Ginsberg

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For the past couple summers I’ve taught two versions of the same course, though with separate titles and a few tweaks that suggest multiple possibilities for ordering the material we examine. The undergrad version of the course is called Downtown Scenes, 1960-1980. It grew out of a lecture I’ve given several times in the Writing New York course Cyrus and I have taught since 2003. I also used this more specific course — which is a 2-week summer intensive, meeting 4 hours/day for 10 days — to help me prep for writing about Television’s Marquee Moon. The grad version of the course is called Literature in the Age of Warhol. It also focuses primarily on the downtown scene in the 60s and 70s, though in this version Warhol is more pronounced as a defining figure in the era. The first time I taught the undergrad version, Ginsberg emerged as a link between several of our readings. Here are a few links to prior material on the blog, especially about Ginsberg.

So is there something more to be said here about defining these decades variously as an Age of Ginsberg or an Age of Warhol? (For what it’s worth, I think we’re still living in the latter.) Are there other figures you’d suggest had as strong an impact on underground literary and artistic subcultures? I’m just waiting for either one of these fellows to get a cameo on Mad Men.

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The annual HOWL! FESTIVAL kicks off today in the East Village.

Opening day, this year, coincides with the 85th anniversary of Ginsberg’s birth. Per tradition, the poet Bob Holman will lead a group reading of Howl with a cast of friends and fellow poets. From the website:

Each year we commence the open air festivities in NYC’s Tompkins Square Park with a group reading of Allen’s ground-breaking 1956 poem, HOWL, just before dusk, conducted in a symphonic manner by Bowery Poetry Club mastermind, Bob Holman. The line up of poets lending their voices to bringing Howl to life this year (in no particular order) include: Darian Dauchan, Alice Whitwham, Nicole Wallace, Curtis Jensen, Julie Patton, Fay Chiang, Miguel Algarin, Andy Clausen, Eliot Katz, Bob Rosenthal, David Henderson, John Giorno, Hettie Jones, Steven Taylor, Ed Sanders, sick prose, Elisabeth Velasquez, Helena D. Lewis, Eliel Lucero, Nikhil Melnechuk, & Jon Sands.

I plan to be there with my undergrad Downtown Scenes class. (It’s our final day today; we opened the course with Howl, so this seems a fitting way to close.)

As much as I look forward to the reading, I think I’d rather listen to Patti Smith read Ginsberg than just about anyone else but Ginsberg. Here she is with Philip Glass reading Ginsberg’s “On the Cremation of Chogyam Trungpa Vidyadhara” (1987) at a memorial for Ginsberg. From Dream of Life:

That spittle at 2:50 is, I think, one of the most moving moments in the history of punk performance.

I also like her piece “Spell,” which incorporates G’s Footnote to Howl:

The same piece as included in Dream of Life:

Follow the Howl! Festival on Twitter. Follow @HowlTweeter too.

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Happening from Django's Ghost on Vimeo.

From Ubuweb: “An irreverent portrait of America of the 60s seen through the experiences of artists of the Beat Generation and Pop Art. The America of the Vietnam war, ploughed by contradictions and explosive social tensions but potentially saturated with expectations for the future. With: Andy Warhol, Allen Ginsberg, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, Gregory Corso, Marie Benois and Leon Kraushar.”

From the Ginsberg Project:

“The prophecies of Marinetti are coming true some of them, the wilder, more poetic ones”, so, gleefully, declares Allen in this quintessentially 1967 documentary film by Antonello Branca, What’s Happening? What, indeed, is happening? Poets and painters and a brash New York City just for that moment in time and space come together. Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg candidly speak (Andy speaks!). Allen appears first (around six and a half minutes in) being interviewed as he walks along the street and then (circa 3o minutes in) is seen holding forth at a street cafe. Gregory Corso makes a cameo appearance right at the very end (with a baby!). He gets the punch line. “War makes people crazy”.

“We have all come here together. Andy Warhol and The Velvet Underground, poet Gerard Malanga, over here, if you move your camera, poet Ed Sanders of a rock n roll group called The Fugs [unfortunately mis-translated on the screen by the Italian translator as The Fags!]..over (t)here, Tuli Kuperfberg, a poet and singer in The Fugs, over there, writing at the table. Peter Orlovsky with the long hair, who is a poet and also a singer, behind him, his brother, who was in a madhouse for 14 years. He’s a superstar of the Underground. Oh, and Jonas Mekas, Jonas Mekas, head of the Filmmakers Cooperative. He’s the one who puts together films like Flaming Creatures and The Brig and sends them around Europe and in America, the impresario. He also makes films, which he’s doing now.”

