeared in Dissent the year after Howl was published and was collected in Mailer’s 1959 book Advertisements for Myself. (The essay used to be on Dissent’s website in full, but it looks like it’s been removed; here’s a meditation on it that followed Mailer’s death a few years ago.)The quote I put on the screen contained Mailer’s formulation of the idea that white and black outsider cultures had come together, in the Village, to form a new type: the hipster, which Mailer considered synonymous with “the white negro.” Here’s the quote:

“In such places as Greenwich Village, a ménage-a-trois was completed–the bohemian and the juvenile delinquent came face-to-face with the Negro, and the hipster was a fact of American life. … marijuana was the wedding ring.”

Since we were short on time — lecture was coming to an end — I didn’t have time to elaborate or contextualize as much as I would have liked. It may not have been clear where Mailer positioned himself in relation to this new cultural type, but in fact he’s not being a crank complaining about a phenomenon he finds disturbing. Rather, he identifies himself with the hipster/White Negro he describes. By identifying spiritually with black men’s alienation (and with their primitivism and virility, which he also celebrates as psychopathy), he argues, white men can achieve better orgasms and feel more courageous about life in general.

Of course there’s a lot in his idea that’s offensive, absurd, and so stereotypical it’s hard to believe he took himself seriously. Still, it’s just one in a long train of attempts on the part of white artists and performers we’ve examined (Jolson and O’Neill most recently) who seek both to imagine themselves or their characters as part of some form of cross-racial exchange and, in doing so, to mark their status as outsiders. It’s hard not to see the connection to Ginsberg’s angelheaded hipsters, Lou Reed’s “Waiting for the Man,” and Patti Smith’s “Rock and Roll Nigger.” Should such efforts be dismissed as misguided out of hand, or is there something more interesting to be said about attempts, however flawed, at a sort of cosmopolitan imagining? Are there more nuanced things we could say about ways in which cultural production doesn’t respect notions of cultural purity?

In comments on that post, Lenora Warren, one of our TAs, offered this by way of reply:

I think we can give Smith and Mailer the benefit of the doubt given the contexts in which they were were writing. From the link you gave it seems that Mailer is at least trying to understand forces that produce that kind of alienation. My problem is with the term “cross-racial exchange.” I don’t see an exchange so much as I see repeated attempts by white artists to assume or inhabit black personae. In doing so they reduce the negro to a type: the “violent” type, the “oversexed” type, or the “the nigger.” I don’t think celebrating the type counts as cross-racial exchange. It seems too one-sided.

Well put, though we’ve also looked at many ways black culture in New York was formed in cosmopolitan exchanges with other groups, including Villagers. We’ll have more to say about Patti Smith next week. If you need something more light-hearted than Mailer to use as a palette cleanser, try this: Our related run-through of hipster history last year even included the bit-part played by Jim Henson and Kermit the Frog.

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