Author Archives: tomhardin

Farewell to a Dissident Poet

On February 22, one of the greatest living men of letters in America died 30 days short of his 102nd Birthday. Lawrence Ferlinghetti was a poet, a painter, a publisher, and a bookseller. His City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco was founded in 1953 and is the best known bookstore in America.

In 1956, he published Howl and other poems by Allen Ginsberg in his Pocket Poet Series (#4). It resulted in a major obscenity trial that could have resulted with Ferlinghetti going to prison. But he won and censorship was defeated. This case was made into a very good movie, Howl, starring James Franco as Ginsberg.

In 1958, New Directions published Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind. It became the all-time bestselling book of poetry in America with over a million copies sold. It is the first book of poetry that I read cover to cover. I highly recommend it. He paints pictures with words.

During the final years of my college experience, A Far Rockaway of the Heart was published. It is a sequel to Coney Island, set 40 years later. So I wrote my final college paper on it. Ferlinghetti was 80, and I thought how much longer can he go on?

He did go on and continued to write, of which I read bits and pieces. Occasionally, the entire book. But then on his 100th birthday, he published a novel, titled Little Boy. I couldn’t wait to get it and I devoured it. Maybe too quickly. So about a week before his death, I was listening to his good friend Bob Dylan’s latest album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, and one of the long songs reminded me of Little Boy, so I decided to reread it. But a bit slower this time. And then the sad news hit. And now this book took on special meaning to me. So I watched Ferlinghetti: A Rebirth of Wonder for about the 20th time and began reading slowly.

Little Boy is a small book, just 179 pages, and it is unlike any novel that I have read before. Perhaps similar to the few pages that I have read of Finnegan’s Wake. It is really, just one long run-on sentence like a saxophonist holding a long note. It moves and it moves fast. And it really isn’t a novel. It is autobiography mixed with a history of literature and the 20th Century. But it is pure poetry. Only a poet could write these sentences.

Ferlinghetti had a very interesting life. Born the fifth child to a mother who just whose husband had just died. He was taken in by his aunt, later abandoned. He was an orphan for a time but eventually was taken in by a rich family related to the founder of Sarah Lawrence College. They had previously lost their son named Lawrence. It was a family without hugs and kisses, but provided him a good education.

Being a bad boy at times, Lawrence was sent away to a sort of reform school. There he met a boy with two novels in his pockets: The Sun Also Rises and Look Homeward, Angel. He eventually followed the boy, Thomas Wolfe, to the University of North Carolina.

Then WWII came. He was skipper of a submarine chaser and was at Normandy beach. After the war, Lawrence attended Columbia University. He also earned a Doctorate at the University of Paris, where he met George Whitman (future owner of the famous bookstore Shakespeare and Company on the Left Bank). He would remain a lifelong friend until his death in 2011 at age 98.

In 1951, Lawrence moved to San Francisco and opened City Lights in 1953. He took the torch from Kenneth Rexroth, who was the leading Anarchist, dissident poet in San Francisco. And then he changed the world. So this little boy lived to 101 but remained as open minded as a child. He had the bite of an old school Anarchist but always was a Romantic.

RIP Lawrence (3/24/1919-2/22/2021). A life well lived. I hope readers of this review will pursue what he had to say.  

Reviewed by Tom, Main Library

Never A Lovely So Real: The Life and Work of Nelson Algren by Colin Asher

This is the latest biography of a writer you have probably never heard of. But his story and reputation have made a bit of a comeback of late. There have be a couple of biographies and three documentaries on Nelson Algren in the past few years. He was considered one of America’s greatest novelist in the 40’s and 50’s, but during the Red Scare, his stature took a tumble. He won the first ever National Book Award. It was presented to him by Eleanor Roosevelt in 1950 for his 3rd novel, The Man with the Golden Arm.

Five years later, Otto Preminger broke the Production Code and it became the first major motion picture about morphine addiction, and it starred Frank Sinatra. But Hollywood and Preminger cheated Algren out of money and respect. Preminger thumbed his nose at the lowlifes Nelson hung around with, and Nelson saw Hollywood as fake.

Algren held a lifetime grudge and he became sour on the American Dream quickly. He got a decent amount of money, but he was a gambler and lost it all quickly. He preferred the losers in life to the winners. So he hung around junkies, prostitutes, gamblers, and con men.

In 1956, he published A Walk on the Wide Side (WALK). It was a re-write of his first book, Somebody in Boots, a depiction of his travelling days throughout Texas and New Orleans during the Great Depression looking for work. Louisville’s Hunter S. Thompson was a big fan of his and WALK, and would getting into a letter writing feud with him about the amount of a long quote that Hunter used in his first book, Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga. Lou Reed would take this title in the early 70’s and make one of the most iconic rock songs ever about a different kind of misfits.

He had many fans, Richard Wright, Carl Sandburg, Ernest Hemingway, and Kurt Vonnegut to just name a few. He had famous lovers and many one night stands. He had a relationship with a junkie prostitute that was being abused by her husband and he helped her get clean and remarried.

