Allen Ginsberg: The Beat Transcendentalist

Featured in the Circuit: Undergraduate Research Journal

When analyzing generations over time, Darrin DeChane of St.Louis University, concluded “earlier generations have the greatest influence over new generations”(Inquires Journal). Known as the Strauss-Howe theory, generations often look to past generations to draw inspiration and learn from. This phenomenon is evident throughout US history, where millennials “saw how other generations reacted to events and millennials learned from them” after 9/11 (Inquires  Journal). Younger generations often view their predecessors as wiser and more experienced, subsequently thinking that in order to be as successful as the older generation, the younger generation must do exactly what the previous generation did. In a similar fashion, the Beat Generation attempt to embody the ideals and literary themes of the Transcendentalist movement. The Beat Generation literary thought mirrors Transcendentalism as they resist social norms. Feeling as though society is against them, the Beats utilize poems and other forms of literature to express nonconformity and their distaste for modern society. Allen Ginsberg was particularly influenced by Transcendentalism, so much so that he claimed he brought “the old time American transcendentalist individualism… [into] the 20th century.” (qtd. in Words n Quotes).Using poetry as his vehicle, Ginsberg conveys his inner feelings andself-reflections as he strives for enlightenment and liberation. In his poems, Allen Ginsberg attempts to embody the Transcendentalist and Romanticist ideals of Thoreau and Whitman through his anti-establishment rhetoric, his critiques of society’s discord withnature, and his emphasis on immersing oneself in the religious experience.

To start, Ginsberg tries to emulate Thoreau’s Transcendentalist thought through his anti-establishment rhetoric, promoting and calling for the rejection of societal norms. At a young age, Ginsberg looked up to his mother, thinking she “had… human individuality and non-mechanical… charm… [she]stood in opposition to the ‘modern, mechanical, scientific, robotic government”(Raskin 29-30). Ginsberg grew up watching his mother become paranoid of the government. Using his mother as a role model, he follows her same anti-government thoughts and takes on her paranoia as his own paranoia in his poems.Ultimately, his upbringing shaped his prejudices against society and against American ideals because of his impressionability at a young age. This phenomenon is what Emily Hughes of Vanderbilt University refers to as “parent socialization,” where parents and the environment parents foster influence their child’s social skills, and most especially, their child’s future opinions and behavior. In Civil Disobedience, Thoreau expresses anti-government ideas by advising people to “Let [their] life be a counter-friction to stop the machine” (2). Thoreau believes people must stop the government machine that controls our economy, politics, and society, and turn away from the capitalist and materialistic ideals that shape us. Thoreau views the government as a machine because it promotes the rapid industrialization of America and operates in a mechanical manner, disregarding the wants of the people and operating towards personal gains. Ina similar fashion, Ginsberg also uses literature to praise nonconformity by recognizing those who “passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war” and fought against society (62). Believing in the futility of college education and commercialization of mainstream literature, Ginsberg glorifies his friends and the Beats,commending them for their “Blake-light” visions and disrespect towards institutionalized education, despite the absence of any contributions to society. Ginsberg views those who resist having a role in society as the ultimate embodiments of nonconformity because they resist society’s belief that one must work hard and be a useful citizen of America in order to be successful. Ginsberg emulates Transcendentalist thought by promoting a fight against society and pushing against conformity. Additionally, the author underlines how scholars and academics focus on American militaristic ideals and conformity instead of true literary thought by exposing them as “scholars of war.” Ginsberg also mirrors the work of the Transcendentalists by believing in a non-capitalist society, idealizing the times his “momma took [him] to Communist Cell meetings…everybody was angelic and sentimental about the workers it was all so sincere you have no idea what a good thing the party was… Everybody must have been aspy” (76). Ginsberg exposes America’s prejudice towards Communism and highlights the benignity of the Communist Cell meetings through satirizing the fears of Communism and discussing everyone’s peaceful inclusive attitudes in the meetings. By expressing an attraction towards an ‘anti-America’ political ideology,the author breaks all barriers of conformity in America, thereby becoming un-American in the eyes of society. Ginsberg’s work also parallels Whitman’s Transcendentalist thought through their poems Howl and Leaves of Grass in that society criticizes both for writing obscene content that breaks the barrier of conformist literature–literature that adheres to societal norms and does not create controversy. Their works are especially nonconformist through the images of sexual acts, which was unheard of in literature at the time. Ginsberg not only emulates Whitman through his themes but also through the structure and organization of his poems. Similar to Whitman, Ginsberg writes long lines in his poetry, modeling the line structure of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Ginsberg’s work parallels the work of Whitman and Thoreau by promoting anti-establishment behavior, promoting non-American political thought, and pushing the boundaries of literary norms.

