What Lawrence Ferlinghetti Means to Me

Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Photo: Ilka Hartmann.

The anarchist, pacifist poet, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, whom I knew for forty years was shy and introverted, even while he was a public figure who wanted to be recognized and appreciated as an artist. A decade older than me, he cared deeply about his friends in the city, in Bolinas and in Big Sur. He also valued his own privacy. At events at the San Francisco public library, where he stood out from the crowd, he often meant to be witty, but his one liners would fall flat. He took many of the changes in San Francisco—the arrival of the dot comers, the Google buses, the influx of wealth, the price of real estate—personally and spoke out, and so I admired his candor.

Brave and yet cautious, he often wore a Cheshire cat grin and went out of his way to be supportive, not only to me, but also to other writers much younger than him. My own connections to Ferlinghetti are tied to my connections to San Francisco, as a literary place and a cultural outpost of bohemian Paris, where he went to school and was influenced by George Whitman’s bookstore, Shakespeare and Company, which opened in 1919, the same year Ferlinghetti was born.

On KQED, two days after Ferlinghetti’s death on February 22, 2021, Elaine Katzenberger, the executive director at City Lights, noted that he was shy and that it wasn’t easy to get to know him. Indeed, he wasn’t outgoing the way Allen Ginsberg was, but it was worthwhile to get to know him.

What connected Ferlinghetti and me, more than anything else, was Allen Ginsberg’s epic poem, Howl, which Ferlinghetti published in 1956 and which landed him in big legal trouble and made him world famous. I first read Howl as a boy, when I was a beatnik. I loved lines like “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,” though I didn’t understand much of the poem.

Ferlinghetti told me that the more difficult a poem—the more resistant to the reader—the more meaning it would have. His own poetry in A Coney Island of the Mind, for example, was much more easily accessible than Howl, though one had to be attuned to the poet’s ironic tone of voice to appreciate his work.

Every time I went from Sonoma County, where I lived, to “the City,” as we all called San Francisco, I went to City Lights to browse,  buy books, hang out and soak up the literary vibes. I usually went with friends and with my younger brother, Adam, a San Francisco detective and Sam Spade fan, who knows North Beach, the district that has provided a nurturing home for City Lights.

Years ago, when I wrote an essay about the 50th anniversary of City Lights, I spent a day at the store, mostly in the basement, talking to book lovers who came from all over the country and all over the world. For them, I realized, City Lights was a destination and a kind of Mecca. Once, I rendezvoused there with Tom Hayden and spent an evening sharing memories of the Sixties.

For the 50th anniversary story I interviewed the people who helped run City Lights, including Nancy Peters, who became a co-owner, but remained mostly behind the scenes. I got to know Paul Yamazaki, the book buyer, Peter Maravelis, the events coordinator, and Stacey Lewis, one of the publicists who sent me books to review.

Ferlinghetti co-founded City Lights with Peter Martin, who is now largely a footnote in the cultural history of San Francisco. Martin soon picked up stakes and moved back to New York. Ferlinghetti soon hired Shig Murao, a genial, bookish Japanese-American who had worked for the U.S, military intelligence in World War II. I remember Shig at the front desk where he served as a kind of gatekeeper who let everyone into the store. City Lights’ openness was part of its charm. The fact that it only carried paperback books and helped usher in the paperback revolution won my heart and mind.

For years the openness was also an issue. Ferlinghetti told me that thieves stole books left and right, until the store installed a device at the front door that set off alarms and helped deter the nimble fingered. One of the worst thieves was Beat poet Gregory Corso. Caught red-handed and rebuked, City Lights declined to prosecute him. It wouldn’t do for a bohemian, anarchist bookstore to go to the police.

I knew about City Lights and Ferlinghetti long before I arrived in San Francisco. As a teenager, I read about the obscenity trial that took place in San Francisco in 1957 and that received national attention. Shig sold two copies of Howl to San Francisco police officers, though Ferlinghetti, as the publisher of record, was the only person to go on trial. The D.A. reasoned that Shig, as the seller, might not have known the contents of the book, but Ferlinghetti as the publisher had to have known.

In many ways the trial was Ferlinghetti’s finest moment. He turned the tables on the prosecution and defended the poem as a work of art and argued that it wasn’t obscene. The society that Ginsberg depicted was the real obscenity, Ferlinghetti argued. From that day on, I regarded him as a courageous publisher and bookseller who stood up to the cops, the prosecuting attorney, the Catholic Church, and the powers-that-be in San Francisco, which was more conservative than it seemed on first impression.

