In 1955 Ferlinghetti, the spiritual leader of San Francisco’s Beat poets and owner of City Lights Bookshop, a hangout for aspiring writers, founded City Lights Books, a publishing company that would print inexpensive paperback editions of the works of emerging poets. That same year, he heard Allen Ginsberg, a Beat poet from New York, give a reading of “Howl,” a rambling poem that chronicles the depressed state of young Americans who felt alienated from the prevailing materialistic culture and escaped through alcohol, drugs, and sex. Ferlinghetti agreed to publish “Howl,” which included language and described sexual acts that tested the mores of the 1950’s.
The first printing of Howl and Other Poems occurred in October, 1956. On March 25, 1957, the second edition, which was printed in England, was seized by U.S. Customs officials on the grounds that it was obscene. Charges were dropped several weeks later, and the books were released. In early June, however, San Francisco police entered Ferlinghetti’s bookstore and arrested him and an employee for selling obscene books.
Ferlinghetti’s ensuing trial lasted through the summer and into the fall of 1957. The American Civil Liberties Union, which defended Ferlinghetti without fees, called local critics, reviewers, and professors to testify on the...
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Biography (Critical Survey of Poetry: American Poets)
Lawrence Monsanto Ferlinghetti—born in Yonkers, New York, in 1919—was the youngest of five sons of Charles Ferlinghetti and Clemence Ferlinghetti. Several months before Lawrence’s birth, his father died unexpectedly of a heart attack, and his mother suffered a breakdown as a result. She was unable to care for her son and was eventually institutionalized at the state hospital in Poughkeepsie, New York.
After these humble and tragic beginnings, it is ironic that Ferlinghetti was taken and cared for by his mother’s well-to-do uncle, Ludwig Mendes-Monsanto, and his wife, Emily, in their Manhattan home. It is also ironic that American-born Ferlinghetti learned French as his first language. In fact, throughout his childhood, he actually believed himself to be French, having been taken in by his great-aunt Emily, who left her husband and returned to France, her homeland. Ferlinghetti spent the first five years of his life in Strasbourg with Mendes-Monsanto, whom he refers to as his “French mother.” She was eventually persuaded to return to New York to rejoin her husband, but the reunion lasted only for a short time. Ferlinghetti—who knew himself only as Lawrence Ferling Monsanto—was placed in an orphanage for seven months. Eventually, Mendes-Monsanto reclaimed him and took him away, after leaving her husband again. This time they remained in New York.
Mendes-Monsanto took on work as a French tutor for the daughter of the very wealthy...
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Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s early life contributed to a lifelong search for identity. The poet grew up without a traditional family; he spent the earliest years of his life in France with an aunt who later brought him back to New York, where he attended public schools and became involved in gang activity. A later private education, however, provided the motivation that would lead to his university degrees at Columbia and the Sorbonne.
In 1953, Ferlinghetti moved to San Francisco and founded the City Lights Bookshop, which carried works of counterculture writers, such as Allen Ginsberg, not readily available elsewhere. His 1956 publication of Ginsberg’s Howl led to a nationally publicized obscenity trial. Thereafter, Ferlinghetti became associated with the Beat movement in its efforts to expand the audience for poetry and art by removing them from the university and returning them to the people. Beat literature is thus characterized by its alienation from prevailing literary and social standards. Since the 1950’s Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Bookshop has been the leader in distributing radical literature to a popular audience.
Ferlinghetti’s early poetry typifies the Beat search for open forms based on rhythms of colloquial speech and jazz. His work challenges the status quo of academic poetry. Pictures of the Gone...
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Early Life (The Sixties in America)
After graduating from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a B.A. in journalism in 1941, Lawrence Monsanto Ferlinghetti enlisted in the U.S. Navy, serving until the end of World War II and seeing action in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters. He earned an M.A. in literature at Columbia University in 1948 and went on to get a doctoral degree from the Sorbonne in 1950. In 1953, he and Pete Martin founded the City Lights book shop in San Francisco and in 1955, he published his first collection of poetry, Pictures of the Gone World, as the first volume in the Pocket Poets series. Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems, published in 1956, was the fourth book in this series and catapulted Ferlinghetti into national prominence as a central figure in the Beat movement. When Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind was issued by James Laughlin’s pioneering New Directions Press in 1958, Ferlinghetti was firmly established as an important part of the alternative American literary landscape.
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Biography (Cyclopedia of World Authors, Fourth Revised Edition)
Though not usually associated with the beginnings of the Beat Generation in New York City following World War II, Lawrence Monsanto Ferlinghetti (FUR-lihng-GEHT-ee) is a central figure in the Beat literary movement of the 1950’s. The nucleus of this movement was constituted by Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs, and to this nucleus Ferlinghetti added his own force, energy, spirit, and determination. Ferlinghetti’s industry as a writer, his inventiveness in combining poetry and jazz, his success in establishing the first bookstore to sell only paperbacks, and his uncompromising efforts in publishing works that tested the limits of law and social acceptance make him not only an important figure in the bohemian struggle but also a major figure in twentieth century literature.
Ferlinghetti’s father died before the birth of his son, and shortly afterward his mother entered a state hospital, leaving five sons in desperate circumstances. Ferlinghetti’s mother’s aunt, Emily Mendes-Monsanto, took Lawrence with her to France for five years, but after her return to New York her marital situation made it necessary for her to place him temporarily in an orphanage. Seven months later she reclaimed him and helped arrange for his upbringing and education with the help of two affluent families.
In 1933 Ferlinghetti began...
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