The 50th Anniversary of Howling About Free Speech


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.