In 1947 Saul Bellow published a novel called The Victim in which a derelict character named Kirby Allbee haunts another named Asa Leventhal, claiming that Leventhal is responsible for his downfall. Kirby, one of Bellow’s fabled fast talkers–all feverish self-abasement and joking insult–repeatedly baits Leventhal and at one point, when Leventhal murmurs something about Walt Whitman, says to him, “Whitman? You people like Whitman? What does Whitman mean to you people?”

Who could ever have dreamed that less than a decade after the publication of this novel not only would “you people” be announcing out loud that they liked Whitman, but it would appear that they themselves had reincarnated him. The day after Allen Ginsberg’s celebrated 1955 reading of “Howl” in San Francisco, Lawrence Ferlinghetti sent Ginsberg a telegram that read, “I greet you at the beginning of a great career”–the phrase that Emerson had used, writing to Whitman upon the publication, exactly a hundred years earlier, of Leaves of Grass.

Fifty years later, it is safe to say that Allen Ginsberg is the poet who, within living memory, most closely resembles Whitman. He, like Whitman, wrote an emblematic American poem that became world famous; was experienced pre-eminently as a poet of the people, at home among the democratic masses; developed a public persona to match the one in his writing–hugely free-spirited and self-promoting, an open-hearted exhibitionist. And he, again like Whitman, is remembered as a man in possession of an extraordinary sweetness that, throughout his life, welled up repeatedly to astonish the hearts of all who encountered him.

I met Ginsberg only twice, the first time at Jack Kerouac’s funeral in 1969. I was there for The Village Voice. It was my very first assignment as a working journalist. At the head of the viewing room stood the casket with Kerouac, hideously made up, lying in it. In the mourners’ seats sat Kerouac’s middle-class, French Canadian relatives–eyes narrowed, faces florid, arms crossed on their disapproving breasts. Around the casket–dipping, weaving, chanting Om–were Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky and Gregory Corso. Then there was Kerouac’s final, caretaker wife, a woman old enough to be his mother, weeping bitterly and looking strangely isolated. I sat mesmerized, staring in all directions. Suddenly, Ginsberg was sitting beside me. “And who are you?” he asked quietly. I told him who I was. He nodded, and wondered if I was talking to people. Especially the wife. I must be sure to talk to her. “Oh, no,” I said quickly. “I couldn’t do that.” Ginsberg nodded into space for a moment. “You must,” he murmured. Then he looked directly into my eyes. “It’s your job,” he said softly. “You must do your job.”

The second time we met, nearly twenty years later, was at an infamous meeting of the PEN board called to debate a letter (drafted by Ginsberg) that the Freedom-to-Write Committee had sent to Israel’s prime minister, taking his government to task for censoring Palestinian and Israeli journalists. I sat in my seat, listening to Ginsberg read his letter aloud to a packed room. He was now in his 60s, his head bald, his beard trim, wearing an ill-fitting black suit, the voice as gentle as I remembered it and twice as dignified. Although the letter had been signed by Susan Sontag, William Styron and Grace Paley, among others, it was Ginsberg himself who drew fire from the opposition. In a communiqué that had been sent earlier to the committee, Cynthia Ozick had all but accused him of being an agent for the PLO; and now, the essence of the charge coming from the floor seemed to be, It’s people like you who are destroying Israel. I remember Ginsberg standing there, his glasses shining, nodding in all directions, urging people toward compassionate reason. He never raised his voice, never spoke with heat or animosity, never stopped sounding thoughtful and judicious while all about him people were losing their heads. When he stepped from the microphone and was making his way through the crowd, I pressed his hand as he passed me and thanked him for the excellence of the letter’s prose. He stopped, closed his other hand over mine and, looking directly into my eyes, said softly, “I know you. Don’t I know you? I know you.”

Allen Ginsberg was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1926 to Louis and Naomi Ginsberg; the father was a published poet, a high school teacher and a socialist; the mother an enchanting free spirit, a passionate communist and a woman who lost her mental stability in her 30s (ultimately, she was placed in an institution and lobotomized). Allen and his brother grew up in a chaotic mixture of striving respectability, left-wing bohemianism and certifiable madness in the living room. It all felt large to the tormented, over-sensitive boy who, discovering that he lusted after boys, began to feel mad himself and, like his paranoid parents, threatened by, yet defiant of, the America beyond the front door.

