Lawrence Ferlinghetti 1919–
American poet, novelist, dramatist, editor, and publisher.
Ferlinghetti was at the forefront of the literary phenomenon of the 1950s known as the Beat Movement. The Beat Movement, which began and was centered in San Francisco, attempted to expand the audience and appreciation of poetry by removing it from the exclusivity of the academic sphere. Ferlinghetti's most important contribution to this movement was his creation of a forum for Beat and other anti-establishment writers. In 1953, he founded City Lights Books in an avantgarde section of San Francisco. City Lights Books, the country's first exclusively paperback bookstore, carried works by counterculture writers that were, for the most part, unavailable elsewhere. In 1955, Ferlinghetti began publishing the City Lights Pocket Series, which included titles by Beat writers Jack Kerouac, Michael McClure, Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsburg, and others. Ferlinghetti's publication of Ginsburg's Howl in 1956 led to an obscenity trial which attracted national attention.
Ferlinghetti's own writing has brought him popular success but a lukewarm critical reception. Like that of other Beat writers, his poetry, which shows the influence of American idiom and jazz, stresses the oral aspects of literature and is written with performance in mind. Some critics have remarked that it is undisciplined and sentimental. Others praise what they see as his honest energy. General critical assessment of Ferlinghetti's writing seems to be that it contributed to the open, vibrant sensibility of the Beat Movement, but that unlike the work of Ginsburg or Kerouac, his writing was not particularly innovative.
Among Ferlinghetti's most important works is A Coney Island of the Mind (1958), his second book, which along with Howl, ranks as one of the most widely known volumes of American poetry published after 1950. In Coney Island, Ferlinghetti speaks of vanishing innocence and political radicalism, themes which become increasingly important in his later books. Ferlinghetti's concern with political issues led him to write about McCarthyism, the Vietnam conflict, and the Kennedy assassinations. The overriding message of his poetry is that he trusts neither the political Left nor Right. To date, Ferlinghetti has written only one novel, entitled Her (1960). It is a surrealistic autobiographical account of the pursuit of a woman who represents all women to the narrator. Because the novel was highly experimental and largely plotless, most critics found it baffling and difficult to appraise. Consequently, little criticism has been written on Her. Ferlinghetti has written two volumes of plays, Unfair Arguments with Existence (1963) and Routines (1964). Strongly influenced by the Theater of the Absurd, Ferlinghetti strives for an improvisational effect in his drama. Ferlinghetti's most recent book is Endless Life: Selected Poems (1981), a collection representing the past twenty-five years of his career as a poet.
(See also CLC, Vols. 2, 6, 10; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 3; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 5, 16.)