- The Letters of Allen Ginsberg
Letters delight; they are gift, gossip, and literature in an envelope. But published volumes of letters by renowned poets are a peculiar literary genre. Some we cull for the gift of useful research. From others we gather the gossipy details biographers would rather let the poets say for themselves. A few, a very few, hold us riveted to each page, because they are literary triumphs. Bill Morgan's The Letters of Allen Ginsberg—full of everything one could hope for in a book of letters—is one such volume. The letters are informative, juicy, and poetic.
When a volume of letters succeeds as this one does, it is because, behind the scenes, someone has achieved the resolution of a paradox. They have authored someone else's autobiography. This is not Gertrude pretending to be Alice; it seeks no such "gloire." Quite the contrary, the editor's presence is respectfully silent. As in such volumes as One Art: Letters by Elizabeth Bishop (Robert Giroux, 1995) and Emily Dickinson: Selected Letters (Thomas Herbert Johnson, 1994), The Letters of Allen Ginsberg represents a peculiar symbiosis between editor and author. Morgan intimately knows this author's voice, his peculiarities, passions, habits, preferences, and opinions, and is able to flawlessly project what Ginsberg thought to say of himself onto the big screen of the author's biography.
Having served as Ginsberg's archivist for many years, it is no surprise that Bill Morgan is rapidly producing texts that will long serve as lodestars to Ginsberg scholars. His works (at least eight on Ginsberg alone) include the descriptive bibliography of Ginsberg's work (1995), the epic and magnetic biography I Celebrate Myself: The Semi-Private Life of Allen Ginsberg (2006), and most recently Selected Letters of Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder (2008). The Letters of Allen Ginsberg is a uniquely pleasing work, because we simultaneously get the narrative of a reflective autobiography and the urgency of a transcript written in the midst of living. [End Page 553]
Admitting that "[u]sing less than five percent of these letters has caused some editorial problems," and that "excising 3,550 letters is a major underlying editorial intrusion in and of itself," Morgan nevertheless edits with a combination of empathy and discernment I think Ginsberg would have found gratifying. He acknowledges, and operates by, Ginsberg's assertion that volumes of the literary man's letters should contain no attempts "to roughen out smooth edges or whazzit vice versa smooth out rough horny communist un-American goofy edges … in other words no fucking around with the reality" (xx). In short, Morgan does his generous best to let Ginsberg's letters speak for themselves.
With a minimal but highly effective system of notes and guiding comments, Morgan's compilation feels comprehensive. The addressees you would hope to see are included, and each letter lives up to expectations. There are letters to other Beats: Neal Cassady, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gary Snyder, Gregory Corso, Robert Creeley, Jack Kerouac, LeRoi Jones, and William Burroughs. There are letters to mentors, predecessors, and teachers like Ezra Pound, e.e. cummings, William Carlos Williams, John Hollander, Lionel Trilling (and Trilling's wife, Diana).
Ginsberg's letters to public figures are also well represented and include Eisenhower, Ed Koch, and Jimmy Carter. In 1997, Ginsberg's last letter is addressed to President Clinton. In the letter, Ginsberg announces bluntly that he has "untreatable liver cancer and … 2–5 months to live," and exhorts Clinton to send along "some sort of award or medal for service in art or poetry … unless it's politically inadvisable or expedient," before irreverently adding "Maybe [Newt] Gingrich might or might not mind" (446). In his biography of Ginsberg, Morgan ensures no one will dismiss this "longing for acceptance and recognition" as "a tongue-in-cheek joke," and insists that "Allen was adamant that the letter be typed and sent out. It was possibly the dementia of an ill man, but it was no joke" (I Celebrate Myself 3). However...