This essay first appeared in Beatdom #17, which you can find on Amazon.
As a child, Allen Ginsberg didn’t get to travel much; however, that wasn’t particularly unusual. Although the motorcar was becoming popular with the middle classes around the time he was born, and would boom in popularity during his childhood, most travel was still conducted within a relatively short distance of the family home. Route 66 was established five months after Ginsberg’s birth, connecting Chicago with California, and making it possible for Americans to drive across the continent, but due to the Great Depression and World War II, intercity car travel actually decreased between 1930 and 1944. Great leaps in transportation were making the world a smaller place, but young Allen only travelled as far as Belmar Beach, in New Jersey during his childhood. His father, Louis, didn’t travel abroad until 1967 – 19 years after his son’s first steps on foreign soil.
How, then, did he end up becoming such a renowned traveler, visiting almost 60 countries and visiting every continent except Antarctica?
For this curious little Jewish child, the world lay not at the end of a flight or a long car journey, but in words and ideas. It was discussed around the dinner table, in a household filled with intense political debate. His mother, born in Russia, was a member of the local Communist Party cell, and his father, whose parents were also Russian, was a Debsian Socialist. By the time he was fifteen, young Allen was writing letters to the New York Times about American politics, keenly observing the events which had led from the First World War to the Second:
Our stupidity has reaped its harvest and we have a bumper crop, since we sowed the world’s biggest blunder. The death toll in this war has been at least four million… There is no preventable catastrophe in recorded history paralleling this.
He was not afraid to criticize his government, attacking the “mental impotence and political infirmity” of American Congressmen, but of greater interest is his awareness and preoccupation with the wider world. It is clear from even this young age that his eyes were on world affairs, not just America, and he was utterly fascinated with the news coming in from far flung places. Bill Morgan said that it was “a fascinating game” for him, highlighting his interest in world politics as well as his detachment from the wider world in any real sense. At this point US politics was largely defined by the terms “isolationist” and “interventionist,” and Ginsberg was firmly in the camp that the US must engage with the wider world. He believed in the League of Nations and cared deeply for the ideals of democracy that would protect a “free humanity.”
Two years later, while Allen’s brother Eugene was serving in the army, the two corresponded and shared opinions on politics. Both of them seem to agree that war was not in the best interests of the people, though Eugene’s opinions seemed to have changed ever since being drafted. Allen, too, was fearful after the draft age was lowered. He may have wanted to see the world and see democracy brought to all corners, but he didn’t want to do it with a gun in his hand. Even as a teenager, Allen held the pacifist stance that would immortalize him during the 1960s, though war would remain a somewhat abstract concept for him, having never actually experienced the violence of it first-hand.
In addition to political matters, it was literature and an insatiable, life-long curiosity which compelled Ginsberg to commit much of his life to travelling – though for him it was all connected. Many of his favourite poets, including William Blake and Walt Whitman, held radical political views. Naturally, his innate curiosity only encouraged him in his literature- and politics-driven daydreaming of global travels. It made the world seem mysterious and he wanted to be an explorer, travelling everywhere and seeing everything. He fantasized about places like Russia (birthplace of his mother and all four grandparents) and China (which was often in the news) and about Europe and Latin America. Some of these places came to interest him through literature and art, but many of them came to him via the political atmosphere. In August, 1952, he reflected upon his youth and the importance of politics to his perceived future:
As an adolescent I wanted to go into the great world of men and affairs and dreamed of being a senator or representative or an ambassador.
He also described his youthful self as a “Communist Jewish intellectual” with a “left-wing background… a progressive looking forward to the universal improvement of matters.” Clearly his personal politics played a substantial role in pushing him into his role as global traveler.
Ginsberg graduated from high school having done well in foreign languages. Throughout his life he would quickly pick up languages wherever he travelled due to his innate ability to mix with strangers. He spoke French and Spanish, and even dreamed in foreign languages sometimes. At university he continued to study French, and later Arabic; however, it was here that his interest in art and literature exploded, while his interest in politics waned in comparison.
