Anarchy & Ivy: Allen Ginsberg’s days at Columbia

kill-your-darlings-680Daniel Radcliffe’s new movie about Allen Ginsberg offers us a chance to reexamine the poet’s student years, raising the question: what is education, really?

The movie “Kill Your Darlings,” starring Danielle Radcliffe as the young Allen Ginsberg, is an engrossing biopic that follows the future Beat poet through his student years at Columbia University. It was there that Ginsberg, as a 17-year-old freshman in 1943-44, met soon-to-be Beat writers Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, along with their circle of bohemian friends. He also spent a lot of time reading, writing and breaking rules. The last of those activities got him into trouble with the university—trouble that almost kept him from graduating.

Today we may laugh at the minor infraction that actually triggered Ginsberg’s suspension—an obscene phrase traced in the dust of his dorm room window—an incident described in Ginsberg’s letters, though not depicted in the film. But his involvement with a group of friends that included thieves and drug addicts, as well as a brilliant young Columbia student named Lucien Carr, who ended up murdering another member of their circle, is certainly troubling.

“Kill Your Darlings” devotes plenty of screen time to Ginsberg’s relationship with Carr, and to the murder, a controversial chapter in Beat history. Yet it barely touches on another important relationship—that of the young Ginsberg and his real-life professor, literary critic Lionel Trilling.

Rather than portraying Trilling, the film reincarnates Ginsberg’s favorite teacher as the fictional Professor Steves, an avuncular non-entity who offers the student little more than an encouraging scribble on his final paper. This celluloid relationship conforms to two stereotypes popular in movie-land: the dusty academic and the sensitive, alienated poet. The reality was more complex and much more interesting.

The story of Allen Ginsberg and Lionel Trilling as documented in the papers of both men, shows that the young poet engaged deeply with his teacher and that Trilling, for the most part, encouraged and supported him. For better or for worse, their relationship was markedly different from what most undergrads have with their professors today. It’s worth considering the benefits, as well as the drawbacks, that such a bond provides.

As a freshman in 1944, Ginsberg enrolled in Trilling’s famous “Great Books” course. At the time, World War II was raging, and Columbia’s classes were filled with many officers in training. In this atmosphere, Ginsberg’s passion for literature must have caught his teacher’s attention. But it was the force of Ginsberg’s personality that mostly made it happen. He threw his considerable energies into establishing a special relationship with the professor. Eager for a mentor and an intellectual sparring partner, he was soon visiting Trilling at home, writing him long letters and sending him drafts of his poems.

“Dear Prof. Trilling,” he wrote self-deprecatingly at age 19. “Have you had time to read the poems? I feel guilty about not having developed my art any faster and finer than I have. As you will see it still has the subjective, elegiac voice, but essentially thick-headed…”

Later the same year, he sent his teacher a passionate defense of poet Arthur Rimbaud. Not that Trilling had assigned this to him. On the contrary: the cocky young Ginsberg, more-or-less assigned the outré French poet to his teacher.

Reading this letter today, one can only be amazed at the sophistication and erudition of an undergraduate who was able to place Rimbaud in the literary tradition, then predict with utter confidence that this Gallic maverick would soon become the prophet for a “whole crop of post-World War II writers.” He turned out to be right, of course.

Ginsberg’s eloquent efforts did move Trilling to read a biography of Rimbaud. But the famous critic remained unimpressed, and he wrote to Ginsberg that he deplored Rimbaud’s “absolutism.” For his part, Ginsberg stayed loyal to his convictions. Thirty years later, he was still lecturing on the precocious poet from Charleville.

It’s not surprising that student and teacher often disagreed. Temperamentally, the two were polar opposites. Trilling was committed to the reasoned center, Ginsberg to the uncensored extreme. Yet, despite their obvious differences, each took the other seriously as an intellectual force to be reckoned with.

They needed each other. The young Ginsberg needed Trilling, to anoint and validate him, but also to represent all that he wanted to overturn. Less obviously, Trilling needed his student—if only to offer a glimpse of where the best minds of the next generation might be headed.

Today professors at big universities tend to keep their distance from the undergraduates. They’re busy with their research. And they’ve been endlessly warned against “inappropriate contact.” Teacher-student relationships that go beyond the purely academic are often viewed with suspicion. But the Columbia of the 1940s was different. Professors like Lionel Trilling and Mark Van Doren conceived of themselves as public intellectuals. They took the mentoring of students—even undergraduates—very seriously.

Trilling regularly met and corresponded with his student, commenting on his poetry and arguing with him about literature and philosophy. When Ginsberg got into trouble, it was Trilling he often turned to for advice and help. The professor even tried—unsuccessfully—to intervene with the dean to prevent Ginsberg’s suspension in the spring of his sophomore year. Despite it all, the Ginsberg-Trilling correspondence continued. From start to finish, it lasted almost 11 years.

By the time it was over, Ginsberg had done his legendary reading of “Howl” at San Francisco’s Six Gallery, published the poem with City Lights and launched his literary career. He no longer needed his mentor’s approval.

Yet, it still must have stung to receive a letter from Trilling, in which the critic called Ginsberg’s hallucinatory poem “dull.” “It seems to me that I heard it very long ago,” he wrote in 1956, responding to the little volume Ginsberg had mailed him. Trilling’s mentorship of Ginsberg may not have ended on the warmest terms. But it served the poet well during his late teens and early twenties, when he needed it most. It also provided Trilling with perceptions about the youthful counterculture, which he was still pondering at his death in 1975.

Given the trouble that Ginsberg got himself into at Columbia and his friendships with a number of deranged people, there were some who opposed Trilling’s mentorship of the young poet from the start. One of them was Trilling’s wife Diana, a formidable literary critic in her own right.

“Of course there was always the question, should this young man be rescued, should he be restored?” Diana Trilling wrote in an essay called “The Other Night at Columbia,” published in Partisan Review in 1959. “There was even the question, shouldn’t he go to jail? We argued about it some at home, but the discussion, I’m afraid, was academic…”

Her questions are fair enough, and they might occur to anyone familiar with the story. Ginsberg was a troubled kid who had—we would say today—boundary issues. But it’s equally clear that he possessed uncommon intelligence, imagination and tenacity—the prerequisites for anyone who is going to accomplish anything important in this world. Lionel Trilling recognized these traits, even if some did not.

Reading the letters between teacher and student is still thrilling. They embody education at its most dynamic: a young person leaping from idea to idea as if the world depended on it; an older one encouraging, disputing but urging him forward.

– The College Strategist

About the Author: Mona Molarsky

Mona Molarsky is a private college counselor who offers advice and assistance to students and their families at every stage of the college preparation and application process. She also offers tutoring in English, social studies and language arts.

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