Tuesday, October 5, 2010

From the Vault

My husband and I had kind of a schizophrenic honeymoon: we (and by we, I mean our entire wedding party) went to Vegas for him, and San Fransisco (just the two of us) for me, so I could visit City Lights Bookstore (side note: I think this why we've been happily married for 13 years. IMHO, it's more important to find someone who respects your interests than someone who shares them.)

Visiting City Lights was a religious experience. And I don't mean that in a funny or ironic way. I'm not even sure how long I was there. Hours? Days? I do know the hub, after watching me wander the shelves in a semi-hypnotic state, retired to Vesuvio, the bar next door, where he sat on a barstool that could have once held Bukowski's butt, or even Kerouac's. After I sucked up as much of the atmosphere as possible in City Lights, I joined him...

...and capped one of the greatest days of my life by drinking Campari and soda, my newly purchased copy of HOWL on the bar next to me, my new husband on the other side.

It wasn't, however, my first copy of HOWL. I scored that one in the 80s. 50 cents at the Salvation Army. I devoured it, let the words invade my soul (c'mon, I was fifteen) just as I had with ON THE ROAD, a book that's had more influence on me than any other.

Shortly after reading it for the first time, I found out HOWL was the focus of a famous obscenity trial. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, owner of City Lights Bookstore, found himself on trial for daring to offer HOWL to his customers. If the prosecution had won the case, it would have been against the law for anyone to sell Ginsberg's masterpiece.

So what was it about HOWL that could damage my fifteen year old brain? Some sex, particularly references to homosexuality. Some drug references. Um...nothing I hadn't read about already.

What damage could have been done to my person had I not been allowed to read HOWL?

After finding out about the trial, I researched the political climate of the 1950s, independently and in far greater detail than the watered down Joe McCarthy lecture given by my high school poli sci teacher. I studied the House Un-American Activities Committee AND the American Civil Liberties Union (It supported Ferlinghetti.). I read. I learned. About history and art and human nature. This is what we want of our kids, is it not? Knowledge gained by the very desire to learn. To know.

I now teach a 20th Century survey course. We spend significant time on the Beats. I lecture on Ginsberg and Kerouac and Ferlinghetti and Snyder. I'm able to give my students a clear understanding of the time period because I understand it so well. And these kids, who are too young to identify the members of New Kids on the Block, well, they LOVE it.

And to think the book I owe so much to might have been kept from me...well, honestly, that makes me a little sick.

For more info on the HOWL trial, read the fantastic HOWL ON TRIAL: THE BATTLE FOR FREE EXPRESSION. Also, currently in theaters AND on cable (if you have On-Demand viewing) is a cinematic version of the Ginsberg/Ferlinghetti obscenity trial, starring (swoon) James Franco and (double-swoon) Jon Hamm. You can watch the trailer here.


  1. I was once rehearsing a choral piece by Herbert Howells when I said, "Howells was Alan Ginsberg's favorite composer." No one laughed. Either they were too old or too young...or I wasn't funny.

    Let me know when you're taking your second honeymoon to Lowell, MA.

  2. I would have laughed.

    And I've been planning a pilgrimage to Lowell for 25 years. I need to get on that. Maybe for our 15th anniversary?

  3. Yeah, but could you have sung in my choir?

    I'm 90 minutes from Lowell, which, in Midwestern terms, is next door. (In New England terms, it's very, very, very far.)

  4. I love the pic you used. It is crazy to me that words scare people.