U.S. Customs howled against ‘Howl’ 57 years ago

(Courtesy of City Lights Publishers)
(Courtesy of City Lights Publishers)

“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked….”

Naked? Egads!

If anyone was “hysterical,” it was the U.S. Customs office. Fifty-seven years ago this week, customs officials seized more than 500 copies of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.” The government intercepted the books en route from a London publisher in order to protect citizens from reading poetry, which, of course, Americans are always desperate to get their hands on.

Or at least they were once the obscenity trial handed Ginsberg and obscene bookseller Lawrence Ferlinghetti a publicity bonanza.

But when I called City Lights Books in San Francisco this week, no one there knew it was the 57th anniversary. “Is it really?” one unimpressed staff members asked. “There are so many anniversaries around here.”

Carolyn See began her career as a legal expert by defending this book.
Carolyn See began her career as a legal expert by defending this book.

Honestly, I wouldn’t have thought of it myself, but I was talking to our long-time book reviewer, Carolyn See. Although she wasn’t involved in the “Howl” case, for a while, she made “a good living” as an expert witness in pornography trials. “I’ve defended almost everything,” she says, “starting with the very inauspicious ‘Lust Thy Friends and Neighbors.’” She was even a guest at the Supreme Court when the justices updated their criteria for pornography.

“People were obsessed with pornography because we were still coming off the Victorian age,” she says. “Remember the characters in E.M. Forster’s ‘A Room With a View’ weren’t even allowed to say ‘stomach.’ And, of course, when you aren’t allowed something, you obsess about it.”

From her point of view, the government’s move against “Howl” in 1957 was a reaction to the rising popularity of literature already in the country.

“Everyone we knew came home from France with bootleg copies of ‘Tropic of Cancer,’” she says. “The government finally caught up with this turn of events and went nuts. Looking back, I think there must have been about seven years of feverish pornography publication. My own father published 73 volumes of hard-core pornography over a period of about 10 years. It was like kids in kindergarten talking about poop.”

She recalls one publisher in San Diego that published the Declaration of Independence “in an old-fashioned type font tastefully illustrated with bestial acts.”

Ginsberg claimed, “The skin is holy!” but how much holiness can a person stand?

“In my capacity as expert,” See says, “I’ve often characterized pornography as like chocolate cookies. They’re great until the last bite you want, and then they’re not. I think that’s where we are now. We’ve had enough.”

There are now more than 1 million copies of “Howl” in print.

Looking forward to next year’s anniversary, Allen.

Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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