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Lawrence Ferlinghetti: the man who gave 1950s San Francisco its beat

As a poet, an activist, a publisher and a businessman, 100-year-old Ferlinghetti has never shied away from promoting socialist principles on the world stage – repeatedly calling out the crimes of the American empire.

At the fresh old age of 100, Lawrence Ferlinghetti has gracefully outlived all his flashier friends and contemporaries. He never disintegrated (like Jack Kerouac) into “drunk uncle” rants about how “hoodlums and communists” were infiltrating his Beat movement; and he never grew obsessed with his own mythography (like Allen Ginsberg), endlessly recounting how the “best minds” of his generation just coincidentally happened to hang out with him. And unlike many Fifties-era radicals, Ferlinghetti never shrank from promoting socialist principles on the world stage as a poet, an activist, a publisher and a businessman – repeatedly calling out the crimes of the American empire, from Eisenhower and Johnson to Obama and Trump. Ultimately, Ferlinghetti was always a better poet than a performer, and he always deployed his talents in support of world peace, equality, justice, and the democratic responsibilities we all share to produce the best art we have in us, however imperfect.

Ferlinghetti’s new (and almost certainly last) book is a slim, unpunctuated, free-style memoir – a final remembering of his life and work. Throughout, he characteristically avoids striking the pose of a “great man”, simply presenting himself in the image of a Chaplinesque “little boy”, fumbling and striving to be better and more “adult” than he was, and always overshadowed by the vast historical conflicts he witnessed, from the Second World War through Vietnam and our endlessly never-over-till-it’s over “war on terror”.

The youngest of five siblings, Ferlinghetti was born in Yonkers in 1919, the product of a typically American ancestral mix – Italian immigrants on his father’s side and Sephardic Jews on his mother’s; and throughout his difficult childhood, he suffered a series of traumatic dislocations. Within a few months of Ferlinghetti’s birth, his father died of a heart attack, and his mother was institutionalised soon afterwards. Lawrence was shipped off to an uncle and aunt in Manhattan, and when their marriage broke down, his Aunt Emilie absconded with the toddler to Strasbourg. He went into an orphanage and came out again; and eventually moved to a mansion in Bronxville, New York, where Emily worked as a French tutor for a wealthy couple who had, almost providentially, lost their own son named Lawrence, and took the young boy to their hearts.

They granted him his first private room “in a wing of the house where great oaks leaned their branches over his windows, and the wind howled against the stone walls of the great house, but the wind was his companion in that room that seemed so distant from the rest of the house”. Eventually, Aunt Emilie left the house on an errand and never came back, and Lawrence was shipped off to boarding school, then public high school, and finally the University of North Carolina. But even when Ferlinghetti found a house to live in, he never felt entirely at home; and for the first few decades of his life, he never stayed anywhere for very long.

In his years as a “little boy”, Ferlinghetti can’t recall a time when any of his various guardians “had ever given him a hug or a kiss”; he grew up as an outsider always looking to be part of an “inside” he had never known. (Even in later years, he never gave up trying to learn about his prematurely-dead father, or what happened to Aunt Emilie.) Shortly after graduating college, he joined the navy and “commanded a navy sub chaser in the Normandy landings and went to the Pacific as navigator on an attack transport and saw Nagasaki seven weeks after the second bomb was dropped and saw the landscape of hell and became an instant pacifist…” When he disembarked from the navy in San Francisco in 1950, that was it. He never moved anywhere else ever again.

San Francisco in the 1950s was an excellent place and time to love art and hate capitalism: housing was cheap, and the omnipresent bohemian life was presided over by two powerful Kenneths in the California literary anti-establishment, Rexroth and Patchen – both of whom would seem relatively tame in comparison to the boozy beatnik rowdies who came later. Originally seeing himself as an anti-war artist-poet like Patchen, Ferlinghetti only stumbled on to his entrepreneurial calling when driving through the red light district of San Francisco’s North Beach. There he saw a man named Peter Martin putting up signs on an all-paperback bookstore – a fairly radical idea at the time. Ferlinghetti pulled over, invested 500 bucks, and never let go. (Just because his own parents had let go of Ferlinghetti didn’t mean Ferlinghetti would ever let go of anybody else.)

