More than a bookseller: the revolutionary legacy of Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Colleen Fischer | Wednesday, March 3, 2021
There’s an interview with an aging Allen Ginsberg. I remember watching it as a teenager on my parents’ couch with the impossible close shot and indifference to what they are meant to be talking about when Ginsberg addresses something I had been wondering for years, “Why did so many of the beats die young?” He nodded at Pete Orlovsky and listed off many other beats who were still alive at the time, saying their literature may be rooted in tragedy but their lives weren’t. Last week, we lost another one of the original beats. Lawrence Ferlinghetti died a couple of weeks shy of his 102nd birthday.
Ferlinghetti split the $1000 bill to open City Lights bookstore in San Francisco with business partner Peter D. Martin — who left shortly after — when there wasn’t a detectable poetry scene. The store offered a place for poets to gather providing one of the two American poles in beat literature: Greenwich Village and San Francisco. The bookstore has been called a “mecca for bohemians.” Offering a living, breathing place for people who identify with the movement to gather, instead of cold headstones and Walgreens that used to be bars. Its black and white-tiled floors, poster-covered walls and rooms of books act not only as a place to learn and find stories, but also as a platform to tell stories.
Ferlinghetti recognized that almost anybody could write poetry, but the hard thing was getting it published — especially when it came to genre-pushing art. He offered a much needed support system for a generation of writers publishing works by Allen Ginsburg, Diane De Prima (who also died earlier this year) and Gregory Corso. He supported them by publishing and sharing their poetry and even implemented an unofficial rule that poets can steal books from the store. It is Ferlinghetti’s cabin that Kerouac is going to in the opening of “Big Sur,” and the bookstore he’s going to in the opening of “Dharma Bums.” Every time you read a spicy scene in a vampire novel, think of Ferlinghetti, because the ruling of his obscenity trial over the sale of “Howl” acts as a precedent saying that any piece of art with any semblance of literary value cannot be obscene.
Ferlinghetti offered an example of a different type of revolutionary. He wrote poetry and books but also provided the means for others to share theirs, as a quiet hand of support on the backs of generations of San Francisco writers. I have dreamt of driving to San Francisco to visit City Lights since high school. Anybody who has spent more than 10 minutes with me has probably heard me beg someone to come with me. It is tragic that when I finally make it out there it will no longer be “his” store, but I feel his comforting hand at my back pushing me towards my dreams. Even though “Larry” won’t be screaming lines of poetry out of the second-floor City Lights window toward the street he fought to be renamed, Kerouac Ally, his voice echos through all of American Literature.