In the early Beat environment, the “libertine circle” that included Lucian Carr, Jack Kerouac, and William S. Burroughs, Ginsberg was interested in a “new vision” for the world. Later, as a spokesman for the counterculture, and a champion of free speech and all kinds of human rights, he would explain that he was never concerned with “revolt” or getting angry. “My interest is in alteration in consciousness, in new vision… [this] goes back to 1945 conversations with Kerouac.” Here, he was drawn to people who were “international” or “worldly wise” like Burroughs, who’d lived in “the glorious artistic time of the Weimar Republic… true, free, a Bohemian culture…” 
In the summer of 1945, not long before the surrender of Japan, Ginsberg joined the Merchant Marine like many of his friends had done. Partly it was for money, and partly for the sense of adventure and romance that came with the notion of going to sea. After undergoing training at Sheepshead Bay, New York, he spent seven rather sea-sick months on the SS Groveton, travelling around the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts. He never set foot on foreign soil, despite “abortive Venezuelan journey,” but the trip was undoubtedly the first long journey of his life, and the furthest he’d ever been from home.
Two years later, in 1947, Ginsberg shipped out again, this time on the SS John Blair to Dakar, in what is now Senegal, but which was then French Equatorial Africa. This was after a long cross-country trip, during which time he had honed his travel skills – hitching rides, meeting people, finding a place to stay for free, and dealing with a chronic shortage of money. Africa was his first trip abroad – something he had been “longing for.” He yearned for the “mysterious” continent, though Dakar proved somewhat boring for him.
It was 1951 when Ginsberg next left the United States, travelling with Lucian Carr to Mexico, where they hung out with Joan Vollmer not long before she was killed by her husband, William Burroughs. Mexico would later prove to be of great importance to Ginsberg’s personal and artistic development, but this was just a flying visit. It did, however, serve a taster of life in a foreign land, pushing Allen to continue his future travels.
In the early 1950s his interest in Asia grew more pronounced, partly thanks to Kerouac’s teaching of certain Buddhist concepts which Ginsberg did not yet appreciate, and to a greater extent his immersion in Chinese culture at the Fine Arts Room of the New York Public Library. Here, he felt a connection between his Beat friends and the ancient Chinese poets and painters, and in Kerouac’s “satori” concept he felt the familiarity of his Blake vision. He would remain utterly fascinated by Asia, and desperate to visit, but it would be another decade before he got there. All his life he was drawn to Tibet, and planned countless trips there with his friends, yet it was one troubled part of the globe he never managed to visit.
His first major journey was partly inspired by a desire to study Chinese art and culture on the West Coast, and on December 19th, 1953, he set out on a long voyage, hitch-hiking down the East Coast of the United States, hopping over to Cuba, then travelling through the jungles of Mexico, before moving up to California, finally, in the summer of 1954. The flight from Havana to Merida was his first ever trip by airplane. It was a monumental journey for Allen, who learned a great deal about himself and the world. John Tytell credits the creation of Ginsberg’s masterpiece with lessons learned in the Mexican jungle:
Ginsberg followed his friends William Burroughs and Jack Kerouac to Mexico. Living on a plantation in Chiapas, Mexico, became a transformative experience, opening a doorway to the discovery of an authentic new voice. “Howl” was to be its first expression.
This was neither Ginsberg’s first, nor last, trip to Mexico, and the country was important not just in the creation of his finest poem. (It should also be noted that while there, he wrote “Siesta in Xbalba” – his greatest poem prior to “Howl.”) Jonah Raskin argued that Mexico was a crucial development in his politics, as this was when Ginsberg was first able to view the United States from an outside perspective: “Mexico made it possible for him to look at America with fresh eyes… [It] played a pivotal part in his liberation from himself and from America.” Tytell says, “Allen Ginsberg… advised that I would never fully understand the members of his generation until I first experienced Mexico.”
In October, 1955, Ginsberg read “Howl” at the Six Gallery and almost overnight became a celebrity. His fame would grow over the following years and travel then not only became important to him for a means of exploring the world – culturally, politically – but also in escaping the spotlight. He would soon flee to Europe, South America, and Asia, and while he would examine their cultures and meet with their artists and attempt to spread the word of new American poetry, he was also staying out of the limelight, giving himself time to write instead of constantly doing interviews and responding to letters.
