Lawrence Ferlinghetti Biography


(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

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.”


(Poets and Poetry in America)

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...

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(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

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 World and Coney Island of the Mind, A develop an experimental form of lyrical poetry famous for unjustified left margins and an irreverent, comic tone. “The World Is a Beautiful Place” and “Constantly Risking Absurdity,” two of Ferlinghetti’s most famous poems, exemplify the poet’s and the individual’s endless search for identity, for discovering the essential self in an alien modern world. In “Christ Climbed Down” Ferlinghetti applies his theme of alienation to Christianity: Christ himself would be alienated from the modern world if he were here. Ferlinghetti’s popularity was firmly established with A Coney Island of the Mind, often claimed to be the best-selling book of serious poetry published since 1950.

After the 1950’s and 1960’s, Ferlinghetti remained a prolific poet and leader in the later phases of the Beat movement. These Are My Rivers, a collection of his work spanning five decades, shows a steady growth of poetic voice while remaining consistent with convictions of political radicalism and the belief in the power of the poetic imagination to transform the world.