Reviews and Critiques by Rictor Norton

Family quarrels

A review of Family Business: Selected Letters between a Father and Son by Allen and Louis Ginsberg, ed. Michael Schumacher
(Bloomsbury, 2001)

The famous Beat Generation poet Allen Ginsberg wrote thousands of letters, which editors will be issuing for some years to come. This collection of the letters that passed between Allen and his father Louis has a faint whiff of scraping the archive barrel, but is a fascinating record of the turbulent late 1950s and 1960s, when the generation gap between many American fathers and sons was at its widest. Louis Ginsberg was himself a published poet, and a teacher of composition at Rutgers. During his vacations he poured over the literary quarterlies and read philosophical works – life as usual in a Jewish intellectual household. Meanwhile his wife Naomi sank into a hopelessly psychotic state and was sent to a sanatarium, and his younger son Allen, longing for revolution, rejected all Western values.

Louis, already 60 when Allen shocked America with his poem Howl (1956), became enormously proud of his son and his international reputation, and perhaps a bit in awe of his genius, but the growing contrast between the two men is saddening. Louis has a poem accepted for the Ladies Home Journal while Allen is interviewing the Dalai Lama in Tibet. Louis organises the annual family picnics in New Jersey while Allen travels to Paris, Tangier, the Amazon, India, takes LSD, leads peace marches, gets ejected from Cuba and Prague, chants mantras and becomes the grand old man of the counterculture. Louis poured over literary quarterlies during his Christmas (Hanukkah) vaction, while his son was experiencing the bohemian life in Paris or meeting “all the teddy boys and bebop hoodlums and angels around Soho” in London while passing out leaflets against the A-bomb.

Both men searched for transcendance, but Louis is hemmed in by conventional images while Allen is more direct and vibrant – and of course had the advantage of taking LSD. The sublimal self striving for utterance breaks out more often in Allen than in Louis. Allen awakened this by focusing on subjective experience, while Louis often sought it from authorities such as other poets. Louis read, Allen experienced.

Many of the letters constitute a long political debate about communism, socialism and capitalism, but Ginsberg pere and fils are equally fixed in their views, hence predictable. Louis judged Allen to be politically naïve and sanctimonious, Allen judged Louis to be brainwashed: both were right. Unfortunately the subject of Allen’s homosexuality was obviously off-bounds in this otherwise frank correspondence. Louis always hoped his son would find a nice girl, even after noticing that Allen listed Peter Orlovsky as his spouse in Who’s Who.

Rictor Norton

(This review was originally published in Gay Times in April 2002, p. 85. Copyright Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This review may not be archived, republished or redistributed without the permission of the author.)

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