The Letters of Allen Ginsberg


By Allen Ginsberg

By Bill Morgan

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Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) was one of twentieth-century literature’s most prolific letter-writers. This definitive volume showcases his correspondence with some of the most original and interesting artists of his time, including Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Neal Cassady, Lionel Trilling, Charles Olson, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Philip Whalen, Peter Orlovsky, Philip Glass, Arthur Miller, Ken Kesey, and hundreds of others.

Through his letter writing, Ginsberg coordinated the efforts of his literary circle and kept everyone informed about what everyone else was doing. He also preached the gospel of the Beat movement by addressing political and social issues in countless letters to publishers, editors, and the news media, devising an entirely new way to educate readers and disseminate information. Drawing from numerous sources, this collection is both a riveting life in letters and an intimate guide to understanding an entire creative generation.


Select Bibliography
Collected Poems 1947-1997
Death & Fame: Last Poems 1993-1997
Selected Poems 1947-1995
Illuminated Poems
Cosmopolitan Greetings: Poems 1986-1992
White Shroud Poems 1980-1985
Howl Annotated
Plutonian Ode: And Other Poems 1977-1980
Mind Breath: Poems 1972-1977
The Fall of America, Poems of These States 1965-1971
Planet News 1961-1967
Reality Sandwiches: 1953-1960
Kaddish and Other Poems 1958-1960
Howl and Other Poems
The Book of Martyrdom & Artifice: First Journals and Poems 1937-1952
Family Business: Selected Letters Between a Father & Son
Deliberate Prose: Selected Essays 1952-1995
Spontaneous Mind: Selected Interviews, 1958-1996
Indian Journals
Journals Mid-Fifties: 1954-1958
Allen Ginsberg Photographs
Journals: Early Fifties, Early Sixties
First Blues
Hydrogen Jukebox
The Lion for Real
Holy Soul Jelly Roll
The Voice of the Poet: Allen Ginsberg
For further bibliographic information visit

The Book of Martyrdom & Artifice: First Journals and Poems 1937-1952 (editor with
Juanita Lieberman-Plimpton, by Allen Ginsberg)
I Celebrate Myself: The Somewhat Private Life of Allen Ginsberg
The Beat Generation in San Francisco
Literary Landmarks of New York
The Beat Generation in New York: A Walking Tour of Jack Kerouac’s City
The Works of Allen Ginsberg 1941-1994: A Descriptive Bibliography
The Response to Allen Ginsberg, 1926-1994: A Bibliography of Secondary Sources
Lawrence Ferlinghetti: A Comprehensive Bibliography
Howl on Trial: The Struggle for Free Expression (editor)
You’ll Be Okay: My Life with Jack Kerouac (editor, by Edie Kerouac-Parker)
An Accidental Autobiography: The Selected Letters of Gregory Corso (editor)
Deliberate Prose: Selected Essays, 1952-1995 (editor, by Allen Ginsberg)
Death & Fame: Last Poems, 1993-1997
(editor with Bob Rosenthal and Peter Hale, by Allen Ginsberg)

... more than kisses, letters mingle souls; For, thus friends absent speak.

