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What Are Angelheaded Hipsters, Anyway?

Allen Ginsberg's “Howl” is perhaps the iconic poem of the past half century, but from the moment it was first published 68 years ago, it seems to have really upset some people. The epic cry of suffering and redemption that famously began “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked” elicited both adulation and outrage from the start. The former dated from a now-legendary public debut of the poem at a 1955 San Francisco group reading by then-obscure writers who collectively became known as the Beat poets. Ginsberg might have been the most obscure among them, but fellow fledging poet, bookseller and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti was there and soon asked Ginsberg “When do I get the manuscript?”, echoing Ralph Waldo Emerson writing to Walt Whitman a century before. 

Ferlinghetti got it, and Ginsberg's poetic career was launched. One thousand copies were printed by City Lights Books and started to sell, slowly. The backlash soon followed in 1957, first with a seizure by U.S. customs of some of the first copies of the poem, and later with the arrest of Ferlinghetti and one of his bookstore partners by San Francisco police who bought a copy of the book for just that purpose. Both the customs officials and the cops thought “Howl” an obscene, and therefore illegal, poem and book, although it was uncertain if they’d read it. A famous trial ensued, and the Beat poets and publishers won, in a landmark case for freedom of the press.

That's the basic story, which has been told many times. The book “Howl on Trial,” however, documents the trial using original sources, from Ginsberg's and others' letters - Ginsberg was wandering virtually penniless in Europe during all the hoopla - to the trial transcripts, photos and media coverage of the time. Bill Morgan, a Ginsberg biographer and Beat expert, and Nancy Peters, publisher of City Lights Books, pulled together an illuminating package of the private thoughts of some of the protagonists as well as key public documents. It's sad, funny, silly and deadly serious in turns and at the same time. 

As Peters summarizes in her concise history of literary censorship, burning or banning books was nothing new in 1956 and is hardly extinct today, with school reading lists just the latest absurd front. At the time, “Howl's” travails put Ginsberg into the company of the likes of Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Whitman, Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Joyce, Lawrence and Miller - all banned at some point. Maybe the howls against “Howl” were to be expected; “Howl is an affirmation of God, sex, drugs, absurdity etc,” Ginsberg wrote to a critic in one of the many illuminating letters printed here. The sex stuff - gay, straight, it hardly seemed to matter - was the issue at hand.

“You have no idea what a storm of lunatic fringe activity I have stirred up,” he marveled to his father. This was before the legal issues arose, and when the 31-year-old man who was to become America's most popular/notorious poet was working at San Francisco’s Mission Street Greyhound depot to survive. “To tell you the truth I am already embarrassed by half of it,” he writes to Ferlinghetti after seeing a copy of his first book, which would remain his most renowned throughout his long and prolific career. But when The San Francisco Chronicle's not-very-laudatory review of the book appeared, Ginsberg would still write to Ferlinghetti, “If you see [the reviewer] ever say we collectively rarely have lice, and I hope he drops dead of clap.”

Then came the cops and lawyers and judge, with “Howl” defended by the ACLU and J.W. Ehrlich, then San Francisco's most famed criminal lawyer. The proceedings of the trial show a hapless and overmatched prosecutor grasping at straws and parading clueless witnesses in his effort to prove that children should not read “Howl.” “What are 'angelheaded hipsters?'“ he asks. “It is a little hard to read because there are no commas in the spots where you expect them to be,” he explains. Quoting from “Howl” - “Adorations! illuminations! religions! the whole boatload of sensitive bullshit!” - he implores, “Do they (sic) have to put words like that in there?” At one point he asks an esteemed San Francisco State University english professor, “Do you classify yourself as a liberal?” (so like censorship, some other things have not changed all that much), and one of his expert witnesses, a speech teacher, can only say of “Howl” that “You feel like you are going through the gutter when you have to read that stuff. I didn't linger on it too long, I assure you.”

But another group of witnesses declares “Howl” to have literary merit. Poet Kenneth Rexroth, something of a father figure to the Beats, says, “It is probably the most remarkable single poem published by a young man since the second World War.” Renowned critic and Berkeley professor Mark Shorer says, to great courthouse merriment, “You can't translate poetry into prose -- that's why it's poetry.” Ehrlich concludes, “Seek filth and you will find it. Seek beauty of narration and you will find that too.” The judge, who was also a Sunday school teacher and had recently sentenced some shoplifters to watching “The Ten Commandments,” ruled “Howl” not obscene and Ferlinghetti not guilty.

The reprinted newspaper articles, columns and letters in the book add to this fascinating time capsule. Especially worthy is the Chronicle recap by David Perlman, who went on to become the paper's esteemed science editor. The trial and coverage, of course, were the best thing that could have happened to “Howl” in terms of marketing; Perlman writes that the cops made “Howl” the best-seller it has remained all these decades. “I wonder if we will actually sell the thousand copies,” Ginsberg mused to Ferlinghetti. At a half century after publication, something like 1 million copies had been sold, and it’s still selling well.

“I imagine they can't bug us forever, and will have to give in,” Ginsberg predicts, meaning by “they” the “ENEMIES of culture and civilization and a bunch of perverted fairy amateurs” - an ironic description of the censors, considering the kinds of outraged criticism Ginsberg drew, some say intentionally, later in life with his professed fondness for much younger male lovers, for some the one dark blemish on his image. Some called him sexist at times too as women just weren’t really on his radar much. More importantly, he became a longtime anti-war and drug legalization activist and dug up dirt on the CIA’s dirty tricks overseas. He was also a longtime devoted Buddhist.

“The wonder is that literature does have such power,” Ginsberg marvels in one of the letters in “Howl on Trial,” although power over exactly what remains debatable. But “Fifty years later, his message still resonates,” Ferlinghetti reflects in the book's heartfelt introduction, “and his insurgent voice is needed more than ever, in this time of rampant materialism, militarism, nationalism, and omnivorous corporate monoculture eating up the world.”

Ginsberg died at 70 in 1997 after a long and prolific public career. Envious fellow poets sniped at his constant output, saying his work promptly declined in quality after his first few collections. But he became a true literary star, reading around the world and even recording his work with the likes of Paul McCartney and The Clash, and maintained lifelong friendships and correspondence with fellow poetic luminaries such as Gary Snyder (a 2008 collection of Ginsberg and Snyder’s decades of letters is, like Howl on Trial, one of the very best of the vast list of Beat books) and Ferlinghetti. He was known to generously but quietly help many others in need, and lived out his life in lower Manhattan, though he was heard to say San Francisco was forever his favorite city. 

It seems Ginsberg never quite explained just who or what “angelheaded hipsters” were, but even back in the 1950s Beat era they seemed to be, as Louis Armstrong replied when asked what jazz was around the same time as Howl’s trial, one of those “If you have to ask, you’ll never know” kind of things. Or, as has long been remarked with respect to both art and pornography, “You know it when you see it.” So while I can’t quite describe what or why, angelheaded hipsters are still my favorite type of human.


  1. Peter D Ashley February 20, 2024

    Nicely done…. a rather uplifting story; though during that period the beat books certainly
    leaned against the commonly accepted barriers of prose/art.

    Truly, that process continues today; and in the end we are better for it !

  2. Alastair Johnston February 20, 2024

    Ginsberg originally gave the manuscript to Henry Evans of Peregrine Press, publisher of Creeley, Duncan and other avant garde poets, but Evans had been busted for importing Tropic of Cancer and was still on probation, so turned down the book. Those confiscated copies of Miller’s book were burned at the police firing range at Lake Merced, for anyone interested in book burning in the USA.

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