Newly Discovered Allen Ginsberg Letters Contain First Known Reference to “Beat.”

Newly Discovered Allen Ginsberg LettersRecently Found Letters of Allen Ginsberg Pre-Date Kerouac’s “Beat Generation”

A newly discovered collection of letters and postcards written by poet Allen Ginsberg may change the generally accepted date of the first use of the word “beat” by a member of the postwar literary movement and cultural phenomenon known as “The Beat Generation.”

The collection of three signed letters and eight postcards, written by Ginsberg to lifelong friend Paul Bertram, was discovered in 2014, a year after Bertram’s death, in New York City. The bulk of the correspondence was written between 1946 and 1950. The letters and postcards are represented by Brian Cassidy Bookseller and are among the earliest, if not the earliest, collection of Ginsberg correspondence ever brought to market.

“Beat” Used More Than a Year Earlier than Previously Thought

Allen Ginsberg, 1945. Image courtesy Allen Ginsberg Project, © Allen Ginsberg Estate

Allen Ginsberg, 1945. Image courtesy Allen Ginsberg Project, © Allen Ginsberg Estate

Scholars generally date the first use of the word “beat” (in writing) to November, 1948, when writer John Clellon Holmes recorded in his diary a conversation between him and Jack Kerouac. Holmes later recounted the conversation in a 1952 article for the New York Times Magazine entitled “This is the Beat Generation,” quoting Kerouac as saying, “So I guess you might say we’re a beat generation.”

But in a letter from the Bertram collection, dated July 14, 1947, Ginsberg writes:

I spent most of June in Texas with Joan Adams and
Bill Burroughs and Herbert Huncke, amid scorpions, Armadillos, Bayoux, Spanish moss, Be-bop music, marijuana, Beat Texans, white trash and poon tang. Now I am in denver, broke hungry unemployed, depressed

(sic all).

Origins of “Beat” and “Beatnik”

The term “beat” was introduced by fellow writer and notorious junkie Herbert Huncke, who learned it from the hustlers, carnies, and members of the underworld he moved among in New York’s Times Square. Ginsberg,
Kerouac, and others in their circle picked it up from him. Its original meaning was negative and connoted being beaten down, but Kerouac later appropriated the word to describe himself and others of his generation, giving it a more spiritual meaning. As Kerouac wrote in “Aftermath: The Philosophy of the Beat Generation,”…beat,
meaning down and out but full of intense conviction.” The word came into general use in the 1950s, with the word “beatnik” used to describe a person who was artistically inclined and whose values were counter to those of the general culture. Mass media portrayals showed beatniks dressed in black turtleneck sweaters, playing bongos and attending poetry readings.

Jack Kerouac by photographer Tom Palumbo, circa 1956

Jack Kerouac by photographer Tom Palumbo, circa 1956


Ginsberg and Huncke in 1970  Photograph by Ann Charters

Ginsberg and Huncke in 1970
Photograph by Ann Charters

“What the March 1947 letter shows though,” Brian Cassidy explains, “is just how early the term was in circulation among this core group of writers. While he does not use the word to refer to the group or the movement itself, what is clear is that Ginsberg is using the word as he and his circle originally meant it: “beat down” or “worn out.” And it further cements the term’s association with Huncke.”

Correspondence Sheds New Light on Ginsberg’s Institutionalization, Relationship with Burroughs, Early Life and Work

Allen Ginsberg (1926 – 1997) was a leading figure of the Beat literary movement and is considered one of the most influential poets of the 20th century. His best known work, “Howl” (from “Howl and Other Poems,” 1956) revolutionized American poetry and garnered mainstream attention for its innovative form, sexually explicit themes, and frank depictions of drug use. Its publication resulted in a charge of obscenity for publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti. He was acquitted, with the judge ruling that the poem had “redeeming social importance.”

