An excerpt from World Citizen: Allen Ginsberg as Traveller by David S. Wills

The following passage is an excerpt from World Citizen: Allen Ginsberg as Traveller. The events below took place in 1947, during Ginsberg’s first trip to a foreign country.

Leaving America

World Citizen: Allen Ginsberg as Traveller by David S. WillsIn late July, Allen asked Neal to accompany him to Texas. He’d planned this much earlier, even asking Huncke to build them a bed in anticipation of the wild sex Allen hoped would take place. However, in Denver it had been increasingly obvious that Allen’s affections were misplaced and that any long-term sexual or romantic relationship between the two men was pure fantasy on Allen’s part. Nevertheless, Cassady agreed, and several weeks later they took off for New Waverly together.

They hitch-hiked from Denver—leaving at 2 am one morning, travelling down through Oklahoma and Texas—to New Waverly, leaving behind the mighty Rocky Mountains, traversing the endless plains, and entering bayou country. Their journey took two days. In a story often told through Ginsberg’s writings, in the middle of Oklahoma, at an empty intersection as night began to fall, he and Cassady knelt and pledged their souls to one another in a “vow to stick with each other and be spiritual lovers, if not physical.”1 It was a key moment in Ginsberg’s life, although he realised years later that it meant almost nothing to Cassady.

When they arrived, they found life on the farm in even more disarray than usual, with Burroughs short on money, and Joan and Huncke scraping by with a diminished supply of amphetamines. As could be expected, the trip was unsatisfactory for both Ginsberg and Cassady. It began with Huncke’s failure to produce a bed on time for the honeymooning couple—which is how Allen viewed them—and continued as Ginsberg finally came to understand that the relationship was doomed. They had sex from time to time, using the bedroom Huncke kindly gave up for them, but there was no love in the sense that Allen wanted. He began to contemplate the troubles that would develop further down the road as they returned to New York together, and determined that the situation was simply hopeless.

Within a week of arriving on the farm, Ginsberg had made up his mind to leave. There was no hope of any future with Cassady, something that had been obvious to everyone but Ginsberg for a long time. He claimed to have enjoyed “the serenity of the bayou,” but by 3rd September he was already in Houston, at the Union Hall, and had accepted a job as a messman on a ship to Marseille, France, going via Gibraltar. He wrote his father to say he was “so disgusted with personal & financial & aesthetic problems that shipping out seemed the only way out.”2 Initially, he had wanted to find a ship headed for New York so that he could arrive back in time for the new semester with a pocketful of much-needed cash, but by 3rd September he had already made up his mind that he was going to miss the semester: “I’ve decided not to enter till January for obvious reasons. Financial & emotional are predominant.”3 As Cassady later wrote to Kerouac, “He shipped out partially for money. The other reason is me.”4 From Ginsberg’s journals, it seems likely that he dreaded being in New York at the same time as Cassady.

The freighter to Marseille wasn’t scheduled to leave until the sixth, so he returned to the farm for a few days. Then, on the fifth, Ginsberg, Cassady, and Huncke drove together to Houston. Huncke was looking for drugs, while Cassady had promised Allen one last night of sex. Allen even borrowed money from Burroughs to pay for the room. However, Cassady managed to enrage both Ginsberg and Huncke by picking up a young, possibly mentally-handicapped girl to sleep with. Cassady’s actions were so abhorrent that Huncke felt embarrassed by association, and Allen remonstrated with him so much the following morning that he missed his departure, landing him in hot water with the Maritime Union. They returned to the farm, where Burroughs was furious that they’d forgotten to buy ice and thus ruined all his frozen food. The next day, Cassady drove Ginsberg back to Houston, where he spent a few days “stealing Pepsi-Cola bottles to cash in and buy candy bars for hunger.”5

