Near the end of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s autobiographical novel, Little Boy, the narrator is people-watching at a café in his adopted hometown of San Francisco: “everyone on their portable universes their handheld computers and nobody talking to anyone else.” Why are we here, he wonders, and what are we supposed to be doing on earth? But this is a quaintly existential question coming from a man who piloted a submarine chaser in the Normandy invasion on D-Day; witnessed the aftermath of the atomic payload on Nagasaki; wrote his dissertation on French poetry at the Sorbonne on the GI Bill; founded City Lights bookstore and publishing house with an eye to an international cohort of midcentury authors; was arrested on obscenity charges for publishing Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and then, defended by the ACLU, won a landmark case in court; and has collected multiple honors in the US and Europe, including Commandeur, French Order of Arts and Letters, for his writings and translations. There are almost a million copies in print of his 1958 poetry collection, A Coney Island of the Mind—a phrase that, as we say, has entered the language. What indeed are we here to do on earth?
Six publishers reportedly expressed interest in Little Boy, whose publication would coincide with the author’s hundredth birthday. There were no takers among them, however, when they saw that the living legend and best-selling poet had written a mostly unpunctuated stream-of-conscious “Underground Oratorio,” short on personal confessions or anecdotes about his famous friends Ginsberg (“Ginzy”) and Jack Kerouac (“Ti Jean”) but densely packed with allusions to and quotations from T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Marcel Proust, and more.
Much like his hero Ezra Pound, Ferlinghetti uses his European literary references as a foil for his range of American tonalities, from wiseguy to blue to pulpiteer to comic. The resulting patois recapitulates his own hybrid origins. He is the son of Clemence Mendes-Monsanto, a woman of Sephardic Portuguese descent whose once-prosperous family emigrated to the US by way of the Virgin Islands, and Carlo Ferlinghetti, an immigrant from Lombardy who anglicized his name to Ferling. The couple actually met in Coney Island on the bumper cars: “oh yes it was a crash of at least two…civilizations.”
Lawrence Monsanto Ferling was born in Yonkers on March 24, 1919, a few months after Carlo was found dead of a heart attack by Lawrence’s twelve-year-old brother. Clemence, overwhelmed with four boys already, surrendered the infant to her French-born sister-in-law, known as Aunt Emilie, and this is where Little Boy begins and ends. But it is not where it dwells. Ferlinghetti, for all his populist claims in favor of literary democracy, is too anarchic to deliver a product as consumable as a memoir. To wit: “Be lazy Go crazy Join the movement Don’t take medicine Eat the garden Ignore government Disband the military Join the pacifists Discover anarchism Resist and Disobey!”
Resist and disobey: one of the questions Little Boy sets out to explore is “how rebels are fomented.” A different way of asking the question might be: How does one survive a difficult childhood? Ferlinghetti’s biographer, Barry Silesky, calls it “straight from a Dickens novel,” yet the narrator of Little Boy shows scant self-pity as he recounts the facts. After his father dies and young “Tante Emilie” takes him from his careworn mother, he is spirited overseas to her native Strasbourg, where he learns French before English. Two years later they return to New York, where Emilie is reconciled with her older husband, the child’s uncle by blood (the narrator speculates that the child’s annexation to the marriage caused a break). But then Uncle Ludwig Monsanto dies, and an impoverished Emilie must surrender the child to the Health Department, which places him in an orphanage in Chappaqua.
She retrieves him joyfully a year or so later, when she finds a job as a governess in a mansion in Bronxville owned by the Bislands. The Bislands take a shine to young Lawrence; they’d lost their only son with the same name (in fact it was the mother’s maiden name: she was the daughter of the founder of Sarah Lawrence College). Then Tante Emilie leaves for good, under mysterious circumstances, and the Bislands raise Lawrence to read the classics and recite Tennyson. They pay his private school tuition, and though they show him little affection (they are presented as standoffish, but duty-bound, WASPs) and provide no playmates for him, at least he has a home for the first time.
Whatever happened to Tante Emilie? Our narrator speculates that she “no doubt charmed them until a few months later she must have charmed Presley Bisland a little too much for Madame Bisland.” It must have been a shocking development, but it registers more as confusion and wistfulness than grief in the telling. Likewise Ferlinghetti relates, as if recalling a half-disbelieved apparition, how his mother and two of his brothers for the first and only time came to reclaim him. The Bislands set out chairs for themselves on the front lawn, declining to receive these lowborn visitors in their house, while
Little Boy stood sort of between them all, and the question was put straight to Little Boy, which way did he want to go, stay with the Bislands or go with his own mother and his own brothers, and there was a great and timorous silence…and Little Boy was totally at a loss as to what to say or do, since no one had discussed this with him before and he did not remember ever having seen these strangers…and he finally stuttered out, “Stay here.”
He was six years old.
The emotional fallout from Emilie’s desertion and his own inchoate rejection of his estranged mother are not dwelled on. The virtue of Ferlinghetti’s style is its speed: he zips along in the story, condensing his childhood into fourteen pages before loping ahead to his military service. The gravity of these primal scenes emerges in their retelling, some sixty-three pages later (his resentment at Christmastime, he realizes, derives from a deep-seated feeling of abandonment). And then he comes back to it at the very end, remembering a Paris girlfriend, his “Nadja” (after André Breton’s novella about his brief affair with a woman who turns out to be insane), who reunited him psychically with his earliest memories of Tante Emilie. Self-reflection is not Ferlinghetti’s forte: “Only the music of the spheres in the end and the rest is silence as Ham said over and over I am not Prince Ham nor was meant to be.” The repetition is what advances understanding: one of the mantras of the book is a constant refiguring of Eliot’s lines from “Little Gidding”: “And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.” Slight differences in the retelling, then, are where revelation happens—sidewise, incidental, unforeseen.
