The Fall of America Journals

The Fall of America Journals -Allen Ginsberg (edited by Michael Schumacher), University of Minnesota Press, 2020

It’s arrived!  The official publication-date has arrived (although pre-publication copies have been circulating for a while now). The Fall of America Journals (1965-1971), the third and final volume of Michael Schumacher‘s three-volume selection for the University of Minnesota Press of Allen’s richly-informative journals (the Iron Curtain Journals (January-May 1965) and the South American Journals (January-July 1960) preceded it), is now out

Kirkus Review gave it an excellent early review (here it is, pretty much in its entirety):

The Fall of America – Allen Ginsberg, City Lights, 1973

“Ginsberg biographer Schumacher, editor of the poet’s South American Journals and Iron Curtain Journals, now presents material that provides context for the National Book Award–winning volume The Fall of America (1973) as well as insight into Ginsberg’s creative process. Covering the period from 1965 to 1971, the journals contain “auto poesy” meant for publication, notebook entries, and transcriptions from tape recordings made on a reel-to-reel recorder gifted by Bob Dylan. Containing dreams, observations, political commentary, first drafts of poems, and travel writing, the journals document a turbulent period in American life—war, violent protest, assassinations—in addition to personal loss, including deaths of friends and an automobile accident that left Ginsberg hospitalized. He recalls in vivid detail dreams—sometimes erotic, often surreal—populated by a surprising cast of characters: Marianne Moore, Eleanor Roosevelt, and poet Mark Van Doren, his former teacher. Among encounters in real life, one of the most interesting is his extended visit to Ezra Pound in Italy in the fall of 1967. Ginsberg notes Pound’s “tiny pupils” and “silent calm” even when Ginsberg treated him to some popular music… Prominent among Ginsberg’s entries are sharp political critiques: “The newspapers are full of lies / Just like President Johnson’s eyes,” he wrote in 1967. In 1968, he grieved, “Kennedys dead, King dead, / Malcolm X Assassinated, /Andy Warhol lingering in hospital spleen / shattered by tiny bullets.” In another entry, Ginsberg decries the nation’s “vast police networks” and bellicose foreign policy: “Our quote ‘defense of the free world’ is an aggressive hypocrisy that has changed the very planet’s chance of survival.”
“An effusive outpouring of reflections on a traumatic time, most appealing to Ginsberg fans”, it concludes.

David Wills, another early reviewer, (in Beatdom), writes:

“This massive collection is another extremely valuable insight into the life and work of Allen Ginsberg and will soon become required reading for Ginsberg scholars. Michael Schumacher has done excellent work transcribing Ginsberg’s tapes and chicken-scratch handwriting into an entertaining volume. His notes, occasionally inserted to fill a gap in Ginsberg’s own journaling, are intelligent and informative.”

“Early in the book”, he notes, “Ginsberg sometimes appears optimistic in spite of his anxiety about America and war, and suggests – “Problem is to cool everybody, beginning with calming & tranquilizing yrself, oneself -& spead it to the police & army – I now sing a tranquil Mantra”.
However, his optimism dissipates. In a long postscript, he writes-  “We’re at the end of the poem America, these States a failure, spoilage of Earth – the war’s still on, 7 years later no mantra did end it, no politics, no pity, no reason, no Peace march, no immolation – Vietnam afire with bombs all Karma exhausted”
The book ends with his acceptance speech for the 1974 National Book Award, in which he laments – “There is no longer any hope for the Salvation of America proclaimed by Jack Kerouac and others of our Beat Generation, aware and howling, weeping and singing Kaddish for the nation decades ago”

and historian, cultural critic, Douglas Brinkley, editor of a volume of Kerouac’s journals,  Windblown World – The Journals of Jack Kerouac 1947-1954 :

“Allen Ginsberg’s The Fall of America Journals, 1965-1971, glistens brightly with openhearted compassion, keen-eyed observation, Bodhisattva mindfulness, political daring, and angelic vision. Expertly edited by Michael Schumacher, every page sparkles with fierce poetic intimacy. The Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement, LGBTQ equality, and counterculture insurgency are all nobly documented by Ginsberg. A blowtorch book of Beat/New Left literature for the ages. Highly recommended!”

Ron Jacobs reviews the book in Counterpunch:

“Fall of America Journals is a book that describes America’s beauty and its bloodshed; its glories and its shame. It is a history, a road journal, a poetic odyssey with islands of magic, mountains of snow, psychedelic elixirs inducing visions.  And dreams. An odyssey and an omnibus, these journals are a work meant to live on a nearby shelf, to be opened if in need of inspiration or assurance.  It serves as a road atlas in a universe with multiple dimensions and numerous points of entry. Allen Ginsberg is not Virgil, but a narrator on the winding journey his words illuminate. His odyssey is not a journey driven by a desire to get back to home and hearth, but he tells it as well as Homer told us his.”

The experience of reading The Fall of America Journals alongside Fall of America is of course strongly recommended. Likewise, as Marc Olmsted notes in his “meta-review” for Beatdom (following on from Wills’ report):

“What becomes immediately interesting about these journals (which continue the second half of 1965 from the Iron Curtain Journals) is that they join from what we already know from the Collected Poems and the two major biographies of Bill Morgan and Michael Schumacher himself, as well as Gordon Ball’s East Hill Farm, which covers a great deal of this period in particular.”

In so doing, one can certainly see holes, noticeable omissions (Olmsted begins his review noting the absence of “two generations of the Wichita Vortex movement out of Kansas” that were “very much present in Allen’s San Francisco phenomena”.. (and).”little is said about San Francisco in 1965″..”only (Michael) McClure will get journal mentions here” -Similarly, the legendary 1967 “Be-In” passes without comment.

In addition (and it’s a criticism shared here) – “Editor Michael Schumacher is repeatedly tasked with attempting to transcribe Allen’s handwriting when it comes to mantras and names unknown to him” – and isn’t always quite capable of rising to the task – Hence there are a number of phonetic or orthographic mis-transcriptions (that will be definitely corrected in a second edition) – hardly a big deal, and possibly inevitable, given it’s a 700-plus page manuscript, but disappointing nonetheless.

Minor kvetches aside, this is a hugely hugely important volume, and one that, as many have pointed out, arrives at a timely and auspicious moment.  The Fall of America? , Fall-time in America?  (maybe Spring can still follow?)  – As Ron Jacobs points out, ” It is more of an observation than a desire – more of a regret than a hope.”

Buy this book.

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