A fascinating assortment of material—newspaper articles, transcripts, photographs, letters from the principals, commentary—on the 1957 obscenity trial in San Francisco that pitted the “people” against City Lights, the bookshop that published and sold Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems.
The poem that occasioned it all (and Ginsberg’s related work, “Footnote to Howl”) appears early in this engaging and at times astonishing volume. And it’s not hard to see why some procrustean mid-’50s folk found the poems offensive: Naughty words and allusions to sexual intimacies and street life abound. As the editors explain, Howl was first grabbed by vigilant Customs officers (it was printed abroad), then by San Francisco cops who, disguised as patrons, bought a copy at City Lights. Some will be surprised to learn that Ginsberg was never arrested or charged; only City Lights owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti and his unfortunate clerk were booked and fingerprinted. After a brief trial (no jury) that included expert testimony from literary luminaries Mark Schorer, Walter Van Tilburg Clark and Kenneth Rexroth (all for the defense), Judge Clayton W. Horn declared, “I do not believe that Howl is without redeeming social importance.” Highlights of the trial transcript (sadly, only excerpted here) include testy exchanges and struggles to explain how Howl differs from the Book of Job. Among the most intriguing pieces are reprints from the San Francisco Chronicle, which immediately recognized the free-speech, free-press issues at stake. Morgan (Ginsberg’s longtime archivist and author of an upcoming biography of the writer) and Peters (publisher of City Lights) have provided some useful chronologies and some probably superfluous warnings about today’s family-values crusaders. Ferlinghetti himself, now in his mid-80s, offers a feisty, if hyperbolic, Introduction. The anti-climactic material that follows the judge’s opinion might have found a happier home in an appendix.
A volume that will appeal to all who cherish their right to read uncensored the outpourings of the human heart.