“Follow your inner moonlight; don’t hide the madness.”
— Allen Ginsberg
Like most people living in the United States circa the 1950s, the prolific poet, Allen Ginsberg, was frightened by the threat of nuclear war (Raskin 183). The near-complete annihilation of the Japanese cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima in 1945 had caused the American public to become alarmingly aware of the power of atomic weapons, and though it seemed that democracy had emerged triumphant from yet another global war, the rise of the USSR increased fears of further conflict (Kallen 5). The United States government was surprisingly quick to pick up on this, and instead of allaying the public’s panic, it strengthened it through the use of popular media through the means of propaganda and directed it toward Soviet Russia and the other Soviet states (Kallen 13). This non-physical conflict between the US of A and the U of SSR came to be known as the Cold War. It was a time of hysteria, paranoia, and hostility, in which American democracy was heralded and Soviet communism derided. Ginsberg bought into the idea of a glorified America until he felt the constraints of an increasingly strict society. A Buddhist, homosexual poet was not exactly copacetic in the postwar United States, where “[a]nyone who did not fit into the status quo image of white, middle-class, Anglo-Saxon America risked being labeled a ‘Commie’” (Kallen 21). The scales of blind patriotism fell from Ginsberg’s eyes as he realized his country’s injustice and hypocrisy, and he helped begin the Beat Movement with other writers who had come to the same conclusion (Schwartz 28). The overblown loathing and anxiety in regards to the Cold War are perhaps best exemplified in Ginsberg’s political, satirical poem, “America.”
The first line is biting, and brimming with bitterness: “America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing” (Ginsberg, “America” 71). It is nearly as depressing as the beginning of Ginsberg’s other, more famous poem, “Howl,” which begins with, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked . . .” (3). That is not to say that people had lost all preconceived notions of civilized behavior and were literally running amuck in the streets. In actuality, it was in the bubble-gum corporate packaging of censored media and the resulting saccharine sweetness of a conceptualized America that, to Ginsberg, was true madness. Those who were not openly opposing society, he felt, were screaming in the inside for some sort of release. People were flat-out scared of the filthy Communists that, according to the new media of television, were attempting to take over the United States. The infamous “McCarthy list” named names, usually of those who were considered to be honest citizens. Lives were being ruined right and left, politically and directionally. Nothing was quite more frightening, however, than the atom bomb – eventually upgraded to the hydrogen bomb. Once the USSR had figured out how to duplicate the destructive efforts of America, sheer panic flooded the homes of Americans. Surely, the dirty Red scum would blow up the United States as soon as look at it, and the public turned to the government to think of a solution. It can be assumed that those in positions of high power would know the true nature of nuclear weapons, especially those involved in their actual construction, but the solution presented to the people was hardly based on scientific reasoning. Since it was decided that the children needed protection the most, any solution must be focused upon their survival. So the “Duck and Cover” films were created and presented in every school (Kallen 20-35). When one watches those videos today, it is not unlike modern infomercials or employee training films; the film’s mantra, “[t]he atom bomb is dangerous” (“Duck and Cover  . . .”), is the understatement of the decade. It is difficult to imagine how a child could feel assured of their safety against the blistering heat and vicious radiation of an atomic bomb by simply making a beeline for the nearest wall and covering their head – even if they do have a newspaper (“Duck and Cover …”). Regardless of the amusement of hindsight, 1950s Americans did believe it and worried accordingly. Ginsberg had only one thing to say about the country’s unified anxiety: “Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb” (Ginsberg 71). Such a statement is a slight against propaganda, the expectations of American citizens, blind patriotism, and American arrogance.
The Cold War between the USA and the USSR was essentially a war “of propaganda, both in terms of indoctrinating their citizens and in attempting to win over non-nationals” (Leab 93). The USSR simply wanted to avoid American influence and tried to convince other countries to follow in their stead. The United States attempted to paint its society as the best in the world (Leab 93). However, this meant severe limitations on the freedom of its citizens. According to Ginsberg, the fear of the bomb was a “disease” that afflicted Americans, turning them into “zombies locked up in the sad psychoses of themselves” (qtd. in Douglas 9). Conformity was the norm, and depictions of the “American Way” were shown nightly on television and in magazines like Time (“I’m obsessed with Time Magazine,” Ginsberg confesses .) Anything “nonconformist, anti-Cold War, pro-social and environmental speech and action” was banned (McClure 34-5). Yet Ginsberg does not seem to care. “America I used to be a communist when I was a kid / I’m not sorry. I smoke marijuana every chance I get. [. . .] When I go to Chinatown I get drunk and never get laid” (72). Simply admitting all those atrocities could have gotten him blacklisted, fined, jailed, and/or exiled. Ginsberg even mentions fellow Beat writer William Burroughs, who could not safely return to the United States due to drug smuggling issues (71). But “[m]y psychoanalyst think I’m perfectly alright” (Ginsberg 72), he notes, so obviously, he must be doing the right thing. Since it was his therapist who basically told him to do whatever he wanted to do with his life – quit his current job and write poetry – it made perfect sense for him to use the validation of a real doctor to prove his sanity and validity (Gilmore 233).