In early 1956 he hiked to Canada with Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen. The two men, well-versed in Asian culture and religion, fueled Ginsberg’s desire to get to the Far East. In the summer he shipped out again in order to raise funds for another trip – this time planning on starting in Europe – and sailed up from San Francisco into the Bering Straits, with Asia on one side and North America on the other. It was a particularly poignant moment for Allen, whose mother had died on June 9th. He vowed to visit Russia one day, and learn about her past.
Ginsberg’s yearning to see Russia didn’t just stem from family history or the death of his mother, but also his personal politics. He wanted to see what life was like in a communist nation. (Cuba, during his first trip, was not yet communist.) The following year, after reading about the Soviets and getting into the poetry of Vladimir Mayakovsky, he even visited the Russian embassy to inquire about travel to Moscow. However, it would be almost a decade before he managed to visit his ancestral land.
When he returned to the mainland United States, Ginsberg took off on the road again, hitch-hiking with Gregory Corso and Jack Kerouac, then later with Peter and Lafcadio Orlovsky, to Mexico City in September, meeting Denise Levertov in Mexicali. Ginsberg was flush with cash from his time at sea and bankrolled the whole trip for all his friends. While Peter frequented the brothels of Mexico City (catching the clap and then giving it to Allen), Ginsberg was busy being a tourist – seeing all the sights the city had to offer with his guidebook in hand. When he travelled, he liked to make sure he left nothing unseen.
On March 10th, 1957, Allen embarked upon his next great journey, setting off on the freighter Hrvatsha with Peter, bound for Tangiers. Kerouac had left a few weeks earlier and Burroughs was already living there. They spent a little less than three months in Tangiers before heading for Europe, where they travelled through Spain, Southern France, and Italy. Bill Morgan quipped that “Allen had been bitten by museum fever and wanted to see every art treasure in Europe,” and called him an “indefatigable tourist.” He had grown up fascinated by European culture and this was his first chance to immerse himself fully. Later in life he would travel around countless times for reading tours, almost always making time to revisit the museums and galleries of the Old World.
In Venice they could stay indefinitely with Alan Ansen, and Ginsberg continued to indulge his “museum fever” by travelling around the country, seeing everything Italy had to offer. They then travelled to Paris via Austria and Germany, and then spent a few weeks in Amsterdam, before returning to settle for a while in Paris at what would later became known as “the Beat Hotel.” Allen continued to soak in the culture – meeting poets, seeing every painting possible, and reveling in classical European artifacts.
It was December 19th, when President Eisenhower visited Paris to deliver a speech, when Ginsberg felt himself turning to politics again after a few years without much concern. An interest in the world from a political perspective had helped push him onto the road, yet while he was travelling he had shown surprisingly little concern for matters of politics, instead thinking of art and culture and sex. Yet through his travels he had grown and developed, and now that his mind was drawn back to politics, he found himself having changed somewhat. Bill Morgan noted, “Allen started to think that his old socialistic ideas were not just pipe dreams, but might be the wave of the future.” It was in 1956 he wrote one of his best-known and first overtly political poems, “America.” Throughout the year he had been playing with the idea, jotting down lines in his notebook that were critical of the United States, such as:
America is covered with Lies
Young thinkers are bad men
full of nasty ideas
America created the atom bomb and
dropped it on the world
He described it as “a monstrous or golden political or historical poem about the fall of America,” wherein he celebrated American heroes who had been suppressed by their government. At this point the political climate of the United States was just another factor keeping Ginsberg on the move. Having more or less outed himself has a communist in “Howl,” he was unsure of the consequences of living in the United States.
Back home, Jack Kerouac was left with the unwanted role of Beat Generation spokesperson and he was not taking it well. His own complicated personal politics had shifted from left to right, claiming that “Our country is in good hands” under President Eisenhower. Allen couldn’t have disagreed more.
In 1958 Ginsberg made two trips to the United Kingdom, the land of William Blake, before returning to the United States in July. He spent the following year and a half travelling America, giving readings of his poetry, while also acting as a tourist in his own land.
