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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Lawrence Ferlinghetti
(b. 1919)

A prominent voice of the Beat poetry movement of the 1950s whose primary aim was to bring poetry back to the people, Lawrence Ferlinghetti has greatly extended that specific objective in his prolific career as editor and publisher of the renowned City Lights Books press in San Francisco. His literary production has embraced many areas: translation, fiction writing, travelogues, playwriting, film narration, and essays. Yet his impact and importance remain as a poet and as a voice of dissent which is reflected in his describing his politics as “an enemy of the State.”

Following graduation from the University of North Carolina and service in World War II, Ferlinghetti received a master’s degree from Columbia University in 1948 and a doctorate from the Sorbonne in 1951. From 1951 to 1953, when he settled in San Francisco, he taught French in an adult education program. In 1953 he became co-owner of the City Lights Bookshop, the first all-paperback bookstore in the country, and by 1955 had founded and become editor of the City Lights Books publishing house. City Lights served as a meeting place for Beat writers. His press published and promoted Beat writings, and he himself encouraged them, in the case of Diane di Prima, writing the introduction for her first collection, This Kind of Bird Flies Backward.

Ferlinghetti’s publication of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl in 1956 led to his arrest on obscenity charges. The trial that followed (he was acquitted) drew national attention to the Beat movement and established Ferlinghetti as its prominent voice. In fact, Ferlinghetti's own A Coney Island of the Mind was, along with Howl, the most popular poetry book of the 1950s. Often concerned with political and social issues, Ferlinghetti’s poetry set out to dispute the literary elite’s definition of art and the artist’s role in the world. Though imbued with the commonplace, his poetry cannot be dismissed as polemic or personal protest, for it stands on his craftsmanship, thematics, and grounding in tradition.

Ferlinghetti described his one novel, Her, as “a surreal semi-autobiographical blackbook.” It deals with a young man’s search for his identity, although its free-association experimentation proved baffling to critics.

Known for his political poetry, he explains his commitment in art as well as life by saying “Only the dead are disengaged.” Well aware of the incongruity of his social dissent with his success as a publisher, Ferlinghetti, in an interview for the Los Angeles Times, remarked on “the enormous capacity of society to ingest its own most dissident elements....It happens to everyone successful within the system. I’m ingested myself.”

Helen Barolini
Independent scholar

In the Heath Anthology
Dove Sta Amore . . . (1958)
I Am Waiting (1958)
The Old Italians Dying (1979)

Other Works
Pictures of the Gone World (1955)
A Coney Island of the Mind (1958)
Her (novel) (1960)
Starting from San Francisco (1961)
The Secret Meaning of Things (1969)
The Mexican Night: Travel Journal (1970)
Who Are We Now? (1976)
Literary San Francisco (1980)
Over All the Obscene Boundaries (1984)

Cultural Objects
Image fileThe Beat Generation Map of America

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A 'Howl' That Still Echoes
Ferlinghetti remembers Ginsberg's first reading of Howl.

Literary Kicks
A hypertext biography.

Poetry as News
Ferlinghetti's column in the The San Francisco Chronicle Book Review.

The Academy of American Poets
A Ferlinghetti web exhibit.

The Beat Page: Lawrence Ferlinghetti
A brief biography, some photos, and a few poems.

Secondary Sources