Review of Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg at the National Gallery

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Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker

Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting

I have lived and worked in the Washington DC area for over 15 years and have yet to take full advantage of all the opportunities DC’s museums offer. Hell, they’re free and air-conditioned; what more could you want on a stifling day in August when you need a scuba suit to walk around the Mall? Every once in a while something at the National Gallery catches my eye and I head on down: the Dada exhibit, the Jasper Johns exhibit, a talk by Steve Watson on Warhol’s Factory years, for example. I always walk around the gift shop writing down the titles of books I want and I always stop to pour over Pollock’s Lavender Mist. I thoroughly enjoy myself and leave saying I should do this more often.

Allen Ginsberg in Fall 1953, snapshop by William S. BurroughsI went through the same routine this summer to take in the Allen Ginsberg photography exhibit. To be honest, most Beat enthusiasts will have seen these photographs before: in the TwelveTrees Press book of photographs, in numerous books about the Beats, at, or in other gallery settings. What is new is that Allen Ginsberg the photographer has infiltrated the canon with Allen Ginsberg the poet. Ginsberg is tied to Robert Frank and Berenice Abbott; there is talk of Ginsberg’s changing technique and his increasing sophistication in composition. Personally I find myself drawn just as strongly to the photographs of Jonathan Williams or Ann Charters. Their images of Charles Olson are just as important to me as Ginsberg’s shots of Burroughs and Kerouac in the early 1950s. And let’s face it; Ginsberg’s photographs from the Fall of 1953 are the only photographs in this exhibit that matter. Burroughs by the sphinx, Kerouac on the fire escape, Burroughs lecturing Kerouac on the couch, Burroughs attacking Kerouac with a knife. Call me close-minded but I just do not care about Ginsberg’s late photographs (let’s draw the line at Cherry Valley and beyond) or, in fact, any of the photographs taken of the late Beats, like those by Chris Felver, Mellon Tytell, or Elsa Dorfman. These are publicity stills for the Beat Industry and not compelling photography.  

But those early photographs — I could look at them all day, and I return to them again and again. Viewing them at the National Gallery, it struck me how much I wanted to see the 1953 photographs displayed in the context of the Spy Museum just up the street. In college, I took a course on Communism and Anti-Communism in America taught by Martin Sherwin. Prof. Sherwin wrote a book on the atomic bomb, A World Destroyed, that was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize. At the time he was working on a monumental biography of Robert Oppenheimer that would, more than a decade after I graduated, finally win the Pulitzer. I spent the entire semester researching the papers of Darlington Hoopes, Sr., the Socialist candidate for President in 1952 and 1956, who happened to be the grandfather of a friend of mine in high school. For months I read letters discussing whether the Socialist Party should remain a separate entity or fold into the Democratic Party and radicalize it from within. The 1952 Socialist Convention proved to be a classic case study in the pros and cons of a third party, in this case with the added twist of being a Leftist party during the height of the McCarthy Era.

One of my great regrets in college was not taking Prof. Sherwin’s course on “The Camera and the Cold War.” Francis Gary Powers, miniature cameras, surveillance, spies, double agents, microfilm. Whenever I look at Ginsberg’s photographs from the Fall of 1953, I feel that regret even more strongly. What could Prof. Sherwin’s class have told me about these photographs? Because the more I look at them and obsess over them, the more I see them through the lens of the “Camera and the Cold War” and not from the angle of aesthetics and composition. The link between Robert Frank and Ginsberg is not so much the use of the snap shot, but the fact that they were both engaged in “Un-American” activities in the height, and heartland, of the McCarthy 1950s.

Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs lecturing Jack Kerouac, Fall 1953In 1953, Ginsberg purchased a portable Retina camera for $13 at a secondhand shop. Shortly thereafter he took the iconic photographs of Burroughs and Kerouac at his East Village apartment. Many articles on the exhibition comment on how portable cameras freed photographers to take pictures on the move. Robert Frank’s The Americans collection is the perfect example of this new form of documentary photography. The portable camera allowed Frank to go on the road. It was only natural that Kerouac wrote the introduction to the Grove Press edition of The Americans. They hit the blacktop with the top down together on a trip to Florida for Life Magazine. Kerouac’s essay, which Life rejected, wasn’t published until Evergreen Review placed it in the January 1970 issue, shortly after Kerouac’s death. The Retina symbolized freedom and movement, the eye and the body in motion. The portable camera dovetailed with an expanding continental highway system and the growing international airline industry to usher in an unprecedented era of tourism. With a robust economy, Americans travelled as never before.