Moreover, Ginsberg not only attempts to emulate Thoreau’s nonconformist attitudes through his calls for “stopping the machine” and rejecting society, but also through his critiques of America and American ideals. Seeing the effects of society’s pressures, Ginsberg laments the fall of intellectuals as “the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness” (62). Society ridicules the intellectuals and literary greats of his generation because of their atypical beliefs and ideas, subsequently driving them to “madness.” Here, Ginsberg references the critical opinions of Jack Kerouac’s work, especially the lack of respect for and rejection of On the Road, and Kerouac’s subsequent descent to alcoholism, fear of social settings, and depression. Moreover, Ginsberg scrutinizes the attempts to censor nonconformist ideas in school and the literary world by praising those “who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes” (62). Ginsberg feels educational institutions under appreciate intellectuals, particularly the Beats, because the Beats’ ideas are nontraditional and contradictory to the ideas of the establishment. Furthermore, the author thinks society not only constrains intellectuals by making everyone think the same way and never deviate from conformist thinking, but also through silencing those who do speak out, such as Ginsberg and his poem Howl, where his poem underwent an obscenity and censorship trial. Ginsberg’s views against censorship and freedom of thought corroborate with Thoreau’s exposition of the government’s failure to learn the “value of free-trade and of freedom, of union, and of rectitude, to a nation” (3). The government does not promote freedom or the protection of laborers and instead rules with an authoritarian might. Thoreau’s critique of American government ties into Ginsberg’s allegiance to Communist theory and promotion of the freedom of the people and protection of the laborer. Ginsberg also criticizes humankind's focus on attaining money and succumbing to “Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars… Boys sobbing in armies!” (68). Ginsberg exposes the injustice and futility in the American system by condemning capitalism and militarism. Going further, he underlines the problems rooted in American society where people chase “unobtainable dollars” due to the unfair capitalist system and send their children to the army because of America’s emphasis on militarization and building a large army. Here, Ginsberg expresses a similar message of steering away from moneyed interests and staying in connection with the simplicity of life, as well as promoting peace, as the Transcendentalists espoused in the 1800’s. In his analysis on Howl, Harold Bloom defines Moloch as “the military-industrial complex, CIA, FBI, Blake’s “satanic mills,” and multinational capitalism all rolled into one” (41). Bloom highlights how Ginsberg uses Moloch as a metaphor for the establishment and corporations that control American society. Ginsberg sees America’s qualities as a world power with a strong government, capitalist economy, and large military as weaknesses because they strip people of their freedom and make them all think the same, act the same, and believe in the same religion, social norms, and political system. By criticizing America’s ideals of capitalism and militarism, and restriction of intellectuals, Ginsberg models himself after Thoreau’s appeals against the government.

