More than 60 years ago, Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote,
I am anxiously waiting
for the secret of eternal life to be discovered.
By most counts, he seems to have discovered it.
Ferlinghetti — the poet, the scholar, the champion of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” the co-founder of City Lights Booksellers & Publishers, the tireless critic of political ills — turns 100 on March 24.
He has not mellowed. At all.
In 2017, Ferlinghetti told The Washington Post, “I never wanted to write an autobiography because I don’t like looking back.” Evidently, he overcame that reluctance, but, of course, the autobiography he’s releasing this month is entirely on his own terms. “Little Boy” isn’t really a memoir. The publisher calls it “a novel,” but it really isn’t that either. As his literary ancestor Walt Whitman would say, it’s a “barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.”
A few months ago, Ferlinghetti claimed, “The little boy is an imaginary me,” but the broad outlines of his real life appear here, particularly in the early pages, which are the only ones that tell something like a coherent story. We learn of his tumultuous childhood: His father died before he was born; an aunt whisked him to France and then back to the United States; the aunt’s wealthy employer, descended from the founders of Sarah Lawrence College, adopted him.
He may have lived like “Little Lord Fauntleroy,” but “it was a very lonely life for Little Boy,” Ferlinghetti writes, “with the nearest neighbor out of sight and no children of any age to play with.” In a mansion some 20 miles outside New York City, his new guardians spoke to one another in courtly tones and dressed in Victorian garb. They sent him to a private school, and, more important, they possessed a fine library, which he was encouraged to use.
As the pace of “Little Boy” accelerates chaotically, whole years fly by in a phrase or two — from high school to college with a major in journalism, and then the Navy, where he participated in the Normandy landing and saw Nagasaki just a few weeks after it was destroyed. Discharged, he earned an MA in literature at Columbia University, a PhD at the University of Paris and “emerged as a reasonably miseducated product of high culture and not all so irrelevant as rebels might imagine.” And then, around Page 15, the wheels bust off this narrative, and we’re airborne: “Grown Boy came into his own voice and let loose his word-hoard pent up within him.”
What follows for the next 150 pages is a volcanic explosion of personal memories, political rants, social commentary, environmental jeremiads and cultural analysis all tangled together in one breathless sentence that would make James Joyce proud.
Do I recommend it?
Yes I said yes I will Yes.
You may think you’re in good shape, but before long, you’ll be panting after this irrepressible geezer. “Little Boy” is full-on stream-of-consciousness: “A Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man.” As he swoops back and forth through the impressions and highlights of his long life, Ferlinghetti spits on conventional grammar and mocks the very idea of linear coherence. A Beat sensibility? Sure, but there’s also a dose of Robin Williams’s manic comedy here: the hairpin turns, the interior voices bantering with each other, the constant spinning of an idea till it ricochets off to another. He’s the silliest, angriest, kindest, smartest man you’ve ever heard — a whirling dervish of scholarly asides, literary allusions, corny puns and twisted aphorisms drawn from “an echo chamber of everything ever said or sung in the history of man.”
The inevitable annotated edition of “Little Boy” will have to be four times longer just to explain all the references. Any page might offer a bastardized phrase from Genesis, Shakespeare and Matthew Arnold, while criticizing Christianity, condemning American capitalism and warning of the climate apocalypse.
No one alive carries the history, the writers, the personal experience of 20th-century literature in his mind as Ferlinghetti does. “I was all the mad wandering tattered poets rolled into one sleeping under the bridges of the world,” he writes, “I met all the other great writers and poets and great articulators of consciousness.” Allen Ginsberg, Dylan Thomas, Samuel Beckett, William S. Burroughs and so many others flit in and out of these pages so casually that when he mentions Don Quixote, it took me a moment to realize that he didn’t know the knight personally . Indeed, scholars and fans of the writers who passed through Ferlinghetti’s San Francisco bookstore and publishing house may hope for a compendium of colorful anecdotes, but “Little Boy” has no ambitions in that direction.
“What is the plot of this novel,” he asks in one of many self-referential passages, “if not the remembrance of things still not past for the past is but a cautious counselor of what has yet to come what has yet to transpire or expire so farewell final albatross as time ticks on and all of us like insects in an anthill seen from space all nebulous figures dancing in a tropic night through the night-mazes singing a lyric escape again then and why not Are we to live in despair all the time thinking only of our certain deaths so why not live the highs and ignore the lows. . . .”
Yes, this can feel like trying to set the table while falling down the stairs, but there’s something hypnotic about Ferlinghetti’s relentless commentary, a style that amuses him, too: “Every sentence the last sentence I’ll ever write but then there’s always another thought to be spoken or written and we can’t go on but I do.” If you’re willing to let go, he’ll win you over. “Perhaps there is no meaning there is only existing just as a poem or a painting does not mean but Is and there are only episodes that don’t add up to any meaning but exert in themselves the pith of living.”
It’s that “pith of living” that “Little Boy” offers up so frequently and unexpectedly. Grab hold of any section, break it apart like a pomegranate, and you’ll find delicious bits randomly spread about.
Stick with this book long enough, and you’ll start to hear the central concerns of Ferlinghetti’s life. They revolve around the disastrous conspiracy of our fecundity and our selfishness, what he calls “me-me-me.” “Oh for a little erectile dysfunction before the earth bursts its latitudinals with overpopulation,” he cries, “the spaceship earth overloaded and no end to the eternal rutting and breeding a primeval instinct that will not be denied and no politician dare touch it and don’t tell me I can’t have a baby.”
That concern for the fate of the Earth clearly haunts this thoughtful man as he contemplates “the ravenous maw of eternity.” He may be, as he calls himself, a “dissident romantic or romantic dissident,” but he feels in his own approaching mortality the larger calamity barreling down on us all as we fritter away these final chances for salvation. “The cries of birds now are not cries of ecstasy but cries of despair.”
Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.
By Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Doubleday. 192 pp. $24