This week in history: “Howl” has literary merit, not obscene
Allen Ginsberg / Michiel Hendryckx - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia

In the reputedly quiescent Eisenhower 1950s, it was risky business to publish an erotic poem that feverishly explored gay sex, drug use and mental illness amid a nightmarish world of nuclear bombs and materialistic conformity. The work of the Beat Generation poets heralded the emergence of pent-up frustration with Cold War politics, Jim Crow racism and Puritanical mores. So did the civil rights movement, and so did the first stirrings of the feminist and the LGBTQ movements.

Before Beat publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti published Allen Ginsberg’s generation-defining Howl, he secured representation by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

Customs officials seized 520 copies of the poem, imported from the printer in London, on March 25, 1957, soon after Howl and Other Poems was released. On June 3 Shigeyoshi Murao, the City Lights bookstore manager, was arrested and jailed for selling a copy of the book to an undercover San Francisco police officer. City Lights publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti was subsequently arrested and charged with publishing obscenity.

At Ferlinghetti’s trial, ACLU attorneys were tasked with persuading California State Superior Court Judge Clayton W. Horn, a Sunday school teacher, that the poem had literary merit and was not obscene. Nine literary experts testified on the poem’s behalf.

The frequently quoted and often parodied opening lines set the theme and rhythm for the poem:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
Angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection
to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.

In a landmark decision for free-speech protection handed down on October 3, 1957, Horn concluded that Howl had “redeeming social importance.” The case was widely publicized. An account of the trial was published by Ferlinghetti’s lead defense attorney Jake Ehrlich in his book Howl of the Censor. The 2010 film Howl depicts the events of the trial. James Franco stars as the young Allen Ginsberg and Andrew Rogers portrays Ferlinghetti.

Sixty years later, Howl endures as a 20th-century classic.

The verdict achieved a lasting legacy: Poetry has never since been tried for obscenity in the United States.

Sources: ACLU, Wikipedia


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Special to People’s World

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