Story Stream
recent articles

One would be foolish to minimize the threat of this pandemic. And still, an event that took place 63 years ago today reminds us what we risk when government plays too intrusive a role in our lives. On March 25, 1957, U.S. Customs agents seized 520 copies of a volume of avant-garde verses by Allen Ginsberg titled "Howl and Other Poems." This episode didn't go well for the censors.

* * *

Allen Ginsberg made his name in my hometown of San Francisco, on a single October day in 1955, but he wasn't a Californian. He was a Jersey boy, born in Newark and raised in Patterson in a middle-class life that was anything but normal. His mother was a dedicated communist and schizophrenic who spent her adult life in and out of mental hospitals. She dragged the younger of her sons to Communist Party meetings and, on at least one traumatic occasion, to her shrink's office. The boy immersed himself in the poems of Walt Whitman as an escape and found his way to the ivy-covered walls of Columbia University where he met and befriended various members of the "Beat Generation," including Jack Kerouac, its iconic symbol.

Incongruously, perhaps, because it was a pretty quiet place at the time, Kerouac and Ginsberg ended up in 1954 in San Jose, Calif. Their stint there was brief, but eventful. In San Jose's public library Kerouac stumbled across "A Buddhist Bible," by former Christian missionary Dwight Goddard, a book which started him on the road to "On the Road," his literary classic. Meanwhile, Allen Ginsberg was discovered in bed with Neal Cassady -- by Cassady's wife, Carolyn, who told Ginsberg to put his pants back on and split.

Cassady must have been some character. He was described a few years ago by New Yorker magazine writer Scott Staton as "a complicated soul whose creative energies found release through an immoderate enthusiasm for sex, automobiles, and drugs." He not only made his way into "Howl" and "On the Road," but he was also a central character in "The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test," Tom Wolfe's account of the epic bus trip taken by Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters in 1964. But I'm digressing. This essay is about not about him; it's about Allen Ginsberg and his book publisher.

So where was I? Oh, yes: Having decamped from San Jose, our hero checked into the Marconi Hotel, a low-rent San Francisco crash pad in North Beach. Ginsberg stayed a couple of months, hanging out at the nearby City Lights bookstore.

From there, he moved to rented rooms on Pine Street and then to another on Gough. Eventually, he settled into a furnished apartment at 1010 Montgomery St. with Peter Orlovsky, living off unemployment insurance. In that place he began to write.

"I sat idly at my desk…only a few blocks from City Lights literary paperback bookstore," he wrote in his diary. "I had a secondhand typewriter, some cheap scratch paper. I began typing, not with the idea of writing a formal poem, but stating my imaginative sympathies."

As was true of his boyhood hero Walt Whitman, Ginsberg's output was initially considered too erotic and raw for polite company. That's putting it mildly. The fact is that censorship laws being what they were, no American publisher would go near him. That changed after a public reading that took place on Oct. 7, 1955 at Six Gallery, a Fillmore Street art space where Ginsberg was invited to read "Howl" aloud. Ginsberg biographer Michael Schumacher set the scene:

"Jack Kerouac, siting at the edge of the platform, pounded in accompaniment on a wine jug, shouting, ‘Go!' at the end of each long line. The crowd quickly joined him in punctuating Allen's lines. … By the time he had concluded, [Ginsberg] was in tears."

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a fellow Beat Generation poet who happened to be the co-owner of City Lights, was at the Six for the reading, and he was blown away. He also knew an opportunity when he saw it. Ferlinghetti sent Ginsberg a Western Union message that very night. "I greet you at the beginning of a great career," it said. "When do I get the manuscript?"

Although the telegram echoed the words Ralph Waldo Emerson sent to Ginsberg's boyhood hero after reading "Leaves of Grass," the literary reference eluded Ginsberg. Nonetheless, he accepted the offer from Ferlinghetti, who also obtained a promise from the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union to defend him in court if he were to run afoul of California's sweeping anti-obscenity laws by selling Ginsberg's poems as a book.

