A Critical Discussion
of Allen Ginsberg’s “America”
By: Benjamin Ross
Allen Ginsberg’s “America” provides an in-depth critique on America in the midst of the Cold War. Ginsberg takes a critical look at the United States from both a social and a political perspective, and uses both sarcasm and blunt honesty to preach his views. This paper will examine the different voices and points of view Ginsberg uses to illustrate his points, as well as several themes which recur throughout the work.
The first thing to examine in “America” is the different voices, or points of view Ginsberg uses. Throughout the majority of the poem, America is addressed in the second person. With his sentences that begin “America…” and his use of the pronoun “you,” Ginsberg is speaking directly to America. This changes at critical junctures. After he reads the line “America I still haven’t told you what you did to Uncle Max after he came over from Russia,” he follows it with “I’m addressing you.” The function of this statement is to indicate that the line between himself and America is becoming convoluted.
The actual switch to first person occurs during Ginsberg’s discussion of Time Magazine. During this section his tone also switches—from sincere to sarcastic. He says “I’m obsessed by Time Magazine. I read it every week. Its cover stares at me every time I slink past the corner candy store. I read it in the basement of the Berkeley Public Library. It’s always telling me about responsibility.” This statement may not be meant to be taken literally, as Time Magazine, in many respects, is a microcosm of America itself. It reflects and perpetuates the ideals and culture towards which Ginsberg is expressing discontent. Interestingly it is also at this point in the poem where the line between first and second person becomes increasingly blurry until ultimately he affirms that he is America.
Why does Ginsberg switch from second person to first person? The second person to first person shift coincides with a shift in Ginsberg’s tone which changes from sincere to sarcastic. The first page of the poem is of the former tone. Ginsberg is concerned with the hegemonic acts of the government and the McCarthyist views which it holds. He is sincere in his concerns and admissions, to the extent which it incites sympathy from the reader.
Another possible explanation is that the first person shift (from Allen being “I” to America being “I”) happens beginning with his discussion of Time rather than following it. Maybe he isn’t the one who’s obsessed by Time Magazine and reading it every week. The “I” in these statements could refer to America not the author. This idea is supported by the statement “It occurs to me that I am America. I am talking to myself again.” The wording of this statement hints at a retroactive look at previous statements.
He finally breaks down and reveals “It occurs to me that I am America. I am talking to myself again.” For the next paragraph Ginsberg speaks in the first person beginning each sentence with an “I” rather than an “America.” The following paragraph returns to the second person, but Ginsberg retains the sarcastic tone rather than returning to the sincerity of the previous second person section.
The sarcasm continues in the following stanza when he compares the individuality of his strophes to the individuality of Henry Ford’s cars. The only individual aspect about Ford’s cars was that, thanks to interchangeable parts, they were all essentially the same. He uses the sarcastic tone to satirize America’s attitudes towards “them bad Russians.” The words “them bad Russians” in and of themselves imply an uneducated, tough-guy stance towards America’s most prominent adversary. “The Russia wants to eat us alive. The Russia’s power mad. She wants to take our cars from out our garages.” Ginsberg is mocking the images of Russia that have been conjured by American propaganda and the anti-communist witch hunt it has given birth to, a theme which I will discuss below.
Another theme to examine in “America” is defiance. The final twelve lines of the first page consist of a series of confessions of behaviors which do not comply with the social norms prescribed by mainstream America society. Ginsberg does not present his defiance in order to incite a rise out of the figurative addressee, nor does he attempt to mask his defiance. Rather, he states them in a matter-of-fact tone which I liken to the tone used as one describes behavior to a psychologist. These confessions consist of both activities which are either illegal or anti-social as well as “thought crimes” which society deems inappropriate. Yet, according to Ginsberg his psychoanalyst thinks that he’s fine. If the problem isn’t him, it must be America’s problem. Although the tone used for his admissions is sincere, there is an element of satire to them. Ginsberg states these admissions with sincerity, almost as if he believes himself to be out of line. Ultimately his motive is to call attention to behaviors which America fights to obliterate. He uses his sincerity to satirize America’s fight against communism, drugs, and other behaviors that are generally associated with Ginsberg and his contemporaries.
The theme of thought crimes is one which Ginsberg reintroduces throughout the poem. America was founded on the ideal of free speech and expression, but Ginsberg believes that this ideal has become contorted. In addition to his own thought crime, he sympathizes with others’. His condolences are extended to Tom Mooney, a left-wing labor activist, Sacco & Vanzetti, two Italian-American anarchists, and Scott Nearing, a professor with outward socialist beliefs—all of whom were enemies of the state on account of their respective thought crimes. Ultimately, these men were all silenced, either by execution or in Nearing’s case, a removal from his post.
Much of Ginsberg’s own thought crime centers around the theme of communism and Russia. He does not attempt to hide the fact that he is a communist sympathizer. He references the other million communists (Trotskyites) living in America and charges America with being unworthy of them. He becomes somewhat antagonistic towards the communist issue as he boasts “You should have seen me reading Marx. My psychoanalyst thinks I’m perfectly right.” In this statement he is proclaiming that normal, intelligent people can support communism.
The longest sentence of the poem provides some explanation for Ginsberg’s support of communism. This long, run-on sentence which begins “America when I was seven…” provides a positive depiction of communism in which food is cheap and people are “angelic and sentimental.” He concludes the strophe with a touch of sarcasm, stating that the communists he had associated with must have been spies.
The theme of Russia and communism reaches its climax in the final stanza when Ginsberg begins statements with “him” and “her” to compare America and Russia—“him” being America and “her” being Russia. What Ginsberg is implying by these statements is that Americans are quick to notice the downfalls and evils of communism, while simultaneously ignoring those of our own system. How can we criticize Russia’s policies when our government has committed such atrocities as slavery and the forced schooling of Indian children?
The main reason I chose to examine this particular poem is because I believe that outside of academia, our society is quick to overlook inconsistencies and grievances with our country, its people, and its government. I don’t believe (and I think Allen would agree) that our country is entirely evil and corrupt. Nor do I believe that America is much worse than most other places in the world. But I do believe we are easily deceived by the media and the government who paint an inaccurate picture of what really goes on in this country. This allows the evils that Ginsberg speaks of to continue. Are we really living in the land of the free when we ostracize people because of their beliefs? How is it that in a country founded on equality we attempt to execute a group of young boys simply because they’re black? Why are we developing nuclear weapons to obliterate enemies whose images we have created?
If Ginsberg were alive today, he would be increasingly frustrated with the current state of America. The Russian threat is over, but now its them bad Arabs we have to worry about, them bad Arabs and all them bad terrorists. Our economy is depressed, and crime is still rampant, but as long as we take care of them Iraqis, our government projects the image that they’re doing the right thing. Is this really what our country needs, or are there other concerns we should be addressing? Ultimately, America will not reach its full potential until we can take an objective look at ourselves in order to determine the appropriate course of action. In the words of Allen Ginsberg, we must finally “take off (our) clothes” and “look at (ourselves) in the mirror.”