Overall, Ginsberg noted that the main problem with society was its lack of feeling. Unlike the jazz music that he rather enjoyed, there was no soul, no body, no heart in America. All had been replaced by fear, thanks to the Cold War.
The Cold War is the imposition of a vast mental barrier on everybody; a vast anti-natural psyche. […] This consciousness pushed back into the self and thinking of how it will hold its face and eyes and hands in order to make a mask to hide the flow that is going on. Which it’s aware of, which everybody is aware of really! […] Fear. Fear of total feeling, really, total being is what it is. (Ginsberg, qtd in Tytell 59).
Like other Beat writers, Ginsberg was disturbed by this repression, and wanted to use his writings as a way to wake the people up and start changing their way of life. “When will you take off your clothes?” he asks (71), urging America to be free to express its true desires. Sadly, though “America” is ironic and full of tongue-in-cheek and hypocritical humor, it is evident that Ginsberg feels that his country has lost its potential for greatness.
The final way that Ginsberg attacks pro-American propaganda in his poem is through the use of bad grammar and otherwise politically incorrect word usage: “America it’s them bad Russians. Them Russians them Russians and them Chinamen. And them Russians. The Russia wants to eat us alive. The Russia’s power mad. She wants to take our cars from out our garages” (73-4). Not only does he point out America media’s tendency to generalize (Russia and China were not the only Communist countries, and Russia not even the only Soviet one) but also mocks those uneducated enough to believe everything they are told, regardless of its source. Ginsberg does not bother to state this explicitly, as he too will then be part of the problem. The inflated ego of America is too big for Ginsberg to puncture directly; instead he pokes and prods it with understated ironic phrases (“Her make us all work sixteen hours a day. Help” .) and states that he is going to do his part to fix America’s problems, even if no one else will (“America this is quite serious. […] I’d better get right down to the job” .)
Ultimately, the problems that plagued America in the 1950s still persist today, even if in a rather different form. Propaganda is rampant, though mostly insidiously, and there is still a fear of any foreign threat to American democracy. Ginsberg knew how to deal with such paranoia, however: with humor. He knew that there was not much he could personally do to fix the issues he addressed in his poems, so he put his “queer shoulder to the wheel” (Ginsberg 74) and pointed out the hypocrisy and flaws of the Cold War society and then laughed it off. Though Ginsberg and others of the Beat Generation were never as universally popular as they perhaps would have liked to be, it is a testament to the brilliance of their unique works to break through censorship, overblown anxiety, and other social restrictions of the time. “America” in particular proves that even comedy has a serious point to make, or else it would not be nearly as effective or humorous when it breaks barriers and bends rules. Eric Idle of Monty Python fame wrote:
At least one way of measuring the freedom of any society is the amount of comedy that is permitted, and clearly a healthy society permits more satirical comment than a repressive, so that if comedy is to function in some way as a safety release then it must obviously deal with…taboo areas. […] If anything can survive the probe of humour it is clearly of value, and conversely all groups who claim immunity from laughter are claiming special privileges which should not be granted. (qtd in Hewison 95).
Works Cited (Annotated)
Douglas, Ann. “The City Where the Beats Were Moved to Howl.” The Rolling Stone Book of the Beats: The Beat Generation and American Culture. Ed. Holly George-Warren. New York: Rolling Stone Press, 1999. 5-9. Print.
Douglas discusses her introduction to Beat writing, and how the Beat Movement was begun by Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg. Her main argument is how New York City affected the Beats’ writing, especially Ginsberg, who lived most of his life in Manhattan. The essay claims that only in New York were the Beats able to find “collaborators, not victims” to subscribe to their style and purpose of writing. Its use in my essay was Ginsberg’s opinion on postwar America, and a relatively accurate one, at that.
“Duck and Cover (1951) Bert the Turtle Civil Defense Film.” YouTube. Web. 30 May 2011. An educational film that was shown in public American schools, it combines live action with animation to present to elementary students about what and what not to do during a nuclear attack. While “America” satirizes the 1950s attitude, “Duck and Cover” epitomizes it, cheesy propaganda and all. The video asserts the importance of remaining calm during an atomic bomb attack and shows numerous adults and children “ducking and covering” when “the flash” comes (the bomb being dropped). Yet it does not show the actual results of a real bomb, of which we know now there to be footage. In the likelihood that these films were believed, it shows standard media’s manipulation of public views and education.
Gilmore, Mikal. “Allen Ginsberg: 1926-1997.” The Rolling Stone Book of the Beats: The Beat Generation and American Culture. Ed. Holly George-Warren. New York: Rolling Stone Press, 1999. 227-240. Print. This essay is about the life and times of Allen Ginsberg, who had died in the months preceding the publication of the article. Massive amounts of effusive words of praise are given to Ginsberg and his works. Surprisingly dense for an article, it does not skimp over details like Ginsberg’s sex life or his poetic influences. I used it for mere biographical reasons.
