Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the poet, publisher, painter and political activist who co-founded the famous City Lights bookstore in San Francisco and himself became a city icon, has died at the age of 101.
Ferlinghetti died at home on Monday evening. His son Lorenzo said the cause was interstitial lung disease.
Ferlinghetti was born in Yonkers, New York in 1919. His father died before he was born and his mother was interned in a mental hospital, leaving him to be raised by his aunt. At the age of seven, her aunt, then housekeeper for a wealthy Bronxville family, abruptly fled, leaving Ferlinghetti in the care of her employers. After university studies in North Carolina, he became a journalist in 1941, then joined the US Navy during World War II. While studying for his doctorate at the Sorbonne in Paris on the GI Bill, he began to write poetry.
Returning to the United States in 1951, he was drawn to California to start anew. “San Francisco had a Mediterranean feeling about it,” he told The New York Times. “I felt it was a bit like Dublin when Joyce was there. You can walk down Sackville Street and see everyone of any importance in one walk.
In 1953, he co-founded the City Lights bookstore and publishing house with his friend Peter Dean Martin, who left shortly after, with the mission of democratizing literature and making it accessible to all. “We were young and dumb,” he told the Guardian in 2019. “And we didn’t have any money.
While most bookstores in the United States closed early and on weekends at the time, City Lights remained open seven days a week and late into the night, fostering a counter-cultural community that attracted people like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. City Lights initially focused on selling paperbacks, cheaper but despised by the literary establishment, and publishing poetry, quirky and radical books like Kerouac, Ginsberg, Paul Bowles, Gary Snyder and Gregory Corso.
In 1955, Ferlinghetti heard Ginsberg Howl’s founding poem first read at the Six Gallery in North Beach. The next day, he sends a telegram to Ginsberg: “HELLO YOU AT THE START OF A GREAT CAREER. STOP. WHEN SHOULD I GET THE HOWL MANUSCRIPT? The epic poem was printed in Britain and shipped to San Francisco, where the copies were seized. Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg were arrested for obscenity in 1957.
“I was not worried. I was young and stupid. I thought I would do a lot of reading in prison and they wouldn’t keep me there forever. And, anyway, that really put the book on the map, ”Ferlinghetti told The Guardian. Having previously sent the poem to the American Civil Liberties Union, “to see if they would defend us if we were arrested,” the ACLU successfully defended the poem in a trial that lasted for months. The verdict set an important precedent to reduce censorship and heralded new freedom for books around the world, while also making the two men famous around the world.
In 1958, Ferlinghetti published his first collection, A Coney Island of the Mind, which sold over a million copies. He went on to write more than 50 volumes of poetry, novels and travel journals. As a publisher, he focused his entire life on poetry and books ignored by the mainstream, even as it became more difficult in the face of giant, for-profit presses.
He identified himself as a philosophical anarchist, organizing numerous sit-ins and anti-war protests in City Lights. He viewed poetry as a powerful social force and not reserved for the intellectual elite, saying, “We have to raise consciousness; the only way for poets to change the world is to raise the consciousness of the general population.
Over the following decades, Ferlinghetti became an icon of his city. In 1978, when San Francisco was rocked by the double assassination of city mayor George Moscone and city supervisor Harvey Milk, Ferlinghetti wrote a poem that was published two days later in the San Francisco Examiner. It was titled An Elegy to Dispel Gloom, and he was personally thanked by the city for helping to keep the calm. In 1994, a street was named after him and four years later he was named the first San Francisco Poet Laureate.
He remained active in City Lights until the late 2000s, chatting with fans and tourists who came just to meet the legend. “When he was still there every day, fixing a light bulb or something else, he never turned down someone who wanted to talk to him,” said Elaine Katzenberger, the current store manager. “He usually looked for commonalities to have a little chat with them.”
Although mostly bedridden and nearly blind in his later years, he remained busy, publishing his latest book, Little Boy, on his 100th birthday. A vaguely autobiographical novel, Ferlinghetti refused to describe it as a memoir: “I object to the use of this description. Because a dissertation denotes a very refined type of writing.
In 2019, San Francisco named its birthday, March 24, Lawrence Ferlinghetti Day to mark its centenary, with celebrations throughout the month. In an interview from his bed to mark the occasion, he told The Guardian that he still hopes for a political revolution, even though “the United States is not ready for a revolution … It would take a whole new generation no devoted to the glorification of the capitalist system… a generation not trapped in the me, me, me.
When asked if he was proud of his accomplishments, Ferlinghetti said: “I don’t know, that word ‘proud’ is just too selfish. Happy would be better. Except when you are trying to define the word happy, then you are in real trouble. “