April 2008
Dear Reader,
Twenty-five years ago, Allen Ginsberg asked me to edit a collection of his correspondence as part of a multiple book contract. At the time, Barry Miles was working on a biography about Ginsberg, and he suggested that because he was already collecting copies of letters by Allen to various people, it might be better for him to edit the book. As a result I teamed up with Juanita Lieberman to edit Ginsberg’s earliest journals, a project that was published in 2006 as The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice. For years the letters project languished under the overwhelming volume of material, and nothing ever came of it. Then, shortly after Allen’s death in 1997, I began working on my own Ginsberg biography, also published in 2006 as I Celebrate Myself: The Somewhat Private Life of Allen Ginsberg. For that book I collected my own gigantic stack of Ginsberg letters, and my enthusiasm for editing the selected correspondence book was rekindled. Now, a decade later, after having unearthed more than 3,700 Ginsberg letters from every corner of the world, I’ve pared them down to this edition of 165 of the very best.
Gathering together the best of the best is exactly how I approached the selection process. After putting the fifteen-ream pile of letters into chronological order, I read each and made a decision based on the only criteria, was it an extraordinary letter or not? It ended up being a “greatest hits album” of correspondence. As I followed that single rule, it didn’t matter whether the letter was to Jack Kerouac or Joe Blow. What mattered were the quality of the writing and the significance of the content. In the end the selection turned out to have a little of everything, including wonderful letters to Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and most of his Beat Generation friends. Letters to politicians from Dwight Eisenhower to Bill Clinton, dozens of letters to the editors of newspapers and magazines, and fan letters to a few of Allen’s heroes also survived the weeding process. The final volume is a book that can be read from cover to cover or dipped into at random, letters to savor at one’s leisure. Nearly every letter is complete in itself and therefore only needs minor editorial setup. The volume doesn’t pretend to tell Allen’s life story or detail his literary career, but it does attempt to show his talent as a correspondent. I would have loved to include all 3,700 letters, fully annotated, but that is a project for a future scholar with an enormous publishing budget.
Strictly speaking, a man of letters is not someone who has written a lot of letters but rather someone who is actively engaged in the literary and intellectual world. Allen Ginsberg was both. Wherever he was, whatever he was doing, he did it with paper and pen nearby. At any moment he might write a poem, make a notebook entry, or pen a letter to a friend. After seventy years, he left behind an enormous depository of documents to study. He has even been criticized by reviewers for writing too much, as if there could ever be too much material to help expand our knowledge.
The letters in this volume present a side of Ginsberg that his poetry, journals, and essays do not. Allen’s letters are largely responses to something, quite often responses to letters from his correspondents. That sets them apart markedly from Ginsberg’s other writings because in other formats Allen had an aversion to writing “on demand.” At times requests to write on a particular subject became torturous ordeals for him. He experienced writer’s block when it came to composing introductions, blurbs, or other writing for particular purposes. For example, in the 1960s Ginsberg promised to put together his South American journals for publisher Dave Haselwood. After years of delay, Ginsberg had to admit he just couldn’t write or edit on a schedule; the mood had to be with him. A decade later the mood still hadn’t struck him, and Allen gave Haselwood his Indian Journals as a substitute.
Ginsberg’s letters were a different matter entirely. The subjects for those were nearly always determined by other people, which seems to be the very nature of many letters. Someone writes to you and you respond on the spot. If you put it off for weeks or months, quite possibly the letter will never be written, so it is almost always immediate and unrehearsed. After writing a poem, a poet can look back on it, go over it and revise it, spend as much time on it as he’d like, and then at some point declare it finished or discard it altogether. By contrast a letter is often written in haste and dropped into a mailbox without revision. Once posted it can’t be recalled.