None of this accounts for Allen Ginsberg; it only describes the raw material that, when the time was right, would convert into a poetic vision of mythic proportion that merged brilliantly with its moment: the complicated aftermath of the Second World War characterized by atomic bomb anxiety, a manipulated terror of godless Communism, the strange pathos of The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and the subterranean currents of romanticized lawlessness into which the men and women ultimately known as the Beats would funnel an old American devotion to the idea of revolutionary individualism.

When Ginsberg entered Columbia University in 1943 he was already possessed of a presentation of self, shall we say, that would make it impossible for him to gain the love of the teachers he most admired, namely Lionel Trilling and Mark Van Doren. (Trilling memorialized Ginsberg in his short story “Of This Time, Of That Place” as the brilliant student the academic narrator can experience only as mad.) To emulate these men would mean going into a kind of internal exile that Allen, even then, knew he could not sustain. His dilemma seemed profound. Then he met Jack Kerouac, also a student at Columbia. Through Kerouac he met William Burroughs; together they picked up a Times Square junkie poet named Herbert Huncke; and after that Neal Cassady, the wild man of all their dreams: a handsome, grown-up delinquent who drank, stole, read Nietzsche, fucked like a machine and drove great distances at great speeds for the sake of movement itself. As Burroughs put it, “Wife and child may starve, friends exist only to exploit for gas money…Neal must move.” Cassady, whose Collected Letters: 1944-1967 are to be published in July by Penguin, became Dean Moriarty in On the Road and the Adonis of Denver in “Howl.”

For Ginsberg, these men came to constitute a sacred company of inspired madmen destined to convert the poisoned atmosphere of America’s cold war politics into one of restored beauty–through their writing. The conviction among them of literary destiny was powerful. And why not? People like Ginsberg, Kerouac and Cassady are born every hour on the hour: How often do their lives intersect with a political moment that endows their timeless hungers with the echoing response of millions, thereby persuading them that they are, indeed, emissaries of social salvation? What is remarkable among this bunch–considering how much they drank, got stoned and flung themselves across the country in search of heavenly despair–is how well they sustained one another throughout their faltering 20s, when life was all worldly rejection and self-dramatizing desperation.

In 1949, now 23 years old, depressed and at loose ends, Ginsberg let Herbert Huncke–a true criminal–crash at his apartment, where Huncke proceeded to stash an ever increasing amount of stolen goods. Inevitably, the police appeared at the door, and everyone was arrested. Rescued from a prison sentence by friends, family and his Columbia teachers, Ginsberg was sent to the New York State Psychiatric Institute, where he spent eight months that did, indeed, change his life. Here he met the man to whom he would dedicate “Howl.”

Carl Solomon was Allen’s double–a Bronx-born, bisexual, self-dramatizing, left-wing intellectual. They saw themselves in each other almost immediately. Solomon held out his hand and said, “I’m Kirilov” (a character in Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed). Allen responded, “I’m Myshkin” (Dostoyevsky’s fabled Idiot). There was, however, one important difference between them: Solomon had lived in Paris, was soaked in existentialist politics and literature, and here, at New York Psychiatric, he introduced Allen to the work of Genet, Artaud and Céline, the mad writers with whom he instantly felt at one. Ginsberg marveled at Solomon’s melancholy brilliance and proceeded to mythicize it. If Carl was mad, it could only be that Amerika had driven him mad. When Ginsberg emerged from the institution, he had his vital insight in place: “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by/madness, starving hysterical naked,/dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn/looking for an angry fix.”

For the next few years he wandered, all over the country and halfway around the world, becoming a practicing Buddhist along the way. Arrived at last in San Francisco in 1954 (with Kerouac, Cassady and Corso dancing about him), here and now, in the American city experienced as most open (that is, farthest from the seats of Eastern power), he wrote his great poem, read it aloud one night in October of 1955–and awoke to find himself famous.

