Cold War Correspondents: Ginsberg, Kerouac, Cassady, and the Political Economy of Beat Letters

By Harris, Oliver | Twentieth Century Literature, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

Cold War Correspondents: Ginsberg, Kerouac, Cassady, and the Political Economy of Beat Letters


Harris, Oliver, Twentieth Century Literature


On June 23, 1953, an aspiring poet employed as a copyboy for the New York World Telegram wrote a long letter to an old friend in San Jose. The letter ends by reproducing a telegraph sent to President Eisenhower protesting what David Caute has called "the midsummer's night of postwar anti-Communist, anti-Soviet hysteria" (62)--the electrocution of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, the so-called atom spies: "Rosenbergs are pathetic, government Will sordid, execution obscene America caught in crucifixion machine only barbarians want them burned I say stop it before we fill our souls with death-house horror" (Ginsberg, As Ever 150). Since the copyboy was Allen Ginsberg and the friend Neal Cassady, the letter witnesses a precise intersection of the dominant narrative action of early Cold War America and its dissident counternarrative as represented by key figures in the emergent Beat movement. However, in context of the exemplary character of Beat cultural politics, Ginsberg's telegram of public protest is not just atyp ical--his friends were shocked at him for "doing anything outright about his political complaints" (Carolyn Cassady, Off the Road 222)--but anomalous. What's important is not the intersecting of narratives, personal and political, dominant and dissenting, but their correspondence. Defining the relation between Cold War and Beat generation along the double axis private/public and personal/political, Ginsberg's letter turns out to be a key document, and this unlikely point of departure brings to light a scene that is central to what might be termed the political economy of Beat letters.

The Rosenberg case was one of a series of national and highly public trials stamped by the paranoid style of American politics, a style that responded to global stalemate by waging domestic war on enemies within. This was a total conflict fought on microscopic scale and through inflated symbolic dramas, so that the early Cold War years were marked by an unprecedented politicization of culture and by the conscription of private life in the name of national security. The key to political containment abroad was, then, personal self-containment at home, and the Cold War penetration of the private by the public was as much a matter of patriotic self-policing and voluntary self-censorship as of panoptic state surveillance. In context of this disciplinary and demonizing feature of Cold War culture, the hyperbolic escalation of the Rosenbergs into evil "atom spies"--condemned to death by Judge Irving Kaufman for a "diabolical conspiracy to destroy a God-fearing nation" (qtd. in Caute 67)--represented a definitive es calation of the local. The Rosenberg case did not prove that scientific secrets vital to national security had been betrayed. Rather, it proved the assumption that an absolute secret existed in the first place--what Caute called the Myth of the Vital Secret--and that it might be given away by what passed for ordinary men and women. Absolute secrets demand absolute secrecy. The Secret therefore motivates all the secrets of everyday life and equals their apocalyptically scaled-up master narrative: it symbolized the total implications of mundane acts in a war whose front line was, ideally, not just here or there but everywhere and implicating everyone.

What turned the Rosenberg case into a central document in this politicized field of Cold War culture was its transformation into a particular kind of text-an epistolary text. I refer to Death House Letters, the correspondence between Ethel and Julius from their cells in Sing Sing. This notorious exchange served as vital political propaganda for the Rosenbergs at the time and was then used as an essential text against their intellectual sympathizers in the aftermath of their deaths. Here I refer to the articles in Commentary and Encounter by Robert Warshaw and Leslie Fiedler respectively, two cultural critics who took it upon themselves to subject the Rosenbergs to a second trial, this time by New Critical close readings of their letters. …

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