Howl on Trial: The Battle for Free Expression

Primary Source

by Lawrence Ferlinghetti


City Lights Books, 1956.

Photo: City Lights archive


The "Howl" that was heard around the world wasn't seized in San Francisco in 1956 just because it was judged obscene by cops, but because it attacked the bare roots of our dominant culture, the very Moloch heart of our consumer society. At the end of World War II, I came home feeling disconnected from American life, like multitudes of Americans uprooted by military service. And we didn't stay home long. With new larger perspectives of the world, many of us soon took off for parts unknown. And the "white arms of roads" beckoned westward. I didn't know the actual demographics of it, but I had the sense that the continent had tilted up, with the whole population sliding to the west. It was a time of born-again optimism, but there were also new elements in the smelting pot of postwar America. There was a sense of great restlessness, a sense of wanting more of life than that offered by local chambers of commerce or suburban American Legions, a vision of some new wide open, more creative society than had been possible in pre-war America. And -- as an idolizer of James Joyce's Stephen Dedalus -- I even envisioned myself articulating "the uncreated conscience of my race."

It took until the mid-1950s for this postwar ferment and the visions of new generations to coalesce in a new cultural synthesis. And it happened in San Francisco, then still the last frontier in so many ways, with its "island mentality" that could be defined as a pioneer attitude of being "out there" on your own, without reliance on government. After all, San Francisco had been founded, not by bourgeoisie, but by prospectors, sailors, railroad workers, gold diggers, ladies of good fortune, roustabouts and carney hustlers. When I arrived overland by train in January 1951, it didn't take me long to discover that in Italian, bohemian North Beach, I had fallen into a burning bed of anarchism, pacifism and a wide open, nonacademic poetry scene, provincial but liberating. There were two or three anarchist poetry magazines spasmodically published, but the central literary, political force in all this was the poet and polymath, Kenneth Rexroth, who was active in the Anarchist Circle, waxed wroth regularly on KPFA-FM, and held Friday night soirées in his flat filled with apple-box bookshelves loaded with books he reviewed on every subject from anarchism to xenophobia.

The Beat poets, joining this San Francisco scene in the 1950s, furthered the postwar cultural synthesis, and "Howl" became the catalyst in a paradigm shift in American poetry and consciousness. The Beats were advance word slingers prefiguring the counterculture of the 1960s, forecasting its main obsessions and ecstasies of liberation, essentially a "youth revolt" against all that our postwar society was doing to us (even as Henry Miller in the 1940s had sensed that "another breed of men has taken over" in an air-conditioned nightmare.) When the Beats -- namely Ginsberg, Gregorio Nunzio Corso, Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, Peter Orlovsky -- first appeared in San Francisco, they hardly looked like world shakers. When Ginsberg first walked into City Lights and handed me the manuscript of "Howl," I saw him as another of those far-out poets and wandering intellectuals who had started hanging out in our 3-year-old bookstore, which The Chronicle had already started calling the intellectual center of the city. Bespectacled, intense, streetwise, Ginsberg showed me "Howl" with some hesitation, as if wondering whether I would know what to do with it. Later that month, when I heard him read it at the Six Gallery, I knew the world had been waiting for this poem, for this apocalyptic message to be articulated. It was in the air, waiting to be captured in speech. The repressive, conformist, racist, homophobic world of the 1950s cried out for it.

That night I went home and sent Ginsberg a Western Union telegram (imitating what I thought Emerson had written Whitman upon first reading "Leaves of Grass"): "I greet you at the beginning of a great career," and adding, "When do we get the manuscript?" (Despite Allen's saving every scrap of writing, this telegram is not to be found in his archive.) When City Lights published "Howl and Other Poems" in 1956, the holy unholy voice of the title poem reverberated around the world among poets and intellectuals, in countries free and enslaved, from New York to Amsterdam to Paris to Prague to Belgrade to Calcutta and Kyoto.

Ginsberg's original title was "Howl for Carl Solomon." Editing the poem, I persuaded him to call it simply "Howl," making "for Carl Solomon" a dedication, and thus implying a more universal significance. Putting the collection together, I talked him into including "In the Baggage Room at Greyhound." And still later, when I asked for more, he sent me "Footnote to Howl." We had already published two books by Rexroth and poetic pacifist Kenneth Patchen, and they'd been printed in England by John Sankey. But the four-letter words (not including "love") in "Howl" would cause censorship to raise its lascivious head. British law held the printer liable for prosecution, and he elided certain words, with Allen's and my reluctant consent. (Later, after the trial, these so-shocking words were restored.) Before sending the manuscript to the press, I showed it to the American Civil Liberties Union in San Francisco, because I suspected we would be busted, not only for four-letter words but also for its frank sexual, especially homosexual, content. And the ACLU promised to defend us. When we were indeed arrested, our little one-room bookstore would have been wiped out without the ACLU.

As for myself, I thought, well, I could use some time in the clink to do some heavy reading. But for Shigeyoshi Murao, who actually sold the book to the police officers, it was a heavier story. A Nisei whose family had been interned with thousands of other Japanese Americans during the war, he led me to understand that to be arrested for anything, even if innocent, was in the Japanese community of that time, a family disgrace. To me, he was the real hero of this tale of sound and fury, signifying everything.


Lawrence Ferlinghetti (pictured) and Shigeyoshi Murao were defendants.

photo: City Lights Archive

In the trial itself we were defended pro bono by the famous criminal lawyer Jake Ehrlich, and Lawrence Speiser and defense counsel Albert Bendich of the ACLU. They were absolutely brilliant -- Ehrlich especially so in his presentation of our case to the court and his devastating cross-examination of the prosecution's witnesses, and Bendich in his expert summation of the decisive Constitutional issues.

Among our witnesses, professor Mark Schorer of UC Berkeley, coolly defended "Howl" as "an indictment of those elements in modern society that, in the author's view, are destructive of the best qualities in human nature and of the best minds. Those elements are, I would say, predominantly materialism, conformity and mechanization leading toward war." (Schorer also said "the picture which the author is trying to give us [is] of modern life as a state of hell," which reminded me of Bertolt's Brecht defining Los Angeles as a modern hell and Pier Paolo Pasolini saying the same of modern Rome.) Allen himself was never arrested, though he wrote many supportive letters from abroad. We never had a written contract for "Howl, not even a handshake," but his letters more than once confirmed our agreement, assuring me also that he would not "go whoring around New York" for big money, and urging me to publish Kerouac, Corso, Bill Burroughs, so we could "altogether crash over America in a great wave of beauty." When Judge Horn announced that we were innocent, a Chronicle reporter shoved a mike in my face, and I just stood there struck dumb, unable to articulate what I sensed might foreshadow a sea change in American culture. (Later I learned, from Allen himself, how to use such opportunities "to subvert the dominant paradigm.") I couldn't realize what was to happen in the revolution of the '60s, but I suspected that this was just Allen's first strike as the conscience of the nation and a provocateur for peace. Fifty years later, Ginsberg's indictment still rings in our ears, and his insurgent voice is needed more than ever, in this time of rampant nationalism and omnivorous corporate monoculture deadening the soul of the world.

Introduction to "Howl on Trial: The Battle for Free Expression," (City Lights, 2006).

Copyright 2006 by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Reprinted by permission of City Lights Books.