At the beginning of 1960 he took off for South America to attend a poetry conference. The conference would only last a week, but he planned on staying for two months. In the end, he spent six months travelling around Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, and Peru, as well as a brief visit to Panama on the way back to the US. Here he met with communists and visited workers at a mine, where he observed the atrocious working conditions, and seemed to agree with the communists’ stance. He was exposed to a great deal of Marxist and Maoist thought while in Chile. He also got to see Eisenhower speak while there, noting that the President appeared “tired and confused.” When he returned to New York, he was in touch with Leroi Jones in Cuba, which was now under communist control, and he was eager to see what life was like under communist rule.
A letter he wrote to Gregory Corso on September 13th highlights the impact of travel in South America upon his political conscious. He lists twenty-seven complaints about the United States government, many of which concern communism, socialism, and/or intervention in South American politics. Some of them also criticize American attitudes towards the Chinese government. Some notable points are as follows:
- Run South American governments for our own benifit (sic) for 50 years
- Stopped democratic govt in Guatamala (sic)
- Attacked Cuban revolution
- Refused to support non-capitalist economic development in Latin America
This could arguably be viewed as the early stages of Ginsberg’s politicization. As we’ve seen, he’d been interested in politics as a child, and even though his interest had come and gone over his early adult years, he still maintained certain ideals – they were just drowned out by personal and artistic concerns. But as he travelled, he began to view America from afar and saw its ugly side. Moreover, he began to feel a unified consciousness in the world that would further affect his political views. From this point on, his political involvement would grow, with every trip shaping his ideas.
Back in the United States Allen was depressed and eyeing his next exit. He planned a trip to Sweden and Russia which never came to fruition, and also a return to Paris. Ultimately, though, he had his eyes on Asia. He had long since hoped for a journey to India, where he correctly anticipated a sort of spiritual awakening. In any case, he planned on leaving the United States and not returning for several years.
In March, 1961, he took off on his longest excursion, and politics was definitely on his mind as he remarked upon leaving, “I hope America will still be there when we get back.” He spent April and May in France, then June and July in Morocco. In August he travelled to Greece via Italy, and then Israel, where he despaired of the political turmoil and obsession over religious differences. Allen returned again in 1988 to find that the situation was no better. On that occasion, however, he was able to visit the Wailing Wall and even Palestine.
Late one night Allen disappeared and didn’t return to his hotel room. It turned out Allen had sneaked across the border into Palestinian territory and spent several days with boys who made a living collecting spent Israeli ammunition for scrap metal. Allen found it sadly ironic when they showed him fragments of bombs made in America by the Bethlehem Steel company.
At the very end of December he departed for Eastern Africa, visiting Djibouti, Tanzania, and Kenya. In Kenya he attended a massive political rally, which impressed him, but deplored the obsession with race, which he compared to the Israeli preoccupation with religion.
Finally, in February, Allen and Peter arrived in India. Soon they met up with Gary Snyder and Joanne Kyger, and travelled the country together. For Ginsberg, this would be the most important trip of his life, and he would leave India fundamentally changed. In personal, political, and spiritual terms everything was different after India. The Allen Ginsberg we know as a sixties icon, with his long beard and Hare Krishna mantra and infinite patience, spouting flower power and peace and love, was borne of this trip. For a year and a half he explored the country, first the four travellers, and then just Allen and Peter, and later Allen alone. He learned tolerance and acceptance of death. He spoke with wise men and learned from every person and every experience. He also developed a healthy fear of nuclear warfare whilst in India during conversations with Bertrand Russell. He decided that it was the world that needed protection, not just the United States.
He explained in a letter to Jack Kerouac:
John Foster Dulles you’re right I got mad at him and Ike, truly they will go to heaven… with Stalin and my momma… At the same time if we’re going to live together – I mean U.S. and Russia – and China – if we’re not going to blow up the world – and we’re not – that means we got to make up our minds to really live together… the U.S. really got to relax and get gentle to them – and no more paranoias – and that means everybody really got to change, – and that means our foreign policy got to change from brink of war containment, etc.
