He published Allen Ginsberg and gave the Beat Generation a literary home, won a landmark anti-censorship case and still runs an independent bookstore in San Francisco. Happy 95th birthday, Lawrence Ferlinghetti!
Ferlinghetti was born on March 24, 1919. He was raised in the U.S. and France by an aunt and family friends. He fought at Normandy during World War II and ended up in Nagasaki weeks after the atomic bomb hit. Upon his return, he married and made his way to San Francisco, where he opened City Lights Bookstore and magazine.
City Lights soon also became a publisher, famously publishing Ginsberg’s poetry book “Howl” in 1956. Ferlinghetti fought the obscenity trial he knew “Howl” would generate. “It is not the poet but what he observes which is revealed as obscene,” he wrote at the time. “The great obscene wasters of ‘Howl’ are the sad wastes of the mechanized world, lost among atom bombs and insane nationalisms.”
Writer Pico Iyer wrote a fan letter to Ferlinghetti in his teens, and Ferlinghetti wrote back saying that if he wanted to meet poets, he could drop by the bookstore anytime. He did that -- while visiting its Bay Area environs -- for our travel section.
Iyer writes, “Nowadays, a large sign in the shop announces, ‘Democracy Is Not a Spectator Sport.’ One section downstairs, in the dense section devoted to the arts (and sociology and travel), is called green politics. I happened to be looking for an obscure memoir by a film critic in New York, and when I mentioned it to a passing figure, he disappeared into an office and spent many minutes trying to track it down. As he did, I lost myself in shelves devoted to urban theory and Mexican history and cultural criticism, though I couldn’t for the life of me find the section that is often loudest and largest in many a 21st century bookshop: autobiographies.”
He continues, “There are certain beloved writers -- including Alexander McCall Smith and Jhumpa Lahiri -- that I’d expect to find in any independent bookshop. But City Lights is not like any bookshop I know. I couldn’t count on finding these kinds of authors there, but I could expect to find books I’d never see outside a university library or a secondhand bookshop in Hay-on-Wye, Wales. After 60 years, it somehow remains radical, ahead of the curve and fresher -- more clearly in love with the word -- than any other bookshop I know.”
Ferlinghetti is himself a poet, author of several collections. His poem “Autobiography” is from the book “A Coney Island of the Mind.” Happy 95th birthday, Lawrence Ferlinghetti!