Book Reviews: Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan — Together Again

By David Daniel

Because they were masters of performance, metamorphosis, and movement — of “containing multitudes” — Allen Ginsberg and Bob Dylan are the closest peers to Whitman America has yet produced.

Material Wealth: Mining the Personal Archive of Allen Ginsberg, compiled and annotated by Pat Thomas. Powerhouse Books. 256 pages. $58.
Bob Dylan: Mixing Up the Medicine, written and edited by Mark Davidson and Parker Fishel. Callaway Books. 607 pages. $100.

In 1997, the year Allen Ginsberg died, a friend of Bob Rosenthal, the poet’s executor, made it possible for me to visit Ginsberg’s apartment at 437 East 12th Street in the East Village. While not lavish, it was high-ceilinged and spacious. As I meandered through the branching rooms I had a sense of being on hallowed ground, eager to uncover revelatory signs of  the literary lion who had lived there for the last two decades of his peripatetic life. The decor was surprisingly scant. Some of his paintings; a selection of his black-and-white images shot on a Kodak Retina bought secondhand in a Bowery junk shop; tchotchkes acquired in his world-wandering. Nowhere were there hints of archives lurking about. But they were there.

Ginsberg, it happens, owned three units in the building, one for working, a second reserved for visiting guests … the other (perhaps?) for stockpiling history. He had long served as an unofficial Clerk of the Works for his friends. He kept track of careers: who was writing what and submitting where, who giving readings and performances, who was being honored, busted. All this documenting along with squirreling away journals, photos, posters, and manifestos for what became an expansive network of people. Keep in mind, this was the golden age of letter writing (something hard to grok now), and Ginsberg’s correspondence was voluminous, encompassing all the usual Beat suspects, as well as a wide swath of musicians, filmmakers, actors, editors, critics, public figures, politicians, and fans.

Among Baby Boomers, “Swedish death cleaning” is a thing, a method of decluttering one’s life so the task doesn’t fall to others after we’re gone. For most of us this is simple; when that someone is a landmark figure, however, an icon, this load of stuff becomes the “worldly goods” of which archives and libraries (and tax write-offs) are made. Material Wealth: Mining the Personal Archive of Allen Ginsberg (given the poet’s cling-free ethos, the title generates interesting crosscurrents) measures 12 x 10 inches, weighs several pounds, and is bound in a way that suggests a boxed manuscript. In other words, it is something between a book and a happening. On its cover, bearded and sporting a stars-and-stripes top hat, Ginsberg peers with owl-eyed invitation. Inside is an omnium gatherum of the poet’s ink scribbles, snapshot photos, drafts, broadsides, newspaper clippings, political manifestos, and much more. There’s a poster announcing Patti Smith’s first poetry reading, a handbill from the Rolling Thunder Revue tour, even a 32-page insert of previously unpublished Ginsberg writings. With its riot of full color images and a hundred kinds of typography — like a flashback of acid rock posters — the volume is a festive grab bag of ephemera.

But before rushing to cue up the Classics IV (“Faded photographs, covered now with lines and creases / Tickets torn in half, memories in bits and pieces…”) for a jaunt down memory lane, there’s more. This is also a guided journey through the momentous, often-chaotic times of a full and purposeful life: chapters are divvied up by years that correspond to historical and creative periods in Ginsberg’s life (Columbia days; Beat travels; Howl; 1968 Democratic convention; punk rock). What we get is a kind of Zelig/Forrest Gump mashup: when things were happening, the Jersey-born poet was often on the scene. The San Francisco Poetry Renaissance, the Summer of Love, the 1968 Democratic Convention and subsequent trial, protests against the Vietnam War — Ginsberg was there. And he was a living legend: a major poet who reveled in the role of goodwill ambassador for peace, human rights, and spiritual tolerance. And all the while, as the book makes clear, he maintained his street cred with multiple generations.

Material Wealth opens with an epigraph: “Seeing Ginsberg was like going to see the Oracle of Delphi. He didn’t care about material wealth or political power. He was his own kind of king.” So saith Bob Dylan, subject of his own new large-format treatment.

Bob Dylan: Mixing Up the Medicine is also an assemblage of images, graphics, and text. The subtitle, Treasures from the Bob Dylan Center, sets the project squarely in the archival realm. Located in Tulsa, Oklahoma (not coincidentally, close to the Woody Guthrie archives), the Center is the official — and ever-expanding — locus for all things Dylan. According to the Center’s website, the goal is to “educate, motivate and inspire visitors to engage their own capacity as creators.” This book is a lovingly culled representation of some of its treasures.

Photo: Callaway Arts & Entertainment/ Ken Regan

From across the span of years, now more than 80, from Zimmerman to Dylan, from hometown Hibbing to the world, the Center houses photos, paintings, posters, film stills, letters, and handwritten drafts of lyrics. Some of the material has never been publicly circulated before. There are interviews, bios of figures from Joan Baez to Lenny Bruce, Johnny Cash to Huey Newton, and more. A point of mutual connection (it appears in both books), is a memorable photo of Dylan and Ginsberg sitting cross-legged at Jack Kerouac’s grave in Lowell, Massachusetts, in November of 1975 when the Rolling Thunder Review came to town. Intermixed with the book’s pictorials are essays by a sweep of contributors, some three dozen in all, including Joy Harjo, Greil Marcus, Michael Ondaatje, and the ubiquitous Douglas Brinkley. These commentaries serve as a kind of Rosetta Stone, an illuminating accompaniment to this detailed vision of Dylan’s life and times and music, 50 albums and counting.

Because they were masters of performance, metamorphosis, and movement — of “containing multitudes” — Ginsberg and Dylan are the closest peers to Whitman America has yet produced. Taken together, these meticulously curated volumes celebrate achievement; they also exemplify the craft of creative bookmaking in a post-print-exclusive age. With the books priced at $58 and $100 respectively, endowed with an impressive coffee-table gloss, the question inevitably arises: Are they retailing nostalgia? Of course. On top of that, they will no doubt appeal to completists and collectors, who may never crack the spines. But for the many readers whose emotional attachment to the second half of the 20th century accrues daily, these books (along with the recent and similarly hefty collection of Paul McCartney’s photographs — 1964: Eyes of the Storm) will hold enormous appeal. For anyone wanting to relive — or engage with for the first time — the American cultural landscape post–World War II and beyond, Material Wealth and Mixing Up the Medicine are powerful time machines. Going beyond cold print and straight biography, they offer refreshingly prophetic visions of the past.

A regular contributor to the Arts Fuse, David Daniel is on the faculty at UMass Lowell and author of 10 novels and four collections of stories.


  1. H. Steven Soehnel on March 5, 2024 at 3:52 pm

    I have letters from Allen Ginsberg. Met Allen in Vermont. Early ’80s. I’m a poet and songwriter.

  2. David Daniel on March 6, 2024 at 7:08 pm

    Steven, that was Ginsberg all over. He was a great connector — no pretensions about his fame. When he’d give readings later in his life he’d like to sit in a local coffee shop afterwards and talk to all comers, drawing little ink sketches on napkins and giving them away.

    BTW: I know your book Black Water Falls.

  3. Daniel Gewertz on March 7, 2024 at 2:36 pm

    What a rich brew this double review is — delightful, distinguished, surprising. That last beautiful paragraph is a great poem unto itself. All hail the middle and late 20th century! Its like will not pass by this sphere again.

Leave a Comment

Recent Posts