The 50th Anniversary of Howling About Free Speech

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The Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression has nice article about the 50th anniversary of the 1957 San Francisco trial in which authorities tried to ban the sale of beat poet Allen Ginsberg's poem Howl. The TJ Center article explains:

…the San Francisco police, poking a blue nose into the poem in 1957, declared the journey obscene and ordered "Howl" removed from the city's bookstores.

They arrested bookdealer-poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and sales clerk Shigeyoshi Murao for defying their order and selling "Howl" at Ferlinghetti's small, financially struggling City Lights bookstore in the city's Bohemian community. It had published and distributed the poem despite Ferlinghetti's strong suspicion that "we would be busted, not only for four-letter words but also for its frank sexual, especially homosexual, content."

Ferlinghetti and Murao went on trial facing $500 fines and six months in jail under California's severe obscenity law, then one of the country's toughest.

The trial lasted most of the summer and featured a number of leading literary critics defending the poem. For example:

Poet and essayist 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."

The result?

…Municipal Judge Clayton Horn lifted the police order. He ruled, in effect, that only readers had the right to censor publications—by simply refusing to buy or read any that offended them.

I heard Ginsberg read Howl three times. Each was a great performance. My favorite time was his 25th anniversary reading in 1981 at Columbia University. At the end of that reading, Ginsberg–as he always did at any of the readings to which I went–looked at his watch and declared with a puckish smile, "My fastest time yet."

A year later, a friend and I travled by Greyhound from New York City to the Naropa Insitute in Boulder, Colo., to attend the 25th anniversary celebration of the publication of Jack Kerouac's On the Road (where I frankly don't remember if Ginsberg recited Howl or not). The remaining Beats–all looking more than a little timeworn–gathered for the anniversary celebration including Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, Michael McClure, Diane diPrima, Robert Creeley and Peter Orlovsky, John Clellon Holmes, William Burroughs, Herbert Huncke, Kerouac's ex-wife Frankie Edith Kerouac Parker, and Carolyn Cassady. Timothy Leary and Abbie Hoffman showed up too.

I ran out of money and had to ride the bus back for three days without food or, worse yet, any cigarettes. A very Beat experience.

This year is also the 50th anniversary of the publication of On The Road. The famous 120 foot scroll on which Kerouac legendarily typed the novel is currently on display at a museum in his home town, Lowell, Mass. The scroll was bought for more than $2.4 million in 2001. The original version of the scroll will be published for the first time this September.

To celebrate freedom of speech, why not give a listen to Ginsberg reading Howl here? For a complete version of the poem go here.

For those less enamored of Beat poetry, you can read James Bowman's pecksniffian persnickety assessment here. For readers with a more playful–dare I say Ginsbergian–sense of humor try inputting lines at Howl with Ginsberg and Markov. I typed in the first lines of Tennyson's Crossing the Bar and Robert Browning's Love Among the Ruins with some pretty amusing results.

Finally, Nick Gillespie and I have had a long-running argument about whether or not On the Road or The Great Gatsby is the better book. I used to be a fierce partisan of On the Road, but I sat down last year and read them back-to-back and Fitzgerald won hands down.

NEXT: The Flag Stands for Freedom, So Let's Make Sure We Don't Have Too Much of It

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  1. San Francisco is always trying to ban something.

  2. i guess i’d pick gatsby but neither is particularly compelling.

    (the air conditioned nightmare by henry miller is a far more interesting – and older – version of “the trip across a country’s spiritual and physical landscape” genre. worth reading for people who don’t care for his flights of fancy in other works.)

  3. OK I haven’t read it since I was forced to in high school. But I remember it distinctly.

    Gatsby is nothing but cheap literary technique made to impress aging spinster English majors. Painfully boring and irrelevant to living human beings.

    The only thing worse than Gatsby was Catcher in the Rye. Kryste did that suck.
    [lowers eyes to avoid Jennifer’s Laser Beams of Death look]

  4. I used to be a fierce partisan of On the Road, but I sat down last year and read them back-to-back and Fitzgerald won hands down.

