The Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin recently acquired the archive of poet Peter Orlovsky, who was Allen Ginsberg’s lover, companion, and muse for more than 40 years. The archive is filled with correspondences from Ginsberg and other lovers, but one letter stands out. Ransom Center humanities coordinator Gregory Curtis on how a misunderstanding started between Ginsberg and writer Diana Trilling.
Beginning in the years just after World War II and lasting for decades afterward, there was an odd, unlikely, quietly seething literary and personal feud between Allen Ginsberg and the least Beat of all the writers of that era, Diana Trilling. They ignored each other when they could, but they were uncomfortably linked through Diana’s husband, the eminent literary critic Lionel Trilling. The two men had a mentor-student relationship that was sometimes strained but endured despite their great differences in taste and personality. Ginsberg revered Lionel Trilling, and Trilling appreciated at least some of Ginsberg's work and included one of Ginsberg’s poems in his anthology The Experience of Literature. Diana Trilling, on the other hand, could not abide Ginsberg. But why? The reason has only recently come to light with the discovery of a forgotten letter in the archive of Peter Orlovsky, Ginsberg’s lover, companion, and muse for more than 40 years.
Orlovsky hadn’t written poetry, or even read much poetry, until he met Ginsberg. But he began writing soon after and continued writing poems, letters, and journals as he wandered around the globe. Indeed, the archive, now housed in the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, is filled with letters from Ginsberg and other lovers—women, not men—wondering where he is and asking why he hasn’t written.
While his relation with Ginsberg endured a lifetime, Orlovsky’s other romantic attachments were women. The archive contains letters from three women in particular who wrote him very lively, engaging letters, often full of spice, that typically end with a note to “give my love to Allen.” One calls him “Ourlovesky” and chides him for spending so much time with Playboy magazine.
There are also letters from major figures associated with Beat literature—Philip Whalen, Ed Sanders, Gary Snyder, Anne Waldman, Lucien Carr, Ted Berrigan, Herbert Huncke, and many others. And then there is the letter from Diana Trilling.
It’s dated December 14, 1978. Orlovsky had evidently invited her to a party celebrating the publication of his book Clean Asshole Poems and Smiling Vegetable Songs where, as Orlovsky himself wrote on the invitations, fresh wild apple juice would be served. Perhaps only Peter Orlovsky, who was in general not a logical thinker, could have imagined Diana Trilling at a party for a book with that title or for any book written by a Beat. She hated the whole movement. In 1959 she had published an essay called “The Other Night at Columbia” in Partisan Review that described her horror and disgust at a reading given at Columbia by Ginsberg, Orlovsky, and Gregory Corso. The people in the crowd, she said, looked like they smelled bad. But at first she seems to respond to the invitation in a superior although still generous spirit. She declines with a deadpan “I’m afraid I’m not free that afternoon,” but continues with “I hope the book has a lovely life. Some day I shall drink a toast to you in fresh wild apple juice, as you suggest—it sounds like just my drink.”
Then, though her tone remains superior and outwardly friendly, she turns serious. “And do give my greetings to Allen, too,” she continues, “plus a message.” The message concerned a hapless series of events in 1945, thirty-three years before, that culminated in Ginsberg being expelled from Columbia for a year. Ginsberg had become annoyed that the woman the university employed to clean dormitory rooms never washed the window in his room. The grime on the window was so thick that Ginsberg was able to write both “Nicholas Murray Butler has no balls” (Butler was then president of Columbia) and “Fuck the Jews.” He thought that these messages would be so offensive that the woman would surely wash the window to get rid of them. Instead, she ran horrified to the dean of students. The dean sent a football coach who burst into the room early in the morning to find the offending words still on the window and Ginsberg asleep in bed next to Jack Kerouac where they had fallen asleep after a long night talking about literature and philosophy. There had been no sex. Ginsberg was still a virgin at the time and was too afraid to initiate anything. But Kerouac ran and left Ginsberg there to face the dean. Ginsberg solicited the help of his mentor Lionel Trilling, who arrived at the dean’s office with his wife Diana. The dean was too embarrassed to repeat out loud what Ginsberg had written on his window. Instead, not bothering to bring up the words about Nicholas Murray Butler, he seems to have written only “Fuck the Jews” on a piece of paper and pushed it across the desk to the Trillings.
Lionel Trilling was the first Jew who had ever been made a member of the English faculty at Columbia. Both he and Diana were very conscious of their Jewishness at the school. Diana took “Fuck the Jews” as an expression of what she presumed to be Ginsberg’s self-loathing at being a Jew himself. Her interpretation, once set, never changed. Not only that, she came to believe that after Ginsberg became famous, he wanted to hide this self-loathing and lied repeatedly about the incident over the following thirty-three years.
The invitation from Peter Orlovsky provided an opportunity for her to scold Ginsberg once again. After she asked Orlovsky to give Ginsberg a message, her reply continued:
Somewhere recently, for the second time, I saw a reference to the reason he had been suspended from Columbia: purportedly it was because he had written in the dust on a window in one of the halls: “Nicholas Murray Butler has no balls.” But this is not at all what Allen wrote. Surely he must remember that he wrote: “Fuck the Jews,” a message that admittedly hasn’t the same ring today that it had when Allen was a student. Allen has been at some pains to confront me with aspects of American history that he feels I have missed. I now confront him with an aspect of his personal history that I don’t think he should wish to revise. Even in the change that has taken place in our notion of how Jews are allowed to tease their Jewishness, there is an important truth which is worth preservation by people who, like Allen, care so much about historical fact. Love and good wishes to both of you for the New Year.
Orlovsky showed Trilling’s note to Ginsberg. He became so irritated by it that a few weeks later on January 15, 1979 he wrote Diana Trilling a 2,000 word letter in exasperation. He recounted the whole affair in detail and told her that he hoped the explanation would relieve her “of the fear that all these decades I have been nursing some terrible neurosis of Jewish Self.” He then goes on for a while but as he concluded the letter, he couldn’t resist telling her off:
It is not your information or opinions I am contesting, correcting or challenging here: what I’m aiming at is decades old, an attitudinal vanity masked as moral responsibility, and inability to get basic facts straight disguised as superior sinceritas.
“Don’t strike at the heart” the Buddhist slogans. True. Goodnight. I’ve written you a long long letter, I don’t believe in eternal damnation, you probably do, poor girl…it’s not important to be right.
This one short note in the Orlovsky archive reveals over 30 years of animosity. Diana Trilling would never have come to respect Ginsberg’s poetry, but at least she would not have spent all that time mistaken about Ginsberg.