Lawrence Ferlinghetti was born on March 24, 1919, in Yonkers, New York. In 1953 he opened the City Lights Pocket Book Shop, a gathering place for the literary avant-garde and a focal point of the Beat movement. In 1955 his new City Lights Press published his poetry collection Pictures of the Gone World. His collection A Coney Island of the Mind (1958), became the best-selling book by any living American poet in the second half of the 20th century. Ferlinghetti has also released works of prose and drama and has maintained a successful career as a painter.
Here and Abroad
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, whose birth name is Lawrence Monsanto Ferling, was born on March 24, 1919, in Yonkers, New York. His father had shortened the family name when he emigrated from Italy, but Lawrence took back the lengthier original as an adult. His father died before his birth, and his mother was committed to a mental hospital. Ferlinghetti's aunt raised him, mostly in France. They returned to the United States when he was 6, at which time he his aunt sent him to live in an orphanage while she looked for work, eventually reclaiming him when she did and settling on Long Island, New York.
Ferlinghetti began writing poetry at the age of 12 and attended several different schools during his youth. After high school, he enrolled at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he studied journalism and contributed to the student journal the Daily Tar Heel. He earned his bachelor's degree in 1941.
Soldier and Student
Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, in 1942 Ferlinghetti enlisted in the military. He eventually served as a naval officer and during the Normandy invasion was deployed as a submarine chaser. Near the end of the war, Ferlinghetti also visited Nagasaki, six weeks after the dropping of the atomic bomb, a haunting experience that ignited his interest in politics and pacifism.
After his time in the military, Ferlinghetti took advantage of the G.I. Bill and re-devoted himself to his education. He earned a master's degree in literature from Columbia University in 1947 and did his doctoral work in poetry at the Sorbonne in Paris, receiving his degree in 1950. The following year, he married Selby Kirby-Smith, whom he had met en route to France years earlier. They remained together until their divorce in 1976 and would have two children, Julie and Lorenzo.
City Lights and the Beat Movement
In 1951, Ferlinghetti and Selby left Paris for San Francisco. Shortly after their arrival, with his friend Peter Martin, Ferlinghetti started a magazine called City Lights—after the 1931 Charlie Chaplin film of the same name—and two years later he opened the City Lights Pocket Book Shop, an establishment on the border of San Francisco’s Chinatown and North Beach neighborhoods that would soon become the hub of a literary revolution. The store was a gathering place for avant-garde artists, including poets, painters and writers identified with the burgeoning Beat movement, such as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs. His City Lights Press published some of the Beat poets' first and most influential works in its Pocket Poets editions, including Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems in 1956, which was seized by U.S. Customs and resulted in Ferlinghetti’s arrest on obscenity charges. In the resulting trial, for which he enlisted the legal aid of the American Civil Liberties Union, Ferlinghetti was found not guilty on the basis of free speech, setting an important legal precedent for the publication of controversial works in the United States and ultimately gaining Ferlinghetti notoriety in the process.
Ferlinghetti also found time to devote to his own poetry, publishing the collection Pictures of the Gone World in 1955. Three years later, his A Coney Island State of the Mind was published to commercial success. Among the best-selling books of poetry in the United States during the latter half of the 20th century, a 50th-anniversary edition of Coney was published by New Directions in 2008.
Politics, Painting and Other Art Forms
Like the Beat poets that Ferlinghetti is associated with, he is an anti-establishment thinker and has become a symbol of the counterculture. He believes in writing poetry for the masses, not just the educated elite. Ferlinghetti's style is simple, conversational and witty, and he often focuses on political issues and supports pacifism and uninhibited free speech. Much of his work from the 1960s forward reflects this, as seen in such poems as 1960s “One Thousand Fearful Words for Fidel Castro” and 1965’s “Where Is Vietnam.”
Though he is best known for his poetry, Ferlinghetti has explored other creative outlets as well, including drama, fiction and painting. His first novel, Her, was published in 1960, and his second, Love in the Days of Rage, nearly three decades later. As a playwright, Ferlinghetti has published the collections Unfair Arguments with Existence (1965) and Routines (2001), both of which feature his short, experimental dramatic works. In parallel with his literary career, Ferlinghetti has also maintained a 60-plus year run as a painter, exhibiting his work in galleries and museums around the world.
Honors and Accolades
While Ferlinghetti has continued his eclectic and prolific output up to the present, including the poetry collections A Far Rockaway of the Heart (1997) and Poetry as Insurgent Art (2005), he and his work have also been the focus of various retrospectives and have received numerous honors. From 1998 to 2000, Ferlinghetti was named poet laureate of San Francisco, and in 2003 he was elected the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 2012, Ferlinghetti refused the Janus Pannonius International Poetry Prize, an award upwards of $60,000, because the prize was funded in part by the Hungarian government, which Ferlinghetti has been critical of for its authoritarian leanings.
In commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the City Lights publishing venture, several new Ferlinghetti works are scheduled for release, including a book of his correspondences with Allen Ginsberg, an anthology of City Lights poetry and a collection of Ferlinghetti’s travel journals.
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