    This may be because you are not in your 20’s and this isn’t the 70’s anymore. Did On the Road at least make you want to go somewhere, anywhere?

    While Gatsby may be a better book in some senses, I certainly remember far more strongly how On the Road made me feel at the time.

  5. My wife swears that Ginsberg came to her family’s Seder one year when she was a teenager. She has relatives who traveled in that circle back then (only to be the staunchest of neo-cons today). Neo-conning notwithstanding, they serve one kick-ass brisket.

    Not sure if he read Howl at the table.

  6. Is it ironic or simply a truism that the most celebrated censorship cases usually involve the crappiest works of art? Maybe Howl is best (and can only be?) appreciated as performance art. I’d have been afraid to attend, however, as I tend to burst into laughter at the sight of poets reciting their creations before a worshipful audience.

    And Warren’s right about Catcher. An A-1 con job.

  7. I ran into Ginsberg in 1990. Luckily Phillip Glass caught him. His reading was hypnotic. A great experience.

  8. Free speech….great

    The Howl…not so great

    The best minds of Ginsberg’s generation were not starving hysterical or naked….in fact I think they were busy inventing personal computers and the internet….anyway one should not be surprised that an English major of any generation would confuse who were the great minds and where they would be focusing their attention.

    And Warren’s right about Catcher. An A-1 con job.

    Ya I could just not bring myself to give a shit about a snotty rich kid at a private New England school.

  9. I was listening to Savage yesterday (yeah i know he’s nuts and irrelevant, but i couldn’t find anything else on the radio)
    He was talking about the fairness doctrine and he went into this pretty decent rant about how popular speech needs no protection, it’s only unpopular speech that needs to be protected. Minutes later he was on a completely different subject and he said he could place the blame for all of America’s problems on just three people. The first was Allen Ginsberg.
    I found that so ironic after a rant about the need to protect free speech.

    the second man he named was Timothy Leary.
    i can’t remember who the third was.

  10. City Lights is still there. Still dumpy. Still lefty. Larger though.

    In a fit of irony, a friend of mine shoplifted Steal This Book.

    True, I swear.

  11. ….was listening to Savage yesterday…

    I’ve got a couple of first edition autographed copies of his books.

    Want one? You pay the shipping.

    Full Disclosure: People give me a lot of stuff. If it’s wine I drink it gratefully and graciously. Stuff like this I just smile and nod and say thankee very much for thinking of me.

  12. great minds only make machines beep beep boop boop does not compute *BZZZZZZZZZZZ*

  13. TWC,
    (smiling and nodding)
    Thanks, but no thanks.

    I swear i only listen to him every now and then because I get a kick out of how absurd he can be.

  14. i’d like to confirm that savage was the fat guy with the crocodile dundee hat who drove up on stage in that video from a few weeks back, right?

  15. Ron,
    Nick is your boss. So you have a financial interest in proving him right and yourself wrong, thus your opinion is not crediable.
    To prove me wrong, criticize Nick for being wrong on something, anything, clothes and hair styling included.

    PS Are you still a member of the fraudulent civil rights organization the ACLU?

  16. I think Savage and Ginsberg used to be an item back in the day. Sounds like Savage hasn’t gotten over it.

  17. great minds only make machines beep beep boop boop does not compute *BZZZZZZZZZZZ*

    Ya cuz manufacturing fiction is the play ground of great minds.

    I believe Watson and Crick published in 1953 and the Howl was first performed in 1955.

    Within 2 years i think puts those two works in the same generation.

    So to wit…the great minds of Ginsberg generation were, inventing the internet, inventing the fundamentals that would lead to personal computers and discovering the three dimensional language of life.

    Square man.

  18. I’ve never read “The Great Gatsby” I should add that to my reading list. “On the Road” is one of my favorites though.

  19. Ferlinghetti ought to have thanked the police. Government policy has unintended consequences. Often when the mean to do good they do harm and vice versa. That raid made the bookstore. Yes, it is still there but I don’t see how it can be called dumpy or small. It has expanded and now includes a publishing house as well. And they seem to be the premier bookstore in the city now.