Ferlinghetti found a printer in London, then imported the books back to the United States. The first shipment was seized by customs agents. Ferlinghetti got them released, but the publicity alerted the San Francisco Police Department and on June 3, 1957, Shigeyoshi Murao, City Lights' popular store manager, was arrested for selling "Howl and Other Poems" to two undercover cops assigned to the SFPD's Juvenile Bureau.

San Francisco was much different than it is today. Although starting to become a counter-culture mecca, the city was still a maze of culturally conservative ethnic enclaves, whether they were Asian or the heavily Irish Catholic and Italian neighborhoods. The newest wave of pilgrims was made up of former U.S. servicemen who had shipped out from California during World War II on their way to war in the Pacific.

Fearing that any San Francisco jury would deem "Howl" obscene on its face, Ferlinghetti's lawyers asked for a bench trial. The Municipal Court judge they drew was a Republican named Clayton W. Horn, a man who spent his weekends teaching Sunday school.

In accounts of the trial, Horn is often described as being so conservative and devout that he'd once sentenced five female thieves -- the newspapers at the time called them "lady shoplifters" --  to attend a showing of the movie "The Ten Commandments" and to write essays on the epic film's lesson when it came to stealing. The anecdote was true -- Judge Horn did hand down such a sentence -- but it was out of context. The reason that the movie-going and essay-writing verdict had been controversial is that such alternative sentencing was considered too lenient: The prevailing sentiment in the community was that the "five ladies" deserved for jail time.

In any event, in California v. Ferlinghetti, Judge Horn proved himself up to the task. Over the prosecutor's objections, he allowed testimony from nine literary experts, all of whom vouched for the social value of "Howl." This was countered, feebly, by two prosecution witnesses, one of whom claimed that the book was merely an imitation of "Leaves of Grass" -- and a poor one, at that -- and therefore lacking in literary merit.

Siding with the defense, Judge Horn noted that California's obscenity law said nothing at all about minors, a pithy observation that undercut the stated rationale of the SFPD (that it was protecting kids from smut). He also ruled that "Howl and Other Poems" did not violate the statute anyway. The U.S. Supreme Court had recently defined obscenity in the Roth case, and Horn relied on its standard in formulating his ruling. He quoted four different Supreme Court justices, along with Thomas Jefferson and Lord Macaulay, and cut to the heart of Allen Ginsberg's work more insightfully than the defense witnesses had done.

"The first part of ‘Howl' presents a picture of a nightmare world," the judge wrote. "The second part is an indictment of those elements in modern society destructive of the best qualities of human nature; such elements are predominantly identified as materialism, conformity and mechanization leading toward war. …

"It ends in a plea for holy living," Horn added, ending on the following note: "In considering material claimed to be obscene, it is well to remember the motto: ‘Honi soit qui mal y pense.'" (Shame to him who thinks evil).

Afterward, Ferlinghetti liked to rail against the prosecution as a grave injustice. In truth, he'd orchestrated the whole thing and done it masterfully. The case made Allen Ginsberg famous, put City Lights bookstore on the map, and engineered a victory for the First Amendment. It was also a proud moment for America's judiciary and signaled the dawn of a new and freer form of writing in this country.

"Poetry," Ferlinghetti once wrote, "is the shadow cast by our imaginations." On this date in the mid-1950s, he himself helped draw those shadows out. Alone among the players in this drama, Lawrence Ferlinghetti is still with us. This is more than a footnote: At a time when the world is faced with the once-unthinkable dilemma of how limited life-saving medical care should be rationed during a pandemic, let's remember that the masks covering the faces of coronavirus patients in their 60s and 70s and 80s should not obscure the fact that these are often vibrant and creative people with much to live for and much to still give us. If you doubt that, consider this: Ferlinghetti had a new novel published only last year. Yesterday was his birthday. He turned 101. 

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

Show comments Hide Comments