By Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Lawrence Ferlinghetti celebrates his 100th birthday on March 24 with the publication of “Little Boy,” his life story told in flashes and arias. No one’s biography has more completely or ardently embodied the visions and contradictions, the achievements and calamities, the social mobility and social animosities, of that life span.
Poet, retail entrepreneur, social critic, publisher, combat veteran, pacifist, poor boy, privileged boy, outspoken socialist and successful capitalist, with roots in the East Coast and the West Coast (as well as Paris), Ferlinghetti has not just survived for a century: He epitomizes the American culture of that century.
Specifically, he has been a unique protagonist in a national drama: the American struggle to imagine a democratic culture. How does the ideal of social mobility affect notions of high and low, Europe and the New World, tradition and progress? That struggle of imagination underlies the art of Walt Whitman and Duke Ellington, Emily Dickinson and Buster Keaton. It also underlies a range of American issues, from the segregation of public schools to the reality of human-caused climate change. Those political issues involve our interbreeding of the highbrow and the vulgarian in a supercharged process whose complexities defy simplifying terms like “culture wars.”
As to social mobility, the opening pages of “Little Boy” range from a Chappaqua orphanage to prep school at Mount Hermon; from malnutrition to luxury. He lived with his Tante Emilie on the Upper West Side and in Strasbourg (French was the little boy’s first language) and then in a Bronxville mansion where Emilie for a spell became the governess. After his graduation from the University of North Carolina, Ferlinghetti commanded a submarine chaser in the Normandy landings, then “went to the Pacific as a navigator … and saw Nagasaki seven weeks after the second bomb was dropped and saw the landscape of hell and became an instant pacifist.”
Is Ferlinghetti’s career as an influential, best-selling poet a story of high culture or of popular culture? Is his City Lights, as bookstore and publisher, a San Francisco tourist trap? Or is City Lights a literary, moral and legal shrine that not only published Frank O’Hara’s “Lunch Poems” and Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl and Other Poems” but in a 1957 court case established First Amendment principles that transformed American life? The store’s North Beach location has been designated an “official” San Francisco landmark. Is that a funny contradiction in terms? Or a triumph? The answer to all these questions is, emphatically, yes — all of the above.
[Read Dwight Garner’s celebration of Ferlinghetti’s San Francisco here]
The cover of “Little Boy” bears the label “A Novel” — not a matter of literary form so much as an assertion of the autobiographer’s right to invent, embellish and creatively misremember. The book begins with a few dozen pages of engaging narrative of a conventional kind: ancestry (including a strand of Sephardic immigrants to the Virgin Islands and other lines that are Danish and French, thus Tante Emilie) and childhood anecdote. That linear setup gradually sublimates into long, lyrical sentences of freewheeling associations: the verbal riffs of a good talker. Readers hoping for reminiscences of Beat figures like Ginsberg (“Ginzy”) and Jack Kerouac (“Ti-Jean”) may be disappointed. Ferlinghetti approaches writers and writing in a more sweeping, lofty way, as in his vision of Ginsberg “arm in arm” with “the other great writers and poets and great articulators of consciousness,” a procession that includes Shakespeare, Tolstoy, “sexy tragi-romantic Vincent Millay and Dylan Thomas sweet singer.”
Above all, Ferlinghetti is literary in the American way of his generation, with the appealing old-fashioned enthusiasm of an autodidact (despite his M.A. from Columbia). As a child, he thrilled to “Horatius at the Bridge” and “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” He even calls Shakespeare “the bard of Avon” and notes that the Cantos of “Old Ez” Pound “couldn’t possibly be sung.” He also admires and mocks “old Tea Ass Eliot.” The mingled derision and awe, doubt and aspiration come from that underlying cultural duality of high and low.
Ferlinghetti’s vastly influential first book of poems, “A Coney Island of the Mind,” echoes that doubleness in its very title: In this corner, the Mind with a capital M; and in the other corner, Brooklyn’s thrilling, low-class amusement park. The book’s first poem, which so many of us read as enthralled teenagers, begins with a great European artist whose name is the second word: “In Goya’s greatest scenes we seem to see / the people of the world / exactly at the moment when / they first attained the title of / ‘suffering humanity.’”
We generations affected by Ferlinghetti’s book (over a million copies sold) may never have seen a Goya image, but we could intuit that name’s resonance with the poem’s closing phrases:
They are the same people
only further from home
on freeways fifty lanes wide
on a concrete continent
spaced with bland billboards
illustrating imbecile illusions of happiness
and the “strange license plates / and engines / that devour America.” I know the limitations of this writing, but can you dare say you’ve outgrown a poem if you’re gratefully indebted to it?
Goya and the billboards and the story of “Little Boy” echo a great national question. From the sublime mass-art works of Buster Keaton, now preserved in university archives, through the ebullient logic of classical music in “Looney Tunes,” to the absurdity of a president rising from a dumb “reality” TV show, from Coney Island to the Mind: Who, little boys and girls, juvenile yet old, do we think we are?