Lawrence Ferlinghetti turns 100 on March 24. At nearly five score, there is much poetic breath left in the famed poet’s literary lungs. The streams of his consciousness pour out in his latest book, a novel titled Little Boy, which Doubleday will publish March 19. It is the story of Ferlinghetti’s extraordinary life—“a story,” the publisher said, “steeped in the rhythmic energy of the beats, gleaming with Whitman’s visionary spirit, channeling the incantatory power of Proust and Joyce.”
Ferlinghetti’s fame as a poet is vast (millions of copies of his books have been sold); his talent as a painter is widely recognized (his works have been displayed in galleries and museums throughout the world); and his manifesto as an activist is manifest (“Poets, come out of your closets,” he roared in his 1976 poem “Populist Manifesto #1”). Many awards rest on his mantels, and popular culture has tapped into both his beat and bravado. He was a major figure in the cultural revolution known as the beat generation and gave a publishing presence to several of the great figures of that movement. And, of course, he was the man who, in 1956, breathed publishing life into Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems.
Throughout Ferlinghetti’s long life, the revolutionary poet and born maverick has been beholden to none. Part of his nonconformist side was revealed in the courage he displayed in defending freedom of the press at a time when few did so. After publishing Howl and selling it in his bookstore, Ferlinghetti kept it alive despite federal and local attempts to ban it. In the ensuing legal battle in 1957, First Amendment law was forever changed. The Howl case is a remarkable chapter in the history of the free press in America.
The People v. Ferlinghetti centered on an iconoclastic poet, a revolutionary poem, an intrepid book publisher, and a bookseller unintimidated by federal or local authorities. There is much color throughout the case: the bizarre twists of the obscenity trial, the swagger of the district attorney, the savvy of the young ACLU attorney representing Ferlinghetti, and the surprise verdict. Combining an erudite calm with an ardent conviction to protect principle, Ferlinghetti prevailed: the municipal judge returned a not-guilty verdict and did so by way of a remarkable unpublished opinion (which survives).
The precedent set by Ferlinghetti’s words and deeds first changed his world and then reconfigured ours. It set in motion a new era in press and poetic freedom. No one has been prosecuted for publishing or selling a poem since.
Despite all of Ferlinghetti’s efforts in the case, his name is absent from the published pages of the law. The Supreme Court has never cited his name as a precedent for press freedom. It does not appear in any First Amendment treatise. It is an unfamiliar name to law students, lawyers, and judges.
The Howl case is the true story of an American who refused to play it safe and who, in the process, gave staying power to freedom of the press, first in 1957 and again in 2007, when he arranged a reading of “Howl” on internet radio to circumvent Federal Communication Commission broadcasting regulations.
“Pity the nation—oh, pity the people who allow their rights to erode and their freedoms to be washed away.” These are Ferlinghetti’s commanding and cautionary words in his poem “Pity the Nation.”
Ferlinghetti is a painter, poet, publisher, bookstore owner, social activist, and First Amendment champion—and a true American maverick.
Ronald K.L. Collins and David M. Skover are the authors of The People v. Ferlinghetti: The Fight to Publish Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, published this month by Rowman & Littlefield.