American writer Lawrence Ferlinghetti (born 1919) is equally well known for his own works and for his efforts on behalf of other writers. Ferlinghetti's book of poems, A Coney Island of the Mind , is among the top-selling volumes in the history of American poetry, with close to a million copies reportedly in print, and his durable San Francisco bookstore, City Lights Books, was the intellectual home of the Beat Generation movement in American literature and culture.
Though not as widely recognized as other writers among the "Beats," such as poet Allen Ginsberg and novelist Jack Kerouac, Ferlinghetti exerted enormous influence. The publishing arm of his bookstore brought the works of the Beats before the public, and it was Ferlinghetti who took up Ginsberg's cause when Ginsberg's classic long poem "Howl" was deemed obscene and seized by San Francisco authorities. Ferlinghetti's own poetry has not only been read, but has been widely imitated. Many a college town coffee house in the 1960s and beyond featured a beret-wearing poet who intoned free verses that were often accompanied, by the rhythms of jazz music, and some of the icons of hipster culture had their origins in his remarkably fertile mind. Ferlinghetti outlived most of his contemporaries by decades, and he continued to write voluminously and advocate vigorously for the free-spirited attitudes he had helped bring to American literature.
Learned French Before English
Ferlinghetti, the youngest of five sons, was born Lawrence Monsanto Ferling in Yonkers, New York, on March 24, 1919. His father, Charles, an auctioneer, real estate agent, and something of an entrepreneur, had shortened his Italian name upon arriving in the United States, and it was not until 1954 that Ferlinghetti discovered the original form of his family name and readopted it. He never knew his father, who died suddenly six months before he was born. The death threw Ferlinghetti's mother, Clemence, into a downward spiral, and she was eventually institutionalized. Ferlinghetti bounced among relatives and orphanages early in his childhood; Emily Monsanto, the wife of his uncle, Ludwig Monsanto, took Ferlinghetti to Strasbourg, France, after separating from her husband, and Ferlinghetti learned French as his first language. He later learned to speak Italian fluently as well.
The family's fortunes fluctuated wildly after the pair returned to New York. For a time they moved back in with Ludwig Monsanto, but funds were short and Ferlinghetti suffered a period of malnutrition that culminated in a diagnosis of rickets. Then Emily Monsanto got a job as a governess with a well-off family named Bisland in Bronxville, New York. Ferlinghetti chose to stay on with the Bislands when Emily later disappeared. His literary education began under the influence of his foster father, Presley Bisland, who had studied the classics of ancient Greek and Latin literature, and it continued at the exclusive Mount Hermon preparatory school in Massachusetts.
Ferlinghetti attended the University of North Carolina from 1937 until his graduation in 1941, initially attracted there by the literary atmosphere that flourished around the circle of novelist Thomas Wolfe. He joined the staff of the Daily Tar Heel newspaper while he was there. In the fall of 1941, with German submarines harassing American ships, Ferlinghetti joined the U.S. Navy. He served through most of World War II, commanding a patrol boat during the D-Day invasion of France on June 6, 1944.
The boat was good-sized, and Ferlinghetti took advantage of the chance to requisition reading materials for himself and his shipmates. "We could order anything a battleship could order so we got an entire set of the Modern Library [an inexpensive set of volumes of classic literature]," he recalled to Nicholas Wroe of England's Guardian newspaper. "We had all the classics stacked everywhere all over the ship, including the john." After leaving the Navy, Ferlinghetti used his proceeds from the G.I. Bill (Servicemen's Readjustment Act) to further his literary education. He completed a master's degree at Columbia University in New York in 1947 and then enrolled at the Sorbonne, a venerable university in Paris. He received his doctoral degree in 1949, writing his dissertation, about images of cities in modern poetry, in French.
Moved to San Francisco
As a budding writer sitting in Parisian cafés, Ferlinghetti was influenced by two of the giants of modern poetry, the expatriate American writers T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. Finally convinced that he was merely imitating them rather than developing his own voice, he banished their works from his home and began looking for new models. He found one in the anarchist-minded critic and essayist Kenneth Rexroth, whom he met in Paris and encountered again in San Francisco. Ferlinghetti landed in that city in 1951 after a cross-country train trip, and found that he loved its European atmosphere. He was soon joined there by his fiancée, Selden Kirby-Smith, known as Kirby, and the two were married. The marriage lasted until 1976 and produced two children, Julie and Lorenzo.
Ferlinghetti and other young writers attended Rexroth's lectures and listened to his programs on Berkeley's KPFA, the first noncommercial radio station in the United States. Ferlinghetti supported himself with teaching and freelance writing jobs while working on translations of the poems of French writer Jacques Prévert. A new literary scene began to grow in San Francisco, with Rexroth as its godfather, containing a political tinge strongly opposed to the dominant conservatism of 1950s America. Ferlinghetti was drawn to the heavily Italian-American North Beach neighborhood, and in 1953 he and a business partner, Peter D. Martin, launched a poetry magazine there, naming it City Lights after the 1930 silent film by screen comedian Charlie Chaplin.
