Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who died Tuesday (Feb. 23) at the age of 101 in San Francisco, was one of the leading and last surviving figures associated with literature’s “Beat Movement.”
Yet, never thought of himself as a Beat writer
“I was a generation before the Beats,” he said in 2010. “ When I arrived in San Francisco for the first time in 1951, I was still wearing my French beret and we were bohemians. “
“Bohemians were what they called a dissident artist before the Beats. The Beats didn’t make a name for themselves until the ’50s. I lived in Greenwich Village in the ’40s and we were bohemians.
“The Beats were a younger generation than myself and I got associated with them through City Lights Bookstore, as their publisher,” he recalled.
Despite his own disassociation, Ferlinghetti was a pillar of the Beat Generation, the literary movement that originated in post war America and centered in the bohemian artist communities of its cities.
They expressed their detachment from traditional or “square” society by adopting etiquette and “hip” vocabulary borrowed from jazz musicians.
They advocated personal liberation, purification and illumination through the sharpened sensory awareness that might be induced by psychedelic drugs, jazz, rock and roll and sex.
Though Jack Kerouac was the posterboy for the movement, Ferlinghetti was one of its unsung heroes.
Ferlinghetti’s early life is downright Dickensian. Shortly before his birth in Yonkers, New York in 1919, his father died of a heart attack, and his mother, in the middle of a nervous breakdown, was institutionalized.
His Aunt Emily took him to France when he was a week old. He returned to the states at age 12, was deserted by his aunt, and then lived with a wealthy family in Bronxville as an unofficially adopted son.
His love of literature began in earnest when he discovered the library of massive volumes collected by his adoptive father.
Unbeknownst to many, Ferlinghetti had a military background. He enlisted in the Navy during World War II and was part of D-Day invasion of Europe in 1944.
“I had a guardian angel watching over me, because I was in the Normandy invasion, there were bombs dropping all around me, and nothing hit me,” he recalled.
He was later transferred to the Pacific Theater and turned up at Nagasaki six weeks after the second atomic bomb was dropped.
Seeing the decimated city changed the young man’s outlook. “Made me an instant pacifist,” he said years later. “No doubt about it.”
After leaving the navy, he worked the mailroom at Time magazine, dreaming of becoming a writer. But grew disenchanted with the news business.
From Time he moved on to Columbia University on the GI Bill and received his M.A., then returned to Paris, where he did his doctoral work at the Sorbonne in Paris.
Ferlinghetti moved to California in 1951 where he began a career of activism and writing, and was a staunch defender of free speech.
He launched City Lights Publishers in 1955 and since then has published a wide range of titles, both poetry and prose, fiction and nonfiction, international and local authors.
Besides serving as a publishing house, City Lights is also a popular bookstore in San Francisco, which he modeled after Shakespeare and Company bookshop in Paris.
Reminiscent of the Parisian literary salons of the 1920s, the bookstore acted as a fulcrum for progressive politics and a magnet for the bohemian Beats.
It is so salient to West Coast culture that when they asked for donations to help out in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, more than $365,000 in one day poured in.
City Lights said in a statement his decision to open the first all-paperback bookstore in the United States “was instrumental in democratizing American literature.”
It helped jumpstart “a movement to make diverse and inexpensive quality books widely available.”
The cozy and artsy American bookstore we treasure today, in a way, is due to Ferlinghetti’s trailblazing work.
The statement added: “For over 60 years, those of us who have worked with him at City Lights have been inspired by his knowledge and love of literature, his courage in defence of the right to freedom of expression, and his vital role as an American cultural ambassador.”
Following the news of his death on Tuesday (Feb. 23), fans gathered outside the bookshop for an impromptu vigil.
The pivotal moment for Ferlinghetti and the point when he became an icon in the ’50s was when he went on trial for obscenity charges surrounding fellow Beat writer Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl,” which he published.
Though considered by many scholars to be one of the great works of 20th century American literature, “Howl” pushed boundaries with its profanity, references to proscribed drugs, and graphic descriptions of both heterosexual and homosexual sex.
“Lawrence knew he was taking a risk publishing that poem,” Elaine Katzenberger, executive director of the City Lights Trust said.
“He could have lost his business. He could have gone to jail. But he believed so much and in the quality of what Ginsberg was doing with that poem, it was definitely a groundbreaking work.”
“For Lawrence, what inspired him the most was the way in which Ginsberg was breaking open doors within the poetic form, but also it was the indictment of the military industrial complex and consumer culture and the stultifying atmosphere of the 1950s in the United States.”