  20. one should not be surprised that an English major of any generation would confuse who were the great minds and where they would be focusing their attention

    I’ll admit that this English major fell for the Ginsberg con (albeit briefly) and only after our class drained the second gallon of wine the professor provided. On campus. In class!* Everything sounded great after eight or nine glasses of Cribari; however Pound remained as dense and incomprehensible as ever.

    *This was a while ago. Before it was a crime.

  21. Yes, I’ve heard recordings, and he had an amazing delivery; he could have blown audiences away reading Cathy comic strips. But forgive me for thinking that if “Howl” doesn’t sound good inside your head in your quiet room by lamplight, it just isn’t good. No, all the fragments of a crappy self-destructive life, literary references and big unpoetic words are tiring. More than anything else, I’m bored with “Howl”.

  22. A while back a teacher I had showed that Bob Dylan clip where he’s holding up the signs with the lyrics to his song, and Ginsberg was standing in the background. After he showed the clip, I asked the teacher “Was he still alive back then? I thought all of the best minds of his generation was destroyed by madness,”
    The teacher didn’t like this and began to lecture me (and the class, and all of us “kids these days”) about how we don’t apprieacte the classics, and that we’d rather sit around, fart and make jokes (like mine) than truely think, man. In fact, it turns out because of people who make jokes like the “best minds” one are the reason that Hitler and Bush took over…go figure.

  23. To clarify a little, I didn’t fart in the class, at least to my recongition.

  24. I was a scared-to-death upper-middle-class kid in a New England boarding school 10,000 miles from home, and Catcher made me feel cheated. I’ve never read it again, and don’t remember why I felt that way.

    So do I need to read Howl and On the Road, just to say I’ve done it, or is it not worth it?

  25. BTW; Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” was better then both “On the Road” and the “Great Gatsby”.

    Ron, you did not provide enough information.
    Why were you and Nick comparing those books to each other in the first place?

  26. The only remarkable thing I remember about Catcher was the constant reference to Highballs. I had to look it up. I guess kids didn’t have wine coolers and malternatives back then.

  27. Terry: Basically, we were discussing which books a 22nd century university professor would assign in a survey course of 20th century American literature.

  28. That’s not writing, that’s typing.

  29. “Ya cuz manufacturing fiction is the play ground of great minds.”

    why can’t there be more than one kind of great mind? or different kinds of intelligence? (i.e. an athlete or dancer has an understanding and control of their body that is far beyond the capabilities of most.)

    or is this one of those culture war things i don’t get? subtle memetics, etc.

  30. All of you who cite Watson, Crick, and Fairchild Semiconductors, I hear you. I’m a huge technology fan. But consider a point that Charles Murray made in his book Human Acccomplishment–that some brilliant scientist would eventually have discovered relativity or the structure of DNA; it didn’t have to be Einstein or Watson & Crick. However, Murray argues that the high achievements in the arts are “pure gifts.” There would have been no Hamlet, Tempest, or MacBeth had Shakespeare not lived. No Sistine Chapel ceiling without Michelangelo and so forth.

    I’m not endorsing this argument but it is worth thinking about. And by the way, I’m not suggesting that Ginsberg and Kerouac are the equivalent of Shakespeare and Michelangelo.

  31. “Did On the Road at least make you want to go somewhere, anywhere?”

    Hell yes.

    I hit the road in my teens, back in the ’80s, and it’s still my favorite alternative. The influence went far beyond the hippies.

    I suspect the drive across the country with your kids thing, lampooned in Vacation, was inspired in part by “On the Road”, for instance.

    In the 22nd Century, if they’re still assigning books about race and space, they’ll still be talking about “On the Road”.

  32. Remember the fascination with bikers in the sixties and seventies and truckers in the seventies and early eighties?

    I suspect that had something to do with “On the Road” too.

  33. Remember the fascination with bikers in the sixties and seventies and truckers in the seventies and early eighties?

    I suspect that had something to do with “On the Road” too.
    I think that people’s want to wander around places is pretty universal, so the success of those three things are pretty parallel.

    Terry: Basically, we were discussing which books a 22nd century university professor would assign in a survey course of 20th century American literature.
    …or books that our robot overlords will read and then laugh at the tiny intellectual capacity of our brains.

