A Death In The Family: Remembering Lawrence Ferlinghetti (1919 - 2021)

- by Bruce E. McKinney with Guest Writer, Maureen E. Mulvihill


Lawrence Ferlinghetti, 1919-2021

There was a time when today’s gray beards and white tops were bright-eyed pioneers, forging pathways and persuading American youth to join them in a ‘Great Liberation’ of the soul, body, and mind. They called it freedom from the old ways, death to ‘the Establishment’.


That colorful generation of nay-sayers gave us many heroes: a prince among them was Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet, publisher, consummate bookman. His famed bookstore, City Lights, 261 Columbus Avenue, San Francisco, became a touchstone for those who identified with the so-called Beat generation. But the bookstore was more than that: It was a cultural hub for local literati and curious tourists. As Ferlinghetti himself might say: ‘It’s a happening place, man, it’s jumpin’ – we do readings, music, mime. Personal discovery is bubbling up everywhere. We are where it’s at.’


Ferlinghetti had a long run, dying at the age of 101, ironically outliving almost all of the up-&-comers he promoted and published. To his last day, he continued to live in a rent-controlled walk-up nearby the modest bookstore he made famous 65 years ago.  The scale of his life can be measured by his rising stature in the auction rooms. And, in equal measure, we note the sheer space given his obituary in the newspaper he read daily: the San Francisco Chronicle. In its 30-page edition on Wednesday, February 24th, 2021, the Chronicle ran a spectacular homage to Lawrence Ferlinghetti: a full one-and-a-half pages. Any one in San Francisco who loves books and bookshops read that obituary with wet eyes. I surely did.


Mr Ferlinghetti lived a rich and complex life, a life of variety and brave action. He was an officer in WW2; he earned degrees at Columbia University and the Sorbonne; and he put down literary roots in North Beach, San Francisco, in 1951. Moving forward with courage and resolve, he and his literary tribe – Peter Dean Martin and others -- launched something new and exciting in 1953: they called it the City Lights Pocket Bookshop. It would be a beacon and an anchor for the city he came to love. Soon after, this small, successful enterprise expanded into publishing. Inch by inch, the footprint was being made.


In 1956, Ferlinghetti stepped into something more important than he realized: he published a set of verses by Allen Ginsberg, titled Howl And Other Poems (44 pages, 5” x 6 1/4”, 75 cents; Number Four in Ferlinghetti’s Pocket Poet Series). The collection’s first poem, Howl, gave us some of the most compelling opening lines in all of American poetry:



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,                                                         

     angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection 

      expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing  

                obscene odes on the windows of the skull, ….                     


(Courtesy, Mulvihill Collection, Brooklyn, NY / Sarasota, FL.)


But Ferlinghetti’s big success with Howl came at a high price. The poem, the poet, and the publisher quickly became ensnarled in a heated obscenity trial; and, of course, such high visibility cemented the reputation of City Lights as an outpost of free speech.


When the trial verdict came in, protecting the right of self-expression, it was explained that Howl contained “redeeming social significance.” (Sound familiar? Hadn’t we heard this before about an unreadable novel written by some Irishman?) That fig leaf of “redeeming social significance” has since been stretched to cover the vulgarities of the Internet and even presidential gaffes.


Mr. Ferlinghetti, long regarded as a local luminary (Poet Laureate, 1998), is the subject of a documentary film, Ferlinghetti by Christopher Felver in 2009.  And faithful to its tradition of honoring  distinguished citizens, San Francisco has given its most famous bookman his own street: a block now known as Via Ferlinghetti.  As a published author, and because of his association with the Beat generation, Ferlinghetti’s books, correspondence, and ephemera are both read and collected today. Teachers of American literature and Book History will now give special attention, we hope, to Ferlinghetti’s deep contribution to the Small Book Movement and especially the Small Press Movement in American publishing.


A search today for auction records for Ferlinghetti in Rare Book Hub’s Transactions Database finds 737 answering entries. One can safely predict that the name Ferlinghetti will echo in the auction rooms for ages to come.   


As well, in our Upcoming Auctions Database we find that PBA (Pacific Book Auctions) is holding a sale on March 18th, Fine Literature with Beats, Bukowski & the Counterculture. This event is offering some lots related to Ferlinghetti imprints.


As you run those search results, you’ll also find one at Leslie Hindman in Chicago, Cincinnati, and Florida, on the 19th:  Lot 7. A group of works by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, many Signed or Inscribed, including:


Pictures of the gone world. San Francisco: City Lights, 1955. -- A second copy, the second edition, published March 1956. -- A Coney Island of the Mind. Norfolk, CT: New Directions, 1958. -- Starting from San Francisco. Norfolk, CT: New Directions, 1961. With original 33 1/3 RPM record. Also with a duplicate copy of the original record. SIGNED. -- Unfair Arguments with Existence. Norfolk, CT: New Directions, 1963. SIGNED. -- A second copy. SIGNED. -- The Secret Meaning of Things. Norfolk, CT: New Directions, 1968. SIGNED. -- Moscow in the Wilderness, Segovia in the Snow. San Francisco: City Lights, 1967. SIGNED. -- Over All the Obscene Boundaries. Norfolk, CT: New Directions, 1984. SIGNED. -- And 5 others. Together, 13 works in 13 volumes, in original publisher's bindings or wrappers, condition generally fine, complete list available on request.


Estimated USD300.00 – 400.00


It’s never too late to add to your collection or to start a new one! I think Mr. Lawrence Ferlinghetti would approve.


Say, let’s have a Ferlinghetti moment on the Via Ferlinghetti. I’ll bring the bongos and weed – you bring some Howl. Lawrence is smiling.