The Best Minds of My Generation: A Literary History of the Beats by Allen Ginsberg is a college course on the beat generation. Ginsberg needs little introduction, but as an author of nonfiction, some introduction is in order. Ginsberg is perhaps best known as one of the original Beat writers and most notably for “The Howl” and the obscenity trials. His collection The Fall shared the 1974 National Book Award and a Pulitzer Finalist for his work Cosmopolitan Greetings: Poems 1986–1992.
This book serves as the basis for the classes Ginsburg taught at Naropa Institute and at Brooklyn College. Like many liberal arts courses getting to the end of the information that needs to be presented in the time allowed for the class… one rarely finishes. The overwhelming amount of information is a limiting factor of the detail of the presentation. Also, different areas tend to be given more attention than others. By putting the course into book format, the information is preserved in detail and the reader is free to take in the information in any order. Although not hearing the instructor/author speak, the reader is also not relying on their hurried notes.
If there was a leader of the Beats, Ginsberg insists it was Kerouac. Kerouac is given the biggest section of the book. Ginsberg analyzes several books and the history of the publication. He also gives first-hand information on Kerouac’s life and writing experience. Most of Kerouac’s books are at least semi-autobiographical and Ginsberg gives the behind scene look. And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks ties Kerouac to Burroughs.
William S. Burroughs is covered next. Part of this section concerns Burroughs letters to Ginsberg while he was in South America. Readers who have read Junkie remember Burroughs (writing as William Lee) signing off with his plan to head to South America and search for the hallucinogen yage. The letters pick up there (much like Kerouac’s books run back to back). Needless to say, Burroughs does find the yage and writes about it. Ginsberg goes on to explain Burroughs cut-up style. The explanation includes the theory behind the cut-up method which seems to make more sense than the method itself. The idea is that we are presented with information in such a way to hide the real message. The cut-up reveals the true method. The idea was that you could take a Nixon speech, cut it up, rearrange the pieces, and find out the true meaning of the speech.
William Carlos Williams had a great influence on Ginsberg and is praised throughout the book, Gregory Corso, Hubert Huncke, John Clellon Holmes, Carl Solomon, Peter Orlovsky, and of course Neal Cassady all have a small section of the book. Ginsberg does include himself and it is informative and yet very humble. As the central figure and historian of Beats, Ginsberg plays the role of the narrator rather than a major player. The introduction is by Anne Waldman poet and a member of the Outrider experimental poetry community and she provides and excellent introduction. The Best Minds of My Generation provides a detailed examination of the beat movement and its members. Small chapters with descriptive titles will also allow the read to pick and choose their interests if they do not want to read the book cover to cover. An excellent history.