Jan/Feb 2009  •   Reviews & Interviews

The Hero of Howl

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

Howl on Trial: The Battle for Free Expression.
Bill Morgan and Nancy J. Peters, Editors.
San Francisco: City Lights Books. 2007. 224 pp.
ISBN 0-87286-479-0.

On June 3, 1957, Shigeyoshi Murao, a clerk at City Lights Pocket Bookshop in San Francisco, was arrested for selling a copy of Allen Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems to two undercover inspectors from the San Francisco Police Department's Juvenile Bureau. Captain William A. Hanrahan, of the Juvenile Bureau, promptly issued a warrant for the arrest of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, owner of the bookstore. Thus began the obscenity prosecution People v. Ferlinghetti.

Ferlinghetti had extracted an agreement from the ACLU, prior to publication, to defend the book should it prove necessary. A batch of copies printed in Great Britain had already been seized by customs, during the previous March, and released when the ACLU stated that it would contest the seizure in court. Upon Ferlinghetti's arrest, the organization convinced J. W. Ehrlich, an experienced defender of obscenity cases, to take the case pro bono. Two ACLU lawyers assisted.

The subsequent proceedings (legal and otherwise) are the subject of City Lights Book's Howl on Trial, issued on the 50th anniversary of the publication of Ginsberg's volume. The book opens with an introduction by Ferlinghetti himself, an overview by Nancy Peters of literary censorship in the United States, and the text of the poem.

Howl on Trial as a whole is something of a documentary history, including letters between Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg (the latter remaining in Europe beyond the reach of law), photocopies of various contemporary newspaper and magazine articles written about the trial, excerpts from the trial transcript and the text of the Judge Clayton W. Horn's decision. These are rounded out with brief commemorative essays. The combination is highly informative and eminently readable.

Judge Horn is described in a newspaper piece, from the time, by David Perlman:

Judge Horn, who regularly teaches Bible class at a Sunday school, was under something of a cloud when he mounted the bench for the Howl case. He had just been raked over by the local press for a decision in which he had sentenced five lady shoplifters to attend The Ten Commandments and write penitential essays on the supercolossal epic's moral lesson. [203]

The defendant could not have been pleased to be tried by a Sunday school teacher already under public scrutiny for being too lenient in his judgments. A trial by jury would have been unwinable, however, and the defense had no choice but to elect to be tried by the judge.

Ginsberg, as evidenced in the letters following the March 1957 seizure of Howl and Other Poems by U.S. customs (that it was rumored might be covered by Life magazine), greatly enjoyed his new found notoriety. When not explaining to Ferlinghetti that he was republishing the text of "Howl" to cover living expenses, his letters most often describe attempts to maximize the benefits of the publicity that accompanied the seizure and the obscenity trial. It is difficult to believe that the owner of City Lights—his time already occupied with bookstore and defense in the face of a criminal prosecution which might result in huge fines and jail time—did not occasionally feel hurt by his protégé's cavalier attitude however much there is no evidence of it on his side of the correspondence.

Flush with success (however ironic the source), Ginsberg also would write a letter, after the trial, to former classmate John Hollander who had panned Howl and Other Poems in the Partisan Review (Spring 1957), calling it "a very short and very tiresome book." Until the obscenity trial, Hollander had been much better positioned than he to be the next new marquee name in poetry, a fact of which Allen was all too well aware, and was, as it turned out, one year away from having a highly prestigious volume published as part of the Yale Younger Poets series.

