Separating Art from the Artist: Allen Ginsberg

Riley Justice, Journalist

Do you find a pedophile worthy of idolship?

Hopefully, your immediate answer is “no”. 

Let me ask you another question: Do you find Allen Ginsberg worthy of being taught in school? If you know who Allen Ginsberg is, there’s a good chance your first response is yes. He was a poet and author from the early 1940s until his death in 1997, and his writings and activism shaped American culture for the next 50 years. 

He wrote as a teenager in New Jersey but didn’t truly take off as a writer until he went to school at Columbia University and met Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and Lucien Carr. These four men would be crucial in the formation of the Beat circle. From this group the Beat Movement was born – a counterculture movement in support of speaking openly about sexuality, recreational drug use to achieve a higher conscience, and explicit portrayals of the human condition. Although most don’t know of the Beat Movement, its affect on American culture (see: open sexuality splitting from uptight heterosexual families and the use of recreational drugs) is apparent in our society today. The existence of the Beat Movement directly informed the ideologies of the hippie movement (which is far more recognizable to the average American). 

Aside from the innumerable poems and essays Ginsberg wrote, he was also a major social and political activist. He participated in anti-war protests during the Vietnam War, spoke openly in support of communism, and was a crucial proponent of gay rights. That’s not to mention his demystification of drugs, or, most famously, his willingness to engage in taboo topics (which made him controversial in the 50s and admirable in the 60s). Whether or not you agree with his policies, there’s no doubt he was working with the good of the greater public in mind in the way he thought would be best when it came to these topics. 

Little known to all who aren’t Ginsberg fanatics, he also happened to be a supporter of the North American Man/Boy Love Association. If it’s not immediately obvious, this was a pedophile organization. Ginsberg’s participation in NAMBLA began in the 1980s, and he claimed it as a civil rights issue, saying, “NAMBLA’s a forum for reform of those laws on youthful sexuality which members deem oppressive, a discussion society not a sex club. I joined NAMBLA in defense of free speech” (1994). He also argued, “Various cultures and states offer widely varying definitions of age of consent – age 15 in Czechoslovakia and some US States, 14 in Hawaii. There’s no universal consensus on ‘consent.’ It’s a fit subject for discussion, NAMBLA provides a forum” (1994). However Ginsberg may argue, there’s no denying the fact that he supported a pedophile organization – that is not something that can simply be brushed over. 

As it turns out, the questions “Would you find a pedophile worthy of idolship?” and “Is Allen Ginsberg worth being taught in schools?” are the same. Does Ginsberg’s association with NAMBLA negate his human rights campaigning? Should we erase Ginsberg’s influence over American culture from history for his fantasies of young men?

His poems speak of his fantasies explicitly – his art cannot be separated from him. Poetry aside, if Ginsberg wanted to solely support free speech there are plenty of other organizations he could’ve joined in solidarity. 

So where do we draw the line? 

For me, it looks like a conversation. I personally cannot devalue Allen Ginsberg’s importance to American culture and history, nor the simple and honest beauty of many of his works. Even still, it is impossible to ignore his involvement in NAMBLA. Every time I bring up Allen Ginsberg and my love for the poem “New Democracy Wish List,” I must also discuss Ginsberg’s involvement in NAMBLA and the harm that caused to LGBTQ+ communities when they were still fighting for the right to live and love. 

I do believe Ginsberg should be taught in schools. He opened the doors to free conversation about topics previously kept behind closed doors, to the idea that violence is a choice, to unerased homosexuality. But when he is being taught in schools, it must also be emphasized that he supported NAMBLA and that his  decision wasn’t without consequences. The results of these consequences shouldn’t be taught as an afterthought. 

It can be argued that no person is completely bad or completely good. What is important is that we acknowledge the existence of both sides, and perhaps also recognize that no person is truly worthy of idolship. 

 

Sources:

Silberman , Steve. “My Hero: Allen Ginsberg by Steve Silberman.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 7 Nov. 2015