Although Ginsberg now knew he was homosexual and had admitted as much to many of his friends, he had not yet told his father, and so Louis was confused and worried to hear from his son as Allen seemed to cavort aimlessly around the West. The little boy who’d grown up close to home and been engrossed in his studies was now under the influence of miscreants and threatening to throw his whole life away, or so it appeared. His letters from the West had been unbalanced and clearly upset Louis. Allen sought to allay his father’s fears in a letter written from on board his next ship, on 12th September, the day it left port:

If you need reassurance, I have (& always had) every intention of getting my degree. My motives in shipping out are spiritual, to be sure (I’m tired of everybody) but are predominantly practical, and I embark mostly for financial reasons. I will come back with a few hundred dollars, I expect (and some souvenirs). I am flat broke otherwise, and I don’t want to have to squeeze thru another term borrowing money, & trying to live on $15 a week. Of course I could go back & work part time, but I also want psychoanalysis and that will take a lot more money, & the only thing for me to do, Lou, is to do what I’m doing. Aside from that, it will be healthful & will be a pleasant experience. I’ve already gained weight & my physique, curiously enough, is already improved; further, I feel finer than I have in a long time, and wait departure with much amiable anticipation, etc. etc.6

Clearly, the purpose of this letter was to make his worried father feel better, and the last lines quoted above are probably not entirely true. His motivation for shipping out was more to do with the “spiritual” reasons mentioned first, as well as financial ones. His time at sea earned him a lot of money, and he certainly did intend to undergo psychoanalysis. In March he had written to Wilhelm Reich (of whose work Burroughs was an advocate) for advice, and he’d mentioned analysis in his previous 3rd September letter to Louis, stressing then that it was probably the most important factor in his decision to ship out. However, if he was trying to make his father feel better, he probably failed when he asked Louis to inform his school that he would not be attending the fall semester. Allen certainly intended to return in the spring and graduate the following June, but he had foolishly neglected to inform Columbia that he would not be attending the semester that commenced only a week after he left the U.S.

Amazingly, despite all the negative things that happened to him on his journey that summer, he claimed not to have regretted it. He lamented the suffering he had brought upon himself through “blunders of my own will,” but said “the experience has been more salutary than I can describe.”7 Certainly, he had learned a lot about himself, about life, and even made poetic breakthroughs on this seemingly doomed journey.

On 12th September, 1947, he shipped out as a utility man on a collier, the S.S. John Blair, for the Ponchelet Marine Corporation. It departed from Freeport, seventy-five miles south of Houston, going through Galveston, passing near Cuba and Haiti—whose mountains Allen watched pass by—and headed for Dakar, capital of the federation of French West Africa, in what is now known as Senegal. Dakar, on the western coast of Africa, had a long colonial history; although, like most European colonial possessions, by 1947 it was nearing the end of its subjugation. Once a major trading port for African slaves, Dakar had a strategic location that ensured its privileged position within the French Empire. The French West African territories were placed under the control of a single governor, who was located in Dakar, and so it had become a seat of power in the region. Indeed, by the early twentieth century, it had become a major city in the empire. As rights were slowly and inconsistently handed out to “French subjects”—i.e. the Africans whose homelands had been annexed by the French—the people born in Dakar were the first to be given the right to vote, and it was from here that the first ever black African elected to the French government was born, Blaise Diagne. A year before Allen’s visit, the French Empire had rebranded itself the French Union to give the appearance of equality, and more limited rights were being rolled out; however, more substantial change was on the horizon, with independence just over a decade away.

Though Ginsberg professed to care deeply for a “free humanity” and in equal rights for all men, at times wondering if he should curtail his poetry efforts as a means of devoting himself to an older goal of becoming a labour lawyer and fighting more directly for people’s rights, he was nonetheless drawn to somewhat colonial era ideas of Africa. He was “longing for” Africa as a “mysterious” dark land where he could find a native boy to sleep with. He was also keen to find opium and experience life in this exotic land, no doubt excited to follow in the footsteps of his poet hero, Rimbaud—albeit on the opposite side of the giant continent. His rather less literary influences were Tarzan and Bomba, the Jungle Boy—a slightly more racist version of Tarzan in comic book and movie form from his youth—which he noted had informed his expectations of Africa.

