2 The Individual in „Howl“
3 The Picture of Society and Its Influence on the Individual in “Howl”
4 The Beats and the Concept of Democracy
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked
— Allen Ginsberg, “Howl”
Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl”, considered one of the most influential works of the Beat Generation, was published in 1956. At that time, American society was shaped by the Korean War, the Cold War, and of course McCarthyism, which was a result of the Cold War. These events led to a very conservative and intolerant society, and thus to the development of a counterculture, including the Beat Generation writers as well as other people protesting against this society. In “Howl”, Ginsberg focuses primarily on different individuals, and on society’s impact on them. These individuals whom he calls “the best minds of [his] generation” are people at the edges of society, for example drug addicts, homosexuals, and the mentally ill. Their life and suffering is intensively portrayed in part I of the poem, while part II is mainly dedicated to the “Moloch” (Howl, 221), i.e. the society these people as well as Ginsberg live in. However, part II not only portrays the “Moloch” but also describes its influence on the individuals Ginsberg mentions in part I. The third and last part of “Howl” is dedicated to Ginsberg’s friend Carl Solomon living in a mental institution. Due to this clear focus, “Howl” is particularly useful to get an insight of the way the Beats used to see the individual, American society, and the connection between the two. That is why a detailed analysis of “Howl” is very helpful to get a better understanding of the Beat Movement, and the way American society used to be in the 1950s and 1960s. Moreover, it is interesting how closely connected the Beat Generation was to the concept of democracy although it seemed to be a rather anarchistic movement rejecting all of society’s values. Such democratic aspects within the movement can also be found in “Howl”.
2 The Individual in „Howl“
Social outsiders are the center of attention in “Howl”, especially in its first part. Although this part seems to be nothing more than a collection of certain individual stories written down in a short period of time, it is a collection of notes taken over several years, and it is far more powerful than a mere list of events. Indeed, it manages very well to convey the zeitgeist of the 1950s, and to give the reader an idea of the countercultural activities at that time.
Many of the cases Ginsberg writes about bear some similarity to one another. He frequently mentions attempts to escape from society and their failure, a longing for alternative lifestyles, and a protest against various things such as capitalism.
One of these attempts to escape from society can be found right at the beginning of the poem:
who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, burning their money in
wastebaskets and listening to the Terror through the wall (Howl, 16-17)
These lines talk about a person hiding in an “unshaven” room (i.e. a rather untidy room) in underwear while “burning money” and listening to “the Terror through the wall”, and they contain two different aspects of escaping from society. Firstly, burning money stands for a rejection of a central element of modern capitalist society, or even of capitalism as a whole. Without money, it was hardly possible to participate in the social life of the 1950s, and it still is today. Secondly, “the Terror through the wall” seems to be a symbol of the ills of society that the individual is confronted with every day. The person mentioned cowers in the room presumably because he or she fears the society outside of it, and tries not to be confronted with it. This attempt, however, is not successful as the person still hears the “Terror” through the wall. Other people, no matter what sexual preference they have, try to distract themselves from the evils they see every day by excessive sex:
who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and
screamed with joy,
who blew and were blown by those human seraphim, the sailors, caresses of
Atlantic and Caribbean love,
who balled in the morning in the evenings in rosegardens and the grass of
public parks and cemeteries scattering their semen freely to whom-
ever come who may (Howl, 84-90)
A frequent use of different drugs offers another effective distraction from society, at least for a limited period of time:
who walked all night with their shoes full of blood on the snowbank docks
waiting for a door in the East River to open to a room full of steam-
heat and opium (Howl, 117-119)
Yet, the above are only attempts to endure society using means of distraction without a real chance to escape from it completely. To reach this goal, Ginsberg portrays a more radical way, namely committing suicide:
who created great suicidal dramas on the apartment cliff-banks of the Hud-
son under the wartime blue floodlight of the moon & their heads shall
be crowned with laurel in oblivion (Howl, 120-122)
The “[crowning] with laurel” most likely signifies the reward the individuals receive after having successfully escaped from society. Nevertheless, society obviously forgets about them afterwards.
As stated before, the various attempts to endure society or to escape from it often fail and lead to more desperation or even insanity among the people who have to cope with their failure:
who threw their watches off the roof to cast their ballot for Eternity outside
of Time, & alarm clocks fell on their heads every day for the next
who cut their wrists three times successively unsuccessfully, gave up and
were forced to open antique stores where they thought they were
growing old and cried (Howl, 136-141)
Here, Ginsberg uses time as a symbol for modern society, which is to a high degree determined by organizing principles like time. A person tries to get rid of it, but is punished with being confronted with the omnipresent society (represented by the abstract symbol “alarm clocks”) every day for a long time. The other person tries to escape by committing suicide, but fails and has to open an antique store, which is again a kind of punishment because the person gets involved in the capitalist society that way. Additionally, being forced to sell antiques can be interpreted as being forced to spread the conservative values dominating society that the person has strongly disagreed with before.
 Allen Ginsberg, “Howl”, Collected Poems 1947-1980 (Harper Perennial, 1988) line 1; hereafter cited in the text as Howl (with line references) .
 The terms “Beat Generation”, “Beat Movement”, and “Beats” are used interchangeably in this term paper.
 Michael Davidson, The San Francisco Renaissance: Poetics and Community at Mid-century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991) 65-66; hereafter cited in the text as SFR.