Yet there is a flipside to these liberating aspects of the Retina camera. The Cold War Era saw rapid innovation in the technology of surveillance and spying. The Retina is a more benevolent example of developments that made recording technology small enough to hide (the mini-cameras of the Bond films) or powerful enough to capture images at long distances (the aerial photography undertaken by pilots like Francis Gary Powers). Cold War paranoia coupled with improved technology, like the Retina, made it possible to record and to monitor the entire population. The Orwellian concept of an omniscient Big Brother (and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World before that) began in the 1950s to morph into the Pynchonian world of paranoia, mass consumerism, mass media, and popular culture.  

Esquire, May 1966The American tourist with his Retina camera is a stock figure in Cold War mythology. Burroughs wrote repeatedly of such Ugly Americans who were in fact spies and agents. In the May 1966 special issue of Esquire dedicated to Spying, Science and Sex, which features an interview with Francis Gary Powers, Burroughs appears with just such a story: “They Do Not Always Remember.” Burroughs himself queered this Cold War cliché — the Ugly American as el Hombre Invisible. In 1953 during his trips throughout Central and South America, Burroughs was a counter-agent working, as we will see, in support of a psychedelic revolution.

Ginsberg’s photographs from the Fall of 1953 must be viewed in the context of Cold War technology and history as much as post-WWII art, literature, or photography. That year saw the end of the Korean War, the height of the McCarthy Un-American Activity hearings (in October, McCarthy began investigating Communist infiltration of the military, which infuriated President Eisenhower and began McCarthy’s downfall), and CIA-sponsored revolutions in Iran and Guatemala. Yet the event that provides the backdrop for these photographs is the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in July 1953. The execution shook Ginsberg greatly. The figure of Ethel Rosenberg reminded Ginsberg of his mother, Naomi, who took the young Ginsberg to Communist cell meetings and summer camps. These early experiences would filter their way into Ginsberg’s mature poetry, particularly Howl, America, and Kaddish. Shortly before the executions, Ginsberg wrote a brief letter to President Eisenhower (formerly president of Ginsberg’s alma mater Columbia University):

Rosenbergs are pathetic, government will sordid, execution obscene, America caught in crucifixion machine, only barbarians want them burned I say stop it before we fill our souls with death-house horror.

Looking at these 1953 photographs again, I cannot help but see in them in relation to a clandestine Communist cell, such as that of the Rosenbergs or those of Ginsberg’s youth. Ginsberg, Burroughs, Kerouac, and to a much smaller degree, Corso, were at this time actively engaged in Un-American activities that would, in the next decade, threaten national security as enjoyed by Middle America. Apartment 16 at 206 E. 7th Street was ground zero for the planning of psychedelic, sexual, racial, and literary revolutions, and Ginsberg’s photos document this counter-culture cell in action.

When Burroughs arrived at Ginsberg’s apartment in September 1953, he had just finished months of exploration in Central and South America searching for the “final fix”: Yage. As Oliver Harris writes in his introduction to The Yage Letters Redux, the Soviets and the CIA were drawn to the same geographic territory in the hope of developing mind-control drugs for the Cold War effort. Burroughs’ letters speak of his brushes with these spooks as much as with brujos. On April 13, 1953 as Burroughs travelled with Richard Evans Schultes, “the father of ‘ethnobotany’ who oversaw the birth of ‘ethnopsychopharmacology'”, CIA director Allen Dulles authorized MK-Ultra, a top-secret program designed to investigate LSD and other hallucinogens as psychological weapons.  

Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs Meditating, Fall 1953Yet simultaneously with these CIA investigations, counter-intelligence was being gathered, by Burroughs and others, to promote psychedelics as mind-expanding. In 1954, Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception was published, and in May 1957, W. Gordon Wasson’s article, “Seeking the Magic Mushrooms,” would appear in the pages of Life. These publications served as the portal into psychedelics for countless astronauts of innerspace in the 1960s, including Timothy Leary. In the Fall of 1953, Ginsberg and Burroughs were pioneers in the upcoming psychedelic revolution. When The Yage Letters was published a decade later, the doors of perception were blown clean off the jambs, as Kesey and the Merry Pranksters began their journey across America as the Johnny Appleseeds of Acid. Global drug tourism to places like the Amazon and Tangier would threaten to become an epidemic.  

Throughout the Cold War Era, homosexuality was considered an Un-American activity, an assault on traditional family values and part of the Communist threat as detailed in books such as David K. Johnson’s The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government. In 1953, Allen Ginsberg was an undercover agent in the upcoming sexual revolution and the development of gay rights. Questioning his sexuality, Ginsberg donned a grey flannel suit and worked as a copyboy at the New York World-Telegram and as an analyst with George Fine Market Research. Ginsberg had an on-again, off-again relationship with Dusty Moreland, to whom Ginsberg proposed marriage in 1952. Interestingly in October 1952, Nevada publisher Hank Greenspan wrote an article that Joseph McCarthy himself was a homosexual. Advised against a libel lawsuit, McCarthy soon married his secretary Jeannie Kerr and adopted a baby girl.  

