A telegram reading, “I greet you at the beginning of a great career. When do I get the manuscript of Howl?” began the 42-year correspondence between Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg soon after the famed reading at the Six Gallery, which took place in October of 1955.
At a time when both Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg were traveling, writing, publishing, and rising as key figures in the booming cultural and creative experimentation that was occurring globally, they were exchanging letters and postcards that ultimately documented this incredibly explosive era in cultural history. These exchanges are collected in a new book from City Lights, I Greet You at the Beginning of a Great Career: The Selected Correspondence of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg 1955-1997.
Ginsberg’s archivist and renowned Beat scholar, Bill Morgan, assembled these valuable and largely unpublished correspondences into a comprehensive collection revealing the intimacy and at times brutal honesty of their lifelong friendship. Morgan, who has an extensive oeuvre of Beat-centric literature, also served as Ferlinghetti’s bibliographer. Without his extensive research and dedication – much of what we have now may have very well been lost in time. Here below is one letter excerpted from when Ginsberg was in Tangiers. And find three other facsimiles of letters/postcards from Ferlinghetti which appear in the book.
August 22, 1961: Allen Ginsberg in Tangiers Morocco, to Lawrence Ferlinghetti in San Francisco
I’ll sail to see the Parthenon day after tomorrow; thence on to Egypt to inspect the Sphinx. Send the Journals to Athens. Burroughs and Corso are in London now. Bill B. to go work on consciousness alteration at Harvard in two weeks- mushrooms and electronics. Delighted to hear you added babe to your house- lovely idea, you be happy? Love to Kirby, and hello to McClure – how’s Philip Whalen now? Send regards. I wrote $750 article on Cannes for Show Business in twenty-four hours- so we all had loot for planes and boats to make a Diaspora. Peter is in Istanbul in the Blue Mosque. Burroughs new book Soft Machine is beyond words beautiful and rare. I’m amazed.
Half publisher/author shop talk, half gossip and storytelling, I Greet You at the Beginning of a Great Career delivers the truly unique experience of witnessing the uncloaked minds of the Beat Generation. Reoccurring characters include William S. Burroughs, Peter Orlovsky, Jack Kerouac, Michael McClure, and Neal Cassady, among others. The collection also includes various snapshots and a few facsimiles like those above from both men. Fittingly, the work ends with Ferlinghetti’s 1997 poem “Allen Ginsberg is Dying”, written shortly after Ginsberg was diagnosed with liver cancer.
While Ginsberg has no trouble providing action and entertainment throughout, it is really interesting as well to follow Ferlinghetti’s dedication and kindness to the artists, to publishing, and to the movement he largely facilitated. These correspondences reveal a symphony of traveling bodies led by a true blue conductor.
A recent interview Ferlinghetti did with the Guardian UK provides a very frank insight into the kind of things Ferlinghetti dealt with as publisher at City Lights. Here he remembers an interesting story about Gregory Corso, one of the poets published early in the Pocket Poets Series along with Ginsberg.
As the publisher at City Lights, dealing with pushy and sometimes outrageously obstreperous writers went with the territory. Another of his poets, Corso, once broke into the bookshop and emptied the till. Ferlinghetti relates the events of that night: “The people in the Vesuvio bar next door saw him do it. We had a policy at City Lights never to call the police. We even had a sign up that said: ‘We will not call the police for book thieves. But they may be publicly shamed.’ Our bookstore manager once literally took down a guy’s pants to retrieve some stolen books.” But, in Corso’s case, it was the bar that summoned the cops, who arrived and dusted the till for fingerprints. “When we heard about it we went round to Gregory’s house. It was three in the morning. We told him the police had his number and he better get out of town. He left immediately for Italy. Didn’t return for two years.” Did Ferlinghetti ever retrieve the stolen money? “Well, we just took it out of his royalties. It seemed like the civilized thing to do.”
I Greet you at the beginning of a Great Career is available on the shelf at City Lights, your local independent bookstore, and at Citylights.com. Also look for the City Lights Pocket Poets Anthology 60th Anniversary Edition edited by Ferlinghetti. Both books are published as part of our 60th Anniversary celebration as a publisher of fine books, which continues throughout 2015.