Lawrence Ferlinghetti Celebrates 100th Birthday With A New Book, 'Little Boy' The Beat Generation icon and owner of City Lights bookstore and press in San Francisco is still writing. He celebrates his centennial March 24, and his new autobiographical novel is out now.
NPR logo

A Lost 'Little Boy' Nears 100: Poet And Publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/704903571/705021516" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
A Lost 'Little Boy' Nears 100: Poet And Publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti

A Lost 'Little Boy' Nears 100: Poet And Publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/704903571/705021516" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Poet and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti is enjoying one of the benefits of living to 100. It's almost like you're present to read your own obituary. Ferlinghetti is known for his beat poetry, his bookstore and small press, both called City Lights, and his defense of the First Amendment. Now celebrations of his life and work are planned at multiple venues in San Francisco, where he lives - not that he's done working. He's just published a new novel. Tom Vitale has the story.

TOM VITALE, BYLINE: For Lawrence Ferlinghetti, living to be 100 is no fun. Speaking from his home in North Beach recently, Ferlinghetti said he's practically blind now. He can't read, and he's skipping his big birthday bash.

LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI: At City Lights, they're going to have quite a celebration. But I won't be there. It's no use my appearing in public because I couldn't speak. I mean, I could speak. But on account of my eyesight, it would be - (laughter) I don't know what it would be.

VITALE: Nevertheless, Ferlinghetti has a lot to celebrate. His 1958 book of poetry "A Coney Island Of The Mind" sold more than a million copies. In it, he compares the horrors depicted in Goya's paintings of the Napoleonic wars to scenes of post-World War II America. Here he is reading in 1994.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

FERLINGHETTI: (Reading) They are the same people, only further from home, on freeways 50 lanes wide, on a concrete continent spaced with bland billboards illustrating imbecile illusions of happiness.

GERALD NICOSIA: His language and his humor and the things he was saying were things that appeal to, could be understood by, the average man on the street.

VITALE: Gerald Nicosia is a Bay Area critic who has written extensively about the Beat writers. He says Ferlinghetti is notable for writing poetry in everyday language.

NICOSIA: A poet in the American voice - and that was one of the breakthroughs, of course, of the '50s, was taking poetry away from academia, away from this rarefied, aesthetic language that nobody could understand, and writing in the voice of ordinary people.

VITALE: Critics, however, didn't consider Ferlinghetti on a par with the other Beat writers he called his friends - Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsberg. Ferlinghetti doesn't want to talk about his past now. But in 1994, he told me that even though he was raised in New York, he never met those East Coast writers until he moved to San Francisco and opened City Lights.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

FERLINGHETTI: Bookstore's a natural place for poets to hang out, and they started showing up there.

VITALE: City Lights became a magnet for West Coast intellectuals, and later, a tourist destination. Ferlinghetti also started a small press called City Lights Books. In the fall of 1956, he published a little 75-cent paperback, the first edition of "Howl" by Allen Ginsberg.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALLEN GINSBERG: (Reading) I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical, naked, dragging themselves through the Negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix.

VITALE: "Howl" was a new type of poetry that became an anthem for the nascent counterculture.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

FERLINGHETTI: "Howl" knocked the sides out of things, just the way rock music in the '60s knocked the sides out of the old music world.

VITALE: "Howl" includes passages of homosexual imagery. Ferlinghetti was arrested in 1957 on charges of publishing obscene material. At the end of a long federal trial, he was acquitted. Critic Gerald Nicosia says Ferlinghetti's two greatest accomplishments were fighting censorship and inaugurating a small-press revolution.

NICOSIA: Up until that point, getting published was a difficult thing. If you were a radical, an innovative writer, you would be rebuffed by mainstream publishers. By creating this press out of nothing - City Lights Press - he said, look. You don't need these big publishers in New York.

VITALE: Lawrence Ferlinghetti has always been an advocate for the underdog, in part because of his own life story. And it's a tale right out of Dickens. His father died shortly before he was born, and his mother was committed to a mental hospital shortly after. He was raised by an aunt, and then, by foster parents. His new autobiographical novel, called "Little Boy," begins like this.

FERLINGHETTI: (Reading) Little Boy was quite lost. He had no idea who he was or where he had come from.

VITALE: Ferlinghetti enlisted in the Navy after Pearl Harbor. He served as an officer at Normandy on D-Day and at Nagasaki after the atomic bomb. That experience turned him into a lifelong pacifist. He began writing poetry at a revolutionary time in arts and music. And in 1994, he still believed art could make a difference.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

FERLINGHETTI: I really believe that art is capable of the total transformation of the world and of life itself, and nothing less is really acceptable. And so if art is going to have any excuse for - beyond being a leisure-class plaything, it has to transform life itself.

VITALE: And that is what Lawrence Ferlinghetti has been doing for most of a century. The secret to his longevity?

FERLINGHETTI: Have a good laugh, and you'll live longer (laughter).

VITALE: For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.

Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.