To support the magazine, the two soon opened a small bookstore called the City Lights Pocket Bookshop. The name was later shortened to City Lights Books, but the original name was significant: Ferlinghetti's store was said to be the first in the United States dedicated exclusively to the new paperback book medium. City Lights was an immediate hit among San Francisco's resident writers and intellectuals, and it soon became a pilgrimage goal for all kinds of young people who came to the city to experience its wide-open cultural environment. In 1955 Ferlinghetti built on the bookstore's success by launching a publishing operation, City Lights Pocket Poets.
The first volume he issued was a book of his own poems, Pictures of the Gone World . But it was another early City Lights product that led to the most famous episode in Ferlinghetti's literary life. In 1955 he heard Allen Ginsberg read his epic poem "Howl," a furious, overwhelming work, frankly sexual in parts, that exposed a vast dark underside of America's sunny culture. Ferlinghetti sent Ginsberg a telegram (according to Ferlinghetti biographer Barry Silesky) that read, "I greet you at the beginning of a great career," echoing the words of philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson to poet Walt Whitman a century before. He added a question: "When do I get the manuscript?" Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems sold out quickly, and Ferlinghetti put in an order for a new run with a British printing firm.
The shipment was seized by U.S. Customs on obscenity charges, but then cleared for import. When Ferlinghetti put the book on sale again at City Lights, he was arrested by San Francisco police and charged with printing and selling lewd and indecent material. Ferlinghetti was defended by the American Civil Liberties Union, which put numerous literary figures on the stand to testify in favor of the value of Ginsberg's work, and in October of 1957 he was completely exonerated. Publicity surrounding the trial benefited not only Ginsberg but also Ferlinghetti's entire operation. City Lights Books became firmly ensconced as a center of experimental writing and of the growing counterculture of the San Francisco area.
Published Best-Selling Book of Poems
The "Howl" trial also brought attention to Ferlinghetti's own writing, and in 1958 his poetry collection A Coney Island of the Mind was published by New Directions Press in New York. He would go on to write more than 50 other books of poetry and fiction, but A Coney Island of the Mind remained his best-known work and one of the most popular volumes of poetry in the American literary canon. Ferlinghetti favored the free, unrhymed verse of his predecessors Eliot and Pound, but in place of the dense web of literary references found in their poems he created an imaginative carnival of images that were often humorous. "Dog" was one of the poems that endeared Ferlinghetti's writings to ordinary poetry readers. The poet traced the wanderings of a dog across San Francisco, noting that "Congressman Doyle" (of the notorious U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee) "is just another / fire hydrant / to him," and he characterized the dog as "a real realist / with a real tale to tell / and a real tail to tell it with."
Ferlinghetti later followed up A Coney Island of the Mind with a sequel, A Far Rockaway of the Heart (both titles refer to locations in New York City); it was one of numerous books of poetry that covered nearly every conceivable topic, from politics to music, the killing of President John F. Kennedy (in "Assassination Raga"), sex, and personal experience. He also translated the works of European poets, including Italian film director Pier Paolo Pasolini, and spent several years in Italy. He wrote two novels ( Her and Love in the Days of Rage ), travel narratives, and several plays. Ferlinghetti rarely adopted the stance of intense alienation that was integral to the approach of most of the Beat poets, and he rejected attempts to classify him with the group, although he applauded their efforts. "In some ways what I really did was mind the store," he told Wroe. "When I arrived in San Francisco in 1951 I was wearing a beret. If anything I was the last of the bohemians rather than the first of the Beats."
Indeed, Ferlinghetti's bookstore continued to prosper as San Francisco became something of a living monument to the American counterculture, and he gradually evolved into an institution in the city. A variety of younger writers, including poet Diane di Prima, had their careers helped along by City Lights Press, and Ferlinghetti's own poetry was collected in These Are My Rivers: New and Selected Poems, 1955–1993 . In 1998 he was named San Francisco's first poet laureate, and in the early 2000s he wrote a column for the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper.
Among the various honors that came his way in later years was the inaugural Literarian Award from the National Book Foundation, recognizing outstanding service to the American literary community, in 2005. By that time Ferlinghetti was entering the last half of his ninth decade, but his pace had not slowed in the least; he published the first volume of a new epic-length poem, Americus I , in 2004, and he seemed to revel in his role as a still-active part of American literary history.
Cherkovski, Neeli, Ferlinghetti: A Biography , Doubleday, 1979.
Silesky, Barry, Ferlinghetti: The Artist in His Time , Warner, 1990.
Smith, Larry, Lawrence Ferlinghetti: Poet-at-Large , Southern Illinois University Press, 1983.
Buffalo News , May 9, 1999.
Guardian (London, England), July 1, 2006.
New York Times Magazine , November 6, 2005.
Publishers Weekly , September 28, 1998; March 22, 2004.
San Francisco Chronicle , June 11, 2003.
Seattle Post-Intelligencer , April 10, 2001.
"A Brief History of Lawrence Ferlinghetti," City Lights Books, http://www.citylights.com/CL1f.html (October 14, 2006).
Contemporary Authors Online , Gale, 2006, reproduced in Biography Resource Center, Thomson Gale, 2006, http://www.galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (October 14, 2006).