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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.