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 literary merits of Ginsberg’s poems. On October 3, Judge Clayton Horn ruled in favor of Ferlinghetti, calling “Howl” an “indictment of those elements of modern society destructive to the best qualities of human nature” that ends with “a plea for holy living.”