Upon Burroughs’ arrival, he and Ginsberg initiated a sexual relationship that had been developing for years. The key photograph in this context is that of Burroughs lying in bed in Ginsberg’s apartment. The key text is Burroughs’ Queer manuscript, which Burroughs and Ginsberg edited with thoughts of publication. Ginsberg would ultimately reject Burroughs’ “ugly, old cock,” but the experience would send Ginsberg on the road through Mexico on a journey of self-exploration. This journey would end in San Francisco, where Ginsberg met Peter Orlovsky and found a degree of peace with his sexuality. From this time forward, Ginsberg was a gay activist. In 1969, gay activism turn militant at The Stonewall Inn on Christopher Street, just across town from where Ginsberg and Burroughs lived and worked together on the manuscript for Queer.

Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Alene Lee, Fall 1953Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, civil rights activists and groups were linked by their opponents, such as J. Edgar Hoover, to the Communist Party and portrayed as Un-American — Martin Luther King, Jr., who was wire-tapped in 1963 in support of such investigations, being the most famous example. Freedom Riders were called not merely “nigger lovers,” but also “pinkos.” Mississippi Congressman John William Bell stated that the Freedom Riders were “part of a Communist conspiracy to destroy America” in the June 1961 issue of Citizens’ Counsel. The key photograph in this context is that of Alene Lee and William Burroughs on the roof of Ginsberg’s apartment building. Lee helped type up Burroughs’ manuscripts and dated Jack Kerouac. Lee lived down the street at Avenue A and 11th Street: Paradise Alley. The relationship would soon founder over Kerouac’s inability to handle the complexities of an interracial relationship. The failed affair became immortalized in Kerouac’s The Subterraneans, with Lee re-written as Mardou Fox.  

I do not want to sugarcoat the racist implications of Kerouac’s concept of the Fellaheen or of the other Beats’ similar infatuation with myths of racial primitivism and sexual potency, but it cannot be denied that the Beat Generation’s love affair with African America culture helped usher in the coming era of civil rights activism. Kerouac’s relationship with Lee highlights the complex and conflicted nature of white society’s fascination with African-American culture. Yet for thousands of white civil rights activists in 1960s, the Beats were their initiation into an atmosphere of racial tolerance and respect for cultural Others. For example, Ed Sanders read Howl while living in the American heartland, and immediately realized he wanted to experience the more diverse urban world described in Ginsberg’s poem. Upon his arrival in New York and following Ginsberg’s example, Sanders became a peace and civil rights activist. 

At the 1960 Republican National Convention, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover told the packed house that the three biggest threats to national security were Communists, eggheads and beatniks. In his relentless search for the communist threat, Joseph McCarthy attacked the libraries. In 1953, McCarthy listed 30,000 books by “communists, pro-communists, former communists and anti anti-communists” in the Overseas Library Program. Such was McCarthy’s power that once the list was published the books were pulled.  

Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and the Sphinx, Fall 1953The key photograph is that of Burroughs standing in the Egyptian wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In the introduction to The Secret of Fascination, Oliver Harris analyzes the importance of this image. There is another symbolic meaning: the revolutionary casing his target. In 1953, Burroughs, Ginsberg, and Kerouac took their war on the literary Establishment to a new level, stepped up their efforts to get published, and dreamed of being included in the canon of American Literature. Public awareness of the Beat Generation began around the time of this photograph. A year earlier, John Clellon Holmes wrote an article for New York Times Magazine entitled “This is the Beat Generation.” Early Beat books, such as Chandler Brossard’s Who Walk in Darkness and Holmes’ Go were published that year. Kerouac matured as a writer a year earlier in 1951 with the completion of the On the Road scroll and his literary experimentalism in Visions of Cody. The Fall of 1953 marks Burroughs’ and Ginsberg’s emergence into their literary maturity. In a matter of months Burroughs would expand on the routine form and hallucinatory writing in The Yage Letters to begin creating Naked Lunch, and Ginsberg would write “Siesta in Xbalba” about his trip through Mexico, which would lead to Howl. Ginsberg’s photographs capture the emergence of a literary revolution. As time passed, the honors and accolades piled up. Ginsberg won the Pulitzer Prize. In 1983, Burroughs entered the Academy. The Modern Library listed On the Road as one of the best books of the century. In 2010, the photograph of Burroughs in the Museum of Modern Art infiltrates the National Gallery. The museum is crawling with agents and the canon has been compromised.

