SAN FRANCISCO -- Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the poet, publisher, bookseller and activist who helped launch the Beat movement in the 1950s and embodied its curious and rebellious spirit well into the 21st century, has died at age 101.
Ferlinghetti, a San Francisco institution, died Monday at his home, his son Lorenzo Ferlinghetti said. The cause of death was lung disease.
Few poets of the past 60 years were so well known, or so influential. His books sold more than 1 million copies worldwide and he also ran one of the world's most famous and distinctive bookstores, City Lights. Although he never considered himself one of the Beats, he was a patron and soul mate and, for many, a symbol who preached a nobler and more ecstatic American dream.
"Am I the consciousness of a generation or just some old fool sounding off and trying to escape the dominant materialist avaricious consciousness of America?" he asked in "Little Boy," a stream of consciousness novel published around the time of his 100th birthday.
Through the City Lights publishing arm, books by Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs and many others came out and the release of Allen Ginsberg's landmark poem "Howl" led to a 1957 obscenity case that broke new ground for freedom of expression.
While the Internet, superstore chains and high rents shut down numerous booksellers in the Bay Area, City Lights remained a thriving political and cultural outlet, where one section was devoted to books enabling "revolutionary competence" and employees could get the day off to attend an anti-war protest.
"Generally, people seem to get more conservative as they age, but in my case, I seem to have gotten more radical," Ferlinghetti told Interview magazine in 2013. "Poetry must be capable of answering the challenge of apocalyptic times, even if this means sounding apocalyptic."
The store even endured during the coronavirus outbreak, when it was forced to close and required $300,000 to stay in business. A GoFundMe campaign quickly raised $400,000.
Ferlinghetti, tall and bearded, with sharp blue eyes, could be soft-spoken, even introverted and reticent in unfamiliar situations. But his work wasn't intended for solitary contemplation. It was meant to be recited or chanted out loud, whether in coffee houses, bookstores or at campus gatherings.
His 1958 compilation, "A Coney Island of the Mind," sold hundreds of thousands of copies in the U.S. alone. He called his style "wide open" and his work, influenced in part by e.e. cummings, was often lyrical and childlike: "Peacocks walked/under the night trees/in the lost moon/light/when I went out/looking for love," he wrote in "Coney Island."
Ferlinghetti also was a playwright, novelist, translator and painter and had many admirers among musicians.
His father died five months before Ferlinghetti was born in Yonkers, N.Y., in 1919. His mother, who had a nervous breakdown two years after his father's death, died in a state hospital.
Ferlinghetti spent years moving among relatives, boarding homes and an orphanage before he was taken in by a wealthy New York family. He studied journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, received a master's in literature from Columbia University, and a doctorate degree from the Sorbonne in Paris.
In 1945, he was a Navy commander stationed in Japan and visited Nagasaki a few weeks after the U.S. had dropped an atom bomb. The carnage, he would recall, made him an "instant pacifist."
In the early 1950s, he settled in San Francisco and married Selden Kirby-Smith, whom he divorced in 1976. (They had two children).
Ferlinghetti became a member of the city's rising literary movement, the so-called San Francisco Renaissance. Peter Martin had opened a paperback store in the city's North Beach section and named it after a recent Charlie Chaplin film, "City Lights." In 1953, he suggested to Martin that they become partners, with each contributing $500.
Ferlinghetti later told The New York Times: "City Lights became about the only place around where you could go in, sit down, and read books without being pestered to buy something."
The Beats now had a new base. One project was City Lights' Pocket Poets series, which offered low-cost editions of verse, notably Ginsberg's "Howl."
After he published "Howl and Other Poems" in 1956, customs officials seized copies of the book that were being shipped from London and Ferlinghetti was arrested on obscenity charges. After a highly publicized court battle, a judge in 1957 ruled that "Howl" was not obscene, despite its sexual themes, citing the poem's relevance as a criticism of modern society.
Ferlinghetti would also release Kerouac's "Book of Dreams," prison writings by Timothy Leary and Frank O'Hara's "Lunch Poems."
Ferlinghetti received an honorary prize from the National Book Critics Circle in 2000 and five years later was given a National Book Award medal for "his tireless work on behalf of poets and the entire literary community."