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The “Howl” Trial

Lawrence Bush
March 25, 2018

Photo: Michiel Hendryckx

Some 520 copies of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, printed in England, were impounded by U.S. Customs on this date in 1957. Publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti was charged with promoting obscenity, and after a long trial (covered in a Life magazine picture story), the book was ruled not obscene in a decision that paved the way for the American publication of Lady Chatterly’s LoverTropic of Cancer, and other previously censored books. Ginsberg’s chilling title poem, rich with rage and heartache about conformity, materialism, censorship, inhibition, and madness, also has many Biblical allusions, including an entire section devoted to denouncing Moloch, the abominable god who demands idolatrous sacrifice: “Moloch the incomprehensible prison! Moloch the crossbone soulless jailhouse and Congress of sorrows! Moloch whose buildings are judgment! Moloch the vast stone of war!” Ginsberg remained a radical, liberationist, gay, holy Jewish poet until his death in 1997.

“The world is holy! The soul is holy! The skin is holy! The nose is holy! The tongue and cock and hand and asshole holy!”
—Allen Ginsberg

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.