Beat Generation beacon Lawrence Ferlinghetti dies at age 101

Poet and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti, whose City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco became a West Coast literary haven for Beat Generation writers like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, has died at the age of 101, City Lights said on Tuesday.

Ferlinghetti, who played a key role in a free-speech battle after he published Ginsberg’s poem “Howl” in 1956, passed away on Monday evening, said City Lights Books on Twitter, adding “We love you, Lawrence.”

When Ferlinghetti turned 100 on March 24, 2019, San Francisco officials declared it Lawrence Ferlinghetti Day. City Lights threw a party, although the honoree did not attend due to failing eyesight and trouble in getting around.

The publishing house Doubleday released Ferlinghetti’s “Little Boy,” an experimental novel with autobiographical touches told in a stream-of-consciousness style, in conjunction with his 100th birthday.

The Beat Generation first percolated in New York in the 1950s but Kerouac, Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs and a slew of other writers, artists, hipsters, activists and thrill-seekers would eventually wander West to 261 Columbus Avenue in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood to hang out at City Lights.

Ferlinghetti at his studio in San Francisco, in March 2016. | BRIAN FLAHERTY / THE NEW YORK TIMES
Ferlinghetti at his studio in San Francisco, in March 2016. | BRIAN FLAHERTY / THE NEW YORK TIMES

“I keep telling people I wasn’t a member of the original Beat Generation,” Ferlinghetti told the Los Angeles Times in 2005. “I was sort of the guy tending the store.”

In 1957 Ferlinghetti, a former Eagle Scout, found himself on the front line of a constitutional fight when he was arrested after publishing and selling Ginsberg’s ground-breaking “Howl and Other Poems.” While it was considered an epic achievement by Beat peers, “Howl” shocked much of America with its references to drugs and homosexuality and renunciation of mainstream society.

Ferlinghetti was cleared of obscenity charges when a judge ruled “Howl” was not obscene because it had redeeming social value.

“It put us on the map, courtesy of the San Francisco Police Department,” Ferlinghetti said. “It’s hard to get that kind of publicity.”

Ferlinghetti and Peter D. Martin, a sociology student at the time, had founded City Lights as a bookstore and small publisher in 1953, naming it for Charlie Chaplin’s 1931 movie. In a few years it became a Bohemian mecca for intellectuals, writers, dissidents, activists, musicians and artists.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti stands outside his bookstore in San Francisco, California, in 1998. A poet, publisher and political iconoclast who inspired and nurtured generations of San Francisco artists and writers, Ferlinghetti died on Feb. 23, 2021, at his home in San Francisco. He was 101. | REUTERS
Lawrence Ferlinghetti stands outside his bookstore in San Francisco, California, in 1998. A poet, publisher and political iconoclast who inspired and nurtured generations of San Francisco artists and writers, Ferlinghetti died on Feb. 23, 2021, at his home in San Francisco. He was 101. | REUTERS

“City Lights became about the only place around where you could go in, sit down and read books without being pestered to buy something,” Ferlinghetti said in a 2006 Hartford Courant interview. “… Also, I had this idea that a bookstore should be a center of intellectual activity.”

Ferlinghetti’s works often showed an anti-establishment or political bent. He wanted his poems to be accessible to all.

“The poem should have a public surface, by which I mean anybody who hasn’t had any education could still understand the poem,” he told Writer’s Digest in a 2010 interview. “Then below that it should have a subjective or subversive level, which would make the poem more important than just a surface lyric that’s just giving you a nice picture.”

In his biography, “Lawrence Ferlinghetti: Poet at Large,” Larry Smith wrote that his subject’s writing “sings with the sad and comic music of the streets.”

The most successful of Ferlinghetti’s many works was the 1958 poetry collection “A Coney Island of the Mind,” which sold more than 1 million copies. Described by the New York Times as “among the most popular poets of the modern era,” he published poetry through 2012 and in 2015 put out “Writing Across the Landscape: Travel Journals,” a collection of his writings spanning more than 50 years.

In 2017 a collection titled “Ferlinghetti’s Greatest Poems” was released.

Photos of the Beat movement writers on the wall at the City Lights bookstore in San Francisco | JASON HENRY / THE NEW YORK TIMES
Photos of the Beat movement writers on the wall at the City Lights bookstore in San Francisco | JASON HENRY / THE NEW YORK TIMES

Ferlinghetti was born in Yonkers, New York, a few months after his father died. His mother suffered from mental illness so he went to live with a relative in France and later with another family in New York.

He earned a journalism degree at the University of North Carolina, served in the Navy during World War Two, serving on a submarine-chasing ship during the D-Day invasion, and received a doctorate in literature from the Sorbonne.

During his Navy service, Ferlinghetti toured Nagasaki six weeks after it was hit with a U.S. atomic bomb. He told the San Francisco Chronicle that in the rubble he found a teacup with what appeared to be human flesh melted on it.

“In that instant, I became a total pacifist,” he said.

In addition to Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs, Ferlinghetti published works by Beat figures such as Neal Cassady, Gary Snyder, Gregory Corso and Philip Lamantia, as well as Sam Shepard and Charles Bukowski.

When asked how he remained prolific and lived to 100, he told NPR: “Have a good laugh and you’ll live longer.”

Ferlinghetti, who also was a painter, had two children.


Seven quotes from poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti

As proprietor of the landmark City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, Lawrence Ferlinghetti was a Beat Generation poet, a publisher and a free-speech advocate.

Following are quotes from Ferlinghetti, who died on Monday at the age of 101.

“I keep telling people I wasn’t a member of the original Beat Generation. I was sort of the guy tending the store.”

— Los Angeles Times interview in 2005

“In Plato’s Republic, poets were considered subversive, a danger to the republic. I kind of relish that role. So I see my present role as a gadfly, to use as a soapbox to promote my various ideas and obsessions.”

— Upon being named San Francisco’s poet laureate in 1998

“The Jack Kerouac school of disembodied poetics is ‘first thought, best thought,’ where you write down the first thing that comes to mind, to get close to the essential being of yourself. My poems were not written that way. I think it can sometimes be ‘first thought, worst thought,’ unless you have an original genius mind like Allen Ginsberg and everything that comes out of that mind is interesting.”

— Los Angeles Times interview in 2005

“Publishing a book of poetry is still like dropping it off a bridge somewhere and waiting for a splash. Usually you don’t hear anything.”

— Hartford Courant interview in 2006

“I have dreamt that all my teeth fell out but my tongue lived to tell the tale.”

— His “Coney Island of the Mind”

“I think the real poetry today is with music. Bob Dylan was a real poet. There’s the poetry of folk singers, bluegrass and country-western. Rap poets are more alienated from society than the Beat poets ever were and they have a lot to say.”

— Los Angeles Times interview in 2005

“For quite a while now, it seems the most interesting writing is coming from Third World writers and from women writers, both in America and elsewhere, because, you could say, whitey had his revolution, and the Third World is still having its, and so are women.”

— Interview with Writer’s Digest

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