Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1361
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 Presley Bisland and Anna Lawrence Bisland. She and Ferlinghetti lived in a small room in the third-floor servants’ area until one day she mysteriously disappeared, whereupon Ferlinghetti was adopted by the Bislands.
The Bislands’ son had died in early childhood. His name—and his mother’s maiden name—was Lawrence, her father having founded Sarah Lawrence College near Bronxville. Presley Bisland was also a man of letters, with a profound interest in contemporary literature, although his experiences included being one of the last men to ride the Chisholm Trail on the last of the great cattle drives. The Bislands were aristocratic, adventuresome, and cosmopolitan, but also creative in spirit. In fact, Ferlinghetti maintains that Presley Bisland’s writings gave him the idea that being an author was a dignified calling.
At the age of ten, Ferlinghetti was told about his natural mother, Clemence Ferlinghetti, whom he met one traumatic Sunday afternoon. He was given the choice to go with her, although he considered her a stranger, or to stay with the Bislands. He chose to stay. Unknown to Ferlinghetti, the Bislands had arranged to send him away to school. A few weeks later, he found himself boarding with a family named Wilson in one of New York City’s rougher neighborhoods. Their son Bill, being older, became a hero to the young Ferlinghetti. Lawrence joined the Boy Scouts, went to baseball and football games, and was far less lonely than he had been at the Bisland mansion.
At the age of sixteen, Lawrence began to write poetry. His stepsister, Sally Bisland, gave him a book of Charles Baudelaire in translation. Ferlinghetti remembers it as the first collection of poems he read from cover to cover. He was then sent to a private high school, Mount Hernon, near Greenfield, Massachusetts. In his senior year, Anna Bisland took him for the first of a series of visits to see his natural mother and brothers at their home in Ossining.
Ferlinghetti attended college at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and was graduated in 1941, after which he joined the U.S. Navy and served in World War II. It was while he was in the Navy that he received a telegram from Central Islip State Hospital saying that Emily Mendes-Monsanto, his “French mother,” had died, having listed Ferlinghetti as her only living relative. This was the first he had heard of her since she had left him with the Bislands when he was ten.
In World War II, Ferlinghetti was on one of the primary naval submarine chasers coming in for the Normandy invasion. Later, in 1945, on the first day of the U.S. occupation of Japan, his ship landed there. Eventually, he was able to visit Nagasaki, where he witnessed the aftermath of the atomic bombing of that city. The devastation he witnessed left an indelible impression.
After his discharge from the U.S. Navy, Ferlinghetti returned to New York City and lived in Greenwich Village, taking on work as a mail clerk for Time magazine. His interest in poetry revived, and he returned to Columbia University under the G.I. Bill, receiving his M.A. degree in 1947. That summer Presley Bisland died. Soon afterward, Ferlinghetti left for Paris, where he met many literary figures. He completed work on a thesis and was awarded a degree from the Sorbonne. He also wrote a novel, which was rejected by Doubleday. In 1949, Ferlinghetti returned to the United States for a two-week visit with Anna Bisland. In 1951, both she and Ferlinghetti’s natural mother died. In the same year, after several trips back and forth between Europe and the United States, Ferlinghetti married Selden Kirby-Smith, who was known as Kirby. They moved to San Francisco, where Ferlinghetti wrote articles for Art Digest and book reviews for the San Francisco Chronicle.
Influenced greatly by Kenneth Rexroth and Kenneth Patchen, who both lived in San Francisco, Ferlinghetti soon came to be considered a political poet. He was published in Peter Martin’s magazine City Lights, and eventually the two men collaborated to open the City Lights Bookstore in 1953. In 1955, the same year that Ferlinghetti’s first book of poetry, Pictures of the Gone World, was published under the City Lights imprint, Martin sold Ferlinghetti his interest in the store. At about that time, Ferlinghetti became acquainted with James Laughlin, president of the publishing house New Directions. It was through Laughlin that Ferlinghetti’s second book of poems, A Coney Island of the Mind, became a best seller.
Ginsberg came into Ferlinghetti’s life from the East, bringing a poem titled “Howl” with him. Ferlinghetti was impressed with Ginsberg and published Howl, and Other Poems. It was this book that caused Ferlinghetti to be arrested, the charge against him being that he printed and sold obscene writings. He was eventually cleared, and partly because of the publicity, City Lights flourished.
Although Ferlinghetti and his wife, Kirby, were divorced in the early 1970’s, their marriage had been relatively stable; in 1962 a daughter, Julie, was born, and in 1963, a son, Lorenzo. During the 1960’s, Ferlinghetti traveled to South and Central America, to Europe, and to the Soviet Union, giving poetry readings whenever possible. In 1974, he met Paula Lillevand; they moved in together in 1978, but they parted two years later.
Ferlinghetti first took lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) in 1967, an experience that resulted in the poem “Mock Confessional.” Throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s, Ferlinghetti remained actively interested in political and environmental matters, his poetry inevitably reflecting his political and social concerns. During these years, he traveled extensively in Europe and sometimes in Latin America, giving readings of his poems.
In 1977, Ferlinghetti took up drawing, an interest he had left behind some twenty years earlier, and soon he was painting as well. His expressionist-style works were displayed in a formal exhibition in the mid-1980’s in the San Francisco Bay area, and another show was organized in Berlin in 1990. He continued to edit volumes of City Lights anthologies throughout the 1990’s. Ferlinghetti also collaborated in a video, directed by Christopher Felver, called The Coney Island of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, released in 1996. In it, the poet acts in autobiographical vignettes, tours places of particular meaning to him, reads his poetry, and expounds on his artistic philosophy and political views.
Ferlinghetti has continued to play an active role in the cultural and literary life of San Francisco and has traveled frequently for poetry readings, interviews, and exhibitions of his art. A 2007 show of approximately twenty of his large canvases traveled to Woodstock, New York, under the title lit.paint. New volumes of poetry have included How to Paint Sunlight and the ambitious Americus, Book I, a poetic compendium of the historical, political, and cultural past of America through the early 1960’s.
Unlock This Study Guide Now
- 30,000+ book summaries
- 20% study tools discount
- Ad-free content
- PDF downloads
- 300,000+ answers
- 5-star customer support