Post-Mental Hospital Postcard

Much of “Howl,” which references drug use and Benzedrine in particular, was inspired by Ginsberg’s seven month-long stay in a mental hospital. One of the postcards to Bertram in the newly discovered collection, dated March 8, 1950 (less than two weeks after Ginsberg was released from Columbia Presbyterian Hospital’s
psychiatric ward) reads

I have been in a mental hospital and have been very ill. That is why you have not heard from me. The Benzedrine is out of the question these days.”

Cassady, Burroughs, Huncke, Music, and Travel

Other highlights from the letters and postcards include references to Ginsberg’s travels with Beat figure Neal Cassady, who was made famous in Jack Kerouac’s novel “On the Road.” The letters also shed light on Ginsberg’s relationships with writer/cultural icon William S. Burroughs and Burroughs’ wife and fellow writer, Joan Vollmer, whom Burroughs later accidentally shot and killed. Of the birth of the Burroughs’ child, Ginsberg writes,

I am leaving Denver for Texas with Cassady, – will join Joan & Bill again for several weeks. Joan had a baby boy a month ago – Bill’s at last. I think she dropped the brat on a rude cot in her tumbledown shack in the backwoods.”

Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs at the Gotham Book Mart celebrating the reissue of JUNKY, NYC, 1977. By Marcelo Noah via Wikimedia Commons

Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs at the Gotham Book Mart celebrating the reissue of JUNKY, NYC, 1977.
By Marcelo Noah via Wikimedia Commons

The letters and postcards span a seminal period in Ginsberg’s life. They cover the poet’s travels with the merchant marine, his earliest encounters with members of what became the Beat movement, and his thoughts on writing and on music, including a list of his favorite jazz recordings. In addition, they offer insight into the formative years of his twenties. In August of 1947, Ginsberg wrote to Bertram from Denver, 

“I have been working as a porter nights in a dept. store. I steal enough clothes and shoes to make it worth while. Also, I’ve organized my work so as to have several hours free each night to listen to their phonograph records, and so I picked up on the latest Bartok recordings, which were new and quite exciting to me.”

Also in 1947 Ginsberg writes,

“I have (as I told you last time) developed a terrific interest in this and last year’s jazz. I wish you would try to listen to them sympathetically – responsively –that is – without trying to fit them to a set of ideas about music until you like them for what they are without categorical or literary or sacramental classifications – simply as significant noises…”

Allen Ginsberg and Paul Bertram

Ginsberg and Bertram met while both were in their late teens. They remained friends until Ginsberg’s death, in 1997. Bertram went on to become a noted Shakespeare scholar and professor at Rutgers University. He consulted with Ginsberg archivist and bibliographer Bill Morgan, and contributed materials for at least two of Morgan’s books on the poet. Nevertheless, this newly-found trove of material appears never to have been published.

“I’m excited to be representing this collection on behalf of Bertram’s heirs,” says Cassidy. “These letters capture Ginsberg at a formative and significant time in his life. So as a specialist in the Beats, this is particularly fascinating for me. Moreover, as these were almost literally rescued from the trash, I’m especially proud to be
part of saving these materials for later generations and scholars.”

Allen Ginsberg Letter to Paul Bertram August 1947

One of the signed letters, from 1947.

Brian Cassidy Bookseller

Brian Cassidy has been a rare book, print, and ephemera dealer since
2004. His specialties include modern and contemporary art and
literature, The Beats, poetry, the counterculture, artists’ books, and
the avant-garde. He is a member of the Antiquarian Booksellers’
Association of America and the International League of Antiquarian
Booksellers. He also serves on the faculty of the Colorado Antiquarian
Book Seminar.


  

 E.T. Carlton is a writer and author branding consultant who writes on literary and publishing topics.

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3 thoughts on “Newly Discovered Allen Ginsberg Letters Contain First Known Reference to “Beat.”

  1. Wonderful article and interesting to see such letters being saved and shared with the public. Additionally, I was lucky enough to interview Ginsberg for a radio station series back before his death and he was still interested in the newest music of the times.

    Like

  2. Pingback: Jack Kerouac: Genius vs. Talent | readers+writers journal

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