Finding a path to Beat’s door
San Francisco ? America’s gauzy popular culture has the power to envelop even its perfervid critics in a tolerant, domesticating embrace. If they live long enough, these critics run the risk of winding up full not only of years, but of honors. They can, like Lawrence Ferlinghetti, 83, become tourist attractions.
These tourists, he notes, are intellectually up-scale. They come in a small but steady trickle, from across the country and around the world, to his City Lights Bookstore, next door to a street named after the most famous of the many writers who have hung out there Jack Kerouac. The store, which is a short walk from the street actually, an alleyway, which seems right named Via Ferlinghetti, has been designated by this city a protected landmark. This is not because the wedge-shaped structure built in 1907 is a gem (it is not) but because of its cultural significance, which is primarily its association with Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and other designated voices of the Beat Generation.
It was in City Lights that San Francisco police arrested Ferlinghetti on obscenity charges for publishing Ginsberg’s “Howl.” Ferlinghetti’s and Ginsberg’s acquittals helped make possible the American publication of D.H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” and Henry Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer,” which involved legal dust-ups that now seem quaint.
Ferlinghetti publishes as well as sells books. He published “Howl” after first rejecting it. It was after he heard Ginsberg recite it that he sent Ginsberg a telegram repeating words from the letter Emerson sent to Walt Whitman after reading “Leaves of Grass” “I greet you at the beginning of a great career.”
Ferlinghetti was born in Bronxville, N.Y., spent much of his youth in France, and went to the University of North Carolina because his roommate at a prep school in Massachusetts hooked him on the novels of Thomas Wolfe. He began a four-year hitch in the Navy before Pearl Harbor (“I was a good American boy”) and was back near France, on a U.S. Navy submarine chaser, on June 6, 1944. After earning thank you, GI Bill of Rights a master’s degree in Victorian literature at Columbia, and a doctorate at the Sorbonne, and after finding that the mailroom at Time magazine was not a promising rung on the ladder of journalism, he headed for here, to start a bookstore, a vocation suggested by life in Paris.
City Lights is in the North Beach district, which once was a scene of San Francisco’s bohemian ferment. Now the district is mostly seedy. Visible from Ferlinghetti’s cluttered office in his bookstore’s second floor is an establishment with a resonant name Hungry i. It was at a nightclub called the Hungry i a few hundred yards from the location of the topless bar now bearing that name bohemia isn’t what it used to be, but then, what is? that Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce performed their political riffs that were the outer edges of dissent in the 1950s and early 1960s.
Bruce lived across the street from City Lights. He once fell out of a window. “No doubt he was on something,” is Ferlinghetti’s safe surmise. Sahl used to browse the City Lights magazine rack for ideas for his performances.
Ferlinghetti looks the part of an emeritus Beat small silver earring, tatty sportcoat, bluejeans and looks askance at tourists (no kidding), Republicans (of course: one of his most popular books was the long 1958 poem “Tentative Description of a Dinner Given to Promote the Impeachment of President Eisenhower”), George W. Bush (“shredding the Constitution,” “dismantling the New Deal”), gentrification (San Francisco has been “dot.conned”), automobiles (“autogeddon” inflicted by SUVs) and chain stores (does he have Borders and Barnes & Noble in mind?).
But the grouchiness of San Francisco’s first poet laureate seems perfunctory, even cheerful. City Lights is open until midnight seven days a week; books are shelved under ideological categories (look under “Stolen Continents” for American history). It retains what Ferlinghetti says San Francisco itself had when he arrived in 1951, “an island mentality, a sort of off-shore territory.” American life has been good to the man whose “Coney Island of the Mind” was the best-selling poetry book in the 1960s and 1970s. A million copies are in print.
It has been famously said that there are no second acts in American life. Actually, there are. And third, fourth and fifth acts. But Ferlinghetti has happily stayed with his one act, and the world, or at least a minority steeped in literary nostalgia, is still beating a path to his door.