And yet, there are odd discrepancies and omissions that raise the question of how much Ferlinghetti remembers or wants to tell. According to Silesky’s biography, Ferlinghetti was ten and a half, not six, when his mother arrived to claim him. (In his sixth year he was actually at the orphanage.) Is that a self-preserving slip—six being a less culpable age than ten—or is it a bid for pathos? If tugging on our heartstrings were the point, why not mention that his mother had actually been institutionalized in a mental hospital in Poughkeepsie when she gave him up? Why not mention that Tante Emilie died in the Central Islip State Hospital at the age of fifty-six, news of which reached him in college because she had put him down as her only living relative? (No wonder Breton’s Nadja reminds him of her—but that’s our only clue that Emilie might have had a mental illness.)
A contemporary memoirist would dine out on these facts, but Ferlinghetti does not seem to be interested in milking pathos. In this (although in not much else) he resembles Elizabeth Bishop, who was also fostered by relatives and near strangers after the loss of her father and institutionalization of her mother. Born only eight years earlier than Ferlinghetti, she had the same aversion to displaying wounds; psychic damage may have fueled the drive to create, but it was not necessarily the subject of art. Art as they understood it transformed trauma, it did not mimic it. In a kind of joke, Ferlinghetti repeatedly refers to his stream-of-consciousness voice as “the fourth person singular,” an ur-voice not too distant from that of another late work, Four Quartets.
Little Boy also glosses over incidents of youthful delinquency that Silesky’s biography uncovered—chiefly shoplifting, which is what Ferlinghetti must mean when he talks about playing Robin Hood with his friends. In what Silesky describes as his happiest years, the young Ferlinghetti boarded with a different family in Bronxville, where he could go to public school after the stock market crash of 1929 threatened the Bislands’ fortune. Silesky finds that there were two sides to the orphaned boy: the studious Boy Scout and the shoplifter who ran around with gangs. What made Ferlinghetti a rebel? Was it a scarcity of love? He hints as much throughout the novel:
This little kid’s youth was a trauma of loneliness and unfeeling…so whom does he turn to when he grows up and shakes his trauma or tries to find some feeling with others and to whom does he naturally fall in with if not with other lost souls or alienated bodies.
Or was it also the ricochet between impoverished family and wealthy foster parents and Bronxville gangs; between European refinement (which persisted in spite of poverty) and American anti-intellectualism (which persists in spite of prosperity)?
These divisions gathered into the Ferlinghetti that we know today: impresario and activist, cosmopolitan and pillar of the community; one of the most cultivated of the Beats (actually, he eschews the term—he would probably fancy himself a Twenties bohemian—but the association with the Beat-adjacent San Francisco coterie remains). A man who runs a risky business successfully for sixty-six years, who has raised children and lived to see his hundredth birthday has got to have a solid core of animal health. And yet his reputation rests on his countercultural bona fides, his truculence in the face of conformity and conventionality, his anarcho-pacifism. One wonders where such people will go, and what will become of their paradoxes, when physical books are not widely, randomly, flagrantly accessible to them in their formative years.
Ferlinghetti’s style in Little Boy might strike some readers as perverse: one run-on ramble of a sentence, a kind of deathbed recapitulation of a gone century telegraphed in a present-tense flashback. Reading Ferlinghetti’s Greatest Poems, a recent selection of his work, however, one is struck by the simplicity and airy clarity, especially of the earliest verse, which reflects either his undergraduate training in journalism or the influence of luminous French modernists like Apollinaire and Prévert. Or both—and in the painterliness of their descriptions one is also reminded that, in addition to all his other accomplishments, Ferlinghetti has exhibited his artworks in galleries around the world.
There’s also a great deal of that declamatory voice one hears in Ginsberg and Gregory Corso and in the Mayakovsky-inflected Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch, a faux naiveté that must be a large part of Ferlinghetti’s popular appeal. It is uplifting, public-minded, turned toward the world—or at least pitched toward a big audience, as in “Dictionaries of Light”:
The sun the sun
comes round the corner
like a shining knight of old
galloping over the
on the horses of
And shaking his lance over us
in trance of night
awakens us to speak
to banish death
And each steed a word
each verb a stallion
reared up against
Untamed rampant radicals
in dictionaries of
Ferlinghetti’s signature phrase, “a Coney Island of the mind,” captures all that is brash, cacophonous, and kaleidoscopic about the American sublime; its glee is typical of the child of immigrants, but so is the brazenness of his City Lights Pocket Poets backlist: the poems of the Englishman-by-way-of-Mexico-and-Canada Malcolm Lowry and the Argentine-by-way-of-Paris Julio Cortázar; Mayakovsky and Jacques Prévert; and of course classics by O’Hara, Ginsberg, Anne Waldman, and many others. That Ferlinghetti was one of the ones to escape the crushing influence of Eliot on his generation (see, for example, Delmore Schwartz) was due at least in part to his extraterritorial interests—and his sheer orneriness.
“Do I instead go not with the Poets of Loss but with the great yea-sayers the great yes-sayers like Whitman and Henry Miller yes,” declares the narrator of Little Boy. It is a sly gambit, this optimism; the old Robin Hood is a more likely model:
AND a young stud at the next table typing on his laptop, both ears stopped with earphones…. I’m just five feet from the guy. Finally I say in a friendly voice, “You from around here? Haven’t seen you before in the neighborhood.” No answer. He continues typing, staring at the laptop. He heard nothing? Is this body alive? I’m alarmed. I call 911. After some time a cop car arrives and he’s arrested for “nonparticipation in humanity.” They haul the corpse away.