The 5,000 mile journey to Africa involved twenty days on the way out, ten days in port at Dakar, and twenty days back. As the S.S. John Blair approached Dakar, the westernmost point of Africa, Allen was in yet another fit of despair, and contemplating suicide by throwing himself into the sea as Hart Crane had done. As recounted by Bill Morgan in his biography, I Celebrate Myself, Ginsberg stood on deck, holding the rail, staring into the dark ocean. He was going to jump into the water—a silent, romantic death—but then the lights of Dakar appeared, and the crew set about preparing for their arrival, forestalling his suicide. He hadn’t left a suicide note, he realised, although he had previously drafted several in his journals.8

His chief poetic output from the journey to Dakar was a series of poems collected as “Dakar Doldrums.” As with the “Denver Doldrums” he’d previously written, these sorrowful poems address his mental state as he pities himself for loving Neal Cassady. Throughout the poem, written in classical language, rather than the “hepcat” voice he had previously developed, he laments his suffering during his “sacramental passage.” They also act as a sort of journal, which Ginsberg later called a “psychic diary”, for his experiences at sea.9

Twenty days have drifted in the wake
Of this slow aged ship that coal
From Texas to Dakar. I, for the sake
Of little but my casualessness of soul
Am carried out of my chill hemisphere
To unfamiliar summer on the earth.
I spend my days to meditate a fear
Each day I give the sea is one of death.10

This was another poem about a voyage that would win Ginsberg a poetry prize—the Columbia Boar’s Head competition in 1948. Although his own journeys—at sea and on land—were marked by depression, they were artistically fruitful, giving him subject matter for his poetry, time to write, and often allowing him time to develop breakthroughs in form, structure, or voice. Here, Ginsberg subverted the traditional mode by secretly dedicating the poem to Cassady. A reader in 1948 would have assumed the first line: “Most dear, and dearest at this moment, most” was addressed to a woman.

In spite of his self-pity, Ginsberg felt strongly enough about his work to submit “Dakar Doldrums” to the competition, though he had remarked in a letter to Cassady: “I have two hundred beautiful lines from Dakar and I don’t care about it except to show you and have you praise me for them.”11

When they arrived at Dakar—the first time Ginsberg ever set foot on foreign soil—they were surrounded by “dozens of blacks” who dressed in white shorts or trousers and typically went shirtless or wore ragged shirts. Lots of local boys attempted to sell things to the sailors, including women and marijuana. Ginsberg, who had studied French in school, was able to communicate with them, including one of the “natives” who was willing to do all of his work for him, which was mainly kitchen porter duties like scrubbing pots and pans and peeling potatoes.12 All Allen had to do was light the fire and make sure the “native” was doing his job, while he sat back reading and writing until the evening. For someone ostensibly opposed to colonialism, it was a surprising thing to boast about in his letters. It is nonetheless interesting to observe the development of this skill, which Ginsberg had developed in previous journeys, of avoiding doing too much work so as to maximise his literary efforts.

Despite remarking to Herbert Huncke that Dakar “looks like a perfect second hand copy of Texas,” and saying that he felt very much at home there, he also described it in terms that rather set it apart from Texas or, for that matter, anywhere he’d previously visited:

Lots of adobe huts, grass shacks, modernistic plastic government buildings, nutty colonials, beggars etc . . . people in fantastic costumes dancing around the fire with [a] dozen tom-toms.1

