Accompanied by a backing band, American poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti gives a reading at the Jazz Cellar nightclub, San Francisco, California, February 1957. (Photo by Nat Farbman/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Beat Poet

Accompanied by a backing band, American poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti gives a reading at the Jazz Cellar nightclub, San Francisco, California, February 1957. (Photo by Nat Farbman/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s poetry is among the most popular and penetrating of the 20th century. As a bookseller, publisher and anti-censorship campaigner, he supported some of modern culture’s most significant movements – including the Beat Generation

Today, the day of his 100th birthday, Lawrence Ferlinghetti becomes a rarity among rarities. He is, after all, joining an uncommon club. A few years ago, a government study estimated that there were about 72,000 centenarians in the United States – which was only 0.02 per cent of the entire US population at the time, and lower than the number of Wiccans. For all the talk of ageing populations, fewer than one in 5,000 Americans will make it to the landmark; the uppermost part of the demographic spectrum is still a sparsely occupied territory.

But Ferlinghetti was already an uncommon man. His birthday was marked earlier this week with a party at the bookstore which he opened in San Francisco more than 65 years ago. He wasn’t present for the celebrations – despite keeping fit with a rowing machine in his home office, his eyesight is failing him – but copies of his new autobiographical novel, Little Boy, put in a resounding appearance.

It is the latest product of a writing career that has included one of the best-selling poetry books in American history, A Coney Island of the Mind, and yet his own writing may not be the greatest of Ferlinghetti’s accomplishments. As a publisher and a political actor, he helped to deliver some of the most significant cultural changes of the 20th century.

Ferlinghetti’s life began on America’s east coast, under a different name. His father, who arrived from Italy in the late 19th century, had cut the family name down to “Ferling” – and so Lawrence Ferling was born in Yonkers, New York, on 24 March 1919.

Ferlinghetti poses with an autoharp in San Francisco

It was in the west, however, where Ferling became Ferlinghetti, both literally and figuratively. After serving in the Second World War and then studying literature, he moved to San Francisco, as so many other artists did during those years, and thrust himself into the city’s literary scene. The name of Lawrence Ferling became almost as prominent in poetry journals as the man was in person. In photographs from the time he is precipitously tall, with eager eyes, a receding hairline and buttoned-down clothing. He looks rather like a door-to-door salesman who is shooting for record sales figures.

The superficial image is not, in this case, entirely misleading. One of Ferlinghetti’s distinguishing qualities is his ability to mix freewheeling art with hard-headed commerce, demonstrated most clearly in 1953. That year, he introduced himself to Peter D Martin, the editor of a literary magazine to which he contributed, and soon after they each stumped up $500 to open a bookstore. They called it City Lights, after the Charlie Chaplin film.

Located in a broad-shouldered building in the north-east corner of San Francisco – where it is still open for business – City Lights was something different. It was the first all-paperback bookstore in the US, although customers didn’t visit just for the books. From the start, the shop operated a policy of staying open until midnight, seven days a week, meaning that readings and conversations could go on into the messier hours. Poetry would mix with jazz and wine, and the place quickly became the unofficial headquarters for San Franciscan Bohemianism.

City Lights’ already-sizeable influence expanded after Martin sold his share to Ferlinghetti in 1955, and the bookstore became a book publisher as well. This was around the time when Ferlinghetti reconnected with his Italian heritage and had the “-hetti” officially appended to his name. His completed name would appear on the cover of his first poetry collection, Pictures of the Gone World, which was also the first title in the City Lights Pocket Poets series. It had a striking yellow cover with a black border, and the very democratic price of 75 cents on the back.

Two more titles would follow – Kenneth Rexroth’s translations of Thirty Spanish Poems Of Love And Exile and Kenneth Patchen’s Poems of Humor and Protest – before Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems became the fourth book in the series. It was a natural selection for Ferlinghetti’s publishing venture, not least because of its San Franciscan connections. The then-unheard-of Ginsberg had conceived of Howl, his great cry of anguish at the state of post-war America, while high on peyote in an apartment less than half a mile away from City Lights. As he stared out on the city’s skyline, buildings turned into representations of the terrible and ancient god Moloch, a vision that would become the centrepiece of the poem.

Allen Ginsberg in Hyde Park, London, 1967

Howl surpasses Jack Kerouac’s On the Road as the defining text of what Kerouac himself named the Beat Generation – a group of poets, novelists and intellectuals who lived and wrote wildly, and who privileged spontaneity and honesty in their work. Ferlinghetti always denies belonging to this group, preferring to attach the label “wide-ranging” to his own poetry, in reflection of its expansive and painterly textures. But he clearly felt a kinship with them, just as he felt a kinship with other outcasts who would find support in City Lights in later decades, from hippies to gay activists. Indeed, the thoroughfare alongside City Lights bookstore is named Jack Kerouac Alley and paved with Beat quotes, after Ferlinghetti petitioned the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to have it cleaned up in the 1980s.

This was not, however, the most important intervention Ferlinghetti made on behalf of the Beats. That came soon after the release of Ginsberg’s poem.

