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How “Howl” Became a Best Seller (April 30, 1997)

As many observers noted after the death of Allen Ginsberg on April 4, probably his greatest work was his first major poem, “Howl.” It was the battering ram that finally broke down the legal barriers that had denied Americans the right to read whatever they wanted to read.

Like many works before it, “Howl” had been declared “obscene” by law enforcement authorities who banned its sale. But that led to a trial which cleared “Howl” and virtually ended government book-banning.

It's been 40 years since that trial in 1957, yet it remains a vital precedent. Following is an excerpt of the trial summary written at the time by author Dick Meister, who covered the case as a reporter for the Associated Press.


William Carlos Williams concludes his introduction to Allen Ginsberg's “Howl” with the warning, “Hold back the edges of your gowns, Ladies, we are going through hell.” Most critics agree it's a worthwhile trip, but the San Francisco Police Department, poking a blue nose into the poem this year, declared the journey obscene and ordered “Howl” removed from the City's bookstores.

After a trial of several months, however, Municipal Judge Clayton Horn lifted the police order. The judge ruled, in effect, that only readers had the right to censor publications — by simply refusing to buy or read any that offended them.

Judge Horn concluded, most importantly, that a work would have to be “entirely lacking in social importance” to be held to be obscene.

Police had arrested bookdealer-poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and clerk Shigeyoshi Murao for selling “Howl” at Ferlinghetti's small, financially struggling City Lights bookstore, the poem's publisher and distributor. They went on trial facing $500 fines and six months in jail under California's severe obscenity law, one of the country's toughest.

Ten weeks earlier, Collector of Customs Chester MacPhee, aptly described by the San Francisco Chronicle as “overzealous and notably prissy,” confiscated the second shipment of “Howl” sent to the City by its English printer. MacPhee, who said he acted because the poem was “unfit for children,” eventually was overruled by the US Attorney in San Francisco.

Just six days after that, two police inspectors entered the City Lights store, bought copies of “Howl,” arrested sales clerk Murao and issued a warrant for Ferlinghetti's arrest.

The arresting officers admitted that the police acted as a result of publicity generated by Customs Collector MacPhee's attempt to keep “Howl” out of the country. They agreed wholeheartedly with MacPhee. The officers were outraged, one of them complained, that Ginsberg's work “comes right out and uses vulgar words. I mean filthy words that are very vulgar.”

Police officials promised that if action against “howl” proved successful, they'd pick up other books containing “dirty words.” Captain William Hanrahan of the Juvenile Bureau insisted that “anything not suitable for publication in newspapers shouldn't be published at all.”

After the arrests, Ferlinghetti put a “Big Brother” image in his store window. It glared down on stacks of once-banned books, an excellent cross-section of the world's greatest literature, including the Bible. A banner over the display, proclaiming “banned books for sale,” and the publicity given to “Howl” and City Lights, brought hundreds of new customers to the store in the heart of the City's bohemian community.

“Big Brother” sought larger targets, too. A pleased Captain Hanrahan reported, after a personal check of downtown shops, that “the big stores did sell those books but they took 'em off the shelves the day we raided City Lights.”

Three attorneys defended Ferlinghetti and Murao pro bono — leading civil rights lawyer Lawrence Spiser, Albert Bendich of the ACLU, and famed criminal lawyer Jake Erlich.

The most dramatic of several dramatic trial sessions came when a group of renowned authors, critics and teachers paraded to the stand to defend “Howl” and make the prosecution look ridiculous as it faced the experts with its feeble arguments about “dirty words.”

A chief prosecution witness, Gail Porter — “a recognized authority in voice production” — said of the poem that “you feel like you're going through the gutter when you read that stuff.” Which of course was Ginsberg's precise intent.

Novelist and critic Mark Schorer, professor of English at the University of California, led the defense parade. He praised “Howl” for using “the rhythms and language of ordinary speech — necessarily the language of vulgarity, the language of the man in the street, which is absolutely essential to the poetic theme.”

Poet Kenneth Rexroth called it “a prophetic work which greatly resembles the Bible in purpose and language... the most remarkable poem published by a young man since World War II.”

Praise came, too, from poet William Carlos Williams, author Walter Van Tilburg Clark, and several others, ranging all across the academic and literary spectrum to Anthony Boucher of the Mystery Writers of America, a group far removed form the avant garde school of Ginsberg.

Two weeks later Judge Horn announced his decision before a packed courtroom. “Evil to him who evil thinks,” said the judge in finding that no crime had been committed.

The most succinct commentary came from Ferlinghetti. He hurried to his store without a word and stacked the windows with hundreds of copies of “Howl.”

4 Comments

  1. Mark Laszlo July 4, 2021

    AAWOOOO!

  2. Douglas Coulter July 4, 2021

    I may be deleted but I’m undefeated

    • Bruce Anderson July 4, 2021

      Keep it clean, Doug, and you’re cool.

  3. Douglas Coulter July 4, 2021

    A mental disorder
    68 years of brain washing and I retain a perfectly filthy mind

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