Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Lawrence Ferlinghetti was born in Yonkers, New York on March 24, 1919. His mother, née Clemence Albertine Mendes-Monsanto was of French and Sephardic-Portuguese heritage. His father, Carlo Ferlinghetti, was born in Brescia, Italy in 1872. He immigrated to the United States in 1892, and worked as an auctioneer in Little Italy, NYC. Carlo Ferlinghetti changed his name to Charles Ferlinghetti, Sr. Although reports state that Charles (Carlos) shortened the family name to "Ferling," the 1910 and 1920 census give the entire family the name Ferlinghetti. In the 1930 census, the name Ferling is given. Ferlinghetti reverted to the original Italian "Ferlinghetti" in 1955. In 1955 he published his first book of poems under his restored name.

Ferlinghetti's father died before he was born, and his mother was hospitalized immediately after his birth. He was raised by his French aunt Emily, former wife of Ludovico Monsanto, an uncle of his mother from the Virgin Islands who taught Spanish at the U.S. Naval Academy. Emily took Ferlinghetti to Strasbourg, France, where they lived during his first five years, with French as his first language.

After their return to the U.S., Lawrence was placed in an orphanage in Chapaqua, N.Y. while Emily looked for employment. She was eventually hired as a French governess for the daughter of Presley Eugene Bisland and his wife Anna Lawrence Bisland, in Bronxville, New York, the latter being the daughter of the founder of Sarah Lawrence College, William Van Deuzer Lawrence. In 1926, Ferlinghetti was left in the care of the Bislands. After attending various schools, including Riverdale Country School, Bronxville Public School, and Mount Hermon School (now Northfield Mount Hermon School), he went to the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, where he earned a B.A. in journalism in 1941. His sports journalism was published in The Daily Tar Heel, and he published his first short stories in Carolina Magazine, for which Thomas Wolfe had written.

In the summer of 1941, he lived with two college mates on Little Whale Boat Island in Casco Bay, Maine, lobster fishing, and raking moss from rocks to be sold in Portland, Maine, for pharmaceutical use. This experience gave him a love of the sea, a theme that runs through much of his poetry. After the December 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Ferlinghetti enrolled in Midshipmen's school in Chicago, and in 1942 shipped out as junior officer on J. P. Morgan III's yacht, which had been refitted to patrol for submarines off the East Coast.

Ferlinghetti was next assigned to the Ambrose Lightship outside New York harbor, to identify all incoming ships. In 1943 and 1944 he served as an officer on three U.S. Navy subchasers used as convoy escorts. As commander of the subchaser USS SC1308, he was at the Normandy invasion as part of the anti-submarine screen around the beaches. After VE Day, the Navy transferred him to the Pacific Theater, where he served as navigator of the troop ship USS Selinur. Two weeks after the atomic bomb fell on Nagasaki, he visited the ruins of the city, an experience that turned him into a life-long pacifist.

After the war, he worked briefly in the mailroom at Time magazine, in Manhattan. The G.I. Bill then enabled him to enroll in the Columbia University graduate school. Among his professors there were Babette Deutsch, Lionel Trilling, Jacques Barzun, and Mark Van Doren. In those years he was reading modern literature, and has said he was at that time influenced particularly by Shakespeare, Marlowe, the British Romantic poets and Gerard Manley Hopkins, James Joyce, T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, as well as American poets Whitman, Sandburg, Vachel Lindsay, Marianne Moore, E. E. Cummings, and novelists Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway, and John Dos Passos. He earned a master's degree in English literature in 1947 with a thesis on John Ruskin and the British painter J. M. W. Turner. From Columbia, he went to Paris to continue his studies, and lived in the city between 1947 and 1951, earning a Doctorat de l'Université de Paris, with une mention trés honorable. His two theses were on the city as a symbol in modern poetry and on the nature of Gothic.

After marrying Selden Kirby-Smith in 1951 in Duval County, Florida, he settled in San Francisco in 1953, where he taught French in an adult education program, painted, and wrote art criticism. His first translations, of poems by the French surrealist Jacques Prévert, were published by Peter D. Martin in his popular culture magazine City Lights.