William Burroughs as Big Brother outside National Gallery, Photography by Big CruxWhat does it mean for Ginsberg’s photographs, particularly the ones from 1953, to be presented in the National Gallery? It gets right back to the issue I examined in my paper on Darlington Hoopes and the 1952 Socialist Party Convention. The assimilation of Ginsberg’s photography into the collective American memory and the presentation of these images in aesthetic terms of composition and artistic influence, drain them of their oppositional political context. What was in fact documentation of the Beats’ Un-American activity becomes the representation of a triumphant, unifying American art and culture. How can counter-cultural art and literature maintain their oppositional stance? One response is to remain separate from the mainstream institutions of the museum, the corporate publishing industry, and the gallery system. But as Pynchon suggests, in a world of mass media and mass consumerism yoked to a system of global capitalism, there is no outside.

On the other hand, it can be argued that the only way to change the system is from within. Instead of being merely assimilated and absorbed, Ginsberg’s photographs infect and infiltrate the entire museum. As was pointed out in the forum, an image of Burroughs stands watch outside of the National Gallery. The tables have been turned. William Burroughs as Big Brother. In this view it can be argued that the psychedelic, sexual, racial, and literary revolutions that Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Kerouac mapped out in the Fall of 1953 increasingly reflect the United States we live in today. Mission accomplished.

Written by Jed Birmingham and published by RealityStudio on 26 August 2010.

7 thoughts on “Review of Beat Memories: The Photographs of Allen Ginsberg at the National Gallery

  1. Another fine piece, Jed. Well-considered insights and opinions in the context the of the Beat phonomenon and its significance at several historical junctures.
    Regarding the Ginsberg photographs themselves, you make a strong case for the images from 1953 as being indicative of the place from which the seismic shifts in literature, attitudes and society came that Jack, Allen and Bill were so very instrumental in helping to bring about.
    And no, I won’t go so far as to call you closed-minded, as you suggest some might in the 2d paragraph because of a distaste for Ginsberg’s later photography.
    I’m not so sure about racist implications being present in Kerouac’s concept of the Fellaheen, though. To be sure, Jack was possessed of a kind of reflexive racism which has been attributed by some scholars to his upbringing as a lower-middle class child of immigrants. And there was also certainly a fawning kind of reverse racism (“Crow Jim” as one critic famously termed it) present in Kerouac’s public and literary personae.
    But I always gathered from most, if not all biographers that the Fellaheen concept — certainly as Jack and Allen came to understand it
    — is directly linked to Burroughs’ urging both Kerouac and Ginsberg to devour Spengler’s Decline And Fall Of The West. This occurence, of course, dates from the 1940s a few miles uptown from the East 7th St. address in those ’53 photos. “Edify your mind, my boy,” as Burroughs was said to have admonished Kerouac.
    A minor point, perhaps. I can understand your desire for clarity on the matter of African American culture and the undeniable love affair you speak of. And you couldn’t be more correct on Jack’s ambivalent feelings and hangups which made his involvement with Alene Lee doomed from the get-go. I’ve always been curious though, when viewing that picture of Bill and Alene about just how well acquainted they were with one another. I can’t recall Ted Morgan making any real mention of Alene in Literary Outlaw; I’m unsure of her appearance in any other biographical texts about WSB either.

  2. This is an interesting and persuasive reconstruction of the original context of those photos. It seems to work in particular with respect to Burroughs, who consciously styled himself a kind of double-agent.

  3. Another wonderful piece written by Jed. Thanks.I guess part of the fascination of Burroughs derives precisely from his being a double agent, which makes of the notions of outside or inside a complete nonsense, much to the chagrin of both insitutionalized and countercultural art and literature.

    “the way in is the way out”

    Burroughs as big brother? It’s a pity he can’t see nor tell what I was going to say next…

  4. I like that pic of him with Alene Lee; don’t recall seeing too many pics of him with women, though I may well be wrong. A very human picture.

  5. I’ve always lived the pic of WSB and Kerouac talking on the couch. The image of the older, wiser, unemployed person telling the younger unemployed person about life is so distinct. I read it, but I’ve never grown fond of JK’s work. Ginsberg, either, though Howl is good. Only Burroughs resonates in the present day.

  6. I always thought there is something diversionary about all the attention given to WSB and Naked Lunch while another denizen of the East Village and founder of The East Village Other is practically ignored. I’m thinking of Walter Bowart and his book Operation Mind Control. Burroughs’s routines on Dr. Benway seems like something right out of MK-Ultra.

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