Allen Ginsberg in the 1940s: The Making of a Poet in New York City

By Emile Anceau

 

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Allen Ginsberg — as photographed by William S. Burroughs — on the rooftop of his Lower East Side apartment, between Avenues B and C, in the Fall of 1953.

 

Allen Ginsberg lived fully through the second half of the 20th century. As America was then the dominant nation in the world, Ginsberg was at the very core of what was also the dominant scene – both cultural, and political. Throughout his life, he was involved in several political and social issues which divided America (his relationship with communism, his protest against Vietnam war and more generally for peace, his fight for homosexual recognition and legalization of marijuana… these are the main issues that public opinion remembers of the poet as an “activist” and which are all very tinted with the ideas of the movements appearing in the 1960s) and in this respect it could nearly be possible to write an American history through Ginsberg’s experiences and involvements as it seems that he was present on the scene of every major events of the second half of the 20th century in America. Even when he was still a young man in formation, Ginsberg was already at the very core of what moved America, since New York City in the 1940s was then undoubtedly “the place to be” for a twenty years old aspiring poet eager to discover the intellectual, poetical and musical scene of America, but also for a young man struggling with his sexuality.

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A Manhattan Intellectual’s Guide to the Art and Business of Simply Going Mad

By Michael Darer

neuropsych
from Neuropsychiatry in World War II, Office of Medical History, US Army Medical Department

 

Mental illness and the treatment surrounding it has always had a complicated place in American society. The spectre of madness–as some might have called it– has been around for centuries, going by numbers of informal names, and treated through numbers of untested methods. Despite periods of misunderstanding, fear, and disinterest, however, questions of sanity and mental health have long had a position in American culture.

In the mid-20th century, however, that position solidified.

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From the “necessary murder” to The New Yorker

Auden, as photographed in 1939 by Carl van Vechten

W. H. Auden was one of the major literary personages in New York in the 1940s. He was highly influential on his contemporaries, but he was also representative in some ways of the intellectual and political journey that many of his contemporaries took over the course of the latter thirties and 1940s.

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A geography of its own

The publication of John Hersey’s Hiroshima was a significant event in the history of American journalism and also in the history of the magazine in which it first appeared–The New Yorker. Hersey’s chronicle was a sensation when it appeared, as the entire editorial contents of one issue. (For more information on this famous issue, see this older post.) In addition to marking the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, the event signalled the new stature that The New Yorker had assumed over the course of WWII. The magazine had now become a defining voice of postwar, metropolitan liberalism.

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A New Deal in journalism . . . and its end

The other day in class we briefly discussed Weegee and his distinctive way of depicting New York city in the 1930s and ’40s. Walker Evans gives us a somber, underground world, and his portraits show us usually solitary, often introspective and frequently bedraggled looking New Yorkers. Weegee, by contrast, portrays a vivid and dramatic–or, perhaps, melodramatic–city.

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On a slightly different town

Paul Cadmus, The Fleets In -- produced under the New Deal Public Works of Art Program and rejected from the PWAP exhbition at the Corcoran Gallery in 1934

Rick has sent along some fascinating info about a key backstory for On the Town. Apparently, the Paul Cadmus painting above was the original inspiration for the Jerome Robbins ballet Fancy Free, which gave rise to the Bernstein-Comden-Green-Robbins Broadway production of On the Town, later to be adapted for the Hollywood Stanley Donen/Gene Kelley movie version.

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“I ran away to Greenwich Village . . . where the people I met had sprung from their own brows”

Anatole Broyard, likely in the 1950s--"I was alienated from alienation."

In our discussion the other night, we didn’t get the opportunity to talk much about Anatole Broyard’s memoir of living in Greenwich Village in the late 1940s. Before the moment’s left behind, I just wanted to draw your attention to one important element of his story that you might easily have missed.

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