The Beat Goes On

Jessica Zack | April 3, 2019 | Lifestyle Story Culture

Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s name has long been synonymous with San Francisco’s anti-establishment literary voice—so long that it’s been nearly 70 years since the blue-eyed World War II vet, fresh out of grad school at the Sorbonne, arrived in San Francisco from Paris. With his doctorate on the topic of the city as a symbol for modern poetry in hand, Ferlinghetti asked a stranger on Market Street how to find the Bohemian part of town.

It didn’t take long for the prolific young poet-turned-politically insurgent publisher to become a beloved counterculture legend. Ferlinghetti settled in North Beach (where he’s lived in the same for the last 40 years); co-founded literary oasis City Lights Bookstore in 1953; and, out of a desire to inspire a “dissident ferment” of groundbreaking artists like himself, started its publishing imprint two years later.

A friend and champion of the famously nonconformist beat poets, Ferlinghetti was arrested in 1957 after defending the right to publish Allen Ginsberg’s Howl against obscenity charges in a landmark First Amendment trial that drew international attention and altered the course of American publishing. He was later acquitted.

“When I was in Paris, what attracted me to San Francisco was that, in 1950, [the city] was still the last frontier,” Ferlinghetti wrote in a recent email, sent only weeks before celebrating his 100th birthday and, remarkably, the publication of his entrancing autobiographical novel, Little Boy ($24, Doubleday).

The propulsive and exceedingly personal book is nothing less than a local philosopher-hero’s origin story. Ferlinghetti’s first novel since his 1960 surrealist, sexually charged Her and 1988’s Love in the Days of Rage, Little Boy is told in a free-flowing torrent of images and existential questioning, as the elderly author (who is also the titular “Little Boy”) rifles through what he calls “my seabag of memories.”

Ferlinghetti casts his gaze all the way back to his Bronxville, N.Y., childhood, spent, partially, in the care of his maternal aunt Emilie after his father’s death, when the young Ferlinghetti discovered the solace of “my constant companion my lonely self.” “And then after an endless series of confusions,” he writes, “Grown Boy came into his own voice and let loose his word-hoard pent up within him.”

What a “word-hoard” it has been.

Ferlinghetti has more than a dozen books currently still in print, including his best-known work, the 1958 poetry collection, A Coney Island of the Mind, which has sold more than 1 million copies and remains one of the most popular poetry books in the U.S.

To celebrate the author's centennial, City Lights Bookstore and other venue across San Francisco threw Ferlinghetti a month long series of parties, readings, open houses and exhibitions (including a solo show of his paintings at Rena Bransten Gallery. Lawrence Ferlinghetti: 100 Years without a Net, on view through April 27).

When asked what inspired him toward the end of his life to reflect on boyhood, Ferlinghetti responded cryptically, perhaps due to his advanced age and declining health, or, just as likely, due to his characteristically winking good cheer:“I have been writing Little Boy for years and will continue into the future.”

Originally published in the April issue of San Francisco

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