Biography of Allen Ginsberg

Irwin Allen Ginsberg was born on June 3, 1926 in Newark, New Jersey. He died on April 5, 1997 in New York City.

Ginsberg was one of the best-known of the Beat poets, a group of writers and artists who were responsible for creating a new and original style of American literature in the mid-20th century. The Beat movement’s writing was characterized by stream of consciousness narrative, depictions of drugs, alcohol, and sex, and the glorification of a bohemian lifestyle that contrasted sharply with the conservative American culture of the period.

Ginsberg spent his childhood in Paterson, New Jersey, where his father was an aspiring writer and high school teacher. His mother, Naomi Ginsberg, was originally from Russia and immigrated to America as a child during the period of the Communist Revolution. Naomi retained her Communist views for the rest of her life and often took Allen and his brother to meetings of the Communist party when they were children. This political background made a strong impression on Allen as a child and he retained his own Communist sympathies throughout his life. During Allen’s childhood, Naomi began to suffer from severe psychological disorders that would plague her for the rest of her life. She died in an insane asylum when Ginsberg was still young.

Ginsberg attended Columbia University, where he first studied to be a labor lawyer and where he first met the fellow writers and artists - Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and Neal Cassady, to name a few - that would become the core of the Beat movement. While there, Ginsberg first openly expressed his homosexuality and began experimenting with Benzedrine, a stimulant drug many of the Beat writers took during this period to enhance their ability to write. He was eventually kicked out of the school.

In 1954, Ginsberg left New York and headed to Mexico, then to San Francisco. There he became a part of the “San Francisco Renaissance,” a vibrant arts scene that served as a public forum for the Beat writers. In 1955, Ginsberg was encouraged to organize a poetry reading at the Six Gallery, a local art gallery. Ginsberg put together a reading on October 7, 1955 that would become one of the most famous events in the Beat narrative. “The Six Gallery Reading,” as it became known, was essentially the first meeting of the minds between the major East and West Coast figures of the Beat movement. At the reading, Ginsberg read a first draft of his poem “Howl,” the first public reading of the work. It was lauded by the reading’s attendees as a major work, and Ginsberg was asked to publish it by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, an owner of City Lights bookstore in San Francisco. Publication of "Howl" resulted in a public controversy when local authorities banned the book for its obscene language and depictions of sexual acts. Ginsberg and the bookstore sued and eventually won their First Amendment rights of free speech.

Ginsberg spent the 1960's, '70's, and 80's as a political activist, using his artistic platform to rail against America's growing police state - as he saw it - and militarization during the Vietnam War. He remained a controversial figure throughout his career. At one point in his fight for freedom of speech, Ginsberg joined the group NAMBLA (North American Man/Boy Love Association), and in general his political activism continued throughout his life. He settled into New York's East Village with his partner Peter Orlovsky, and remained a part of both the local and national arts scene, writing and giving readings both locally and nationally. He died in 1997 after a battle with liver cancer.

Study Guides on Works by Allen Ginsberg