There was an enormous range in the subject matter of Ginsberg’s letters. They might be a political tirade to his father, or a postcard from afar, or a reply to a young fan who hoped that Ginsberg would “discover” him. Often they were his only means of keeping in touch with friends as he or they traveled around the world. At other times he used letters to respond to media stories he disagreed with. Quite often in those cases the letter was directed to the New York Times, the newspaper Allen loved to hate.
It should be noted that after the 1950S, Allen was increasingly aware that his letters would be saved by and read for posterity. “Because we offhand assumed without much special thought-attention that our correspondence would make good reading for later centuries of geek poets,” he said in one letter.
Ginsberg lived through a fascinating period in the history of correspondence. The great age of letters, I fear, is behind us now. The computer has been the final but not the only nail in the coffin. The history of letter-writing extends as far back as the invention of writing itself. In fact, you could make a strong case for saying that the invention of writing was for the purpose of sending letters. Some ancient merchant needed to communicate with someone in another town without going there himself, so he sent a letter. The very word “letter” can mean a piece of correspondence or a single character in our alphabet; the two meanings are intertwined.
In the chronology of Ginsberg’s letters one can witness the end of the era of letter-writing. In the 1940s and 1950s, tremendous letters were written, sent, and shared by friends. They were passed around and read by many people, saved and cherished. Then with the advent of lower-cost long distance telephone rates, letters became shorter and less a means for timely communication. Allen himself wrote in a 1969 letter to Lawrence Ferlinghetti, “Alas telephone destroys letters!” Finally, as the calling charges dropped even more, his letters grew shorter still, and almost never concerned the most pressing issues. With the widespread use of the Internet, letters have practically vanished, and the golden era of letter-writing is no more. One wonders if Ginsberg lived, would he be sending cryptic email messages like “AFAIK CU 2NITE” (as far as I know see you tonight)?
Assembling this book, like each of the other eight Ginsberg books I’ve worked on, has taken much longer than expected. Each time the surface of Ginsberg’s archive is scratched, ten times the amount of material anticipated is uncovered. The incredible volume of Ginsberg’s correspondence has been both a blessing and a bother. The letters cover fifty-six years and touch on growing up, school, love and heartbreak, spiritual revelations, a nation at war, growing old and death, plus most of the intellectual and political controversies of the last half of the twentieth century. In an introduction to my bibliography of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, that astute writer likened me to a bird dog tracking the winged prey, the poet. I feel that I’ve been on the trail once again, sniffing out Ginsberg’s letters in the most unlikely of places. I’ve written hundreds of letters myself, searching for correspondence, and have been rewarded with answers from old friends and acquaintances of Ginsberg’s, all eager to help by sharing their letters with others.
Using less than five percent of those letters has caused some editorial problems. Regretfully, repetitious letters were cut, no matter how wonderful they were. Footnotes were used sparingly, leaving readers to do their own reference work if they are unfamiliar with some of the people and events cited. Editorial intrusions were kept to a minimum, but with the knowledge that excising 3,550 letters is a major underlying editorial intrusion in and of itself.
In general, spelling errors have been corrected, unless it seemed to add something to the text. I felt it wasn’t important that Allen misspelled the Perseid meteor shower as “Persid.” Around his office Allen was known as a notoriously bad speller, and when they were spotted, he always wanted those errors corrected before publication. He frequently didn’t have a dictionary handy, so he couldn’t have checked, even if he had wanted.
Ellipses [...] indicate that material has been cut from the text of a letter. Usually cuts were made for non sequiturs or asides not relevant to the text. Some postscripts have been deleted if they didn’t add anything to the meat of the letter. Often they were “Did you get the clipping I sent?”-type add-ons. In the spirit of Allen Ginsberg, no censorship cuts were made. Of Kerouac’s letters, Allen wrote, “I wouldn’t consent to his letters being published censored..... Still I want to make sure in advance that it’s taken for granted by any editor of that material, that at the last minute there isn’t an attempt 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.” The editor has adhered to that same policy and left reality alone.
Yours truly,
Bill Morgan
P.S. I have had a great deal of help from librarians and private individuals. Those who helped most are acknowledged in the following pages.

