By the time I came to maturity in the mid-1970s, the post-World War II Beat Generation literary movement had all but vanished in the public mind, supplanted by hippies, rock and roll, the New Left and a growing counterculture. But the movement’s quest to plant a “new consciousness” for peace, nonmaterialism and racial and economic justice—and its dedication to frank writing about all that—had been seeded throughout post-Sixties America. A key leader in that movement was San Francisco poet, painter, bookstore owner and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who died February 22, 2021 at age 101.
Poet, publisher, bookstore owner and painter Lawrence Ferlinghetti. (Photo by Ilka Hartmann)
Those writers were honest, brave and often provocative, speaking unvarnished truth to power to foster a more humane consciousness—a far cry from playing it safe with mere “political correctness,” a term invented in the more conformist decades that followed the Beats. And in many cases, it was Ferlinghetti who dared to publish their works. Nowhere is that movement’s commitment to expressing inconvenient truths more vividly illustrated than in Ferlinghetti’s decision to publish Allen Ginsberg’s provocative 1956 poem “Howl” and then challenge its government censorship in court. (For a luscious taste of the Beat’s no-holds-barred approach, watch Allen Ginsberg defend the movement on a 1968 broadcast of conservative William F. Buckley’s “Firing Line” program.)
Some Beats (derisively called “Beatniks” in the mainstream media) were still around when I was in my early twenties—writing their poems, doing art, publishing books and engaged in community activism. Jack Kerouac, of On the Road fame, was already dead, but two of the poets Ferlinghetti had published—Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg—were among those still very much alive and kicking. As a budding writer and young political activist, I was inspired by all three men and their paradigm-challenging movement. While a student at the University of Minnesota I saw Snyder and Ginsberg transfix crowded classrooms. Years later, on my first visit to San Francisco, I made a pilgrimage to their publisher’s celebrated bookstore, City Lights Books, wandering its many cubbies of bookshelves, plucking off well-curated titles to buy and take home.
San Francisco poets gathered at City Lights Bookstore in 1965. Lawrence Ferlinghetti is above the group near the window, wearing a hooded smock
(San Francisco Chronicle photo by Peter Breinig).