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200 × 130 × 17 mm
240 pages
28 illustrations
01 Aug 2012
Critical Lives
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Allen Ginsberg Steve Finbow

Allen Ginsberg’s epic poem ‘Howl’, written in 1955, is one of the defining works of the Beat Generation despite having been labelled obscene when it was first published. A harsh denunciation of American capitalism and conformity, the poem drew scenes, characters and situations from Ginsberg’s life, a life re-examined here by his former editor and researcher, Steve Finbow.

Allen Ginsberg charts the influences of the poet and activist’s childhood – his poet father and schizophrenic mother – and how he met with Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs in New York in the late 1940s. We follow him to Mexico and India, and back to America, where he played a significant role in the counterculture movement of the 1960s and New York’s 1970s punk scene, exploring his obsessive need to travel and his experiments in writing, altered states of consciousness and sexuality. Later Ginsberg was slowly absorbed into academia while remaining an iconoclast and champion of the disenfranchised. With appearances by Peter Orlovsky, Kerouac, Burroughs and other leading figures of twentieth-century literature, art, filmmaking and politics, Allen Ginsberg brims with insight into the poetry and politics of this vital cultural figure.

‘What is especially useful about this biography is Finbow’s sharp insight and analysis of one of the American icons of the last century . . . Finbow is successful at elucidating public and private Ginsberg, as he was, and cutting through the reverence, not to hurt the poet’s reputation, but to keep it real.’ — Lambda Literary Review

‘Finbow’s cut backs allow us to see the details of Ginsberg’s life in high definition . . . A disciplined and precise study and a pleasure to read. Very much less is more.’ — Beat Scene

‘You may think you know who Allen Ginsberg was. His name alone conjures up what Thomas Pynchon called the anarcho-psychedelic era, a counterculture of which Ginsberg was both the media symbol and the progenitor. But a recent critical biography paints a picture that explodes myths about the poet and agitator some of them engendered by Ginsberg himself . . . Finbow’s meticulously documented study reminded me of Ginsberg’s admirable courage and his devotion to helping others, and it can be read with profit by all of us.’ — Gay City News

‘a fast-paced highly condensed chronological narrative of Ginsberg’s life and works’ — The Generalist

‘Both Charles Bukowski and Allen Ginsberg use a no-nonsense, clear prose style to convey the biographical essentials of their subject, have many illustrations, relate the biographical life of the poets to their works directly, and have the enormous virtue of brevity . . . combined with their clarity and persistent relation of subject to poetic product, makes them ideal introductory texts.’ — Oxford Review of English Studies

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Steve Finbow is Extraordinary Senior Lecturer at North-West University, South Africa.


1. ‘Hell on Earth’, 1926–47
2. ‘The Lost America of Love’, 1948–57
3. ‘Ugh!’, 1958–67
4. ‘The Most Brilliant Man in America’, 1968–77
5. ‘Many Prophets Have Failed’, 1978–87
6. ‘An Urn of Ashes’, 1988–97
7. See you later, Allen Ginsberg . . .

Photo Acknowledgements