While thousands of young people responded to “Howl” as though they’d been waiting years to hear this voice speaking these words, the literary establishment promptly vilified it. Trilling hated the poem, John Hollander hated it, James Dickey hated it. And Norman Podhoretz hated it. Podhoretz hated it so much that he wrote about it twice, once in The New Republic and then again in Partisan Review. By the time these pieces were being written, On the Road had been published (Naked Lunch was coming right along behind it), and for Podhoretz the sky was falling. The Beats, he said, were the barbarians at the gate, rabble-rousers who “embraced homosexuality, jazz, dope-addiction and vagrancy” (he got that part right), at one with “the young savages in leather jackets who have been running amuck in the last few years with their switch-blades and zip guns.” Jack Kerouac was cut to the quick, and wrote to complain that the Beats were about beatitude, not criminality; they were here to rescue America (from corporate death and atomic bomb politics), not destroy her.

In American Scream, Jonah Raskin, Ginsberg’s latest biographer, recalls vividly the summer of 1957 when “Howl” was brought to trial in San Francisco on charges of obscenity, with a wealth of writers testifying on behalf of the poem’s literary value. In retrospect–and this is a major insight of Raskin’s–the trial can now be seen as an opening shot at the start of a culture war destined to throw long shadows across American life. And indeed, throughout the 1960s, both the poem and its author were celebrated, the former as a manifesto of the counterculture, the latter as one of its emblematic figures.

Today, nearly fifty years after it was written, “Howl” is never out of print, is read all over the world (it’s been translated into more than two dozen languages) and by most standards is considered a literary classic. Like Leaves of Grass, it is an ingenious experiment with the American language that did what Ezra Pound said a great poem should do: make the language new. Its staccato phrasing, its mad juxtapositions and compacted images, its remarkable combining of the vernacular with the formal–obscene, slangy, religious, transcendent, speaking now in the voice of the poet, now of the hipster–is simply an astonishment. “Even today,” as Raskin says, “reading the poem yields a feeling of intoxication. The words produce an electrical charge that is exhilarating.”

In American Scream, Raskin sets out to tell the story of how Ginsberg came to write “Howl,” tracing in a kaleidoscopic fashion the influences at work on the young Allen as he moved frantically through the years toward the moment of his posterity. The book eschews straightforward chronology for a technique of cross-cutting that returns us again and again to people, places and circumstances we thought we had left behind; and jumps ahead, as well, in the middle of an episode to include a detail or an observation that belongs to events still to come, in very much the way that a narrative is interrupted or anticipated in a movie, or in conversation. This is meant to enrich the texture of the experience being shaped, but for many readers, this one included, the technique is wearisome.

That said, the book is a pleasure to read, as it is saturated in the atmosphere of its subject and brings to life the grainy texture of the political and cultural moment of Ginsberg’s youth almost as strongly as it does the vivid figure standing squarely in the foreground. Raskin captures wonderfully Ginsberg’s feverish hunger for poetry and glory as he moves through the late 1940s, prowling the streets of New York as if it were Dostoyevsky’s Petersburg; rising in an English class at Columbia to terrify students and teachers alike with some brilliant, unpunctuated rant; looking for sex in Times Square; seeing Blake in a vision in his own kitchen; nodding wordlessly when the cops ask him if he is a homosexual.

Raskin also makes us see why Ginsberg survived his own youth while Kerouac and Cassady could not. They were all men of excess, but Ginsberg alone could put the excess to use. Neal Cassady was a drifter through and through. To read his letters–although the ones to his writer friends are richly literate–is to see a man perpetually on the run from himself. It was all drugs, drink, women and motion without a stop. He is forever in the car hurtling toward New York, Denver or California. If he stops, it’s to get one woman pregnant, marry a second, start an affair with a third, all in what feels like the space of a month; then it’s back in the car, writing to each one, “I’ll be home in a week, babe, ten days at the latest.” Except for the books, Kerouac was not so very different. Neither of these men could inhabit the space he actually occupied at any given moment. Each had a leak somewhere in the middle of himself that made experience drain exhaustingly away (both died in their 40s).

Ginsberg, on the other hand, was remarkably heart-whole; it made all the difference. His experience nourished him, gave him the strength to complete the self-transformation he had been bent on from the beginning. I don’t think it an exaggeration to say that when he died at 70 his life had given new meaning to the word “self-created.” For the formal poets and critics of his generation Ginsberg would remain only an original: the gifted, problematic amateur (in 1963 Robert Lowell wrote to Elizabeth Bishop, “The beats have blown away, the professionals have returned”). For American culture, however, Ginsberg had, like Walt Whitman, become an inspirited incarnation: the authentic made-in-America holy fool.