Remembering Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Like everyone in the culturally inclined world, we here at Albertine have been marked by the passing of Lawrence Ferlinghetti with both sadness for the loss of a truly exceptional figure and gratitude for his astonishing long life and body of work. It seems fitting that we should pay our respects in words; but in all honesty, what can we say about the founder of City Lights Books, the publisher of Howl, the flamekeeper of the Beats, and the poet and activist who in his own words set out to create “international dissident ferment” that has not already been discussed? His aura was as boundless as the sky, encompassing generations of artists, intellectuals, radicals, and wanderers. To try to condense it into a paragraph or two seems not only daunting but also simply futile.

So perhaps let’s narrow it down to his direct influence on us at the store. As purveyors of French literature, we are deeply indebted to Mr. Ferlinghetti; and if you read books in languages other than your own, you are as well–even if you are not aware of it. In addition to publishing radical works of American poetry and almost single-handedly ushering in the Beat Generation authors, Mr. Ferlinghetti also published a small galaxy of avant-garde authors from all over the world at a time when doing so was not only unusual but also a highly political act. In the late Fifties, his releasing of works by Antonin Artaud and Georges Bataille was provocative to say the least, with the latter’s lyrically pornographic Story of the Eye becoming an iconic book of the American intellectual counterculture for decades to come. He would go on to publish works by authors ranging from Philippe Soupault to Henri Michaux to Laure Peignot to Jean-Jacques Schuhl, with the diversity and fearlessness of his list expanding in direct proportion to the success of his bookstore.

But his contributions to the French language go deeper than this. Mr. Ferlinghetti’s first language was French, and he spent part of his turbulent early childhood in Strasbourg. In addition to advocating for French authors by publishing them, he was also a translator of exceptional skill, with his translation of Paroles by Jacques Prévert–among the most significant collections of 20th century French poetry–maintaining its definitive status even sixty odd years after its publication. Not bad for a humble poet and bookseller.

I could go on and on with other aspects of this remarkable human being, but will close by stressing the fact that Mr. Ferlinghetti–like all truly great people–spent his life trying to convince us to reject the artificial boundaries and borders that are imposed on us by historical, social, and economic forces. He did so simply and elegantly: by championing and promoting the speech and words of others, even if doing so sent him to prison from time to time. The world was graced with his presence for over one hundred years. Let’s celebrate and honor this!