Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Did Allen Ginsberg's "Hospitalization" Make Him a Better Writer?

For years, the literary world has looked at Allen Ginsberg's seven months in a mental ward as what could happen to a free spirit in a repressive 1950s America. That image was no doubt aided by Ginsberg's version of that time as recorded in Howl, his most famous poem.

A new article questions that version of history. The author contends that being institutionalized may have saved his life and made him a better artist.

From Before 'Howl,' the hospital:
To some Beats and fellow travelers, Allen Ginsberg's time in Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, where he was sent by a judge as a very young man, seemed like a scene from "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest": establishment America grinding down a free spirit.

And to the poet's best-known biographer, it was the revenge of Squaresville: The doctors, Barry Miles writes in his 1989 "Ginsberg: A Biography," "thought their job was to make Allen conform and fit into a 'Saturday Evening Post' view of society, with a wife and an ordinary job."

But to a local literary scholar and psychotherapist, who got unusual access to the poet's psychiatric records, his seven months in the hospital's psychiatric ward in 1949 and '50 was not an assault on his individualism.

"My argument is that he was in a state of collapse and that he needed that hospitalization," says Janet Hadda, a petite and energetic woman, in her Hancock Park home office. Now a retired UCLA professor of Jewish and Yiddish literature, she came to her conclusion after reading a wide range of personal and medical records, including some seen by only a handful of people.

Rather than squelching his creativity, this period of enforced rest and routine actually made the callow young man a great writer. "I think he was allowed to be crazy," Hadda says. "So everything came out — and he lived through it. Most people are terrified what will happen if they lose it. But it happened to him, and he survived. He didn't have to be afraid because everything had already happened."

In her article, "Ginsberg in Hospital," to be published in the Freudian quarterly "American Imago," Hadda describes this often overlooked period "as a seminal moment in the formation of Allen Ginsberg, poet and public figure, iconoclast and icon."
Read the rest of the article.

In reading the whole piece, it's clear that there were some horrors he was subjected to -- like trying to make him straight -- but the article I quote from makes it clear that, based on all the evidence available, Hadda has made a good argument for her point of view.

This will go a long way toward filling one of the "blank" periods in Ginsberg's life. Most of the existing work simply passed over this time in his life with that standard version -- that it was horrible and unneeded.

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