Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who died on Monday at the age of 101, was one of the key figures in 20th-century American culture. He was as responsible as any single other person for the rise of the Beats, the end of obscenity laws, and, not least, the transformation of San Francisco from a backwater province to a vibrant artistic center.
He did all this through the creation and flourishing of a bookstore, City Lights—which, seven decades after its founding, in 1953, remains one of the country’s great literary bookstores—and a publishing house as well.
The bookstore from its outset was an intellectual hangout for the budding generation of writers, painters, and poets who lived and gathered in San Francisco’s North Beach district. When one of the poets, Allen Ginsberg, read portions of a new work called “Howl” at a nearby gallery the night of Oct. 7, 1955, causing an instant sensation among the cognoscenti, Ferlinghetti—who had just started his publishing house with an idea of stirring an “international dissident ferment”—offered to publish it.
Two years later, when the first 520 copies of Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems arrived on the docks in shipping crates from City Lights Publishers’ London-based printer, U.S. Customs officials seized them, on the grounds that the book was obscene. (One of the inspectors told reporters, “You wouldn’t want your children to come across it.”) After two months, the U.S. Attorney’s office declined to prosecute, the copies were released, and Ferlinghetti displayed them prominently in his store.
Five days into the marketing, on June 3, 1957, two undercover cops with the San Francisco Police Department’s Juvenile Bureau walked into the store, bought a copy, then arrested Ferlinghetti for publishing the book and the shop’s cashier for selling it.
Ferlinghetti decided to challenge not only the arrest but also the legal basis for the law against obscenity. He hired San Francisco’s most flamboyant criminal attorney. J.W. Ehrlich, nicknamed “Jake the Master,” who’d represented such controversial clients as the stripper Sally Rand, the death-row kidnapper Caryl Chessman, and, as one obituary put it when he died in 1971, “a seemingly endless stream of women accused of killing their husbands.” Ehrlich took the case pro bono. [Continue reading…]