Today marks the official release date of Pat Thomas’ incredible new book, Material Wealth: Mining the Personal Archive of Allen Ginsberg. (We posted an excerpt of it a few months ago.)
Material Wealth is a carefully curated collection of items from Allen Ginsberg’s extensive archives. Thomas has gone through this massive trove to pull a diverse array of artefacts. These include the expected poem drafts, letters, and photos as well as the more unusual notes, recipients, posters, tickets, and much, much more. Altogether, this is a visually stunning collection.
Some items are classics known to Ginsberg’s fans – a young Allen smirking at the camera as he smokes a joint in New York City Harbor, for example, and photos of famous friends like Kerouac, Burroughs, Huncke. But it’s the weirder stuff that really appeals – a medical certificate proving Ginsberg unfit for the army, doodles and notes, financial records and newspaper clippings. There are pages taken from notebooks that show contact info for his friends. Who else had Jack Kerouac, Timothy Leary, and Bob Dylan’s phone numbers in their pocket?
The photos that are collected here include a huge number that readers will likely never have seen before. They are carefully chosen and arranged for impact. They jump off the page and illustrate the lesser-known parts of his life and the lives of his friends. We see his goofy antics in far-off lands as well as his sulky selfies.
All of this is arranged chronologically. It’s sort of a scrapbook of Ginsbergia – an intimate and beautiful collection shining light on the quirky and fascinating parts of his life that perhaps get left out of other books but which are by no means trivial. Why, after all, would we want to see what we’ve already seen countless times before?
This book provides insight into Ginsberg’s friends’ lives too. We have letters and notes from people he knew. There’s a hilarious “Howl” parody by Terry Southern and photos of the Beats in various places.
I enjoyed the collections of posters and tickets and pamphlets related to poetry readings in the late 50s and early 60s – charming mimeographed works, often hand-drawn, that show the vibrancy of the Beat and Beat-related world of that time. It is precisely this sort of artefact that brings you into the story of Ginsberg’s life more so than other books. Immersed in the colour and intimate portraits, it is at times rather like time-travelling, delving back into the sixties and its world of music and poetry. (The same is true of Allen’s photos from the early years – later, the photos taken by professional photographers, this intimacy is sort of lost.)
All of this is annotated by Thomas, providing valuable context. Still, these are notes appended to the main focus of the book – the plethora of visual delights and archival treasures. It is not wordy, it is not academic, it is not dull or preachy. The book is light and enjoyable, intimate and engaging. It is visual enough to possess the appeal of a filmed documentary yet with enough letters included to provide the detail Ginsberg’s followers and scholars crave (provided you can decipher his handwriting).
One final thought: It is touching seeing the enduring friendships portrayed in this book. They come across much more clearly than in other works. We see Ginsberg and his pals like Corso and Burroughs through the years, ageing but remaining close in spite of the various challenges their lives brought. Without weighing the text down with text, Thomas chooses appropriate quotes and bits of explanation and one of the last is one of my favourites, something that is hard to read without tears:
The people in the Beat Movement—myself, Gregory Corso, Allen, Jack Kerouac—we were quite different artistically. But we were together in the simple concept of openness and expanding awareness. Before anyone had begun to make a real breakthrough, there was Allen leading these outspoken readings in front of fraternity boys at Columbia. They were the people you’d expect to be the least receptive and most hostile to that kind of message, but he didn’t seem to encounter much direct confrontation. He won them over with his absolute sincerity, his openness. There was that courage. Very definitely, he extended the area of artistic expression; he extended the area of what was artistic. I admired very much the calm and dignity with which he met his death. The doctors told him two to four months, and he said, “I think much less.” It was, much less. He said to me, “I thought I’d be terrified when I heard that diagnosis. I’m not terrified at all. I’m exhilarated.” —William S. Burroughs, May 1997
I can’t really say enough to do this book justice. It is a wonderful text and I highly recommend it to any Ginsberg fan.
Read more at the publisher’s website.
There’s more commentary from the Ginsberg estate.
Grab a copy on Bookshop.org.
Find it on Amazon.