Bill Morgan's I Celebrate Myself: The Somewhat Private Life of Allen Ginsberg
I Celebrate Myself is without question a great read. But Bill Morgan begins his attempt at a definitive Ginsberg biography, the first that covers Allen’s entire life from cradle to grave, by saying his biggest challenge was to limit his book – how much easier it would have been to write a three-volume set. Easier, and given the outcome, preferable.
The greatest section of this book covers very well-traveled territory – Allen’s beginnings at Columbia University in 1943 through the end of the 1950’s. Morgan does it better than it’s ever been done – in particular allowing us to follow a clear verbal map of the astounding chain of friendships that became the Beats. It is an extremely convoluted lineage tree, rarely coherent in literary accounts, but Morgan pulls this off as if there had never been a historical blur.
In part, this is due to centralizing things around the mandala of Allen Ginsberg, which may very well the best way to look at it, given the gregarious force that Allen held in magnetizing so many people around him. However, this is a roughly a 720-page book, and the first half covers this time period alone.
What follows as a result operates under diminishing returns. One has a sense of an editor insisting on a limit, so each decade receives less examination than the last. The 1960’s mark the beginning of a really well-documented Ginsberg. He became enough of a public figure to have a great deal of press coverage at the time, including no less than Life magazine. At this point, Allen also managed to keep a really consistent on-going journalistic poetry about his own life. By comparison, Morgan’s account begins to be a little lackluster, though it does cover another 150 pages.
In contrast, the 1970’s don’t quite merit 100 pages. Since Michael Schumacher’s preceding but still-champion Dharma Lion: A Critical Biography of Allen Ginsberg stopped at 1980, I was particularly eager to see what followed. The 1980’s only get about 70 pages, and 1990 to ’97 come in at a really paltry 44 pages.
At this point, many anecdotes are treated like factoids in a building-block history – they begin and go nowhere. A sentence or a page becomes a weird blip about friends and lovers without any follow-up. My own correspondence from Allen is cited at the back of the book and covers a span from 1975 to 1996. My place is this history is presented as a charming anecdote about a weekend assignation that fell through. Others get similar treatment, i.e., Morgan wants them to be part of history, but is at odds as to how to do so.
Morgan admirably succeeds with insight into Allen previously unknown on a public level – the Allen who frets about mistaken choices, who wonders if he contributed to millions of deaths by indirectly supporting Communist regimes in Vietnam and Cambodia by protesting the war.
Of particular (and at times disturbing) interest is his relationship with Peter Orlovsky, which has always been idealized as one of the really successful and prominent homosexual relationships of the twentieth century. It is instead fraught with Orlovsky’s sexual ambivalence and mental instability.
Please read I Celebrate Myself. It will undoubtedly be an important cornerstone in understanding Ginsberg’s life for decades to come. But it immediately points to other projects for other biographers. The 70’s through the 90’s are perhaps the least understood parts of Allen’s persona and are certainly every bit as interesting.
In particular, he begins his first serious meditation training and philosophical focus under formal Tibetan Buddhist tutelage, which changes the face of his poetry into a more grounded, objectivist presentation – a fruition of his beginning apprenticeship with William Carlos Williams, combined with the cosmic preoccupations of his acidhead Hindu days.
I look forward to seeing these decades getting the same treatment that Bill Morgan so lovingly gives to the first half of Allen’s life in this no-less wonderful book.
(I Celebrate Myself: The Somewhat Private Life of Allen Ginsberg by Bill Morgan. Viking Adult. Copyright 2006, ISBN 0670037966, $29.95, 720 pages)