cover image The People v. Ferlinghetti: The Fight to Publish Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”

The People v. Ferlinghetti: The Fight to Publish Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”

Ronald K.L. Collins and David M. Skover. Rowman & Littlefield, $30 (216p) ISBN 978-1-5381-2589-2

Lawyers Collins and Skover (On Dissent: Its Meaning in America) offer a mix of literary and legal history that builds steam as it arrives at its high point: the 1957 obscenity trial over the publication of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.” In the early chapters, the authors offer background on Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the Sorbonne PhD who opened City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco in 1953 and became a strong supporter of beat literature. They trace, too, Ginsberg’s composition of “Howl” and his relationship with Ferlinghetti, a daring but careful publisher of his work. The authors are at their strongest describing the trial, clearly explaining the legal issues at stake. As they show, Ferlinghetti’s win wasn’t a blanket endorsement of free speech, as “Howl” only passed muster because the judge believed it had redeeming social value. Even today, Collins and Skover note, the poem can only be read on the radio after 10 p.m. While the writing starts shakily, largely stemming from the authors’ profuse enthusiasm for Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg, Collins and Skover’s ample legal insights redeem the book. Additionally, an intriguing epilogue on Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti’s legacy, and an appendix that for the first time publishes the judge’s full opinion in The People v. Ferlinghetti, add value to a worthwhile effort. [em](Mar.) [/em]