The world’s leading feminist Simone de Beauvoir would visit him in Chicago from Paris in 1947. They would become soulmates. He showed her the underworld of Chicago and she was hooked. In the 1950’s, the FBI and State Department had him under surveillance for his days as a Communist in the 1930’s alongside Richard Wright and Studs Terkel. So he couldn’t leave the U.S. and his relationship with Simone fizzled. But she was buried wearing a ring he bought her.

He was able to visit Cuba and while there he called on Hemingway, who had just survived his second plane crash at the end of 1955.

In the 60’s, Algren wrote mostly for money. Quick books about his worldly travels. A book defending Hemingway after his death. Many magazine articles. He had never made the money or got the prestige that he deserved, so he made a mockery of his life and work, because that’s how the world treated him.

He taught a semester at the Iowa Writers Workshop in the mid-60’s, but he was a terrible teacher and didn’t think creative writing could be taught. He was the highest paid writer there and he got his third wife a position too, but he gambled all their money away.

Nelson always had a love-hate relationship with Chicago and after living there for almost six decades, he left to write a book about the Boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter in 1975. He would call Carter “the sanest man that I ever met.”

Nelson died in 1981 on Long Island at the age of 72. He was alone much of his time, despite many friends and lovers (and three brief marriages). In the documentary, The End Is Nothing, The Road Is All, Terkel called him two images, the Cat and Art Carney (from “The Honeymooners”). Vonnegut, who had met Algren at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, says Algren was the loneliest man he ever knew. 

If you want to read some of the greatest prose ever written, read Algren. If you want to read a great biography of an interesting life, read this work by Colin Asher.

Reviewed by Tom, Main Library

William S. Burroughs and the Cult of Rock ‘N’ Roll by Casey Rae

David Bowie and William Burroughs, photo by by Terry O’Neill 

I didn’t read much as a child. As a late teen, I discovered good literature via my love for Rock & Roll. And I continue to do so as an old man.

I had a need to find the sources of The Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Lou Reed’s references in their lyrics and interviews. Once I found The Beats, Thomas Wolfe, Henry Miller, Nelson Algren, and Hubert Selby, the flood gates broke and unleashed a “word hoard” that has drowned me. But, I believe, literature is a good way to die. Or live.

The writer who has influenced all the rockers that I mentioned before is WILLIAM S. BURROUGHS.

Paul McCartney chose him to be on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. And through Paul, Burroughs was a big influence on The Beatles’ avant-garde development in the mid 60’s. Bob Dylan read Naked Lunch (1959) and it influenced his lyrics and poetry collection, Tarantula, which is like reading Burroughs’s later cut-ups. Lou Reed was very influenced by Burroughs’ subject matter in Junky, Queer, and Naked Lunch, reflected in many songs such as “Lonesome Cowboy Bill” and “Heroin.”

Lou Reed and William S. Burroughs, photo by Victor Bockris

Bill lived a very hard and lonely life. But an exciting life.

Born in 1914 in St. Louis to a prominent family, Harvard educated, but bored and a total misfit, he began hanging with seedy people in seedy places. Bill was a founding member of The Beat Generation that began in the late 40’s with the meeting of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsburg.

He began doing morphine around age 30 and was a heroin junkie for a large part of his life. This made for him a very peripatetic life around the globe (Tangiers, Paris, London) until he landed in NYC in the mid 70’s. He was always running from the law. He was in his early 60’s and managed to get another bad heroin addiction in NYC. His assistant helped him move to Kansas to get away from drugs. He was on the methadone program and smoked weed until his death at age 83.

This book is not a biography but a travel through Burroughs’ life and those that choose him as a friend and an influence. And the list is long of musicians that sought Bill out at his place in NYC (known as “the Bunker”) or to his modest home that he owned, late in life, in Lawrence, Kansas. David Bowie (pictured above), Iggy Pop (pictured below), Kurt Cobain, Mick Jagger, members of Hüsker Dü, R.E.M., and Sonic Youth to name a few. Many just mined his writings for their band name (Soft Machine, Steely Dan, and Mugwumps – an early version of The Mama and Papas – to name a few), or for song titles/lyrics.

Iggy Pop and William S. Burroughs

This book explores every musician inspired by Bill’s very wild life and writings. The irony in such a book is that Bill had no interest in Rock & Roll or Punk Rock (which he is oftentimes called the Godfather of Punk Rock). But he took a great interest in the musicians that visited him. And he formed a few friendships with men young enough to be his grandsons.

He was very fond of Kurt Cobain, who visited him 6 months before Kurt committed suicide. As Kurt drove away, Burroughs remarked to his assistant, “There’s something wrong with that boy; he frowns for no good reason.”

I have read a lot about Burroughs’ life and some of his books, yet there are stories told here that I have never heard before. For example, there’s a very funny one about his first visit from Al Jourgensen, the leader of the band Ministry.

William S. Burroughs is a writer that you should know and this book is a good way to begin. Or if you already familiar with him, it is a good book to add to your knowledge of him.

Reviewed by Tom,Main Library