The City Lights bookstore on Columbus Avenue, San Francisco

The initial publication of Howl and Other Poems passed without incident – and without much notice. Ferlinghetti had 1,000 copies printed in England and then imported into San Francisco in late 1956, to be sold in City Lights and distributed to other bookstores. When a second printing of 1,500 was ordered, Ginsberg even wrote a letter to “Larry”, asking: “Why 1,500 copies? Can you sell them? There are a number in [New York’s] 8th St Bookshop, buried under Rexroth’s title, …but nobody I know in the Village has seen or bought it.”

But the situation changed dramatically when that second printing arrived in San Francisco a few months later. Around 500 of the extra 1,500 copies of Howl and Other Poems were seized by the city’s head of customs, Chester MacPhee, on the grounds that “you wouldn’t want your children to come across it”. Presumably, MacPhee had taken exception to Ginsberg’s four-lettered references to sex and drug use.

Ferlinghetti, in another example of the practicality that sits alongside his poetic temperament, had pre-empted such a development. A year before, he engaged the American Civil Liberties Union to defend Howl should the need ever arise. After the ACLU made it clear that they would contest MacPhee’s seizure, the US Attorney in San Francisco backed down and prevented the destruction of the books. The shipment was delivered.

Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg in South Kensington, London, 1965

City Lights had continued to sell Howl and Other Poems in the meantime, even producing photocopied versions inside the US to get around the customs officials. But they could not get around what happened on 3 June 1957, only a few days after MacPhee had been thwarted. Two undercover police inspectors entered the store and bought a copy of Howl. They then arrested the City Lights’ manager, Shigeyoshi Murao, for selling obscene material, and issued a warrant for Ferlinghetti’s arrest. Once the case against Murao was dropped, everything was in place for The People of the State of California vs. Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

The court case that followed, throughout August and September of 1957, was a high-stakes affair. It was the first major test of the Supreme Court conclusion, reached just a few months before in Roth v United States, that material could only be considered obscene when “to the average person, applying contemporary community standards, the dominant theme of the material taken as a whole appeals to the prurient interest”, and could only be banned if it were “utterly without redeeming social importance”.

It was also a defining moment in the development of San Francisco. On one side, the merciless viewpoint expressed to the San Francisco Chronicle by the police officer who presided over Ferlinghetti’s arrest: “Anything not suitable for publication in newspapers shouldn’t be published at all.” On the other side, Ferlinghetti himself, who faced financial hardship and jail time if the judge ruled against him. It was the dramatisation of culture against counterculture.

Ginsberg sings an Indian chant at Hyde Park, London

If Ferlinghetti knew the significance of the trial – which he surely did – he didn’t seem to show it. Photographs show him looking surprisingly relaxed, chatting away with the lead defence attorney, Jake Ehrlich. In the background, in the public seats, are dozens of bespectacled and leather-jacketed City Lights regulars, there to lend their support. They often had to be told to stop laughing at the arguments made by the prosecuting lawyer, Ralph McIntosh.

Whether laughable or not, McIntosh’s arguments were certainly ineffective. The defence produced nine witnesses, including six professors, two poets and one newspaper critic, who all stuck to the crucial point: the social importance of Howl, which, if established, would absolve it of any charge of obscenity. The prosecution, by contrast and to the judge’s obvious chagrin, spent a lot of time on individual words, taken out of context. McIntosh even pressed witnesses to fill in certain blanks which had been added to help Howl and Other Poems on its way through customs: “…who let themselves be ****** in the *** by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy.”

Those missing words no longer need to be guessed at. They were reinserted in later editions of Howl and Other Poems, printed after the judge delivered his verdict: not guilty. The court’s decision contains a 12-point list that hardens and organises the sentiments expressed in Roth v United States, meaning that Ferlinghetti had achieved more than his own freedom. He had established a precedent.

Inside the City Lights bookstore

Of course, censorship is never a settled argument. US law is too diffuse and changeable for that, and much can be achieved outside of its parameters. The American Library Association publishes an annual ranking of books that have been challenged not through the courts but through individual complaints in local libraries. The latest top-ten list includes Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (“because of violence and its use of the N-word”) and Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner (“thought to ‘lead to terrorism’ and ‘promote Islam’ “). In some cases, these books will have been withdrawn from shelves. It is censorship by public opinion.

But it is nonetheless notable that over one million copies of Howl and Other Poems have been sold since 1956; that the Pocket Poets series now encompasses 61 titles; that lurid language is no longer enough to prevent a book’s publication; that City Lights is still a major part of San Francisco’s literary and political life; and that Lawrence Ferlinghetti is 100 years old. That is quite a list of accomplishments for one person. Happy Birthday, Larry.

Further reading

Like Howl and Other Poems, Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s own A Coney Island of the Mind is one of the best-selling books by an American poet – and a good place to start with his work.

Howl on Trial: The Battle for Free Expression is a wonderful compendium of source material on Ferlinghetti’s battle against San Francisco’s censors, including court transcripts and a copy of Ginsberg’s poem.

And Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s 2010 film Howl is an offbeat but pretty decent re-enactment of the trial and the events around it.

The Beats themselves didn’t think much of Norman Mailer’s controversial essay The White Negro, but it is still worth reading as an account of the ideas and sentiments that were circulating in post-war America.