Next, Ginsberg models the Transcendentalist ideas of Thoreau and Whitman through not only expressing nonconformist views and criticizing America, but also exposing people's disconnection with nature. In Sunflower Sutra, Ginsberg reminisces sitting “under the huge shade of a Southern Pacific locomotive to look for the sunset over the box house hills and cry” (72). Ginsberg wants to see the beauty of nature in the sunset but industrialization covers it up and obstructs his view. People no longer appreciate the visual beauty of nature because city skylines obstruct their view. Ginsberg’s sorrow at how far humankind separates itself from nature follows Thoreau’s bemoaning of people “bring[ing]water, which should be as sacred as the Ganges… to the village in a pipe… that devilish Iron Horse” (9). People are so out of tune with nature that they no longer view nature as sacred or a valued creation of God. Instead, they connect with nature through the use of technology. Moreover, Thoreau analogizes the piping and irrigation of land to the “Devil Horse,” further emphasizing his antagonistic view of rapid expansion and industrialization of land. Thoreau also laments the disconnection between society and nature in the simplest things,waking up to “The startings and arrivals of the cars are now the epochs in the village day… farmers set their clocks by them… [it] regulates a whole country” (4). The coming and going of the train regulates farmers’ lives instead of waking up to the sounds of nature or the rooster. The dependence on trains and machines heightens the enmity between society and nature because people live their lives based upon when a machine goes by. Furthermore, Thoreau stresses the importance of living unassuming lives, embracing “simplicity” (2). He believes that by living a life free of distractions, people can become closer to nature. Ginsberg follows this same message by pursuing the Buddhist belief of denouncing any personal desires or luxuries in the hope of alleviating suffering and reaching nirvana. Similarly, Walt Whitman in Song of Myself longs for a connection with nature, becoming “mad for it to be in contact with” him (2).  Whitman presents a double meaning of “mad” by not only referring to his passion for being one with nature, but also his indignation of how far humans and society are from nature. Likewise, Ginsberg hopes for a connection to nature yet he cannot find it within “the gnarled steel roots of trees of machinery” (72-73). Ginsberg feels the manufacturing of society eating at his soul, making him “bleak and blue and sad-eyed” (72). He no longer sees hope in humanity because of the significant discord between humans and the natural world. Furthermore, nature no longer possesses its original form and morphs into “trees of machinery.” Instead of being surrounded by natural trees and greenery, humankind finds itself trapped in a world of metal because he expands cities at the expense of forests. Ginsberg elucidates our disconnection with nature through analyzing the desolation of the natural world at the hands of industrialization, mimicking Thoreau and Whitman’s work.

In addition to emulating the work of the Transcendentalists through bemoaning society’s discord with nature, Ginsberg also follows Thoreau and Whitman through his emphasis on immersing oneself in the religious experience. Analyzing the cycle of religious experience, Martin Wasserman defines the experience in four stages, starting with “Stage one: The hurt-and-be-hurt state of being; Stage two: The self-induced psychedelic experience; Stage three: The confusion-and-dread reaction; Stage four: The reconstruction-with-insight worldview” (146). Both Ginsberg and the Transcendentalists undergo the four stages in their quest for enlightenment and religious clarity.

Beginning with the first step of the religious experience, Ginsberg and Thoreau separate themselves from society and pursue self-reflection. Wasserman outlines the first stage as the person being “alienated from others, and,as a result of this estrangement, a preoccupation with the self develops” (146). Feeling humiliated by society, Ginsberg separates himself in order to avoid more ridicule. After Columbia punishes Ginsberg for drawing obscene images on his dorm room window, he begins to feel the constraints institutions and society place on nontraditional intellectuals and turns to self-introspection, turning away from mainstream society. Ginsberg especially closes himself from the outside world after “Neal Cassady sent him an unexpected farewell letter” (Wasserman 148).Now, not only does Ginsberg feel betrayed by society for rejecting his ideas and opinions, but also feels empty after losing an intimate friend.  In Walden,Thoreau also believes that it is “not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations” (8). Thoreau emphasizes one must disconnect oneself from others in order to initiate self-reflection. Both the Transcendentalists and Ginsberg touted self-reflection as the path to enlightenment and the key to the religious experience through their promotion of meditation and spending time with nature. By secluding himself from others,Ginsberg gets closer to religious enlightenment and emulates Thoreau’s stressing of immersing oneself in nature and away from society.

Moving on to the second stage, Ginsberg’s Blakean visions and use of psychedelics mirror Whitman’s attempts at religious enlightenment through consuming hallucinogenic plants. For Ginsberg, “his Blake vision [was] a pivotal moment for him in his comprehension of the universe, affecting fundamental beliefs about his life and his work” (qtd. in Despite no conclusive evidence, Ginsberg most likely consumed drugs or some form of a hallucinogenic to achieve his Blake vision. After the vision, however, Ginsberg does use psychedelics with the hopes of rediscovering the enlightenment experience, retriggering the vision, and more inspiration. Outside of his Blakean experience, Ginsberg utilized drugs to “experience and depict in [Howl]… the derangement of the senses–… shamanistic, prophetic, bardic, and visionary”(Bloom 40). To write his poetry, Ginsberg consumed any substance that would mimic the feelings of nirvana and enlightenment. This self-induced psychedelic experience allowed Ginsberg to expand his knowledge beyond the earthly realm and tap into unknown knowledge. He was also attracted to psychedelics because they are “a variant of yoga and [the] exploration of consciousness” (qtd. in Poetry Foundation). Buddhists use yoga as a way of achieving spiritual enlightenment because of its focus on exploring the self.In place of yoga, Ginsberg takes psychedelic drugs to undergo a similar self-introspective and centering experience. Similarly, Whitman consumed the calamus root, a root containing “psychoactive substances,” (Auclair) as a means to achieving psychedelic visions. Calamus is a psychedelic root Whitman consumes while writing his poems. In fact, he titled a compilation of poems after the root. Similar to Whitman’s writing, the theme of Ginsberg’s poems often surrounds around the exploration of the self and the embracing of nature. Additionally, both use psychoactive substances to achieve poetic inspiration and religious enlightenment. Whitman and Ginsberg complete the second stage of the religious experience through their use of drugs and psychedelic substances to achieve clarity and literary inspiration.

