Brief Thoughts On: Thomas Paine - Common Sense / Allen Ginsberg - Howl

There is opportunity for a quick analysis of Alan Ginsberg’s Howl and Thomas Paine’s Common Sense for their shared sensibilities of rebellion and enthusiasm for individual, secular thought. This rebellious ambition was notably not without its consequences. As Richard Gray, in his textbook A History of American Literature, states, “national fame was almost guaranteed with the confiscation of copies of Ginsberg’s Howl by the San Francisco police” (611). This act along with the 1957 obscenity trial against the bookstore owner Shig Murao for selling Howl directly translate as a nonacceptance from American authority of Ginsberg’s powerful statements including graphic, but real depictions of American life as free individuals. Similarly, as Richard Gray points out regarding Thomas Paine’s stance in 1776 at the time of his writing of Common Sense, “Paine was unambiguously enthusiastic about the Revolution” (65). Common Sense was a publication sharing an admirable quality of bravery. While Paine uses explicit language to propose a republican government in the wake of the American revolution, Ginsberg utilizes timely imagery of his generation “who burned cigarette holes in their arms protesting the narcotic tobacco haze of Capitalism”. This illustration of great minds rebelling in such a physical fashion reinforces the power of the individual not only as a mind and soul, but also as a physical being against the great power of Capitalism, even specifically the corporations who hold an inordinate amount of power in America.

In Paine’s time, rebellion took shape in the form of outright war and separation from England, America’s oppressor. He is very explicit in stating, “Britain hath not manifested the least inclination towards a compromise” and “Thousands are already ruined by British barbarity”. His urgency is clear, as is his direct rejection of England’s power in favor of the power of the individual man and his agency as a member of a republican government in America when he proposes, “the king is not to be trusted without being looked after...a thirst for absolute power is the natural disease of monarchy”. This criticism of absolute power is consistent in Paine’s works, which reflects a budding American thinker’s attitude in the midst of its gaining freedom. Thomas Paine’s writing considers his environment in a brand new America, reflecting a time of long endured oppression. He considers American government a result of “the inability of moral virtue to govern the world”. A morality with which England had attempted and failed to justly rule its colonies. Ginsberg’s perspective during the 1950s depicts a direct representation of his environment, reflecting on specific experiences and people like those “who threw potato salad at CCNY lecturers on Dadaism” and criticism of individualistic ideals such as “Dreams! adorations! illuminations! religions! the whole boatload of sensitive bullshit!”. His perspective is more heavily influenced by an America at the start of the Vietnam War and a public who were fed up with the state of the country. He references a “United States that coughs all night and won’t let us sleep” and an American environment of “Robot apartments! invisible suburbs! skeleton treasuries! blind capitals! demonic industries!”. This critical view of America is evidence of a struggling country in the fifties. Both Ginsberg and Paine use criticism of power and praise for the importance and capability of the individual American citizen in different eras but with shared potency.

Works Cited

Gray, Richard. A History of American Literature. Available from: MBS Direct, (2nd Edition). Wiley Global Research (STMS), 2011. Accessed 6 July 2023.

Ginsberg, Allen. “Howl by Allen Ginsberg | Poetry Foundation.” Poetry Foundation, 2019, Accessed 4 July 2023.

Paine, Thomas. Common Sense., The Project Gutenberg, 10 August 2021. Accessed 4 July 2023.