In solidarity with our friends in the book community during Banned Books Week; the librarians, authors, journalists, bookstores, publishers, teachers, and most importantly – readers, the City Lights crew would like to share the infamous history of Howl on Trial: The Battle for Free Expression, a story not merely about defending Allen Ginsberg‘s revolutionary work, Howl and Other Poems, but the greater importance of accessibility and creative freedom in American society.
Published in 2006 and edited by Nancy J. Peters, former publisher of City Lights, and Beat historian Bill Morgan compiled in painstaking detail a collection of courtroom transcripts, letters, timelines, and photographs into a book that outlines the events surrounding the monumental court case directly involving publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti and City Lights store manager Shigeyoshi Murao. One could say many more were involved including other bookstores, printers, and the numerous witnesses who defended the literary merit of Howl and Other Poems on the stand.
In his introduction to Howl on Trial, Lawrence Ferlinghetti notes that ‘Shig’ Murao, “A Nisei [second generation Japanese] whose family had been interned with thousands of other Japanese-Americans during the war, led me to understand that to be arrested for anything, even if innocent, was in the Japanese community of that time, a family disgrace. To me, he was the real hero of this tale of sound and fury, signifying everything.” Shig was the City Lights bookstore manager who sold the copy of Howl and Other Poems to an undercover customs officer, inevitably leading to his and Ferlinghetti’s arrests for selling a book deemed “obscene”. Famous criminal lawyer Jake Ehrlich and Lawrence Spieser (who was later involved in the case Speiser v. Randall, a case also dealing with freedom of speech) and ACLU Defense Counsel Albert Bendich took on the case pro bono.
Ferlinghetti calls Ehrlich “absolutely brilliant” noting his devastating cross examination with the prosecution’s witness. Ellrich cleverly addresses during trial,
“What can [these witnesses] add, Your Honor, to the testimony in this record by telling you that this is a reflection of the thinking of [Allen Ginsberg] as he sees his world? Will they say they see absolutely nothing immoral or improper in [“Howl”] or in [Howl and Other Poems], or are we going to get to the point where we’re going to ask for definitions of words? I must assume that Your Honor in construing this book is going to construe it as a book and not what appears on page 3 or two words on page 27 and a couple of words on some other page.”
And so it goes, after nearly three months of court hearings, Judge Clayton W. Horn found Lawrence Ferlinghetti not guilty of publishing and selling obscene writings on October 3, 1957. Charges were dropped against Shig Murao earlier on August 22nd since the prosecution could not prove that he had read the publication or sold it “lewdly”.
The trial created so much buzz surrounding “Howl” that a fourth printing of 5,000 copies was ordered. But wait? Where is Ginsberg in all of this? He was never arrested as he was overseas, but remained in close contact through the post. Howl on Trial includes numerous correspondences between Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti, Jack Kerouac, Gregory Corso and others. Ginsberg wrote to Ferlinghetti pre-trial,
“Had awful fantasy being in SF and putting on big reading sponsored by State College at museum and inviting cops and ending in big riot scene. I wish I were there; there could really, we could really have a ball, and win out in the end inevitably.”
Howl and Other Poems can always be found on our shelves, and most likely at your local bookseller, as it continues to reach new generations nearly 60 years after its first publication along with several other Ginsberg-related titles. The editors of Howl on Trial, Bill Morgan and Nancy J. Peters, remain associated with City Lights. Morgan was the personal archivist of Ginsberg, and writes extensively on the Beat Generation and Peters remains a co-owner of City Lights, continues to help guide the continued success. Morgan’s work can be found in numerous books about the Beats we publish at City Lights. His newest project is the I Greet You at the Beginning of a Great Career: Selected Correspondence of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg, which will appear from City Lights next year.