[As a young boy, Allen Ginsberg no doubt wrote letters and notes to friends and family, but none of those childhood missives appears to have survived. On summer holidays we know Ginsberg did correspond with at least one of his school chums. This is evidenced by the fact that Ginsberg’s own archive contains several letters from that boy, but the Ginsberg side of the correspondence was not saved, for who would have known that this twelve-year-old would become one of the century’s most famous poets? It is certain that Allen was writing letters to his aunts, uncles, and cousins during those years, but a thorough search has failed to turn up any early examples.
The earliest letter by Allen Ginsberg that the editor of this volume has uncovered was composed in 1941, when Ginsberg was fifteen. At that young age, Allen was fascinated with politics and world affairs. Three weeks after the December 7 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Ginsberg wrote a letter to the New York Times expressing his opinion of how America had come to be involved in World War II. It was only the first of scores of letters he would send to the Times over the next six decades.]
Allen Ginsberg [Paterson, NJ] to the New York Times [New York, NY] December 28, 1941
[Dear Editor]:
I have long believed, in principle, the ideals of Woodrow Wilson and regretted that we did not choose to live with the world when the time came to ‘resolve that our dead shall not have died in vain’ by joining the League of Nations.
I am normally a more or less passive individual. However, I think I am growing cynical. I chuckle and feel a bit of grim humor when I read of our growing regret for the world’s biggest blunder, our refusal to join the League. One can almost see a pained and astonished expression growing on the faces of America as the people now realize, under a reflowering of Wilson’s vision, what they did to the world and themselves in 1920.
So now, finally we have a reflowering of Wilson’s vision: witness Winston Churchill’s speech before Congress; another fine speech on the 28th by Senator Guffey; and a passionate appeal for a new league by Edwin L. James in last Sunday’s Times. However, it seems that our futile regret is too little and too late. Our stupidity has reaped its harvest and we have a bumper crop, since we sowed the world’s biggest blunder. The death toll in this war has been at least four million (including Spanish, Chinese, and Abyssinian wars). There is no preventable catastrophe in recorded history paralleling this.
That is a grim joke on ourselves, four million dead as the result of mental impotence and political infirmity on the part of a handful of U.S. Congressmen. But in the midst of all this tribulation one can gather infinite consolation by speculation as to what will happen to those Congressmen when they get to hell.
We will know better this time, but in any case, the devil has prepared a nice, hot bath ready for many more Senators.
[Allen Ginsberg]
[Both Allen Ginsberg and his older brother, Eugene Brooks Ginsberg, were extremely interested in government and politics. On several occasions Allen took the time to write long letters to editors expressing his ideas, a habit that he continued for the rest of his life. This letter criticized the isolationist policies of many congressmen, which Allen felt had led directly to the U.S. involvement in war. It is also of interest because it is the first time that Allen made use of a literary quotation (in this case Voltaire’s) to support an argument.]
Allen Ginsberg [Paterson, NJ] to the New York Times [New York, NY] June 11, 1942
To the Editors:
I should like to take issue with Mr. Emmett Oldfield1 who protests holding their voting records against our formerly isolationist members of Congress.
Mr. Oldfield argues, first, since Pearl Harbor, many isolationists became fine supporters of the war effort. Second, Pearl Harbor did not disprove isolationism; it merely removed it as an issue. Third, the isolationists were sincere and patriotic in efforts to keep us out of war.
I shall admit that it was really nice of the isolationists to support our war effort after we had been so viciously attacked by our enemies.
And I am also willing to admit that the isolationists were sincere and patriotic—at least, most of them. But while I do not question their motives, I do question their judgment.
Pearl Harbor and later events have disproved isolationism. It disproved and deflated such defeatist ideas as: “No matter how many fighting planes... we send to England, it is not possible to base enough squadrons on the British Isles to equal the striking power of the squadrons that Germany can base on the continent of Europe.”—Charles Lindbergh, June 20, 1941. “American participation is likely to destroy democracy in this country“—“Few people honestly believe that the Axis now, or in the future, will be in the position to threaten the independence of any part of this hemisphere ... ”“Freedom for America does not depend on the struggles for material power (as isolationists called it) between other nations“—An appeal to Congress by fifteen isolationists, Republican leaders, August 5, 1941. Story in the New York Times: “Mr. Nye described the war as... ‘Nothing other than a bloody mess of Communism and Nazism’.” Wheeler: “I, for one, my friends, am not afraid of any of these imaginary threats.” Wheeler: “German submarines are small. They were designed to operate close to their bases within a few hundred miles of England.”
We are not fighting, in the long run, because of Pearl Harbor. Only a person with isolationist viewpoint would say that we were. We are not, and we should not be, fighting just because we were attacked. We are fighting because we are fighting Fascism: we are fighting Fascism, not because of what it does to us but because of what it is.
If this war is truly, as Mr. Wallace2 has said, a people’s revolution, one for democracy; and if the job of defeating world barbarism is a world problem; and if this war is not a “Struggle for material power between other nations,” then the isolationists are disproved.
And before we are to have a just and lasting peace (of which Mr. Oldfield speaks) based on amicable cooperation between nations, we will have to accept and understand that isolationism, both before and after the war, is wrong. What assurance have we that pre-war isolationists if we place them in Congress, will not revert back to isolationism when the hostilities have ceased? That is why Mr. Oldfield is wrong when he suggests that we overlook the records of isolationist senators and representatives.