He seemed to thoroughly enjoy Dakar, in contrast with the depression he’d suffered on board the S.S. John Blair. He told Huncke that he was “sent,” which means “ecstatic” in hipster talk, and said, “this place is so mad I’m overwhelmed.” To his father, he wrote that he was “having a wild time” and echoed his remarks above about it being similar to Texas.14 He was able to easily acquire marijuana for “a penny a stick” but lamented that “sex is nowhere here” even though he had commissioned someone to find boys for him to sleep with.15 His terms were that the boys must be fifteen or sixteen years old, desperate for money, and handsome. It was only on his final day in Dakar that Allen’s source found him a boy. Alas, the boy in question appears to have been handicapped, and, although desperate, Ginsberg could not bring himself to take advantage of the poor kid, whom he paid off before returning to the ship. Dakar had not been as exciting as he had hoped, and he had failed to find either the opium or uninhibited homosexual intercourse that he wanted, but it is clear from his letters that overall it was a positive experience. Several years later, he would be telling stories “about Dakar witch doctors and New Orleans whorehouses,” making himself out to be quite the experienced voyager. 16

In addition to his long poem, “Dakar Doldrums,” another significant piece of work that emerged from the trip to Africa was his short story, “The Monster of Dakar.” In fact, it is clear that when comparing the so-called short story to Ginsberg’s actual experiences, it was more of a creative memoir than a piece of fiction, and a few years later, in his journal, he contemplated editing it into an actual short story, whereas currently it was “an actual confession.”17 While in his “Dakar Doldrums” poetry, he simply disguised his lover’s gender, he labelled his prose as fiction and allowed his narrator to admit his homosexuality. This, too, would be submitted to a literary competition after a few years, though he did not win the first prize, which was a trip to Paris.

In the story, Ginsberg’s protagonist is looking back on the year 1947 from the future, remarking that in the middle of that year he was “out on my own in the world for the first time” and briefly reflects upon his failed relationship with Cassady. From there, he recounts his life on the seas, colourfully portraying a diverse crew of misfits, including a handsome Texan who appears like a hybrid of Lucien Carr and Neal Cassady. He says of his expectations for Africa:

We were headed for Dakar which in my mind I had already equipped with a white stepped Casbah, incense, opium, hashish, Arabian boys, a foreign colony of broken down middle European intellectuals, everybody talking French or Arabic, and the backwoods jungles, with moth-eaten or beautiful Africans, as the case might be. (The map showed a desert and that was fine.) I longed to see Africa, it was my first trip to that great continent, I knew all about it instinctively.

My plan for Africa was an orgy of drugs and native boys: to smoke opium at last, something I had never done, and buy a man and have a totally uninhibited ball for the first time in my life. I had visions of a dark hotel room or a mud hut, nakedness, fire light and a dirt floor.18

Interestingly, mirroring his work from Denver, Dakar as a physical place warranted little description: “The town itself was nothing. It’s just a new port town with no traditions of its own.” Instead, Ginsberg describes his own thoughts and desires and activities. He is the titular monster, drawn to prey upon the uneducated, underage, and possibly mentally-handicapped local boys—“That’s why I set out from America to begin with,” he claims. He also captures the people—the sailors on the ship from Puerto Rico and Texas, as well as the local men and boys in Dakar, including a group of lepers.

Notes

1 Miles, Barry. Ginsberg: A Biography, p.89
2 Ginsberg, Allen and Louis. Family Business Relationships, p.15
3 ibid
4Neal Cassady: Collected Letters, p.56
5 Ginsberg, Allen. Journals: Early Fifties Early Sixties, p.19
6 Family Business, p.16-17
7 Family Business p.15
8 Morgan, Bill. I Celebrate Myself: The Somewhat Private Life of Allen Ginsberg, p.96
9Book of Martyrdom and Artifice, p.213
10 Book of Martyrdom and Artifice, p.470
11The Letters of Allen Ginsberg, p.20
12 Book of Martyrdom and Artifice, p.232-233
13 Book of Martyrdom and Artifice, p.228
14 ibid
15 ibid
16Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg: The Letters, p.115
17 Book of Martyrdom and Artifice, p.378
18 Book of Martyrdom and Artifice, p.231

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