In fact, it’s no exaggeration to say that Ferlinghetti, who died this week at 101, changed the United States more than any single literary figure in our nation’s history.
As a poet and proprietor of City Lights Booksellers and Publishers in San Francisco, Ferlinghetti occupied a unique position in what I call the “literary infrastructure.” In the popular imagination, writers are lone geniuses filling notebooks in cold-water flats. But to have any impact, a writer’s words have to get to readers.
If Ferlinghetti’s only achievement had been his decision to publish and sell Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl and Other Poems” in 1956, that single act would have been enough to upend American culture. As a publisher and bookseller, Ferlinghetti changed the world when he delivered Ginsberg’s formal innovations, his radical and sympathetic depictions of marginalized Americans, and his daring language to an enormous audience.
Every American artist who uses words in their work has Ferlinghetti to thank for their freedom of speech. Well aware that Ginsberg’s frank sexual language would bring the feds calling, Ferlinghetti courted the obscenity charges. U.S. customs officers seized an early printing of the book, and Ferlinghetti was arrested on charges of publishing obscene material when two undercover cops bought “Howl” at City Lights. Ferlinghetti’s lawyers convinced a conservative judge that the poem’s “redeeming social importance” meant that the book was not obscene. The decision helped to end government censorship of literature based on the use of particular words common in American speech, if not polite publications.
If the arc of American literary history, from Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” onward, has been the elevation of American vernacular voices — how people actually talk — into our national literature, Ferlinghetti’s contributions to that process were unparalleled.
In publishing “Howl,” which has never gone out of print, Ferlinghetti created a market that helped ignite a movement. “Howl” helped other Beat writers whose work had long been stalled, Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs especially, to finally reach readers.
The Beats didn’t set out to create a counterculture; they wanted to write their Great American Novels and epic poems. But in so doing, they voiced dissent, rejecting consumerism and materialism, as well as political and artistic conformity. Audiences responded with enthusiasm because the Beats expressed a current of dissatisfaction already roiling beneath the placid surface of Eisenhower’s United States. The Beats let their fellow Americans know that, even after the economic privations of the Great Depression and the bloodshed of World War II, you were free to live your life as you wished. You didn’t have to put on a suit and tie and hold down a job in advertising — though Ginsberg himself did just that.
Despite being dismissed by conservatives as mere “Beatniks,” Ferlinghetti and the Beat Generation and the breadth of their influence cannot be overstated. The Beats inspired the Beatles (note that spelling) and the British Invasion that permanently altered American popular music. The Beats influenced young songwriters such as Bob Dylan. The Beats asserted the importance of gay rights when “homosexuality,” the term of the day, was still criminalized or considered a mental illness. When Ginsberg concluded his poem “America” with “I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel,” he cracked open minds and hearts, planting seeds that would later make the United States more free and equal.
City Lights book designers and Ferlinghetti also found clever ways to upend the material markers of poetry’s proper role. In a time when “paperback originals” were looked down upon and poetry seemed the domain of the cinder-block heft of the Norton Anthology, City Lights’ Pocket Poets series, of which “Howl” was a part, produced books slim enough to fit into the back pocket of a pair of blue jeans. Poetry, these books suggested, was supposed to be an accessible and inexpensive part of everyday life, something that belonged to the street, the cafe and the bar rather than the ivory tower. Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Bookstore, as a center of authors’ readings, literary conversations and political activism, also expressed this anti-elitist ideal.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti knocked down the wall that held the jambs, opening up our nation to a vibrant counterculture and liberating the American language for us all.