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A Howl for Literary Freedom


It was 50 years ago this summer that Americans finally won the unfettered right to read whatever they wanted to read, a half-century since poet Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” went on trial in a San Francisco courtroom.

 

Like many works before it, “Howl” had been declared “obscene” by law enforcement authorities who banned its sale. But this time it led to the summer-long trial that cleared “Howl” and virtually ended government book-banning.

 

Poet William Carlos Williams concluded his introduction to “Howl” with a warning: “Hold back the edges of your gowns, Ladies, we are going through hell.” Most critics agreed it was an extremely rewarding trip, a journey through one of the masterworks of modern literature.

 

But the San Francisco police, poking a blue nose into the poem in 1957, declared the journey obscene and ordered “Howl” removed from the city’s bookstores.

 

They arrested bookdealer-poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti  and sales clerk Shigeyoshi Murao for defying their order and selling “Howl” at Ferlinghetti’s small, financially struggling City Lights bookstore in the city’s Bohemian community. It had published and distributed the poem despite Ferlinghetti’s strong suspicion that “we would be busted, not only for four-letter words but also for its frank sexual, especially homosexual, content.”

 

Ferlinghetti and Murao went on trial facing $500 fines and six months in jail under California‘s severe obscenity law, then one of the country’s toughest.

 

Ten weeks earlier, Collector of Customs Chester MacPhee, aptly described by the San Francisco Chronicle as “overzealous and notably prissy,” confiscated the second shipment of “Howl” sent to the city by its English printer. MacPhee, who said he acted because the poem was  “unfit for children,” eventually was overruled by the U.S. attorney in San Francisco.

 

But six days later, two police inspectors entered the City Lights store to arrest Ferlinghetti and  Murao. The inspectors admitted that the police acted as a result of publicity generated by MacPhee’s attempt to keep “Howl” out of the country. They agreed wholeheartedly with MacPhee. The officers were outraged, one of them complained, that Ginsberg’s work “comes right out and uses vulgar words. I mean filthy words that are very vulgar.”

 

Police officials promised that if action against “Howl” proved successful, they’d pick up other books  containing “dirty words.” Captain William Hanrahan of the Juvenile Bureau insisted that “anything not suitable for publication in newspapers shouldn’t be published at all.”

 

After the arrests, Ferlinghetti put a “Big Brother” image in his store window. It glared down on stacks of once-banned books, an excellent cross-section of the world’s greatest literature, including the Bible. A banner over the display, proclaiming “banned books for sale” and the publicity given to “Howl” and City Lights, brought hundreds of new customers to the store.

 

“Big Brother” sought larger targets, too. A pleased Captain Hanrahan reported, after a personal check of downtown shops, that “the big stores did sell those books but they took ‘em off the shelves the day we raided City Lights.”

 

Three attorneys defended Ferlinghetti and Murao pro bono – leading civil rights lawyers Lawrence Spiser and Albert Bendich of the ACLU, and famed criminal lawyer Jake Erlich.

 

The most dramatic trial session came when a group of renowned authors, critics and teachers took the stand to defend “Howl” and make the prosecution look ridiculous as it faced the experts with feeble arguments about “dirty words.”

 

A chief prosecution witness, Gail Porter – “a recognized authority in voice production” – said of the poem that “you feel like you’re going through the gutter when you read that stuff.” Which of course was Ginsberg’s precise intent.

 

Novelist and critic Mark Schorer, an English professor of at the University of California, led the defense witnesses. He praised “Howl” for using “the rhythms and language of ordinary speech  — necessarily the language of vulgarity, the language of the man in the street, which is absolutely essential to the poetic theme.”

 

Poet and essayist Kenneth Rexroth called it “a prophetic work which greatly resembles the Bible in purpose and language … the most remarkable poem published by a young man since World War II.”

 

Others praising “Howl” ranged all across the academic and literary spectrum to Anthony Boucher of the Mystery Writers of America, a group far removed from the avant garde school of Ginsberg.

 

Two weeks later Municipal Judge Clayton Horn lifted the police order. He ruled, in effect, that only readers had the right to censor publications – by simply refusing to buy or read any that offended them.

 

Dick Meister, a San Francisco writer who covered the trial of “Howl” as a reporter for The Associated Press.

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