One of San Francisco's last living connections to the Beat Generation, the man who first published both Allen Ginsberg's Howl & Other Poems and Frank O'Hara's Lunch Poems, and wrote his own classic collection A Coney Island Of the Mind, just celebrated his 100th birthday on Sunday.
Ferlinghetti co-founded City Lights Bookstore in North beach along with Peter D. Martin in 1953, at the age of 34, and perhaps no other living San Franciscan can claim to have embodied or contributed as much to the creative culture of the city.
The bookstore and the alley beside it — Jack Kerouac Alley — was the site of a big to-do on Sunday, with a group of a cappella singers serenading Ferlinghetti from across the street outside Specs. Hundreds of fans and literary tourists descended on the bookstore and imbibed at Beat Era haunt Vesuvio — which as the Chronicle's Datebook noted has a poster on the wall from a neighborhood celebration of Ferlinghetti in March 1994, on the occasion of his 75th birthday.
Ferlinghetti just published what's being called his "literary last will and testament," and an "unapologetically unclassifiable work," titled Little Boy, and labeled "A Novel." (There was a reading at City Lights last week, without Ferlinghetti there, but featuring local writers Andrew Sean Greer, Armistead Maupin, Maxine Hong Kingston, and others.)
As the New York Times writes, it's a personal history "told in flashes and arias," and "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."
Ferlinghetti's story begins in an orphanage in Chappaqua, New York, where he soon ended up after the death of his father and separation from his mother. He lived for a time with an aunt in Paris (French was his first language), and eventually went to a New England boarding school and then to the University of North Carolina. He served in WWII in both the European and Pacific theaters, witnessing, he said, "Nagasaki seven weeks after the second bomb was dropped and saw the landscape of hell and became an instant pacifist."
And then he got a Masters degree from Columbia and moved to San Francisco at the moment that a particularly influential cultural zeitgeist was taking root. He was there that legendary night at the Six Gallery on Fillmore Street in October 1955 when Ginsberg first read "Howl" to an audience, and when San Francisco poets Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, and Philip Whalen all read their latest work. Ferlinghetti, two years into his book business, offered to publish Howl on the spot, and two years later he would be defending the poem in federal court in a seminal court case about what constitutes obscenity.
Ferlinghetti pops in as a character in one of Kerouac's final books, appearing as Lorenzo Monsanto in Big Sur – the alcoholic narrator's successful writer pal who lends him the Big Sur cabin where he goes to dry out and write for a while, and where he ends up confronting some personal demons.
The American writer's obsession with juxtaposing the high and low is, as the Times' Robert Pinsky writes, something that Ferlinghetti helped to introduce and pioneer.
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.’”
Readings on Sunday included some from the likes of McClure, Ishmael Reed and Robert Hass, but Ferlinghetti himself was not in attendance "due to failing eyesight and limited mobility," as he wrote in some early regrets.
Below, a few bits from the weekend scene.