  34. “I think that people’s want to wander around places is pretty universal, so the success of those three things are pretty parallel.”

    Yeah, I see what you mean…

    If the urge to wander is universal then “On the Road” couldn’t possibly have been an influence.

  35. In the late 60s we produced an ‘alternative’ TV show for an underground FM station.

    We’d tape whatever acts we could convince to drive out to the studio, usually at 2-3 AM after their concerts. We might get Johnny Winter, Dan Hicks, Melanie, &c. You never knew who’d show up.

    One week it was Ginsberg. We hastily assembled a suitable set using, I don’t know, ladders and tent material. The interviewer was one of the DJs, easily Ginsberg’s equal in girth.

    For a couple of hours we were treated to everything from Howl excerpts to AG dinging little bells and chanting selections from William Blake (Songs of Experience &c) to breathing instructions. About 30 minutes of it made it on the air.

    Man were we high. I’ve often wondered if the raw tapes (2″ quad) still exist and if they’d have any historical value. Heh.

  36. I liked Gatsby and Catcher. Then again I sucked in English class so what do I know–other than that I never had any interest in On the Road, I hate hippies and beats, and skipping around Howl just now made me want to claw my eyes out.

  37. For those of you proposing “On The Road” as the catalyst for wanderlust, I humbly suggest that OTR itself was inspired by earlier travel adventures. The Odyssey comes to mind.

    Ron,
    Frank Herbert’s Dune is the greatest tome ever assembled in the English language. All plot and character development without trite literary gimmicks.

    Also, Human Acccomplishment was where Charles Murray abandoned critical thinking and gave himself completely to his stooge inclination.

  38. “For those of you proposing “On The Road” as the catalyst for wanderlust, I humbly suggest that OTR itself was inspired by earlier travel adventures. The Odyssey comes to mind.”

    I am fully aware that his was not the first book on travel. I maintain, however, that his was the book that inspired much of what we saw in the sixties and seventies. That influence may have been twice removed, but from The Merry Pranksters to the Deadheads and from Easy Rider to Vacation, I suspect it had a profound influence. …way back in the back somewhere.

    “…other than that I never had any interest in On the Road, I hate hippies and beats, and skipping around Howl just now made me want to claw my eyes out.”

    Some hippies may have found something they liked in Kerouac, but then again, maybe that influence was twice removed. …at any rate, when I read Kerouac, he doesn’t come across like a hippie as many of the other Beats do.

    I’m not a big fan of hippie culture myself.

  39. “So do I need to read Howl and On the Road, just to say I’ve done it, or is it not worth it?”

    They’re both infantile tripe. Unless you’re a high school kid striking what you imagine is an “intellectual” pose, you have better things to read.

  40. Ken, influence twice removed is an apt description. Hippie culture was NOW. Despite the influence, the beats and their coffee were held in the disdain of oh so yesterday.

  41. San Francisco is always trying to ban something.

    Yeah, true, but stuff that is anathema to yuppy liberals like like plastic grocery bags and trans fats. Never stuff like poetry, especially homoerotic poetry.

  42. Homoerotic poetry was the plastic grocery bag, bottled water. SUV, foies gras etc of 1957.

    They were banning it for your own good.

    After all if the kids all read homoerotic poetry they’d turn homo and San Francisco would be full of gays and no one would have children.

  43. William S. Burroughs was the best writer of the bunch, and the most libertarian, too. The bony old bastard is more relevant than ever.

  44. or is this one of those culture war things i don’t get? subtle memetics, etc.

    Culture wars? IDK last i checked libertarians read fiction…who the fuck knows what dems and republicans do.

    Does it take a great mind to write popular fiction? Nope.

    Does it take a great mind to discover the alphabet life is written in? Yes

    Pretty fucking simple DEX

  45. that some brilliant scientist would eventually have discovered relativity or the structure of DNA; it didn’t have to be Einstein or Watson & Crick. However, Murray argues that the high achievements in the arts are “pure gifts.” There would have been no Hamlet, Tempest, or MacBeth had Shakespeare not lived. No Sistine Chapel ceiling without Michelangelo and so forth.

