The fight to publish Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’


In 1950s California, publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti took on the censors – and won.

In The People v Ferlinghetti: The Fight to Publish Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’, Ronald Collins and David Skover take us to the 1950s, and a California on the verge of social change. At the heart of their uplifting story is the business acumen and literary idealism of Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

Ferlinghetti, now aged 100 and still proprietor of City Lights Bookstore and publishing house, is a seminal figure in San Francisco. He is considered its poet laureate and a great contributor to its cultural life, as a publisher, artist, activist and political renegade. His idiosyncratic blend of environmentalism, anarchism, socialism and artistic freedom has provided generations with inspiration; his poetry, prose and polemic has impressed writers and given them the courage to follow their convictions; his publications have introduced millions of people worldwide to advanced writers.

San Francisco was the West Coast centre for the Beat Generation, a counterbalance to its other centre in New York. On the evening of 7 October 1955, Gary Snyder, Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, Philip Whalen and Allen Ginsberg gathered at a gallery in San Francisco to read poetry at an event called ‘6 Poets at 6 Gallery’ (the sixth poet was either compere Kenneth Rexroth or the spirit of the late John Hoffman, whose work was read by Lamantia). In the audience were Ferlinghetti and Jack Kerouac.

Ginsberg read ‘Howl’, a long unpublished poem he had recently composed. This was not only to be a breakthrough poem for Ginsberg – it was also to be a watershed in American literary culture, shaping a generation’s writing, from prose and poetry to rock lyrics. Yet on 7 October 1955, Ginsberg was virtually unknown to the wider public.

Ginsberg began to read:

‘I saw the best minds of my generation
destroyed by madness
starving, mystical, naked,
who dragged themselves thru the angry streets at
dawn looking for a negro fix.’

Ginsberg chronicled the insanity, death and degradation of his Beat friends – incarcerated, murdered, exiled, starving, drug-addicted, driven beyond endurance into states of wretchedness – and presented them as holy beings made divine and transcendent through an unjust world. Their suffering was a moral posture, a condemnation of a world gone insane through Cold War division, and rife with hypocrisy and injustice.

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