“If you would be a poet," Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a man who would know, wrote in 2007, "create works capable of answering the challenge of apocalyptic times, even if it means sounding apocalyptic....”
For nearly the better part of seven decades, Ferlinghetti not only wrote such poems but sold them, from San Francisco's City Lights Booksellers, which he founded with Peter D. Martin in 1953, and published them, at City Lights Publishers, which he started in 1955. Martin left the business that year, but Ferlinghetti remained, mentoring generations of people of letters of all sorts along the way.
Still, even the greatest verses end: Ferlinghetti died on February 22 at his home in the Golden City, his bookstore confirmed; his daughter, Julie Sasser, told the New York Times the cause was interstitial lung disease. He was 101.
Speaking to PW in 2015, Ferlinghetti said that upon his arrival in San Francisco, in January 1951, he noticed a dearth of literary hangouts. “I had in my mind to have a nice used bookstore where I could sit in the back under a green eyeshade and read all day and growl at everybody who disturbed me,” he said. So Ferlinghetti founded City Lights in what he described as an “easy” process. “We each had $500,” he said. “When I bought Peter out I gave him another $500. It was just a little one-room bookstore.”
Today, the bookstore occupies the entirety of the original building. The store was founded as a paperback-only bookstore—which, in a statement on Ferlinghetti's death, the bookseller called “instrumental in democratizing American literature” by “jumpstarting a movement to make diverse and inexpensive quality books widely available.” Ferlinghetti envisioned the bookstore, the statement continued, “as a ‘Literary Meeting Place,’ where writers and readers could congregate to shares ideas about poetry, fiction, politics, and the arts.”
The first book published under City Lights' publishing arm, in 1955, was the first volume of the City Lights Pocket Poets Series, an extraordinarily influential series that would go on to include books by Julio Cortázar, Alan Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Denise Levertov, Malcolm Lowry, Frank O'Hara, Pablo Picasso, Jacques Prévert, Diane di Prima, William Carlos Williams, and more.
In 1958, Ferlinghetti's own sophomore collection of poetry, A Coney Island of the Mind, was published by New Directions Press. The book, of which more than a million copies exist in print and which has been published in more than a dozen languages, would go on to become one of the 20th century's bestselling books of poetry.
“For over sixty years, those of us who have worked with him at City Lights have been inspired by his knowledge and love of literature, his courage in defense of the right to freedom of expression, and his vital role as an American cultural ambassador,” City Lights said in a statement. “His curiosity was unbounded and his enthusiasm was infectious, and we will miss him greatly. We intend to build on Ferlinghetti's vision and honor his memory by sustaining City Lights into the future as a center for open intellectual inquiry and commitment to literary culture and progressive politics.”
Previous Coverage of Lawrence Ferlinghetti in PW
- Op-ed: Lawrence Ferlinghetti, American Maverick
- An Enviable Life: Lawrence Ferlinghetti
- PW's 2010 Bookseller of the Year: City Lights
- The Beat Goes On, and Business, Too
- City Lights: Three Decades of Offbeat Bookselling
- San Francisco's City Lights Celebrates 25 Years
- PW's coverage of the Howl obscenity trial
Ferlinghetti has long been associated with the Beat Generation, although he never self-identified with the label. Still, he was instrumental in its growth, its notoriety, and its significant contributions to American law and letters. In fact, Ferlinghetti, a lifelong activist and champion of free speech, got a strong start in that space in 1957 during the obscenity trial related to the publication of Allen Ginsburg’s Howl—a City Lights book.
“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,” Ronald K.L. Collins and David M. Skover write in an op-ed in PW in 2019. “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).”
As befits a crusader for freedom of speech, Ferlinghetti often used his own speech to criticize not just the society that would limit speech, but the faults of the business he loved. “Corporate publishing is the rule,” Ferlinghetti said of the American book business during a keynote speech given at the Bay Area Book Reviewers Association's 1984 book awards ceremony—words that would not have been out of place in such a venue today. He criticized the conglomerates that "own New York publishing houses, while the computerized bookstore chains move in on private bookshops everywhere.”
Yet despite his criticism of the business, Ferlinghetti's commitment to the bookish life was unquestionable. Over the course of his 101 years, Ferlinghetti wrote or edited more than 40 books under his own name, published hundreds—if not thousands—more, and sold tens of thousands more than that. What Ferlinghetti once said of his bookstore could be applied just as accurately to his own life's work: “As soon as we got the door open we couldn't get it closed.”