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Booksellers can become political. A good example of that comes from San Fransico in the 1950s when Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the proprietor of the City Lights Bookstore (which is still very much there on Columbus Avenue just south of Brodway), found himself in an obscenity trial for having published a slim volume of poetry by the young Allen Ginsberg. The trial made both of them household names, at least among the cognoscenti, and it provided the movement that Ginsberg represented with the exposure that made it influential way beyond its numbers.

Follow me below the Great Orange Bookplate for more.

Political. We know that booksellers can occasionally become publishers (Benjamin Franklin), and during the twentieth century several booksellers have become famous for publishing work that the mainstream publishers wouldn’t touch for fear of being hauled into court. Sylvia Beach and her bookstore and lending library in Paris, Shakespeare and Company, supervised the first printing of Ulysses, which was censored in the United States until 1933. So it is not so surprising that Lawrence Ferlinghetti, having read Allen Ginsberg's poetry, decided to publish Howl and Other Poems as the fourth book in his Pocket Poets series in 1956 and convinced William Carlos Williams to write an introduction to the little book.

I teach a good amount of cultural history in my US History survey courses, and I read as much of Howl as I can to my classes, that is, before I begin to fget uncomfortable with the language. This is what's in my class notes:
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
Dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angel headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
Who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz,
Who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated
Who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war,
Who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull,
Who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, burning their money in wastebaskets and listening to the Terror through the wall,
Who got busted in their pubic beards returning through Laredo with a belt of marijuana for New York.
Who ate fire in paint hotels or drank turpentine in Paradise Alley, death, or purgatoried their torsos night after night
That's the first ten lines of a 30,000 line poem. The words that make me uncomfortable in the eleventh line are "cock and endless balls" but then I'm over 60. I don't think anyone wants to hear someone my age using those words together.

Anyhow, America became aware of the movement in 1956 when Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a poet and the proprietor of the City Lights Bookstore, published Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems, which was seized by a customs agent in 1957 when paperback copies from London arrived in San Francisco and which became the basis for an obscenity trial. Howl would sell 100,000 copies in the next ten years.  

The trial? Here's the First Amendment Center's account of it:

The case, People v. Ferlinghetti, went to trial in late August. Judge
Clayton W. Horn presided without a jury in San Francisco Municipal Court.
Ferlinghetti was charged with willfully and lewdly printing, publishing and
selling obscene writings. His ACLU lawyers had to prove that Howl and Other
Poems had literary merit as a whole and did not appeal to “prurient interest,”
according to the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Roth
v. United States
, which a few months earlier had established that the
First Amendment protected literature, but not obscenity.

In the crowded courtroom, Ferlinghetti’s defense team called nine expert
witnesses, including literature professors, editors and book reviewers from the
San Francisco Examiner and The New York Times. They testified that
Howl and Other Poems was a significant and enduring contribution to
society and literature, calling it a “prophetic work” and “thoroughly
honest.”

The prosecution could only come up with three witnesses: a police officer, an English professor and a teacher, none of whom thought the poem had literary merit.

On October 3, 1957, Judge Horn declared that Howl was not obscene.

So Happy Gay History Month! Writers always wanted.

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Originally posted to Readers and Book Lovers on Tue Oct 15, 2013 at 05:00 AM PDT.

Also republished by The First and The Fourth, Remembering LGBT History, Milk Men And Women, and History for Kossacks.

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