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“America” (1956) by Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) is a free verse Beat poem that captures the discontent and revolutionary, rebellious spirit of the Beat Generation and the burgeoning youth counter-culture movement that would come in the 1960s. In the poem, Ginsberg’s sprawling, manic, stream-of-consciousness mind wanders between contemporary politics, luminous ramblings, and psychoanalytic contemplations of his childhood to paint a picture of displacement and isolation in Eisenhower’s 1950s America. The poem perfectly captures Ginsberg’s poetic philosophy of first thought/best thought as it follows no set rhythmic or logical structure; instead, the poem weaves in a seemingly random way as Ginsberg explores the loosely connected images and thoughts that come to his mind at the moment, ultimately leading to a powerful condemnation of Cold War American bourgeois culture. “America” is one of Ginsberg’s most popular poems, and it has endured for decades as a rallying cry for those who seek to criticize the status quo and American consumer society.
Content Warning: This study guide quotes and obscures the poet’s use of the n-word. The source material includes other instances of racist, outdated language. There are also depictions of drug use and mental health issues.
Allen Ginsberg was born in Newark, New Jersey to Louis Ginsberg and Naomi Levy. Ginsberg inherited his poetic talent and interest from his father, who was a published poet and teacher, and he gained an interest in Leftist politics from his mother, who was a Marxist activist. His parents’ influence stuck with Ginsberg as he grew older, especially when his mother was placed in a psychiatric hospital. Her mental health issues would play a key role in Ginsberg’s later poetry and in his own mental and emotional issues.
Ginsberg studied at Columbia, where he would meet Jack Kerouac, who became a literary mentor; Neal Cassady, who became his muse for many years; and William Burroughs, who would become a major figure in the Beat Generation as well.
Perhaps the most important literary moment of Ginsberg’s life happened in 1948. Ginsberg claimed that he experienced a vision of the poet William Blake. Ginsberg claimed that this vision opened his eyes to the interconnectedness and vastness of the universe, and it fueled most of his poetic pursuits for the rest of his life as he attempted to recapture the feeling he had during his vision.
Soon after the vision, Ginsberg moved west and settled in San Francisco. It was there that he wrote, performed, and published the poem that would make him famous, “Howl” (1956). This poem, along with Kerouac’s On the Road (1957) and Burroughs’s Naked Lunch (1959), launched the Beat Generation into the mainstream. Known for explicit and honest portrayals of everyday life, vivid descriptions of sex, drug use, and what was considered taboo, the Beat Generation served as a crucial commentary against the established polite society of the 1950s and as a key step to the counterculture of the 1960s. The Beats challenged censorship, conventional literary standards, bigotry, anti-gay bias, the military-industrial complex, capitalism, and American exceptionalism, and their influence reached many artistic movements, including music, movies, and literature.
Ginsberg would go on to have a long writing career, and he spent many years teaching, including at Naropa University in Colorado. Though Ginsberg maintained public notoriety until his death, he never again reached the celebrity he gained after publishing “Howl.”
Ginsberg died from heart failure in 1997.
Ginsberg, Allen. “America.” 1956. Poetry Foundation.
“America” opens with an unnamed speaker who declares he has given everything and now he is nothing. He claims he is only worth “two dollars and twentyseven cents” (Line 2), and that he “can’t stand [his] own mind” (Line 3). Ginsberg wonders when America will end the Cold War, and he takes a strong stand against nuclear proliferation. He then asks a series of questions about America’s soul, such as when it will be honest with the world, when it will own up to its own atrocities, and when it will help those who need to be helped.
His criticisms then become more personal. He wonders when he will be able to “go into the supermarket and buy what [he needs] with [his] good looks” (Line 15), and he admits that all the things he is frustrated about have become too much for him to handle.
Ginsberg’s thoughts, worries, and complaints become a bit more frenzied as the poem rolls on, and each line reflects on a distinct thought, often times unrelated to the previous one. He admits to having communist sentiments, he proudly admits to smoking marijuana and drinking, and he refutes religion.
Near the end of the first long stanza, Ginsberg’s perspective begins to shift. He mentions how he is “obsessed by Time Magazine” (Line 40), and here he admits that in his obsession with this magazine, he has realized that he is America.
The second stanza embodies the voice of America. Ginsberg begins lamenting the state of the world beyond America, saying America might eventually struggle against Asia as countries there are rising while he, America, struggles with suppression, poverty, and imprisonment. He says that while Asia is rising, America has been busy abolishing “the whorehouses of France” (Line 53) and concerning itself with the fact that a Catholic wants to run for President.
The final stanza shifts back to Ginsberg’s perspective. He complains that he cannot write with the current state of the world and vows to write like Henry Ford made cars, though he says his writing is more unique and varied than Ford’s creations. He then makes demands about various political figures, including Tom Mooney, a long-dead socialist political prisoner; the Spanish Loyalists, who fought against the Nazi-backed fascists in the Spanish Civil War; Sacco and Vanzetti, two anarchists who had been executed in the 1920s; and the Scottsboro boys, nine Black teens who were falsely accused of rape in the 1930s.
Ginsberg then goes into an extended narrative about going to a Communist Cell meeting when he was a child with his mother. He namedrops multiple famous leftist and socialist leaders and organizers, and the memory is important to him.
The poem begins its final shift with Ginsberg claiming America doesn’t actually want war (Line 66), before shifting the perspective once more to a sarcastic tone where Ginsberg, as America, blames all of the world’s problems on the Russians and China. He accuses Russia of wanting to infiltrate American culture, parodying Cold War paranoia, and he comments on America’s own racial issues with Indigenous Americans and Black Americans. In the last five lines of the poem, Ginsberg returns to his own perspective and asks if his impressions of America are correct. He ends with the declaration that he needs to set to work to fix these problems, and the last line expresses his desire to get to work.