World Citizen: Allen Ginsberg as Traveller. David S. Wills. Beatdom Books, 2019. 169 pages.
“Om Shri Maitreya.” “Om Shri Maitreya.” “Om Shri Maitreya.” So chanted Allen Ginsberg at a demonstration to legalize marijuana in New York City in 1965. It wasn’t just weed that expanded Ginsberg’s worldview.
In World Citizen: Allen Ginsberg as Traveller, David S. Wills, founder and managing editor of the popular Beat literary journal Beatdom, presents a new biography of Allen Ginsberg—one told through the prism of travel. Ginsberg’s life is recounted journey by journey, his development as a traveler meticulously recorded, and the influence of travel on his poetry noted for the first time.
Ginsberg may not have become the leading prophet of the Beat Generation had he not traveled to 66 nations during his lifetime. Gustave Flaubert famously observed, “Travel makes one modest, you see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.” Ginsberg benefitted from the perspective afforded by travel. He took that gift and transformed it into a “Howl” against materialism and superficiality that reverberates still today.
One of the most recognizable public figures of the 20th century, Ginsberg is one of the most important American poets of all time. Yet he was also a seasoned traveler, capable of spending months or even years on the road, surviving on his wits. For Ginsberg, travel was more than a frivolous hobby; it was something that shaped him as a poet, an activist, and a person. Without visiting Mexico in 1954, there would have been no Howl. Without visiting France in 1958, there would have been no Kaddish. Without visiting India in 1963, the image of Allen Ginsberg as a bearded hippie sage chanting mantras with finger cymbals would simply not have existed.
Drawing upon primary sources such as Ginsberg’s letters and travel journals, Wills, author of Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the ‘Weird Cult’, which examines the role of Scientology in the life of the American literary giant, has produced more than just another Beat biography. World Citizen is an insightful exploration of the role of “place” in creativity in general and poetic inspiration in particular. Ginsberg—the man and his poetry—was wonderfully complex. Wills deftly captures, examines, and illuminates one facet of Ginsberg’s “multitudes.”
Fans of the Beat Poets will love this book, as will fans of travel literature, to say nothing of hippies and free-spirits. There are a lot of books out there about Ginsberg, but this one is fresh because it has something new to say. It stands alone as an excellent biography, but it is much more than that. It’s worth a read. And if you’re not familiar with the Beat Poets, World Citizen is an excellent introduction.