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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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An extracurricular undergraduate book club I’ve run since 2004 met this week to set our fall schedule. Our first selection will be Eric Drooker’s illustrated edition of Ginsberg’s Howl, released just a month or so ago. Drooker’s drawings are the basis for the animated segments of the current feature film starring James Franco. He worked with Ginsberg in the late 1990s on a volume called Illuminated Poems, obviously operating on a Blakean model.  In that volume Howl and “Footnote to Howl” scored a total of nine illustrations, ranging from woodcuts to an image of two bums huddled over a trash can fire beneath the Brooklyn Bridge — one of Drooker’s best known New Yorker covers.

Drooker’s more recent engagement with Ginsberg’s poem, weighing in at close to 225 pages, is subtitled “A Graphic Novel.” The images have the feel of film stills to some degree — at least if you’ve already seen the film — and like the movie it forwards, by its very nature of offering supplemental images, a particular reading of the text. But it’s an extraordinary volume in any case and I look forward to spending some time with it over the coming weeks and hearing students’ reactions. When I placed the order for my book club I took the opportunity to poke around Drooker’s website, where I discovered the artist’s bio Ginsberg had written about Drooker for their earlier volume. The artist’s roots are more East Village/Lower East Side than his work for the New Yorker would have led me to believe. As Ginsberg tells it, he

first glimpsed Eric Drooker’s odd name on posters pasted on fire-alarm sides, construction walls checkered with advertisements, & lamppost junction boxes in the vortex of Lower East Side Avenues leading to Tompkins Square Park, where radical social dislocation mixed homeless plastic tents with Wigstock transvestite dress-up anniversaries, Rastas sitting on benches sharing spliff, kids with purple Mohawks, rings in their noses ears eyebrows and bellybuttons, adorable or nasty skinheads, wives with dogs & husbands with children strolling past jobless outcasts, garbage, and a bandshell used weekly for folk-grunge concerts, anti-war rallies, squatters’ rights protests, shelter for blanket-wrapped junkies & winos and political thunder music by Missing Foundation, commune-rockers whose logo, an overturned champagne glass with slogan “The Party’s Over,” was spray-painted on sidewalks, apartments, brownstone and brick walled streets.

Eric Drooker’s numerous block-print-like posters announced much local action, especially squatters’ struggles and various mayoral-police attempts to destroy the bandshell & close the Park at night, driving the homeless into notoriously violence-corrupted city shelters. Tompkins Park had a long history of political protest going back before Civil War anti-draft mob violence, memorialized as “. . . a mixed surf of muffled sound, the atheist roar of riot,” in Herman Melville’s The Housetop: A Night Piece (July 1863).

He began collecting Drooker’s posters and eventually befriended him, learning he had trained at Henry Street Settlement and Cooper Union. Drooker proposed the idea of an illustrated volume of Ginsberg’s poems, and Ginsberg readily agreed to let him have his way with them. The posthumous collaborations seem all the more fitting with the earlier collaborations in mind.

Readers interested in learning more about Drooker may be pleased to find out that he’s offering a few illustrated lectures in the near future:

Saturday, Oct. 23rd 7:00pm (w/artist Zina Saunders), Bluestockings Books
172 Allen St. (btwn. Stanton & Rivington)

Sunday, Oct. 24th 7:00pm, 6th Street Community Center, 638 E. 6th St. (btwn. Aves. B & C)

Sunday, Oct. 31st (Halloween) 6:00pm, The Bowery Poetry Club, 308 Bowery (btwn. Bleecker & Houston)

According to his website the lectures include “hundreds of his provocative images,” through which he “explores his years as a street artist in New York City, the creation of graphic novels, paintings, and his infiltration of the mainstream.” Sounds like a good time.

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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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When I posted about Ginsberg yesterday I had no idea Peter Orlovsky, Ginsberg’s long-time lover and a Beat poet in his own right, had passed on May 30. He was 76.

The Times doesn’t have an obit up yet, same with the Voice (it’s shameful!), but here’s one from the Washington Post and another from the LA Times‘s Jacket Copy blog.

Here’s Peter’s poem “Frist Poem” (sic). The typo in the title was, if not intentional, then at least ratified by being published that way. As you’ll see, Peter’s spelling was idiosyncratic and he seems to have made a point in not letting other people (or himself) clean it up. The poem was written in 1957 and collected in his Pocket Poets Series volume Clean Asshole Poems & Smiling Vegetable Songs (City Lights, 1978). You’ll find a couple other poems at Brian Nation’s page on Orlovsky, which is where I clipped this one:

FRIST POEM

A rainbow comes pouring into my window, I am electrified.
Songs burst from my breast, all my crying stops, mistory fills
    the air.
I look for my shues under my bed.
A fat colored woman becomes my mother.
I have no false teeth yet. Suddenly ten children sit on my lap.
I grow a beard in one day.
I drink a hole bottle of wine with my eyes shut.
I draw on paper and I feel I am two again. I want everybody to
    talk to me.
I empty the garbage on the tabol.
I invite thousands of bottles into my room, June bugs I call them.
I use the typewritter as my pillow.
A spoon becomes a fork before my eyes.
Bums give all their money to me.
All I need is a mirror for the rest of my life.
My frist five years I lived in chicken coups with not enough
    bacon.
My mother showed her witch face in the night and told stories of
    blue beards.
My dreams lifted me right out of my bed.
I dreamt I jumped into the nozzle of a gun to fight it out with a
    bullet.
I met Kafka and he jumped over a building to get away from me.
My body turned into sugar, poured into tea I found the meaning
    of life
All I needed was ink to be a black boy.
I walk on the street looking for eyes that will caress my face.
I sang in the elevators believing I was going to heaven.
I got off at the 86th floor, walked down the corridor looking for
    fresh butts.
My comes turns into a silver dollar on the bed.
I look out the window and see nobody, I go down to the street,
    look up at my window and see nobody.
So I talk to the fire hydrant, asking "Do you have bigger tears
    then I do?"
Nobody around, I piss anywhere.
My Gabriel horns, my Gabriel horns: unfold the cheerfulies,
    my gay jubilation.

Nov. 24th, 1957, Paris

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When I first thought of teaching an intensive summer seminar on New York’s downtown scenes — which I just wrapped up last Friday — I planned only to teach the 1970s. Gearing up to write my 33 1/3 volume on Television’s Marquee Moon, I wanted to immerse myself in a broad range of materials from the period detailing a number of overlapping downtown arts scenes.

I quickly realized, though, that much of what I wanted to do with the 70s in class required some understanding of the area’s arts scenes in the 1960s, and so I decided to expand the timeframe to 1960-80. When the final reading list was drawn up, I’d reached back even further: I had a hunch that the work of some particular downtown arts pioneers who created seminal works in the 1950s — Allen Ginsberg and John Cage, especially — would become threads that would weave through the entire course.

Turns out I was right in both cases, but especially in Ginsberg’s. (Other people whose work proved to have lasting effects on the downtown scenes we discussed include O’Hara and Warhol.) Almost without fail, Ginsberg turned up in every day’s discussion over the course of our two weeks, either as a direct influence, a character, a mentor, or a commentator. His appearances ranged from the goofy parka-wearing, pot-smoking version of himself in Pull My Daisy to the author of Howl (which in turn authorized The Fugs’ memorable “I Saw the Best Minds of My Generation Rock”) to the prophet wandering in the background of Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” in Pennebaker’s Dont Look Back. Jonas Mekas captured him plotting with Barbara Rudin and other LES lefties in the 1960s (we watched the second reel of Walden) and as a fixture on the LES poetry scene he popped up in several of the pieces we read by our friend Daniel Kane. Ginsberg offered astute commentary on Dylan’s lyrics in a PBS documentary on the history of rock and roll. He provided a very memorable scene in Jim Carroll’s memoir Forced Entries, worked with — and claimed to deflower — the downtown composer and scene-crosser Arthur Russell, and befriended Patti Smith. He lived in the same building as both Russell and the members of Television. (Richard Hell still lives there.) In Steven Sebring’s Patti Smith: Dream of Life, which was the very last thing, along with Smith’s Just Kids, that we considered for this course, we see Patti’s very emotional reading at a Ginsberg memorial; later in the film she chants the “Footnote to Howl,” offering all the evidence anyone should need that even Ginsberg’s most idiosyncratic work holds up under someone else’s voice.

I’m still trying to work out exactly what it was that made Ginsberg’s legacy so unique in the materials we discussed. Although I opted not to show it to the class, I privately viewed a late-1980s odd-ball documentary on East Side poetry, Maria Beatty’s Gang of Souls: A Generation of Beat Poets, in which nearly every poet interviewed, including younger writers and musicians such as Richard Hell, Lydia Lunch, and Jim Carroll, singles out Ginsberg as the towering figure of twentieth-century New York writing. Cage’s influence on musicians and artists, by contrast, was subtle, almost imperceptible, though still very much in place. Perhaps Ginsberg seemed to matter because he offered such a clear model for how to make a scene and how to canonize one’s comrades. But he also seemed to matter because he was, quite simply, on the scene for so long, taking an interest in younger writers’ work (and more), offering advice, continuing to read in public. O’Hara mattered as an icon in his early death (and a pioneer of a poetics that clearly took hold among other New York School poets); O’Hara also drew young, aspiring poets to the city, but that hands-on influence was cut short. Warhol mattered as a media mastermind and behind-the-scenes manipulator. But Ginsberg just seemed to be there wherever we turned, presiding, prodding, provoking. In the history of late-twentieth-century New York writing it’s difficult, I’m finding, to come up with someone whose life and work had broader impact.

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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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