Ginsberg, Allen. “America.” Beat Voices: An Anthology of Beat Poetry. Ed. David Kherdian. New York: Henry Holt and Company, Inc., 1995. 71-74. Print. The actual text of the poem can be found in this anthology, which is not any more unique than other anthologies. The editor combined Ginsberg’s writings with those Charles Bukowski, Neal Cassady, Gary Snyder, and others, in order to compare and contrast them.
—. “Howl.” Beat Voices: An Anthology of Beat Poetry. Ed. David Kherdian. New York: Henry Holt and Company, Inc., 1995. 3-11. Print. An excerpt from Ginsberg’s very long poem, “Howl,” referenced only very quickly in my essay. I felt it important to point out Ginsberg’s political feelings during that time, and how it compares to when he wrote “America.”
Hewison, Robert. Monty Python: The Case Against. London: Eyre Methuen Ltd., 1981. Print. An extremely detailed account of the British comedy team, Monty Python, and their various run-ins with the BBC, ABC, and others in regards to censorship. It is gently, though not uncritically, biased in their favor and overall provides an excellent view of censorship rules in Great Britain and America during the 1960s and 1970s. My purpose for utilizing this text was Eric Idle’s opinion about how comedy should work in a healthy society, and I felt that there was a parallel between the Monty Python troupe and Ginsberg in what they each tried to accomplish in various mediums of media.
Kallen, Stuart A. The 1950s: A Cultural History of the United States through the Decades. San Diego: Lucent Books, Inc., 1999. Print. A straight-forward historical account of life in the 1950s, it is rather short but manages to give plenty of details in regards to politics, media, etc. Most of the emphasis is how people’s lives were affected by the government, the Cold War, television, and modern medicine. Though an American book, it is not shy of criticism towards the United States’ policies, retaining a mostly objective view of the period. It was especially valid in my research as this text helped me understand what life was like back then (as clichéd as that sounds), and thus, for Ginsberg and his fellow Beat writers.
Leab, Daniel. “Cold War (1945-1989).” Propaganda and Mass Persuasion: A Historical Encyclopedia, 1500 to the Present. Eds. Nicholas J. Cull, David Culbert, and David Welch. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, Inc., 2003. 92-94. Print. An entry in an encyclopedia-type book about propaganda mostly in the United States but also in other countries, it discussed the various forms of propaganda during the Cold War. It was not as detailed as I preferred, but did give a general idea of the methods of mass persuasion used at the time, especially the 1950s.
McClure, Michael. “Painting Beat by Numbers.” The Rolling Stone Book of the Beats: The Beat Generation and American Culture. Ed. Holly George-Warren. New York: Rolling Stone Press, 1999. 32-39. Print. Though not one of its main players, it is an interesting account of a man who was caught up in the Beat movement. McClure discusses his friendship with Ginsberg and other Beat writers as he goes through thirty-six “points” about the Beats. The text switches between past and present tense in order to highlight what was felt at the time and how it feels now to look back at those times. To be as general as possible, it is an poetic, lyrical outline of the Beat movement with anecdotes and asides.
Raskin, Jonah. American Scream: Allen Ginberg’s Howl and the Making of the Beat Generation. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2004. Print. Raskin contributes to the vast pile of information on Ginsberg and Howl with this very elaborate chronicle. Part biography, part literary criticism, it looks at Ginsberg’s life during the Cold War and his actions leading up to the publication of Howl, as well as the aftereffects of that publication and his death.
Schwartz, Richard Alan. “Beat Movement.” Cold War Culture: Media and the Arts, 1945-1990. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 1998. 28-30. Print. An encyclopedic look at the various works of media produced during the Cold War era, it mostly focuses on works that deal directly with Cold War politics and propaganda. It discusses books, television, radio, film, press, politics, theatre, music, toys, etc. Its main purpose is obviously to showcase how entertainment was affected by 1950s American foreign policy. The entry I used was on the Beat Movement which gave a decent account of the Beats’ motivation for writing and their writings’ subsequent influence upon others.
Tytell, John. “The Beat Generation and the Continuing American Revolution.” The Rolling Stone Book of the Beats: The Beat Generation and American Culture. Ed. Holly George-Warren. New York: Rolling Stone Press, 1999. 55-67. Print. This thorough article is about the origin of the Beats and, more prominently, their importance in American history. Tytell gives details about each of the main founders of the Beat Movement, and why their individual writings were so unique in 1950s society. He uses plenty of quotes to support his claims, and overall, the text is a nice account of Beat history and literary significance.
Sweet heavens, this was lengthy. I’d forgotten that we had to do an annotated bibliography for this essay; I guess to make sure we didn’t rip everything from Wikipedia. (I always preferred books, anyway.) This is the final form of the essay that I posted last week, continuing on about Ginsberg and his poem “America.” Here is my professor’s feedback:
Hayley, This is an engagingly written essay – there is a lot to tackle in this topic but you manage to keep your focus. Impressive. I wish you’d taken the scholarship at least another level deeper, especially in relation to literary criticism (there is a lot of excellent writing on Ginsberg). But I appreciate your attempt to unpack the kind of humor at work in this poem.
I feel that that “attempt” is slightly sarcastic or mildly patronizing, but WHATEVER. I takes my compliments wheres I gets ’em.