In this connection, I might quote a relevant, if somewhat violent, statement by Voltaire: “It is like the fire that is covered but not extinguished. Those fanatics, those impostors, are mad dogs. They are muzzled, but they have not lost their teeth. It is true that they bite no more, but on the first opportunity, if the teeth are not drawn, you will see if they will not bite.”
Allen Ginsberg
[A boyhood friend, Benson Soffer, was one of Ginsberg’s first correspondents. When Allen learned that he had been accepted to Columbia University, he wrote “Bense” to share his good news and to continue a debate that they had been carrying on through several letters. Ginsberg was a member of his high school debating society and loved the give and take of these exchanges.]
Allen Ginsberg [Paterson, NJ] to Benson Soffer [NJ?] May 17, 1943
[...] I’ve been accepted in Columbia University. I start work, if I live and get the money, on July 6. School in Paterson ends about June 28, or so, so I’ll get about a 10 day vacation: then, back to work. No news from Columbia about a scholarship, though. I hear about that (if I hear at all) in a month. [...]
Now, I only asked you (here I digress into one of my apologizing explanations) for an ethical system et al, because I find it most profitable to pick other people’s brains and appropriate the sum of their wisdom and experience for my own. Not that I regard you as any wiser than myself—everyman thinks that he is the superior of anyone of his acquaintance—but I compromise with my ego to acknowledge to myself that you do have a brain of some kind and that it is worth picking for juicy intellectual tidbits. Comprenez?
My own tentative philosophy is this, that man is a superior animal, that his superiority lies in self-consciousness and self-knowledge. This self knowledge includes a realization of a purpose and meaning of life (whether an affirmative, negative, or neuter meaning) and the ability to use natural force to achieve fulfillment of that meaning. What that purpose is, other than freedom from physical limitation, and freedom from intellectual limitation, I do not know. We have invented the machine in order to realize freedom from physical limitation, and we will perfect the machine. Ethics and philosophy involve the search for freedom from intellectual limitation. History—the development of civilization—is the development of the slow evolutionary search for this (excuse me if I begin to sound like Allen Ginsberg) physical and intellectual freedom. History is a river of development—slow and sluggish, pushing relentlessly onward (poetic!!!) toward the ultimate goal of human perfection: the two freedoms, there is a main current of history, and this current streams inexorably onward, there are eddies and side-streams, rapids and whirlpools, in which human progress is interrupted temporarily, but the main current pours onward in steady flux, (here I simply must be poetic) draining finally into the fathomless oceans of eternity.
I pause to inform you that I have just received the happy news (Monday afternoon, 5:45) that I’ve been granted a $300 scholarship by Columbia. Work starts July 6. Hallelujah.
To continue. That we are achieving the first of our freedoms, physical, is unquestionable. The one point of question is that of intellectual freedom. Have we experimented, philosophized, theorized, and conjectured our way to a place where we may say that we are on the main stream to intellectual perfection? Has our intellectual growth kept pace with our physical? It may be said that mankind was at a higher intellectual level in the time of the ancient Greeks. I do not think so, for at that time the intellect was concentrated in the minds of a few developed philosophers. The mass of humanity was very little higher intellectually than the mass mind of the primitive man. The level of intelligence is higher in our time. I do not say that by evolution we have achieved more perfect brains. Perhaps the level of intelligence in Grecian times was proportionately as high as in our times, if we base the proportion on a comparison, with the development of physical civilization and the experience of intellectual civilization as basis of their time and ours. In our time we have evolved the principles of universal democracy, and these principles are commonly accepted. The time is not far off when we shall have advanced to a stage where we will apply these principles, even as the Greeks applied their primitive principles in their times. This is one illustration of the broadening of the intellectual comprehension of the whole of humanity, aided by and allied to physical freedom.
Now this is all abstract theorizing. The practical application can be made in almost any time of civilization. The use, the application, lies in the utilization of such a philosophy of history in determining perspectives on the roles of figures of history—in other times, and in our own. We can now comprehend truer meanings for “reactionary,” “conservative,” “liberal,” “radical.” We can understand the role of a Hitler as a force of reaction. He is the embodiment of one of the side waters, the back-eddies of history—the reactionary war in a real sense wishes to turn back the clock, to pull humanity back, to dam the flood of onrushing civilization (i.e. progress) to replace the goodness of our age with the primitive perversion of principle and undevelopment of principle of ages we have long since left behind. He uses physical freedom to deny intellectual freedom, instead of helping develop intellectual freedom. He is truly the voice of barbarianism, the voice of a bestial past, calling civilization backwards, diverting it from its mission, hindering development to what is good, what is just, and what is perfect.
Somewhere along the argument I forgot to insert a general endorsement of democracy. The point of this is that the evolution toward complete self-consciousness has as a corollary democracy, for it is only by the combined efforts of all of humanity for the good of all of humanity can progress be universal, complete, and therefore perfect.


On Sale
Sep 2, 2008
Page Count
352 pages
Da Capo Press

Allen Ginsberg

About the Author

In 1956, Allen Ginsberg published “Howl,” one of the most widely read and translated poems of the twentieth century. Ginsberg was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and cofounder of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa Institute.

Bill Morgan, Allen Ginsberg’s literary archivist for many years, is the author of a biography of Ginsberg and editor of The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice, Ginsberg’s early journals. He lives in New York City.

Learn more about this author