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Themes

Many writers have explored America from the top down. They have focused on what the most renowned and respectable people do – the crème de la crème – and assume that it represents the country as a whole. Ginsberg works from the opposite direction: from the bottom up. His "best minds" are the people who fall asleep drunk on the subway and travel across the country in stolen cars. That's because, in Ginsberg's view, America has been flipped upside down, and democracy and the common man have taken a backseat to profits, politicians, and policemen. This perspective can sometimes seem very narrow and limited, but it's important to remember that Ginsberg witnessed a broader slice of America by the age of 29 than many people do in their entire lives. Howl is a chronicle of a wide range of American experiences.

Questions About Visions of America

  1. At what points does the poem bring up events in American history in the 1950s?
  2. As a political philosophy, Communism emphasizes international class identity over nationalism. Is the speaker of a poem a Communist? If so, can he still be an American?
  3. Does the speaker believe that America is doomed, or does he merely feel the country has gotten on the wrong track?
  4. Do you agree with the view that dissent is patriotic? Is Ginsberg patriotic for declaring his views so openly? What effect has Howl had on free speech in America?

Chew on This

Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.

The speaker of Howl does not have a problem with America in particular. Rather, in keeping with his Marxist views, he denies the value of the modern nation state as a concept.

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