This June the National Archives is celebrating National Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Pride Month, which honors the important contributions that LGBTQ+ Americans have made to U.S. history and culture. Visit the National Archives website for more information on our related holdings. Today’s post comes from Thomas Richardson, an archives technician at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, MO.
The Beat Generation were a cultural movement all their own in the postwar world. At the core of the Beat were writers and artists who went outside the traditional narratives and never adhered to conformity. They were the counterculture movement. Poet and LGBTQ+ icon Allen Ginsberg was at the forefront of the Beat Generation, and his literary accomplishments came to encapsulate the counterculture sentiment. His poem “Howl” critiques capitalism and became one of the best known works of American literature.
Allen Ginsberg was born June 3, 1926, to a Jewish family in New Jersey. From a young age, Ginsberg displayed a keen talent for writing. He contributed to a local newspaper writing about World War II events and workers’ rights as a teenager. His favorite poet was Walt Whitman, and after graduating high school, he attended Columbia University on a scholarship. Ginsberg briefly served with the Merchant Marine to continue paying tuition, and while at Columbia, he met future Beat Generation writers William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac.
In the 1950s, Ginsberg moved to San Francisco and networked with other Beat Generation writers in California. This was where Ginsberg met Peter Orlovsky, who would become his lifelong partner. In 1955, Ginsberg began working on his first collection of poems, which later became “Howl.” The work garnered widespread publicity and controversy with its sexually explicit content, resulting in an obscenity trial in 1957. The presiding judge ruled that “Howl” wasn’t obscene and could remain in print.
Throughout his life, Ginsberg educated himself on Eastern religious movements, exploring spiritualism and Buddhism. He acquainted himself with prominent practitioners like the Dalai Lama and Karmapa, furthering his interest in Buddhism. He also participated in the Hare Krishna and regularly collaborated with its founder, A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. Ginsberg incorporated much of these teachings into his writings and poetry readings.
The Vietnam War was another point of passion for Ginsberg. He staunchly opposed the war, signing multiple petitions refusing to participate in the draft, encouraging people to protest the government, and promoting tax resistance. He personally helped shelter draftees and let them live with him briefly.
Later in Ginsberg’s life, he suffered from a variety of ailments. His hectic schedule traveling to literary events, writing, and work in numerous organizations wore down his health. Two minor strokes slowed him down, and worsening congestive heart failure finally prevented him from returning to his normal reading and writing schedule.
On April 5, 1997, Ginsberg died from liver cancer in Manhattan, surrounded by family and friends. His writing legacy formed an important component of the Beat Generation alongside Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs. He advocated for free speech and discussing taboo topics, or else they would never be part of the larger narrative. His poetry defined a new genre of American literature and his works are still in print today.