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Ferlingetti at 100

Much of the spirit of City Lights Books and City Lights Publishing found their way into the pages of AVA, and the AVA found its way to City Lights on Columbus Avenue, the best little bookstore in the world. It felt good to see the AVA displayed along with newspapers and magazines from around the country and around the world, and to know that the AVA perspective on Mendocino, northern California and Earth itself traveled globally.

In March, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a longtime friend to the AVA, turned 100. City Lights Bookstore — which Lawrence co-founded in 1953 with Peter Martin — celebrated the event with an all-day party that took place in the store itself, in the streets and at other venues in San Francisco’s North Beach. I did not attend, though I did the next best thing: stayed at home and read Ferlinghetti’s new book, Little Boy (Doubleday; $24), that was published to coincide with his birthday and that is surely the last book to appear in print in his lifetime. The publisher describes it as a novel, which suggests fictionalization, but it seems to be fact-based and autobiographical with liberties, exaggerations and poetic license. 

Poet Billy Collins calls Little Boy, “the last wild, motor-mouth, book length riff of this poet’s generation.” Little Boy is a short book; just 178 pages, but it doesn’t exactly fly by, since it is, for the most part written without punctuation. Ferlinghetti’s sentences don’t end quickly. They just keep rolling along. It takes time to follow the author’s verbal somersaults, and not get lost in the undertow and the backward and forward flow of the narrative. Some of the things that Ferlinghetti says are clear, while others are not. If you’re in your 90s and fast approaching 100, you have the right to do whatever you want to do on paper. As though to warn the reader of what lies ahead, Ferlinghetti describes his book as “mumblings, mouthings of various personal asininities, irrelevancies, obscenities and obsessions.” Some of those words seem to be made-up — a poet’s prerogative.

An anarchist and a rebel for much of his life, Ferlinghetti is still an anarchist and a rebel, though he insists, “I was never much of a rebel.” No, he wasn’t Che Guevara and didn’t launch guerrilla warfare in the hills of SF, but he waged cultural warfare against the city’s philistines. Near the very end of Little Boy, Ferlinghetti urges readers: “Join the pacifists Discover anarchism Resist and Disobey!” His book is the last gasp of a lifelong anti-authoritarian who made himself unto a countercultural institution who often complained to me that vast swaths of the counterculture didn’t read, but preferred to listen to music and watch light shows at rock concerts.

At 100, Ferlinghetti is rather pessimistic. In the last sentence of his cantankerous book he writes, “The cries of birds now are not cries of ecstasy but cries of despair.” The Earth is in crisis. The world as we have known it, is ending with global warming.

Little Boy begins as a kind of extended resume, with the names of places that were important in the author’s early life: Manhattan, Portugal, France and New York. Before long, Ferlinghetti drifts into extravagant word play with a list of nouns un-separated by commas: “confusions transplantations transformations instigations fornications confessions prognostications hallucinations.” Little Boy goes forward and backward in time, and around and around. 

Clearly the two most important places in Ferlinghetti’s life have been Paris, France and San Francisco, California, which he calls “this existentialist café on the left coast of this country.” Left coast isn’t the way I would describe the West Coast, but I understand that many think of it as the birthplace and the home of radical ideas and anti-establishment ways of being. Ferlinghetti has had a long love/hate relationship with the city that has evolved and devolved over the past 50 years. San Francisco, in his view, has turned into one of the world’s centers for global capitalism that has pushed out working class people and turned, thanks to the banksters, into a plush pad for the super-rich.

At its best, Little Boy offers indelible snapshots of Paris and San Francisco. In one of the snapshots, Ferlinghetti depicts Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir at the Brasserie Lipp in Saint-Germain. “Me living on sixty-five dollars a month on the G.I. Bill and could not afford to even sit down in the Brasserie Lipp,” he writes.

Ferlinghetti portrays himself as an outsider and a misfit. “I’m some kind of literary freak,” he explains. “I love to be alone with my own thoughts.” That much is clear. Into Little Boy the author has dumped a lifetime of thoughts, ruminations and memories, including vivid memories of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and Neal Cassady, the anti-hero of On the Road, whom Ferlinghetti romanticizes as an “outlaw cowboy.” In my view, Burroughs came closer to the truth when he wrote that Cassady was “The Mover, compulsive, dedicated, ready to sacrifice family, friends, even his very car itself to the necessity of moving from one place to another.”

I was also disappointed that there isn’t more about the women in Ferlinghetti’s life and about the women authors, such as Diane di Prima, that City Lights published.

Little Boy is a source book of all the volumes Ferlinghetti has read and many of the movies he has watched. It’s also a barbed manifesto. Ferlinghetti ridicules the notion that the generation to which he belongs is “The Greatest Generation” — an idea that members of that generation have promulgated to promote themselves. Yes, Ferlinghetti belongs to the generation that fought in World War II. He embraces some of its ways of thinking about and looking at the world. He’s confused, as many others are, when he sees men who look like they might be women and women who look like they might be men. Ferlinghetti would also like to think that individuals are white or black or Asian and not hybrids and mongrel. 

Though he published the writers of the Beat Generation, he doesn’t really belong to the Beat Generation. On one of the occasions when I interviewed him, Ferlinghetti explained that City Lights was “pre-beat and post-beat,” and that it harkened back to French writers such as Francois Villon, Arthur Rimbaud and Charles Baudelaire.

I once asked Ferlinghetti what if anything he regretted as a publisher. “We did put some of Jack Kerouac in print, but not soon enough,” he said. “We should have acted before his books became popular.”

In this, his last book, the author is self-deprecating. “I’m no genius,” he says. “I’m a broken record.” He adds, “I don’t know which way to go.” Ferlinghetti’s self-portrait can be tiresome, but there are vivid surrealistic passages, including one of an archetypal young man who sits at a table in a cafe, “typing on his laptop, both ears stopped with earphones.” Indeed, he refuses to acknowledge anyone else around him. The passage seems to be a fictionalized version of an actual incident that reflects the author’s real feelings.

“I’m alarmed,” Ferlinghetti exclaims. “I call 911. After some time a cop car arrives and he’s arrested for ‘non-participation in humanity.’ They haul the corpse away.” It does seem odd that a self-proclaimed anarchist would call the police. But don’t forget that Ferlinghetti was a bookstore owner who wanted to sell books as well as promote great literature and plant the seeds for a counterculture. It was a major occurrence at City Lights when a metal detector was installed at the exit and would-be shoplifters were apprehended. Abbie Hoffman’s slogan “Steal This Book” didn’t go over well at 261 Columbus Avenue.

In Little Boy, Ferlinghetti is honest about his feelings, no matter how unpopular that may be. “Life is absurd,” he says as though he’s a character in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. He’s also a character in nearly all the books he has read.

“I was Tom Sawyer and I was Huck Finn and I was Injun Joe,” he exclaims. One wishes he had said, “Indian” and not “Injun,” but Little Boy is Ferlinghetti uncensored and politically incorrect, by the standards of the politically correct police. “The world’s an ice cream melting down and we are tiny animals,” he insists. “The only animalcules that recognize themselves in mirrors and go wow!”

One thing I definitely dislike is the phrase on the dust jacket that explains that Ferlinghetti “lives in San Francisco, right above his bookstore.” It’s true that he spends much of the time in the city, but his living quarters are not on the second floor. Maybe the description is meant to be metaphorical. In that sense, Ferlinghetti does haunt, not only the bookstore, but North Beach and wherever outlaws, bohemians, Beats, beatniks and punks congregate.

(Jonah Raskin is the author of American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and the Making of the Beat Generation.)

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