(Reuters) - Poet and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti, whose City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco became a West Coast literary haven for Beat Generation writers like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, has died at the age of 101, City Lights said on Tuesday.
Ferlinghetti, who played a key role in a free-speech battle after he published Ginsberg’s poem “Howl” in 1956, passed away on Monday evening, said City Lights Books on Twitter, adding “We love you, Lawrence.”
When Ferlinghetti turned 100 on March 24, 2019, San Francisco officials declared it Lawrence Ferlinghetti Day. City Lights threw a party, although the honoree did not attend due to failing eyesight and trouble in getting around.
The publishing house Doubleday released Ferlinghetti’s “Little Boy,” an experimental novel with autobiographical touches told in a stream-of-consciousness style, in conjunction with his 100th birthday.
The Beat Generation first percolated in New York in the 1950s but Kerouac, Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs and a slew of other writers, artists, hipsters, activists and thrill-seekers would eventually wander West to 261 Columbus Avenue in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood to hang out at City Lights.
“I keep telling people I wasn’t a member of the original Beat Generation,” Ferlinghetti told the Los Angeles Times in 2005. “I was sort of the guy tending the store.”
In 1957 Ferlinghetti, a former Eagle Scout, found himself on the front line of a constitutional fight when he was arrested after publishing and selling Ginsberg’s ground-breaking “Howl and Other Poems.” While it was considered an epic achievement by Beat peers, “Howl” shocked much of America with its references to drugs and homosexuality and renunciation of mainstream society.
Ferlinghetti was cleared of obscenity charges when a judge ruled “Howl” was not obscene because it had redeeming social value.
“It put us on the map, courtesy of the San Francisco Police Department,” Ferlinghetti said. “It’s hard to get that kind of publicity.”
Ferlinghetti and Peter D. Martin, a sociology student at the time, had founded City Lights as a bookstore and small publisher in 1953, naming it for Charlie Chaplin’s 1931 movie. In a few years it became a Bohemian mecca for intellectuals, writers, dissidents, activists, musicians and artists.
“City Lights became about the only place around where you could go in, sit down and read books without being pestered to buy something,” Ferlinghetti said in a 2006 Hartford Courant interview. “... Also, I had this idea that a bookstore should be a center of intellectual activity.”
Ferlinghetti’s works often showed an anti-establishment or political bent. He wanted his poems to be accessible to all.
“The poem should have a public surface, by which I mean anybody who hasn’t had any education could still understand the poem,” he told Writer’s Digest in a 2010 interview. “Then below that it should have a subjective or subversive level, which would make the poem more important than just a surface lyric that’s just giving you a nice picture.”
In his biography, “Lawrence Ferlinghetti: Poet at Large,” Larry Smith wrote that his subject’s writing “sings with the sad and comic music of the streets.”
The most successful of Ferlinghetti’s many works was the 1958 poetry collection “A Coney Island of the Mind,” which sold more than 1 million copies. Described by the New York Times as “among the most popular poets of the modern era,” he published poetry through 2012 and in 2015 put out “Writing Across the Landscape: Travel Journals,” a collection of his writings spanning more than 50 years.
In 2017 a collection titled “Ferlinghetti’s Greatest Poems” was released.
Ferlinghetti was born in Yonkers, New York, a few months after his father died. His mother suffered from mental illness so he went to live with a relative in France and later with another family in New York.
He earned a journalism degree at the University of North Carolina, served in the Navy during World War Two, serving on a submarine-chasing ship during the D-Day invasion, and received a doctorate in literature from the Sorbonne.
During his Navy service, Ferlinghetti toured Nagasaki six weeks after it was hit with a U.S. atomic bomb. He told the San Francisco Chronicle that in the rubble he found a teacup with what appeared to be human flesh melted on it.
“In that instant, I became a total pacifist,” he said.
In addition to Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs, Ferlinghetti published works by Beat figures such as Neal Cassady, Gary Snyder, Gregory Corso and Philip Lamantia, as well as Sam Shepard and Charles Bukowski.
When asked how he remained prolific and lived to 100, he told NPR: “Have a good laugh and you’ll live longer.”
Ferlinghetti, who also was a painter, had two children.
Writing and reporting by Bill Trott; Additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Chicago; Editing by Diane Craft and Matthew Lewis
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