A City Lights bookstore manager was arrested and jailed for selling “Howl” to an undercover San Francisco police officer and Ferlinghetti was subsequently arrested for publishing the book.
Nine literary experts testified on the poem’s behalf at the ensuing obscenity trial.
With the support of the American Civil Liberties Union, Ferlinghetti’s reputation as an anti-censorship advocate was firmly cemented after he won the case.
California State Superior Court Judge Clayton Horn decided that the poem was of “redeeming social importance.”
This landmark First Amendment case established a legal precedent for the publication of contended work with redeeming civic importance.
This precedent has held up all these years and it really opened the floodgates on publishing.
Shortly thereafter, Grove Press, published Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer” and “Tropic of Capricorn.” Both novels were “notorious” for their candid sexuality.
Ferlinghetti as a writer was best known for his 1958 collection “A Coney Island Of The Mind.”
The publication immediately found a large audience drawn to the poetry for its refreshing and unorthodox liberality.
Along with Kerouac’s “On the Road” and Ginsberg’s “Howl,” “Coney Island of the Mind” sparked a sea change in the literary world and helped lay the artistic foundation for the counterculture movements of the ’50s, ’60s and beyond.
With roughly a million copies in print, few poetry collections come anywhere close to matching its readership. It became the largest-selling book by any living American poet in the second half of the 20th century.
“A Coney Island of the Mind” is not about the geographical Coney Island, Brooklyn, but rather it is intended as a sustained metaphor or allegory of modern life.
Ferlinghetti’s cogent and witty lines were written in a conversational style and was designed to be read aloud or with a jazz accompaniment.
Popular on campuses and in coffeehouses, the collection, like many works of the Beats, struck a responsive chord among disaffected youth.
Employing supple lines that often teeterboard across pages, Ferlinghetti’s verse echoes Walt Whitman and Rimbaud, and even incorporates his love of painting and his knowledge of Western masters as diverse as Goya, Chagall, and the abstract expressionists.
Aside from the occasional bohemian slang of the ’50s, it is still a fresh read today. Look at Poem 20 from the collection to see what I mean.
With the beaconing jellybeans and themes of innocence and emerging sexuality, Ferlinghetti writes lines to which any adult could relate:
The pennycandystore beyond the El is where I first fell in love with unreality Jellybeans glowed in the semi-gloom of that september afternoon A cat upon the counter moved among the licorice sticks and tootsie rolls and Oh Boy Gum Outside the leaves were falling as they died A wind had blown away the sun A girl ran in Her hair was rainy Her breasts were breathless in the little room Outside the leaves were falling and they cried Too soon! too soon!
While Ferlinghetti’s work is masterful, it’s also simplistic and highly unrestrictive. He believed “that art should be accessible to all people, not just a handful of highly educated intellectuals.”
His poetry often engages with several non-literary artistic forms, most notably jazz and art. He was a distinguished painter and infused the artform into his writing.
“I have the same perception of the world, or the perception of reality, as a painter. If you’ll notice, [in] practically any poem of mine that you may have at hand, you’ll see it’s very visual,” he once said.
Ferlinghetti also wrote socially charged poems, too, like “Two Scavengers in a Truck, Two Beautiful People in a Mercedes,” which describes four people stuck at traffic lights in downtown San Francisco. Two are garbage collectors and two are an elegant couple in a Mercedes.
His words emphasize the contrast between these people and the gap that is developing between the rich and poor even in America which is meant to be a “democracy.”
Felinghetti appeared in Martin Scorsese’s documentary “The Last Waltz,” reciting “The Lord’s Prayer” at The Band’s farewell concert in 1976.
He continued publishing collections of poetry and novels in the 1960s, was named the Poet Laureate of San Francisco in 1998 and headed the creation of Jack Kerouac Alley in 1987.
His son Lorenzo told the Associated Press his death was a result of lung disease, adding that his father had received his first dose of a Covid vaccine last week.
Bob Dylan called Ferlinghetti “a brave man and a brave poet” and it’s a certainty that his presence will certainly live on through City Lights bookstore his defending of Howl, and the catalogue he has left behind.
As long as there are people who enjoy looking at life through the lens of poetry, Felinghetti’s words will continue to speak to them.
When asked if he was ready to retire in 2010 at age 90, he said “I didn’t know that painters and writers retired. They’re like soldiers; they just fade away.”