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