While Howl made City Lights and Ferlinghetti famous, and City Lights and Ferlinghetti also made Ginsberg and his poem internationally renowned. I don’t know of any other publisher in 1955-56 who would have put Howl in print, not even James Laughlin at New Directions. Ferlinghetti recognized Ginsberg’s genius. He also understood that the poem captured the zeitgeist, which took a certain genius.

Fast forward to the 1980s, when I was a published author and began to have a correspondence and a literary friendship with Ferlinghetti. City Lights carried and sold my books, including My Search for B. Traven, which Ferlinghetti had asked me to send him. One could also find on the shelves in the poetry section, American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ and the Birth of the Beat Generationwhich was published by the University of California Press in 2004. To write that book I did not interview Ferlinghetti, but I read his extensive correspondence with Ginsberg which was housed at the Bancroft Library on the campus of UC Berkeley.

What surprised me most of all was that, while Ferlinghetti was on trial for obscenity, Ginsberg was out and about gallivanting, which prompted Ferlinghetti to say to me, “Someone had to stay at home and mind the store.” Though Ferlinghetti published many of his own books of poetry with New Direction, including A Coney Island of the Mind, and though he exhibited many of his paintings in galleries and museums, he tended to be self-deprecating. It didn’t help his ego that Ginsberg often thought of him as his publisher and as a mere bookstore owner, not as a fellow writer and artist in his own right.

Ferlinghetti wrote a savvy blurb for American Scream that was featured on the back cover. It reads, “Jonah Raskin’s American Scream adds to the ever-growing fact and fiction of the Allen Ginsberg persona. All Ginsberg addicts will have to have this book for adulation and reassessment.”

City Lights sponsored a launch for the book soon after it was published. So many people attended that they couldn’t all fit into the upstairs room. Ferlinghetti himself showed up and greeted me and the audience. I couldn’t have asked for a warmer reception. About a decade after that launch, I interviewed Ferlinghetti for the San Francisco Chronicle. I asked him if he read the paper. He said he did. I asked him if he followed the San Francisco Giants. Yes, he said. And I asked if he still went to work at City Lights. “I stay at home and let others do the work,” he said. That was largely true.

Years ago, Elaine Katzenberger took over the running of the publishing company and the bookstore and made City Lights more overtly political, with more women authors and people of color. I think that was, to a large extent, a natural and organic evolution of the project that Ferlinghetti started in the early 1950s.                                            I think it’s also worth saying that while Ferlinghetti promoted Ginsberg, he was also one of Ginsberg’s sharpest critics. He pointed out, right so, that while Ginsberg continued to be a marvelous performer on stage, his writing declined, and his language became clunky and repetitive.

When I interviewed Ferlinghetti I also asked him about Gregory Corso’s theft. “People saw him break in and they called the police,” he told me. “We went to where he was living and told him he’d better leave town before the cops arrived. Gregory went to Italy and didn’t come back for ages. We took the amount of money he stole from us from his royalties. I think that was very Buddhist of us. We never called the police on any thief. But sometimes we humiliated thieves.” Unlike Ginsberg and Kerouac, Ferlinghetti was never a Buddhist. The comment, “That was very Buddhist of us,” is a prime example of his sense of humor.

He always insisted that he was pre-Beat and post-Beat, though he also published and promoted most of the Beat writers. He published the work of outlaws and criminals, exiles, fugitives and expats. Long after American Scream was published, I continued to have a productive relationship with City Lights which sponsored the launch for my book A Terrible Beauty: The Wilderness of American Literature.                                                                                             The last piece I did about Ferlinghetti was published in 2018 when he was on the cusp of 100. I met Peter Munks, a Yale graduate, who washed the windows at City Lights for decades and who had a unique view of the store and its founder.

The personnel has changed over the past four decades,” Munks told me. “Lawrence has lost much of his hearing and his eyesight, and he doesn’t come into the office as often as he used to, but from my perspective, City Lights hasn’t changed all that much.”  Indeed, at the end of days, Ferlinghetti lost all his vision.

I will remember him as editor, publisher, poet and painter who invigorated the literary scene in San Francisco and who connected the city and its citizens to the cultures of the world. Perhaps Ferlinghetti had no single finest moment, but rather many of them spread across a lifetime. Perhaps, too, it’s his longevity that matters as much as anything else about him. The publisher who gave birth to the Beats, by giving their books to the word, outlived the Beat Generation writers he promoted, and yet never joined their circle. That’s part of the paradox of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who was more complicated than he seemed to be.

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