Bill Morgan's Big Bomb of a Book
By Jonah Raskin
"Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb."
That famous - or as some might say infamous - line appears, of course, in
"America" one of Allen Ginsberg's most famous poems. The line doesn't
show up in Bill Morgan's new greatly disappointing 702-page biography of
Allen Ginsberg that's entitled "I Celebrate Myself: The Somewhat Private
Life of Allen Ginsberg." The poem itself receives only a passing mention
by Morgan, on page 216, and it's not the only important and significant
poem by Ginsberg that goes unexamined and uninterpreted.
"I Celebrate Myself" (published November 2006) may be the oddest
biography of a 20th-ccentury American poet that has ever written - for
the simple reason that it doesn't discuss Allen Ginsberg as a poet.
Morgan makes pronouncements about Ginsberg; he was "one of the century's
greatest poets," he writes in the Epilogue of this overblown biography,
but nowhere does he explain how or why Ginsberg was a "great poet." Of
course, Bill Morgan doesn't know a thing about poetry; he has no business
writing a book about a poet in the first place.
I would also like to say that I do not mean this as a personal attack on
Morgan. I know Bill. My name appears in the Acknowledgments at the end of
the book, and Morgan was kind enough to provide a blurb for my book about
Ginsberg - "American Scream: Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" and the Making of the
Beat Generation" - which appeared in print two-and-a half-years ago. This
is about the integrity of the art of biography and about the historical
record. It is about keeping the Beat flame burning brightly.
Morgan has written a book about Ginsberg that gets the facts wrong, that
applies broad brush strokes, loses sight of nuances and just plain
garbles the truth of the matter.
Perhaps I could start at the end. In the last sentence of the last
chapter, Morgan writes, "In death Allen Ginsberg had become a safe
topic." In fact, when the rabbi at the Temple Emanu-El in San Francisco
wanted to hold a memorial service for Ginsberg, his congregation opposed
the idea. He held it anyway. George Will, the conservative columnist,
attacked Ginsberg personally and insisted that he had "a talent that
rarely rose to mediocrity."
Morgan would like to make Ginsberg a safe topic for him to write about,
and he has in fact depoliticized Ginsberg - made him far less of a radical
than he was in fact. Morgan makes Ginsberg into a kind of egomaniac and a
narcissist - hence the title of his book -
"I Celebrate Myself."
But Ginsberg not only wrote about himself. He wrote about America, about
the nation and its history, and its outlaws and visionaries, its mad men
and mad women. Morgan also minimizes and trivializes the whole of the
Beat Generation. He says "In truth, the entire Beat Generation phenomenon
could be see as a group of writers who had little in common
stylistically, but who were united by their friendship with Allen
Ginsberg." Granted, Allen had friends, and granted Allen was a great
publicist for the Beats, but the Beat Generation was a form of cultural
rebellion, as Kerouac argued and Ginsberg argued, and as Morgan
stubbornly refuses to see. On the subject of Kerouac, he writes, "Kerouac
was politically conservative, religiously Roman Catholic" but that
statement ignores and denies the radical Kerouac, the Buddhist Kerouac,
the anti-war Kerouac.
Morgan writes that "On August 25, 1955, Allen sat at his typewriter. and
composed the original draft of what would become the first section of
Howl." But on August 19, 1955 Kerouac wrote to Ginsberg from Mexico with
his comments about Howl. So Ginsberg would have had to have written the
first draft in June or July. Mail to and from Mexico was slow. It would
have taken 2-3 weeks to get a letter to Mexico and then a letter from
Mexico to the States.
Morgan gets dates wrong, facts wrong. He gets Ginsberg wrong. Too bad. He
spent decades researching and writing about Ginsberg. But perhaps he was
too close to his subject. He worked for Ginsberg for years; he was paid
Lawrence Ferlinghetti once said that to be a good writer you had to be
hungry and angry and have passion. He was right then and he still is.
Morgan isn't a hungry writer, or an angry and impassioned writer.
Hopefully a young, angry, hungry writer will come along and tell the
Ginsberg story truthfully and accurately.
Meanwhile, as Ginsberg said, "Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb."