Poet and countercultural pioneer put on trial for publishing Allen Ginsberg’s Howl went on to become a beloved icon of San Francisco
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, outside City Lights in San Francisco. Photograph: Clay Mclachlan/AP
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the poet, publisher, painter and political activist who co-founded the famous City Lights bookshop in San Francisco and became an icon of the city himself, has died aged 101.
Ferlinghetti died at home on Monday night. His son Lorenzo said that the cause was interstitial lung disease.
Ferlinghetti was born in Yonkers, New York in 1919. His father died before he was born and his mother was committed to a mental hospital, leaving him to be raised by his aunt. When he was seven, his aunt, then working as a governess for a wealthy family in Bronxville, abruptly ran off, leaving Ferlinghetti in the care of her employers. After attending university in North Carolina, he became a journalist in 1941, then joined the US navy during the second world war. While studying for his doctorate at the Sorbonne in Paris on the GI Bill, he began to write poetry.
Returning to the US in 1951, he was drawn to California as a place to start afresh. “San Francisco had a Mediterranean feeling about it,” he told the New York Times. “I felt it was a little like Dublin when Joyce was there. You could walk down Sackville Street and see everyone of any importance in one walk.”
In 1953, he co-founded the City Lights bookshop and publishing company with friend Peter Dean Martin, who left soon after, with the mission to democratise literature and make it accessible to all. “We were young and foolish,” he told the Guardian in 2019. “And we had no money.”
While most bookshops across the US closed early and on weekends at the time, City Lights stayed open seven days a week and late into the night, fostering a countercultural community that attracted the likes of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. City Lights initially focused on selling paperbacks, which were cheaper but looked down on by the literary establishment, and publishing poetry, offbeat and radical books by the likes of Kerouac, Ginsberg, Paul Bowles, Gary Snyder and Gregory Corso.
In 1955, Ferlinghetti heard Ginsberg’s seminal poem Howl read for the first time at the Six Gallery in North Beach. The next day, he sent a telegram to Ginsberg: “I GREET YOU AT THE BEGINNING OF A GREAT CAREER. STOP. WHEN DO I GET MANUSCRIPT OF HOWL?” The epic poem was printed in Britain and shipped to San Francisco, where the copies were seized. Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg were arrested on obscenity charges in 1957.
“I wasn’t worried. I was young and foolish. I figured I’d get a lot of reading done in jail and they wouldn’t keep me in there for ever. And, anyway, it really put the book on the map,” Ferlinghetti told the Guardian. Having already sent the poem to the American Civil Liberties Union, “to see if they would defend us if we were busted”, the ACLU successfully defended the poem at a trial that lasted months. The verdict set an important precedent for reducing censorship, and heralded a new freedom for books around the world, while also making both men internationally famous.
In 1958, Ferlinghetti published his own first collection, A Coney Island of the Mind, which sold more than 1m copies. He went on to write more than 50 volumes of poetry, novels and travel journals. As a publisher, he maintained a lifelong focus on poetry and books ignored by the mainstream, even as it became harder in the face of behemoth, profit-driven presses.
He self-identified as a philosophical anarchist, hosting many sit-ins and protests against war at City Lights. He regarded poetry as a powerful social force and not one reserved for the intellectual elite, saying, “We have to raise the consciousness; the only way poets can change the world is to raise the consciousness of the general populace.”
In later decades, Ferlinghetti became an icon of his city. In 1978, when San Francisco was rocked by the double assassination of the city’s mayor, George Moscone and city supervisor Harvey Milk, Ferlinghetti wrote a poem that ran two days later in the San Francisco Examiner. It was titled An Elegy to Dispel Gloom, and he was personally thanked by the city for helping maintain calm. In 1994 a street was named after him, and four years later he was named San Francisco’s first poet laureate.
He remained active in City Lights until the late 2000s, chatting with fans and tourists who popped in just to meet the legend. “When he was still here every day, fixing a lightbulb or some other little thing, he never refused somebody who wanted to talk to him,” Elaine Katzenberger, the current manager of the shop, said. “He usually looked for some commonality to have a little conversation with them.”
Though mostly bed-bound and nearly blind in his later years, he remained busy, publishing his final book, Little Boy, on his 100th birthday. A loosely autobiographical novel, Ferlinghetti refused to describe it as memoir: “I object to using that description. Because a memoir denotes a very genteel type of writing.”
In 2019, San Francisco named 24 March, his birthday, Lawrence Ferlinghetti Day to mark his centennial, with celebrations lasting all month. In an interview from his bed to mark the occasion, he told the Guardian that he was still hoping for a political revolution, even though “the United States isn’t ready for a revolution … It would take a whole new generation not devoted to the glorification of the capitalist system … a generation not trapped in the me, me, me.”
When asked whether he was proud of his achievements, Ferlinghetti said: “I don’t know, that word, ‘proud’, is just too egotistic. Happy would be better. Except when you get down to try and define the word happy, then you’re really in trouble.”