“The author brings nuance to Allen’s views on mental illness, arguing that Allen had more ambivalent feelings about the anti-psychiatry movement than one might expect, and the author’s privileged access to material on the poet’s and Naomi’s institutionalizations make this a valuable resource for future biographers. Fans of the Beat Generation will be enlightened.” –Publishers Weekly
“Dr. Weine takes a serious, detailed look at how Allen Ginsberg’s personal encounters with mental illness became integral to his poetry. Best Minds is a unique contribution to the critical and biographical work on this troubled and brilliant Beat Generation poet. The book presents a brisk a challenge to “official” notions of mental illness by way of poetry and antipsychiatry. Its broad reach is also an enhancement to the growing field of literature and medicine.” –Hassan Melehy, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
“A masterpiece of definitive and seminal scholarship, Best Minds: How Allen Ginsberg Made Revolutionary Poetry from Madness will have a very special appeal to readers with an interest in the life and poetry of Allen Ginsberg… Best Minds is exceptionally well written, organized and presented — making it an inherently fascinating, informative, and insightful study.” –Midwest Book Review
“In Weine’s telling of the Naomi story, one is suddenly aware that readers of Beat Literature never had a clear or comprehensible picture of Naomi’s hospitalization records and treatments…The richness of this story does not alter the eventual poetic output of Allen, but it makes Ginsberg’s accomplishments more singular and more human.” –The Allen Ginsberg Project
A revelatory look at how poet Allen Ginsberg transformed experiences of mental illness and madness into some of the most powerful and widely read poems of the twentieth century.
Allen Ginsberg turned the madness he had encountered in his own life into a literary call to arms defending the human spirit against social oppression. The poem “Howl” opens with one of the most resonant phrases in modern poetry: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness.” But despite this poem’s international fame and notoriety, the madness referred to in “Howl,” “Kaddish for Naomi Ginsberg,” and multiple other poems remains an enigma today.
In BEST MINDS: How Allen Ginsberg Made Revolutionary Poetry from Madness (Fordham University Press; March 28, 2023; $34.95), psychiatrist, researcher, and scholar Stevan M. Weine, M.D. examines how Allen Ginsberg took his visions and psychiatric hospitalization, his mother’s devastating illness, confinement, and lobotomy, and the social upheavals of the post-war world and imaginatively transformed them.
As a Columbia University medical student preparing to enter psychiatry in 1986, Stevan Weine was especially curious about literary views of madness. Says Weine, “I worked up the courage to write to Ginsberg, one of my heroes, and asked him how he reconciled the different views of madness in his art and life. Much to my surprise and delight, Ginsberg called me and asked to meet the very next day. He let me interview him and offered access to his archives and psychiatric records, as well as to his mother’s psychiatric records, which nobody outside the hospital had seen. In multiple meetings over several years, Allen, as he asked to be called, mentored and encouraged me to pursue my investigation, making this book possible.”
Madness is often linked to hardship and suffering, but in BEST MINDS, Weine shows how Allen’s poetics involved a lifelong imaginative and hopeful reworking of mental illness. In Ginsberg’s hands, madness could lead to profound and redemptive aesthetic, spiritual, and social changes. Through his revolutionary poetry and social advocacy, Ginsberg dedicated himself to leading others toward new ways of being human and easing pain.
Throughout his celebrated career Ginsberg made us feel as though we knew everything there was to know about him. However, much has been left out about his experiences growing up with a mentally ill mother, his visions, and his psychiatric hospitalization.
In BEST MINDS, with a forty-year career studying and addressing trauma, Weine provides a groundbreaking exploration of the poet and his creative process especially in relation to madness.
BEST MINDS examines the complex relationships between mental illness, psychiatry, trauma, poetry, and prophecy―using the access Ginsberg generously shared to offer new, lively, and indispensable insights into an American icon. Weine also provides new understandings of the paternalism, treatment failures, ethical lapses, and limitations of American psychiatry of the 1940s and 1950s.
In light of these new discoveries, the challenges Ginsberg faced appear starker and his achievements, both as a poet and an advocate, are even more remarkable.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Dr. Stevan M. Weine is Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Illinois College of Medicine, where he is also Director of Global Medicine and Director of the Center for Global Health. He is the author of two books: When History is a Nightmare: Lives and Memories of Ethnic Cleansing in Bosnia-Herzegovinaand Testimony and Catastrophe: Narrating the Traumas of Political Violence.
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