February 26, 2021
In Memoriam: Lawrence Ferlinghetti
by Mike Lindgren
Poet and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti died on Monday, at 101 years of age the last surviving member of the fabled “Beat Generation” who re-shaped American culture so flamboyantly beginning in the 1950s.
Ferlinghetti was the co-owner of City Lights Books in San Francisco, which became the West Coast mecca of the Beatnik generation, proto-hippies who valued spontaneity and irreverence and whose freewheeling works — and lifestyles — were an intentional rebuke to the buttoned-up corporate culture of postwar America.
There was a time when it seemed that the bookshelf of every right-thinking American writer, editor, critic, or college student (this Gen Xer’s father very much included) sported a copy of Ferlinghetti’s 1958 classic A Coney Island of the Mind. “Some guys show up,” wrote Ferlinghetti in a not unrepresentative passage, “and one of them / is a kind of carpenter/ from some square-type place / like Galilee / and he starts wailing / and claiming he is hip.”
Ferlinghetti expanded City Lights into a press that published the work of fellow Beatniks Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, among others. A Navy veteran and a pacifist, Ferlinghetti remained all his long life a committed activist whose work reflected, in the words of one critic, “his political disenchantment with American imperialism, and the squalor of its domestic politics.”
In a sense, every independent publisher, leftist press, and indie bookstore exists in the America that Ferlinghetti helped create. True American culture, he said at one awards ceremony, is the work of “an endangered species” of
literarians, publishers, bookstores, editors, libraries, writers and readers, universities and all the institutions that support them … the literarians in the world, and there are millions of them. They are not considered the dominant culture in this country. What’s called the dominant culture will fade away as soon as the electricity goes off.
We here on (virtual) John Street like to consider ourselves among this number. We will pour one out to those words, and to him.
Michael Lindgren is the Managing Editor at Melville House.