In 1953 Ferlinghetti founded, with Peter D. Martin, City Lights Bookstore, the first all-paperbound bookshop in the country. The following year, after the departure of Peter Martin, he launched the publishing wing of City Lights with his own first book of poems, Pictures of the Gone World, the first number in the Pocket Poets Series. This volume was followed by books by Kenneth Rexroth, Kenneth Patchen, Marie Ponsot, Allen Ginsberg, Denise Levertov, Robert Duncan, William Carlos Williams, and Gregory Corso. Although City Lights Publishers is best known for its publication of Beat Generation writers, Ferlinghetti never intended to publish the Beats exclusively, and the press has always maintained a strong international list.

The fifth number in the Pocket Poets Series was Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. The book was seized in 1956 by San Francisco police. Ferlinghetti and Shig Murao, the bookstore manager who had sold the book to police, were arrested on obscenity charges. After charges against Murao were dropped, Ferlinghetti, defended by Jake Ehrlich and the ACLU, stood trial in SF Municipal court. The publicity generated by the trial drew national attention to San Francisco Renaissance and Beat movement writers. Ferlinghetti had the support of prestigious literary and academic figures, and, at the end of a long trial, Judge Clayton Horn found Howl not obscene and acquitted him in October 1957. The landmark First Amendment case established a key legal precedent for the publication of other controversial literary work with redeeming social importance.

Though imbued with the commonplace, Ferlinghetti's poetry is grounded in lyric and narrative traditions. Among his themes are the beauty of natural world, the tragicomic life of the common man, the plight of the individual in mass society, and the dream and betrayal of democracy. He counts among his influences T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, E. E. Cummings, H.D., Marcel Proust, Charles Baudelaire, Jacques Prévert, Guillaume Apollinaire, and Blaise Cendrars.

Soon after settling in San Francisco in 1950, Ferlinghetti met the poet Kenneth Rexroth whose concepts of philosophical anarchism influenced his political development. A critic of US foreign policy, Ferlinghetti has taken a stand against totalitarianism and war.

Ferlinghetti's work challenges the definition of art and the artist's role in the world. He urged poets to be engaged in the political and cultural life of the country. As he writes in Populist Manifesto: "Poets, come out of your closets, Open your windows, open your doors, You have been holed up too long in your closed worlds... Poetry should transport the public/to higher places/than other wheels can carry it..."

Ferlinghetti was instrumental in bringing poetry out of the academy and back into the public sphere with public poetry readings. With Ginsberg and other progressive writers, he took part in events that focused on such political issues as the Cuban revolution, the nuclear arms race, farm-worker organizing, the murder of Salvador Allende, the Vietnam War, May' 68 in Paris, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, and the Zapatista Army of National Liberation in Mexico. He read not only to audiences in the United States but widely in Europe and Latin America. Many of his writings grew from travels in France, Italy, the Soviet Union, Cuba, Mexico, Chile, Nicaragua, and the Czech Republic.

Books: 

Pictures of the Gone World (1955) Poetry
A Coney Island of the Mind (1958) Poetry
Her (New Directions 1960) Prose
Unfair Arguments with Existence (short plays) (1963)
Routines (short plays) (1964)
Starting from San Francisco (New Directions 1967) Poetry
Tyrannus Nix? (New Directions 1969) Prose
The Secret Meaning of Things (1970) Poetry
The Mexican Night (Travel Journal) (New Directions 1970)
Back Roads to Far Places" (New Directions 1971) Poetry
Open Eye, Open Heart (New Directions 1973) Poetry
Who Are We Now? (New Directions 1976) Poetry
Landscapes of Living and Dying (1980) ISBN 0-8112-0743-9
Over All the Obscene Boundaries (1986)
Love in the Days of Rage (E.P. Dutton 1988) Novel
A Buddha in the Woodpile (Atelier Puccini 1993)
These Are My Rivers: New & Selected Poems, 1955-1993 (New Directions) ISBN 0-0112-1273-4 0-0112-1252-1
A Far Rockaway Of The Heart (New Directions 1998) ISBN 0-8112-1347-1
Love in the Days of Rage (2001)
Americus: Part I (2004)
Two Scavengers in a Truck, Two Beautiful People in a Mercedes (1968)