Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s place in San Francisco literary historical past

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, owner of City Lights Bookstore, fought a battle to change the name from Adler Place to Jack Kerouac Alley. The City Lights Bookstore is now located on Columbus Avenue and Jack Kerouac Alley in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco. Photo: Scott Sommerdorf, Die Chronik 1987

Lawrence Ferlinghetti was an integral part of the San Francisco literary scene from 1953, the year he and Peter Martin opened the City Lights Pocket Book Shop, to February 22, 2021, when he died at the patriarchal age of 101. Not even Herb Caen, who submitted his daily chronicle columns for nearly 60 years, can match the longevity of Ferlinghetti’s influence on her beloved (and in both cases adopted) city.

Ferlinghetti was a unique figure in San Francisco literary history because he wore so many hats – and because his timing was perfect. He was a poet, he was a publisher, he ran the city’s preeminent literary hangout, and he was a connector, godfather, friend, mentor, and adult to the Parnassian heights of the most recalcitrant and disobedient generation of poets and writers of all time storm. But perhaps most importantly, Ferlinghetti drove to San Francisco at the perfect moment to catch the beat wave.

An abridged biography of Ferlinghetti

Poets and writers gather in front of the City Lights Bookstore (founded as the City Lights Pocket Book Shop) for a photo in December 1965. Back row: Stella Levy, Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Middle row: Donald Schenker, Michael Grieg, stranger, Mike Gibbons, David Miltger, Michael McClure, Allen Ginsberg, Dan Langton, Steve Brostan, Gary Goodrow and son Homer, Richard Brautigan (behind Goodrow). First row: unknown person, Shigeyoshi “Shig” Murao, Lev Welch, Peter Orlovsky. Photo: Peter Breinig, Die Chronik 1965

The beats were the rarest literary movements that changed society. Ferlinghetti, along with Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Bob Kaufman, Gary Snyder, Philip Lamantia, and the rest of the writers who have been referred to as part of the “Beat Generation”, may have had little in common than other writers a preference for vocal poetic forms and an aversion to academic and obsolete, but that didn’t matter. For a generation of post World War II youth looking for authenticity, jazz-like spontaneity, and a kind of existential heroism, the beats offered kicks and rebellion served with style. They were dangerous rat catchers, and a generation followed their call.

Ferlinghetti wrote: “Young poets and dreamers, visionaries, vagabonds and wanderers … saw the opportunity to escape button-down conformity, consumerism and boredom. And they started hitchhiking and catching cargo or coasting coast to coast to discover a new America. “

Lawrence Ferlinghetti at City Lights in San Francisco in 1982.

Photo: Chris Felver, Getty Images 1982

If this “new America” ​​had an address, it was an old Italian neighborhood in San Francisco called North Beach. And Ferlinghetti was instrumental in setting up this bohemian post office box – because he opened City Lights in the heart of the neighborhood, because his own poems reached a remarkably wide audience (his 1958 collection, “A Coney Island of the Mind,” remains one of them best-selling books of poetry ever published) and because he tirelessly published, promoted, and encouraged the beats.

Ferlinghetti had a complex relationship with the movement, with which he remains inextricably linked. “I was never a beat,” he once proclaimed. A shrewd and tenacious man who took the literary craft seriously, he recognized the shortcomings of some works that were done in the name of sacred spontaneity. But he also admired and shared the rejection of a “repressive conformist culture” by the Beats and generously supported them as a note-taker. A vocal critic of the establishment – the state and capitalism – Ferlinghetti used his platform as a poet and publisher to simultaneously denounce America’s mental malaise and celebrate a poetic liberation from it.

And the most important – and most accidental – volley in this long war was his publication of the original text of the Beat Generation, Ginsberg’s “Howl”.

On October 7, 1955, Ginsberg gave his now legendary reading of “Howl” at the Six Gallery on Fillmore Street. Like everyone present on that insane night, Ferlinghetti recognized the importance of the work. In a letter deliberately repeating Ralph Waldo Emerson’s letter to Walt Whitman after reading Leaves of Grass, Ferlinghetti wrote to Ginsberg: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career. When will I get the manuscript? “

The brand new publisher of City Lights published “Howl” in 1956 as No. 4 of its Pocket Poets series (No. 1 was Ferlinghetti’s own fine collection “Pictures of the Gone World”). The first edition was 1,000 copies, and Ginsberg nervously asked Ferlinghetti if he thought, “we’ll actually sell the thousand.”

An unexpected group of critics in blue uniforms made sure of that. In 1957, San Francisco police arrested City Lights manager Shigeyoshi Murao and later Ferlinghetti himself for selling obscene literature. The subsequent process in which a judge ruled that a work could not be considered obscene if it had “the slightest redeeming social significance” made Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti and City Lights world famous. It was one of the happiest busts in literary history.

Ferlinghetti and City Lights started and they never looked back. For the next over 60 years, the young man who arrived on a ferry in San Francisco in 1951 was an important, vibrant, and irrepressible part of literary life in the city and the world. He and his famous bookstore, renamed City Lights Booksellers & Publishers, have never abandoned their tradition of publishing radical and subversive works. And he continued working almost to the end.

Andrej Hostynek (center) and Cynthia Vazquez list an excerpt from “Routines”, a book by Lawrence Ferlinghetti that was published in 1965 in front of the City Lights Bookstore on the occasion of Ferlinghetti’s 100th birthday in 2019. Photo: Santiago Mejia, The Chronicle 2019

On his 100th birthday, San Francisco officials honored Ferlinghetti by planting a tree in his name in his beloved North Beach. Like all honors he has received over the years, it was well deserved. When Ferlinghetti died there was an impromptu gathering in front of his famous bookstore. The most moving tribute to Ferlinghetti, however, came a few weeks after his death when his old friend, North Beach-based poet Jack Hirschman, organized a virtual reading in his honor with poets, writers and artists from all over the world.

“Our city belongs to the poets”: SF makes a pilgrimage to City Lights to remember Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Flowers lie on the hood of a pickup truck that belonged to Lawrence Ferlinghetti outside the City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco in February. The poet, publisher, painter and key figure in the Beats movement, which City Lights co-founded, died on February 22nd at the age of 101. Photo: Stephen Lam, The Chronicle

When heartfelt tributes and beautiful poems and songs from Mexican and American as well as Greek and French and Italian writers and musicians arrived, Ferlinghetti’s true legacy was revealed – as a poet, as a publisher, as a friend, as a colleague, and yes, as a San Franciscan.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti has shaped this city in many ways, but one of its greatest accomplishments is intangible. Through changing times and tides, he contributed to the fact that somewhere deep in his heart, San Francisco is still a city of poets.

A tribute to Lawrence Ferlinghetti: Hosted by The Chronicle via Zoom. Wednesday, April 28th, 5:30 p.m. Free. To sign up, go to

On the subject of matching items

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet and founder of City Lights, dead at the age of 101

“Our city belongs to the poets”: SF makes a pilgrimage to City Lights to remember Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Pursued and inspired by dreams of Ferlinghetti

Literature lovers celebrate the 100th birthday of Lawrence Ferlinghetti

  • Gary Kamiya

    Gary Kamiya is the author of the bestselling book, Cool Gray City of Love: 49 Views of San Francisco, which won the Northern California Book Award for creative non-fiction. His new book with drawings by Paul Madonna is “Ghosts of San Francisco: Travels through the Unknown City”.

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