Lawrence Ferlinghetti was born in New York one hundred years ago today – 24th March, 1919. After a difficult childhood in which his father died and his mother was hospitalized, Ferlinghetti joined the Navy and then gained his doctoral degree at the Sorbonne, in Paris.
Having grown up on the east coast of the US (as well as two stints in France), he moved to San Francisco in the early 1950s, where he met Kenneth Rexroth. In 1953, he founded City Lights Bookstore, the first American bookstore to only sell paperbacks.
City Lights began publishing small, iconic books of poetry called the Pocket Poet Series, beginning with Ferlinghetti’s own Pictures of the Gone World (1955). They soon published poetry by Rexroth, but it was the publication of Allen Ginsberg’s explosive Howl and Other Poems (1956) that put City Lights on the map.
The book was soon the subject of a famous obscenity trial, with Ferlinghetti’s company taken to court by the government due to the explicit nature of Ginsberg’s poems. The ACLU defended City Lights, and the booksellers won, a landmark achievement in free speech.
Although Ferlinghetti was to become best-known as a publisher of Beat literature and the founder of one of San Francisco’s most revered cultural landmarks, he is a great poet and writer in his own right (as well as a painter), and is best known for A Coney Island of the Mind (1958).
Ferlinghetti was named Poet Laureate of San Francisco in 1998, and also has a street named after him – Via Ferlinghetti. Today, on his one hundredth birthday, the City and Council Office of San Francisco officially decreed that 24th March is “Ferlinghetti Day” – a fitting tribute to a figure of immense importance in American literary history.
His latest work – a novel called Little Boy – is out now.