In the third stage, Ginsberg becomes ashamed of his identity and conceals his inner thoughts, following Whitman’s disdain for who he is and how he lives. After entering into a mental asylum and becoming ostracized for his radical thinking, Ginsberg “became ashamed of his vision and retreated into his own private world, keeping his true thoughts and feelings hidden from the hospital staff for extended periods of time” (Wasserman 149). Ginsberg is afraid to share with others his emotions, fearful of criticism and ridicule because he thinks if he expresses his feelings, people will once again label him as schizophrenic and crazy. Whitman also despises his current state, complaining he is “sick of wearing away by inches, and spending the fairest portion of my little span of life” (qtd. in Dan’s Papers). Whitman grows increasingly dissatisfied with his life and feels as though he is wasting his life away as a teacher. He does not foresee any upward intellectual mobility in his job and longs for a freer and mentally stimulating profession. Both Whitman and Ginsberg detest their current situations, neither finding acceptance for their identity nor a safe environment for them to articulate their passions.

Completing the religious experience, Ginsberg and Whitman achieve ultimate enlightenment and realize their calling in life to become a poet and spread their thoughts and reflections on the world to others. After years of reflection,drug use, and self-induced social exclusion, Ginsberg finally realizes “His poetic purpose had become an intense investigation of the spirit of the universe” (Wasserman 150). Recognizing his calling, Ginsberg strives to use poetry as a means of exploring the natural and cosmic world and then sharing his findings and knowledge with others. Reflecting upon his epiphany, Ginsberg discuses how he became aware “it was possible to transmit a message through time which could reach the enlightened, that poetry had a definite effect” (Wasserman 150).Ginsberg achieves full enlightenment and now imparts his experiences of religious clarity to others, in hopes of enlightening society and saving society from the effects of separating from nature and turning to capitalism or unjust political establishments. In the completion of his religious experience in Song of Myself, Whitman describes feeling an unknown force “Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and knowledge that pass all the argument of the earth/And I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own” (5). At the climax of his religious experience, Whitman suddenly knows his calling and what God wants him to do: write poetry and espouse spiritual literary wisdom. The height of Ginsberg’s religious experience resembles Whitman’s experience because both learn they must use poetry to transfer their experiences to the masses and that they are unique because of their unconventional thinking. Ginsberg completes his religious experience by coming out of social exclusion and embracing his identity through poetry, imitating Whitman’s sudden realization of his place in God’s plan.

Ginsberg attempts to bring the ideas and themes of Thoreau and Whitman’s Transcendentalist thought to the 20th century through his calls for nonconformity, his distaste for humankind's disconnection with nature, and his emphasis on undergoing the religious experience towards enlightenment. Experiencing rejection, humiliation, and censorship for his ideas, Ginsberg embraces his antiestablishment roots by criticizing American society and promoting anti-capitalism ideas in his poetry. Ginsberg utilizes poetry to express his beliefs and outlook on the world due to his religious epiphany that he must share with others his prophetic message. Ginsberg models his ideas after Whitman and Thoreau by pulling inspiration from Thoreau’s unconformity in Civil Disobedience and Whitman’s emphasis on embracing religious enlightenment in Song of Myself. Likewise, modern evangelical ministries utilize poetry and poetic forms to disseminate God’s Word to communities. These evangelicals find inspiration through their poetic experience with God and attempt to follow their calling–spreading the word–by visiting coffee shops and other public spaces (Williams). People find inspiration in all things, from a family relative to a certain idea or belief. Where do you find yours?


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