DIGITAL EXHIBITION Lawrence Ferlinghetti: The Last Bohemian
Lawrence Ferlinghetti: The Last Bohemian
Lawrence Monsanto Ferling was born on March 24, 1919 in Yonkers, New York. His literary life began when his guardian became the governess for a wealthy couple, Presley and Anna Bisland, who encouraged his interest in their library and gave him silver dollars for memorizing poetry. He earned a degree in journalism from North Carolina and then entered the Navy to serve during World War II. His experiences in the Navy, and particularly witnessing the “landscape in hell” that remained of Nagasaki soon after the atomic bomb was dropped, affected him profoundly and directly resulted in his deep opposition to war. The G.I. Bill funded further studies, first a master’s degree from Columbia in English literature, where he wrote his thesis on John Ruskin and J.M.W. Turner, and then in Paris where he earned a doctorate in comparative literature.
In 1951, Ferlinghetti moved to San Francisco and two years later, he and Peter Martin opened City Lights Bookstore. The goal of the store fit with his politics and his desire to make literature accessible to everyone; when the publishing side, City Lights Pocket Poets, was begun, it was with the same focus on accessibility. By publishing poetry from around the world, they hoped to inspire "an international, dissident ferment." It also published works by the Beat Poets, and this was what brought fame to Ferlinghetti and the imprint.
Publishing Alan Ginsberg’s Howl resulted in Ferlinghetti being arrested on charges of printing and distributing indecent material. His trial was viewed as a test of the freedom of speech and the press. Ferlinghetti won, and as a result, the United States was suddenly filled with books that had previously been banned from import or publication.
While he was closely associated with the Beat poets, Ferlinghetti never considered himself one of them, saying, “In some ways what I really did was mind the store… When I arrived in San Francisco in 1951 I was wearing a beret. If anything I was the last of the bohemians rather than the first of the Beats.” In his poems, he advocated for progressive causes and the power of accessible literature to change the world, charging other poets with the responsibility to act, not merely observe, arguing that “you can conquer the conquerors with words…”
Along with writing poetry, Ferlinghetti painted, drew, and wrote novels and plays, with his last novel, the semi-autobiographical Little Boy, being published in 2019. In 1998, he was named San Francisco’s Poet Laureate, and his hundredth birthday was proclaimed Lawrence Ferlinghetti Day by San Francisco Mayor London Breed. In 2001, City Lights was designated a historic landmark by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti died of lung disease in his North Beach home on Monday, February 22, one month before his 102nd birthday.