The American Dissident: Literature, Democracy & Dissidence

Howl on Trial:  The Battle for Free Expression

Edited by Bill Morgan and Nancy J. Peters.  Introduction by Lawrence Ferlinghetti.  City Lights Books.  2006.  224pp. 

“Howl” is an historical—long-winded, though evidently passionate—poem.  A student (or poet) reading it today, in the scope of an oddly obligatory college assignment, would surely find it tedious.  Ginsberg and the Beatniks were cliquish, self-promotional and, for the most part, ended up moneyed and bourgeois.  Poets should be better than that, yet sadly they tend not to be.  The Beats did not escape or even attempt to escape fame’s castrating clutches, which tarnished them; or rather the Beatniks tarnished themselves by seeking and wallowing in fame.  In a sense the “Howl” against our consumerist society ended up being entirely co-opted by it.  “Howl” has simply become yet another product to buy and sell—over one million copies, boasts Ferlinghetti… like a McDonald’s advertisement for hamburgers! 
Unfortunately, Ginsberg’s “insurgent voice” died with the rest of the vainglorious Beat crowd in the same manner as the insurgent voice of the Sixties.  The system has an uncanny ability to co-opt.  Far too many so-called rebels are easily purchased with money, leading one to wonder just how rebellious they really were in the first place.  Money inevitably destroys them as artists and writers, though corporate America would certainly not agree.  Ginsberg ended up a shadow of himself, a mere literary salesman of himself and his friends, an American idol housed in a lucrative academic position.  A tenured Beatnik, how is that possible?  Yet there were a number of them.  We must warn youth against idolatry, for corporate America wants nothing more than for youth to worship idols. 
“Howl on Trial” is a compilation of hackneyed photos of, especially, Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti, numerous letters by Ginsberg and friends, a number of newspaper editorials, short extolling essays, and the trial transcript.  To say the least, the material is extremely repetitive, though, if one can think independently, extremely revealing.   
In the book’s introduction, Ferlinghetti praises the anti-consumerist nature of Ginsberg’s poem, while also belittling the bourgeoisie (“after all, San Francisco had been founded, not by bourgeoisie…”).  Yet what did both Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg end up as, if not bourgeois and consumerist?  After all, today, Ferlinghetti is a multimillionaire—the perfect poet for corporate America.  But how does Ferlinghetti reconcile that with his status as Beatnik, poet laureate statesman of San Francisco, and cover boy of Poets & Writers magazine?  Will anyone ever ask him that uncomfortable question? 
Regarding the letters, which represent at least 1/3 of the volume, they are monotonous in their lack of wisdom and abundance of dreary details regarding, for example, how many copies to print, who possesses which copies of which edition, how many copies were printed in newer and newer editions, and how much who should pay whom.  The letters do, however, serve as excellent testimony to the business of books and all the work it took Ginsberg to get “Howl” out there. Indeed, they illustrate Ginsberg as a master salesman, not quite what one would have expected of a Beatnik, at least not back then.  In fact, one must wonder if better poems written by lesser salesmen have existed and simply disappeared.  The Ginsberg letters seem to counter the evident myth-building purpose of this book.  Much more interesting than these letters are the handful of letters to the editor of The San Francisco Chronicle, for example, *(e.g., “The publicity attendant on confiscation ought to be of great aid to Mr. Ginsberg.”) and newspaper editorials regarding the “Howl” affair. 
Overall, the book represents yet another out of so many hagiographic, backslapping presentations of and by the Beatniks, reflecting a contradictory if not hypocritical desperation to enter the canon.  One must wonder how much perhaps Ferlinghetti himself, as a powerful man of letters, has censored and eliminated critique of the Beatniks from the agora of ideas.  To call in the established-order literary experts to determine the worth of and otherwise validate a piece of writing, as in the “Howl” trial, is in itself frightening, 1984ish, and revealing of the real Beatnik mindset and endeavor. 
With these concerns aside, one must try to look at “Howl” in the context of the struggle for free speech, a concern that ought to be of paramount importance for all poets, writers, and citizens in general, though today poets and writers seem more or less indifferent to it.  Howl on Trial will further entrench the poem in the canon, worthy or not, and illustrates what must be done to help guarantee canon status for a poem today.  Indeed, with the hype, it would be difficult to imagine that “Howl” would not last into the future.  As an historical document, I recommend this book, though with reservations for in reality “Howl” on trial became not the battle for free expression, but rather the battle to achieve fame... 
—The Editor


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