Ginsberg’s Personality

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In the 1940s, Ginsberg had all sorts of teachers in addition to his Columbia teachers. Ginsberg would describe them in the opening line of Howl as the “best minds of my generation destroyed by madness”. Kerouac was at the center of the circle of madmen and artists, that provided his countercultural education. To Ginsberg, Kerouac was a real live hero as well as the king of the madmen. Jack had attended Columbia briefly and then dropped out in 1941 because of the restrictions of academic life. In 1942 Jack served as a US Merchant Marine and in 1943 he joined the U.S. Navy, but he ended up in a madhouse because he was believed to be psychoneurotic. By 1944 he was back in Manhattan, where he met Ginsberg, Burroughs and Carr and he married his first wife, Edith Parker. Kerouac’s madness was inspiring to Ginsberg; it made him an authentic misfit in a world of liars and hypocrites. William Burroughs, who also belonged to Ginsberg’s circle of Manhattan madmen and artists, had graduated from Harvard in the late 1930s, where he studied English literature. He had gone on to discover the world of trivial crime and heroin addiction in Chicago and New York. Like Kerouac, Burroughs had been in a madhouse, at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan, where he was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic. Lucien Carr, the third member of the group, had attempted suicide in 1943 and had been a patient at Cook County Hospital in Chicago. He ended up at Columbia in 1944, where Allen met him and fell in love with him. Ginsberg began to write a novel about Lucien and homosexuality that landed him in big trouble at school and at home. Writing about homosexuality was unacceptable at Columbia. As a high school student in the early 1940s, Allen wanted to organize the working class, defeat fascism, and change the world. Now, in the mid-1940s, he had moved beyond Marx, Marxism, trade unions and union organizers. All politics, whether of the left or of the right, was empty and meaningless, he insisted. In 1943, as a college freshman, and a virgin, he wasn’t certain what literary gestures and styles he would adopt, and what identity as a homosexual, if any, he would carve out for himself. Almost as soon as he arrived at Columbia he began to explore, albeit secretly, his own repressed homosexuality, often with men who were apparently heterosexual. He had his first experiences with men who thought of themselves as great lovers, like Lucien Carr, who had girlfriends and who drew a curtain around his secret love for other men. Like them, Ginsberg became a secret homosexual, a homosexual who masked his homosexuality and used the code of homosexuals to communicate in the great sexual underground of New York during World War II. He found homosexuals in college dorms, in bars and in cafes in Greenwich Village; he learned that there was an advanced culture of homosexuality all across the city. Sex and sexuality became the subtext of his fiction and his poetry. In the mid-1940s, Allen Ginsberg wrote dozens of love poems, most of them unpublished. He seriously considered taking a pseudonym and writing poems about his own hidden homosexuality. But hiding behind a pen name wasn’t Allen’s style, he felt like a hypocrite. Day after day, Allen was living a volatile as well as a double life. In March 1945, he exploded. He traced two crude drawings: one of a phallus and testicles, the other of a skull and crossbones. He also traced two provocative phrases: <<Fuck the Jews>> and <<Butler has no balls>>. This was a declaration of war on college and a declaration of his own independence, too. The Butler with no balls was Nicholas Murray Butler, the eighty-three-year-old president of Columbia University and a pre-eminent figure in American public life, a devoted Republican too. What Allen did was considered an act of madness. <<Fuck the Jews>> appeared to be crazy, too, especially to Lionel Trilling, but he knew about his pupil’s feelings of anger and bitterness. In the winter of 1945, after he was banned from Columbia, he enlisted in the U.S. Maritime Service and began his career as a sailor, a fearless traveler and a peripatetic poet. Voyaging became a way of life, and a source of inspiration, too. Now, he wore a T-shirt, that revealed his arms and shoulders: he was also bodybuilding. He looked like he might be able to handle himself in a fight. By playing the role of the average American male, he became a sexist and a racist. Being a merchant marine gave him the possibility of reflecting on the contradictions in his own personality.



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