”The Best Minds of My Generation: A Literary History of the Beats” by Allen Ginsberg— The Creation of a Course

Ginsberg, Allen. ”The Best Minds of My Generation: A Literary History of the Beats”, Grove Press, 2017.

The Creation of a Course

Amos Lassen

In 1977 some twenty years after he published his landmark poem “Howl,” and Jack Kerouac’s book “On the Road” hit the stores, Allen Ginsberg decided it was time to teach a course on the literary history of the Beat Generation. After creating the course, he taught it five times and through it he was given the chance to present the history of Beat Literature in his own way. Now compiled and edited by Beat scholar Bill Morgan, and with an introduction by Anne Waldman, “The Best Minds of My Generation” gives us edited lectures with their notes. We also get a look at the Beats as Ginsberg knew them as friends, confidantes, literary mentors, and fellow revolutionaries.

Ginsberg was responsible to the creation of a public perception of Beat writers and he knew all of the major figures personally. This made him uniquely qualified to be the historian of the movement. In this book, he shares stories of meeting Kerouac, Burroughs, and other writers for the first time and he explains his own way the importance of music to Beat writing. He discusses visual influences and the cut-up method, and introduces us to the group who led a literary revolution. This is a personal and critical look at one of the most important literary movements of the twentieth century.

Like many liberal arts courses getting to the end of the information that needs to be presented in the time allowed for the class rarely happens. The overwhelming amount of information is a limiting factor and different areas tend to be given more attention than others. By putting the course into book format, the information is preserved in detail and the reader is free to take in the information in any order..

Ginsberg insists that it was Kerouac who led the Beats and he is given the biggest section of the book. Ginsberg analyzes several books and gives first-hand information on Kerouac’s life and writing experience. Most of Kerouac’s books are at least semi-autobiographical and Ginsberg gives the behind scene look. William S. Burroughs is covered next and part of this section are Burroughs letters to Ginsberg while he was in South America. Ginsberg explains Burroughs cut-up style including the theory behind it. The idea is that we are presented with information in such a way to hide the real message. The cut-up reveals the true method. The idea was that you could take a speech, cut it up, rearrange the pieces, and find the true meaning.

William Carlos Williams had a great influence on Ginsberg and is praised throughout the book, Gregory Corso, Hubert Huncke, John Clellon Holmes, Carl Solomon, Peter Orlovsky, and of course Neal Cassady all have small sections of the book. Ginsberg does include himself and it is informative and very humble. As the central figure and historian of Beats, Ginsberg plays the role of the narrator rather than a major player. The introduction is by Anne Waldman poet and a member of the Outrider experimental poetry community and she provides and excellent introduction. “The Best Minds of My Generation” provides a detailed examination of the beat movement and its members. Small chapters with descriptive titles let the reader pick and choose their interests if they do not want to read the book cover to cover.

It is fascinating to read Ginsberg explaining his own development as a writer. We so often read about his literary influences and it is here that he gives concrete examples of the importance of William Carlos Williams throughout the book, and later of Christopher Smart. His description of his own transition from polished poems in a classical style to “Howl” is wonderful. So many critics seem to think of the Beat writers as wild, unrestrained, or even untalented artists but what we see here is that their mastery is quite clear. Ginsberg chose to use a particular piece of work and take it apart to explain why it works. He picks works from across each writer’s career to show development and change, and he sets it all within the literary historical framework, showing where each piece of work originated. This is what makes the book more than not just a valuable reference book for scholars. It is, in fact, a very readable text.

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