He goes on at length about global politics, clearly keeping some of his ideas from childhood, yet having absorbed ideas from each leg of his extensive global travels. By now he has moved on from his hatred of Dulles and Eisenhower, of crude ideas of right and wrong, and is attempting to see everyone as equal – equally at fault and equally responsible for improving the world. He talks about “left wing hate,” which he would later lament throughout his tenure as sixties countercultural leader, because by now he viewed things as more complex than the left-right political dichotomy suggested.
On May 26th, 1963, he flew to Bangkok, Thailand, a thoroughly “seasoned traveler,” according to Morgan. After only a few days he visited Saigon, Vietnam, where he saw the build-up to the war, and then moved on to Angkor Wat, Cambodia. The exposure to Southeast Asia, combined with his underlying pacifism, and a love and respect developed through travelling, in particular in India, would cause him to become one of the most outspoken critics of the Vietnam War during the following years.
After Cambodia, Ginsberg travelled to Tokyo, Japan, and then took the train to Kyoto to stay with Snyder and Kyger, who lived there. In Japan everything that he’d learned from his travels was catalyzed, and on the train journey back to Tokyo he broke down in tears and wrote “The Change,” a poem which explained the massive transition he’d undergone throughout his journey. He spent a few days in Tokyo, absorbing the changes he’d undergone, and then returned finally to the United States (via a poetry conference in Canada), where he remained in a deeply fragile state, almost as though he had been entirely reborn and was once again a child.
Back in the United States, Ginsberg began to settle a little. In October he protested against the war, and would continue to do so, becoming a well-known face in the American media. He was the voice of the youth, the voice of the anti-war movement, the voice of gay rights, and sometimes of the whole left wing of American politics. No longer did he travel to escape the limelight; he embraced it and was continually outspoken, always patient and gracious with interviewers as he expressed his views on life and politics and art. His travels in India shaped who he was during the sixties and later decades and, by proxy, shaped the American counterculture. He created “flower power” and changed lives wherever he went.
He soon made it to Cuba and the Soviet Union, and eventually to China. He found that in communist nations his views on free speech and free love were not accepted. In 1966 he told the Paris Review, in one of his many great long interviews of the period:
But there’s one thing I feel certain of, and that’s that there’s no human answer in communism or capitalism, as it’s practiced outside of the U.S. in any case. In other words, by hindsight the interior of America is not bad, at least for me, though it might be bad for a spade, but not too bad, creepy, but it’s not impossible. But traveling in countries like Cuba and Vietnam I realize that the people that get the real evil side effects of America are there, in other words it really is like imperialism, in that sense. People in the United States all got money, they got cars, and everybody else starves on account of American foreign policy. Or is being bombed out, torn apart, and bleeding on the street, they get all their teeth bashed in, tear-gassed, or hot pokers up their ass, things that would be, you know, considered terrible in the United States. Except for Negroes.
It was a curiosity for politics that implored him to visit Cuba, via a short stay in Mexico City.
He expected a socialistic paradise but found, instead, an authoritarian state where his views were not welcome, and where his actions caused the suffering of others. Allen’s talks on homosexuality and marijuana got him deported and his lover, Miguel, jailed. Later, he read a Cuban newspaper headline that proclaimed: “In Cuba there is true liberty and revolution.” He decided then that both socialists and capitalists were “a mountain of dogs.”
The Cubans put him on a flight to Czechoslovakia, where again he was a guest of a communist state. This time, however, he kept his mouth shut and had a pleasant stay, simply being a tourist. He changed his previous opinions about socialist nations and convinced himself again – temporarily – that they had a bright future. He took a train to Moscow and finally saw the motherland. He stayed with his cousin, Joe Levy, learned about his mother’s life, travelled to Leningrad, and got drunk with Russian poets. Once again he was on his best behavior and avoided talking politics for the most part. He did, however, attempt to speak politics to a few of the poets he met, including Yevgeny Yevtushenko. He told Yevtushenko that in Cuba he’d seen people go to jail for a few days, and his friend said that in Russia you go to jail for up to twenty years just for saying the wrong thing. Allen realized that he’d been “making scandals without paying consequences,” and that maybe the US wasn’t so bad after all.