    So discovering something that fundamentally changes how our society works or changes our understanding of the universe is dumb luck, but stumbling onto a combination of words that happen to be commercially popular at a given point in history is BRILLIANT!

    I don’t buy it….and according to joe, Murphy is a racist so you shouldn’t be quoting from him anyway. =)

  46. I have the book-on-CD version of On The Road (read by Matt Dillon) and I have yet to get through a major chunk of it without my eyes glazing over; to me it reads like a serious of very long entries in a seventeen year-old’s diary (or maybe Dillon’s just a lousy reader – I can’t really be sure).

    Burroughs…ah, Burroughs. That’s a whole ‘nother kettle of fish. Whatever he is, he ain’t ever boring.

  47. Warren said:
    “Frank Herbert’s Dune is the greatest tome ever assembled in the English language. All plot and character development without trite literary gimmicks.”

    I always thought Dune was a bit of a sci-fi update of lawrence of arabia. A couple of warring planets/nations where a specially adaptable member is exiled in the desert. The exile builds up a marvelous army of freemen/arabs that were previously thought uncontrollable to fight the Harkonnen/Germans. Only through the chosen one’s unique ability to conform to the ways of the freemen/arabs is he able to wreak havok on the enemy.

  48. Did someone say Burroughs?

    I miss that junky faggot somethin’ fierce…

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c1BFBMkuwtw

  49. “Culture wars? IDK last i checked libertarians read fiction…who the fuck knows what dems and republicans do.”

    kultur war is more than just dems and republicans (stinky hippies versus xyz blah blah etc)

    in this case it’s the SCIENCE V. LIBRUL ARTZ thing. it shows up here every so often.

    “Does it take a great mind to write popular fiction? Nope.

    Does it take a great mind to discover the alphabet life is written in? Yes”

    who said anything about popular fiction? i think we’re getting more into the issue of art and sublimity here anyhoo.

    anyway, if you want to treat the creation of meaning as some kind of afterthought, go ahead. it’s your bag. i don’t see any problem in seeing both as the product of great minds focused in different directions. that seems to piss you off for whatever reason. is this one of those “libruh artz got mountains of nudity in college” things? it can be irritating when the sensitive kid with the hat and cloves can’t take your call right now because he’s buried in blowjobs, i guess…

  50. Unless you’re a high school kid striking what you imagine is an “intellectual” pose, you have better things to read.

    Ah hah. Well since I’m not, I’ll give them a pass. Thanks!

    Ron, Watson & Crick didn’t discover much, they just solved the logic puzzle before anyone else, and they did so using somebody else’s data. You could say it was a “gift”, but Rosalind Franklin didn’t intend to give it to them… Maurice took it from her desk and gave it to W & C.

    Linus Pauling almost had it, but the silly fellow (along with his Vitamin C obsession), thought the molecule was bases-out, which was stupid considering everyone already knew about the base ratios.

    I’d say it was accident more than gift, but who can say whether Franklin would have discovered the truth on her own, since she hadn’t planned to use those particular crystallographs.

    I’ve spoken with people who worked with Watson, and the general opinion is that both men were assholes who never did a useful thing after solving the DNA structure puzzle… Watson was a sexist, too, but that should hardly be surprising to anyone.

    Just saying, the Watson and Crick example is a poor one, since both men did little more than solve a puzzle – like solving a rubix cube after someone else set up 4 of the sides.

  51. Finally, Nick Gillespie and I have had a long-running argument about whether or not On the Road or The Great Gatsby is the better book.

    I’d be tempted to say On the Road but only because I read it on my own and I read The Great Gatsby for a rather terrible class. Both in high school.

  52. authorities tried to ban the sale of beat poet Allen Ginsberg’s poem Howl.

    Why not? As far as I’m concerned, it was an “in-kind” campaign contribution.

    Money isn’t speech.

  53. I liked Gatsby and Catcher. Then again I sucked in English class

    Initially I read that to mean you sucked English class in, i.e., that you imbibed it like nectar. Had my hopes up for a moment.

    *Sigh.

    Shows ta go ya.

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