He passed away from lung disease on Monday evening, confirmed the store’s vice president and director of marketing and publicity, Stacey Lewis.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, left, and Allen Ginsberg, center, look on as Stella Kerouac autographs a book by her late husband, Jack Kerouac, in 1988. Credit: Jon Chase/AP
“For over 60 years, those of us who have worked with him at City Lights have been inspired by his knowledge and love of literature, his courage in defense of the right to freedom of expression, and his vital role as an American cultural ambassador,” the post read. “His curiosity was unbounded and his enthusiasm was infectious, and we will miss him greatly.”
Born in New York in 1919, he co-founded the City Lights bookstore in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood in 1953. In 1955, he would buy out fellow co-founder Peter D. Martin, and expand the business to include a publishing house of the same name.
Launching with the hugely influential Pocket Poets Series, Ferlinghetti went on to publish works by some of the postwar period’s most important literary figures, including fellow Beat poets William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac. But it was a poem by Allen Ginsberg, “Howl,” that would further thrust him into the spotlight.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti recites a poem after winning Literarian Award for Outstanding Service to the American Literary Community at the National Book Awards in 2005. Credit: Henny Ray Abrams/AP
San Francisco authorities seized copies of Ginsberg’s collection “Howl and Other Poems” in 1957, published by City Lights the year before. Ferlinghetti was arrested and tried on obscenity charges due to the book’s references to sex and drugs. The case garnered nationwide attention and provoked huge debate over censorship. Ferlinghetti was eventually cleared, with the judge ruling that the book had “redeeming social importance” — a decision that would more broadly change the US courts’ approach to creative free speech.
While continuing to provide a meeting place for San Francisco’s literati, Ferlinghetti was a distinguished poet in his own right. His celebrated 1958 collection “A Coney Island of the Mind” was a big commercial success, and contained some of his best-known poems, including “I Am Waiting” and “Autobiography.”
Ferlinghetti was prolific thereafter, with his accessible and witty style captured in celebrated poems like “Two Scavengers in a Truck, Two Beautiful People in a Mercedes” and “Euphoria.” (“As I approach the state of pure euphoria,” he memorably started the latter, “I find I need a large size typewriter case to carry my underwear in.”)
Lawrence Ferlinghetti gives a poetry reading at San Francisco’s Jazz Cellar nightclub in 1957. Credit: Nat Farbman/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images
He authored more than 30 collections of poetry, tackling themes such as social ills and mass corruption. He continued writing well into his later years, publishing his latest novel “Little Boy” in 2019. Upon his 100th birthday that year, San Francisco made March 24, his birthday, “Lawrence Ferlinghetti Day.”
Nonetheless, in its online tribute, the company said it hoped to “build on Ferlinghetti’s vision and honor his memory by sustaining City Lights into the future as a center for open intellectual inquiry and commitment to literary culture and progressive politics.”
Top image: Lawrence Ferlinghetti at his home in San Francisco, California on March 1, 2018.