From Moscow he visited Poland, again as a guest of their government, and saw the Jewish ghettos and Auschwitz. After three weeks he return to Prague and was crowned King of May, but this time the government decided to get rid of him, and had him deported. It was never exactly clear why, but his views on homosexuality are the most likely reason.
In Eastern Europe Allen had crystalized his views on marijuana and decided to make a more serious run at having it legalized upon his return to the United States. After seeing the problems in Soviet states, he realized that at least in the US it was possible to cause change. When he returned, after a stay in the United Kingdom, he would continue and redouble his efforts. Sadly, he found the United States was also a police state of sorts, where he was subject to harassment and random searches. He would also be searched and questioned at the border to Canada, and got in trouble periodically on his future journeys elsewhere. However, generally, one less he had learned from his time in communist countries was to keep his mouth shut on sensitive issues, no matter his personal views. He practiced this on later trips through Eastern Europe, Russia, and even China, and as a result was able to enjoy himself, make friends, and spread influence more subtly than by through his previous outspoken means.
For the rest of his life he’d continue to travel the world, spreading his ideas of peace and love and poetry, but always learning from his travels and expanding his own consciousness. Though his later trips afforded him less time to stop and look around, and were often detrimental to his health, he still managed to learn and expand his world view while meeting new people and seeing new cultures. It was travel that originally pushed Allen out into the world, but it was the world which ended up shaping his politics, his poetics, and even his personality.
 According to my notes from his biographies and letter collections, Allen visited at least 57 countries, although it is hard to trace his exact itineraries from later tours, so this number will likely be higher.
 Ginsberg, Allen, and Morgan, Bill (ed), The Letters of Allen Ginsberg, Da Capo Press: 2008, p.2
 Morgan, Bill, I Celebrate Myself: The Somewhat Private Life of Allen Ginsberg, Penguin: 2006, p.25
 I Celebrate Myself, p.31
 Ginsberg, Allen, and Morgan Bill (ed), The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice: First Journals and Poems: 1937-52, p.385
 Allen Ginsberg, “The Vomit of a Mad Tyger” in Lion’s Roar: www.lionsroar.com/the-vomit-of-a-mad-tyger/
 I Celebrate Myself, p.41
 The Letters of Allen Ginsberg, p.14
 I Celebrate Myself
 Tytell, John, Beat Transnationalism, forthcoming from Beatdom Books
 Raskin, Jonah, American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and the Making of the Beat Generation, University of California Press: 2004, p.119
 Beat Transnationalism
 I Celebrate Myself, p.247-248
 I Celebrate Myself, p.262
 I will avoid saying too much about the politics of this poem – for more information see Eliot Katz’s essay.
 Ginsberg, Allen, and Ball, Gordon (ed), Journals: Early Fifties, Early Sixties, Grove Press: 2007, p112
 Ginsberg, Allen, Kerouac, Jack, and Morgan, Bill (ed), Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg: The Letters, Viking: 2010, p. 383
 I Celebrate Myself, p.263
 I Celebrate Myself, p.311
 Journals: Early Fifties, Early Sixties, p.138-139
 Journals: Early Fifties, Early Sixties, p.192
 Morgan, Bill, Beats Abroad: A Global Guide to the Beat Generation, City Lights: 2015, p.170
 Letters of Allen Ginsberg, p.267
 I Celebrate Myself, p.373
 “The Art of Poetry No.8: Allen Ginsberg”, The Paris Review, Spring 1966, Issue 37, accessed: http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/4389/the-art-of-poetry-no-8-allen-ginsberg
 I Celebrate Myself, p.402
 I Celebrate Myself, p.405
There are few places around the globe that fully encompass all things Beat Generation in t...
In this first episode of the Beatdom Podcast, your host, David S. Wills, talks with Charle...
“The whole Beat scene had very little to do with the participation of women as artists the...
Sixty years ago, on June 26th, 1960, an article with an odd title appeared in the Louisvi...
Love or hate him, venerate or revile him, the life and work of William Seward Burroughs co...
From Beatdom #14 Until really quite recently, of the “big names” that one thinks of ...