The September 1958 letter is one of some half-dozen to others, besides Ferlinghetti, which appear in Howl on Trial, and one of few written by Ginsberg in the entire volume in which he comes off as more than an engaging opportunist happy to use his poem as bus pass and his publisher as factotum. A description of the combined influence of Black Mountain and Buddhism, upon his methods of composition, and a rant against the mainstream world of poetry, the 16 pages provide essential insight into the liberating effect that the publicity had upon the Beats in the aftermath of the trial:

Jack [Kerouac] myself Gary [Snyder] and Phil [Whalen] originally read in SF and that was the renaissance and any evaluation of the poetry is incomplete without FULL authoritative account of their work and [n]one of these shits who presumes to write on the subject for MONEY or EGO reasons has taken the trouble to investigate, and I've tried some of their work out on Hudson and Partisan and all the so called responsible journals and been put down so I conclude the whole official publishing scene in the US is a vicious camp and [Philip] Rahv and etc and [Frederick] Morgan at Hudson [Review] etc etc and all those people are ENEMIES of culture and civilization and a bunch of perverted fairy amateurs and will get theirs anyway when the universe collapses on them so why worry in any case. [94]

It is not difficult to imagine Hollander's astonishment as he read page after page of what he could only consider fustian. Yet, after the passage of some 50 years, even he has been forced to concede that Ginsberg prevailed: that it was his review that was misconceived, not the book.

While Ginsberg was enjoying the life of the inspired poete furieuse, his editor was going through the ordeal of trial. The longest chapter of Howl on Trial after the selected correspondence consists of fascinating excerpts from the transcript. The lawyers' arguments are enlightening and the cross-examination of the defense's expert witnesses even more so. Kenneth Rexroth, holder, it would seem, of the fewest degrees, comes off particularly well. The list of professors that were willing to testify in behalf of "Howl" as literature, even if they did not personally approve of it, is impressive given the times.

Judge Horn released his decision on October 3, 1957, only a few months after the Supreme Court obscenity case Roth vs United States (1957). (In fact, the Supreme Court decision was rendered just three weeks after Lawrence Ferlinghetti's arrest.) According to Justice William Brennan's majority opinion in that landmark case:

All ideas having even the slightest redeeming social importance—unorthodox ideas, controversial ideas, even ideas hateful to the prevailing climate of opinion—have the full protection of the guaranties, unless excludable because they encroach upon the limited area of more important interests.

Horn cited Roth. The excerpt from his opinion included in Howl on Trial reads, in part:

The theme of "Howl" presents "unorthodox and controversial ideas." Coarse and vulgar language is used in treatment and sex acts are mentioned, but unless the book is entirely lacking in "social importance" it can not be held obscene.

It was neither as imposing nor as formal as a Supreme Court opinion. What it was, on the other hand, was exonerative. Ferlinghetti was found "not guilty."

The version of Article 311 of the California Penal Code on the books at the time, and under which Ferlinghetti had been arrested, provided for fines and/or imprisonment for anyone who "Writes, composes, stereotypes, prints, publishes, sells, distributes, keeps for sale, or exhibits any obscene or indecent writing, paper, or book; or designs, copies, draws, engraves, paints, or otherwise prepares any obscene or indecent picture or print; or molds, cuts, casts, or otherwise makes any obscene or indecent figure..."

Without Brennan's timely extension of First Amendment protection to "All ideas having even the slightest redeeming social importance," it is more than a little likely that he would have been found "guilty."

Justice Brennan not having been mentioned in this popular rendition of events, the hero of Howl on Trial is clearly Lawrence Ferlinghetti. One suspects that editors Peters and Morgan would have preferred him to overcome his modesty and to have permitted them to say as much.

While the extremely misogynist and violent lyrics of some popular music these days—popular music protected, in part, by People vs Ferlinghetti—might bring some readers to question the word "hero," unintended consequences accompany most such historical struggles. The decade of the 50s was (for all that the actors on its stage would have been loath to think so) a time of innocence. The pictures which accompany the text—one of them of a young Lenny Bruce with ACLU attorney Albert Bendich—powerfully remind us as much.

Gay Rights and literary realism are now fundamentally American accomplishments (the former only partially realized). A considerable majority of Americans would approve of both Judge Horn's decision and Lawrence Ferlinghetti's courage. The unexpected consequences of each belonged to future decades so cynical that they could not possibly be expected to have been able to foresee much less account for them. The hero of Howl on Trial deserves our unqualified respect and gratitude.


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