They named it City Lights Bookstore – after a local literary journal that was itself named after the film by Ferlinghetti’s hero, Chaplin; and with the possible exception of Paris’s Shakespeare & Co, it is certainly the most famous bookstore in the world. As the writer and publisher Tosh Berman recalls in his affectionate memoir of growing up among the various Beat artists who followed in Ferlinghetti’s footsteps, City Lights wasn’t a place to buy books so much as a place to be with them: “I never got bored being there… I could people-watch and enjoy the different shapes and colours of book covers. It may have been there that I discovered the physical pleasure of books outside our house, and that a bookstore is a sacred location.” Berman didn’t grow up among artists so much as circulated among the same houses they did – sharing meals and ideas with the likes of Jack Nicholson, Michael McClure, Russ Tamblyn, and Brian Jones.

Eventually, Ferlinghetti bought out his partner and initiated City Lights Books, which almost immediately began publishing the influential Pocket Poets Series. These books – small, squarish, thin paperbacks with uniform black and white covers – were about making the poetry Ferlinghetti loved (from Frank O’Hara to William Carlos Williams) accessible to anyone. For Ferlinghetti, poetry was never something to be “scanned” by experts and then explained to the unenlightened; it was about opening poetry to the world, shouting it from rooftops, and carrying it around in your back pocket. In the perfect Ferlinghettian world, everyone was a reader and creator of poetry. In “Populist Manifesto # 1”, he demands:

Poets, come out of your closets,

Open your windows, open your doors,

You have been holed-up too long

in your closed worlds.

Come down, come down…

“Come down” and be with your fellow poets. “Come down” and do what everyone is supposed to do.

City Lights never simply “opened for business”. It was an open space that encouraged readers to wander among books from early morning until late at night, and provided them with well-worn stuffed chairs and sofas for lounging and napping, public poetry readings, and discussions of current events; and where the walls and windows were (and still are) covered with political expostulations. “The public were being invited,” Ferlinghetti wrote, “to participate in that ‘great conversation’ between authors of all ages, ancient and modern.” And Ferlinghetti didn’t just initiate those conversations; he provided the venue where those conversations could continue even when he wasn’t around.

Ironically, Ferlinghetti isn’t remembered so much for the books he published so much as for the one slim book he was told not to publish – volume four in the Pocket Poets Series, Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems. Seized by US customs officials when its first 1,500 copies arrived in San Francisco from an English printers, the book was later targeted as “obscene and indecent” by the SF Police Juvenile Department. Faced with jail time, Ferlinghetti didn’t blink; he brought in the American Civil Liberties Union, shook a few of his press contacts into action, and emerged victorious from a case presided over by a conservative judge, and in the absence of the book’s author, who blithely wrote from Tangier: “I suppose the publicity will be good.” It was.

Even though Ferlinghetti may have felt like a “little boy” throughout his long and eventful life, he always provided a dependable adult presence to those around him. And even after he won the initial case against “Howl”, he spent the rest of his life fighting the fight over and over again – and as late as 2007 campaigned to prevent the banning of public readings of “Howl” over the radio. He once asked a radio host: “Can you imagine a time in this country when you would no longer have to be a dissident?” For Ferlinghetti, the answer was obvious. 

Scott Bradfield’s most recent collection of stories is “Dazzle Resplendent: Adventures of a Misanthropic Dog” (Createspace)

Little Boy
Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Faber & Faber, 192pp, £14.99

The People V. Ferlinghetti: The Fight to Publish Ginsberg’s “Howl”
Ronald KL Collins and David M Skover
Rowman & Littlefield, 216pp, £19.95

Tosh: Growing Up in Wallace Berman’s World
Tosh Berman
City Lights Publishers, 328pp, £12.99

This article appears in the 16 August 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The age of conspiracy