This book review originally appeared in Legal Times (Nov. 27, 2006) and is reprinted with permission.
Before Lenny Bruce or George Carlin, there was Allen Ginsberg. Before comic “obscenity,” there was poetic “obscenity.” Before the suppression of Bruce’s “To Is a Preposition, Come Is a Verb” (a ribald wordplay skit that got him busted) and the regulation of Carlin’s “seven dirty words” (“Those are the ones that will curve your spine, grow hair on your hands”), there was the prosecution of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” (“I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked.”).
It all started a half-century ago with a poem, written by Ginsberg and published by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the poet and owner of the famed City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco. The local police and prosecutors thought the poem obscene, and the rest became history — literary and legal. That remarkable episode is the topic of Howl on Trial: The Battle for Free Expression, published by City Lights Publishers.
Before any other judicial interpretation of the Supreme Court’s modern obscenity law (set forth in Roth v. United States in 1957), there was San Francisco Municipal Judge Clayton W. Horn’s application of that doctrine to protect the publication and sale of “Howl.” He was a Sunday school teacher who had raised Cain only months before by sentencing five women shoplifters to view “The Ten Commandments” and write essays on the moral lessons they learned. In People v. Ferlinghetti, by memorable contrast, Horn preached the gospel of the First Amendment. The opinion vindicated Ginsberg (then vacationing in Paris), liberated Ferlinghetti (the publisher of Howl and Other Poems, who, during his obscenity trial, prominently displayed the book in his store window), and celebrated the First Amendment as a constitutional haven for cultural outsiders.
Horn’s unpublished opinion eloquently declared:
“The authors of the First Amendment knew that novel and unconventional ideas might disturb the complacent, but they chose to encourage a freedom which they believed essential if a vigorous enlightenment was ever to triumph over slothful ignorance. . . . The best method of censorship is by the people as self-guardians of public opinion and not by the government.”
Against that philosophical backdrop, he added:
“Would there be any freedom of the press or speech if one must reduce his vocabulary to vapid and innocuous euphemism? An author should be real in treating his subject and be allowed to express his thoughts and ideas in his own words. . . . If the material has the slightest redeeming social importance it is not obscene. . . . [Obscene words] must present a clear and present danger of inciting antisocial or immoral action. . . . [If words are] objectionable only because of coarse and vulgar language which is not erotic . . . in character, [they are] not obscene.”
It was pure John Stuart Mill, pure Louis Brandeis, pure protection for dissident expression. This municipal judge, whose daily routine was traffic offenses and other petty infractions, understood and developed obscenity law in ways that would take the Supreme Court — and Justice William Brennan Jr., too — decades to work out in a multitude of First Amendment cases. Pure poetic justice it was.
Vernacular of pain
“Hold back the edges of your gowns, Ladies, we are going through hell.” Thus did the poet William Carlos Williams introduce Howl and Other Poems. It was, he said with prophetic irony, an “arresting poem” by a poet who had been to hell and back. And on that return, Ginsberg found love, “a love he celebrates.”
It was a world where the best of men wandered “through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix” while lost battalions of souls “howled on their knees in the subway” only to be “dragged off the roof waving genitals and manuscripts.” Meanwhile, “Solitude! Filth! Ugliness!” reigned as men busily broke their backs lifting hell to heaven. As they did, Ginsberg cried out to his friend Carl Solomon, imprisoned in an asylum: “I am with you in Rockland . . . where you scream in a straightjacket that you’re losing the game of the actual pingpong of the abyss.” And there in Rockland they hugged and kissed “the United States under [their] bedsheets” only to discover their homeland hated them.
In the rage of “Howl,” the poet occasionally spoke and spat in the vernacular of angry a-words and c-words and f-words and all sorts of other words designed to give voice to an anger innocent men mouth from the gallows of injustice. And for that poetic license, the law, in all its majesty, went after those thoughts and hunted down the men who sold them on a street corner in a bookstore in San Francisco.
Then and now
The long road to victory in the battle for free expression represented by People v. Ferlinghetti is the focus of Howl on Trial. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the publication of “Howl,” City Lights has issued a collection of original materials that quite ably document the story of the editing, publishing, prosecuting, and defending of the landmark poem. Superbly edited by Bill Morgan (Ginsberg’s archivist, bibliographer, and now biographer) and Nancy J. Peters (publisher of City Lights Books), the work is a treasure trove of sources, some never before available.
Howl on Trial begins with an introduction by the famed Ferlinghetti, who recollects hearing Ginsberg’s first public performance of “Howl” at the Six Gallery in San Francisco and tells of his arrest for selling the poem. It includes correspondence among Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Jack Kerouac, and “beat” fans and critics of “Howl,” all of which shed much light on the poem’s social significance. The book contains fascinating press coverage of the trial, including letters to newspapers that reveal public reactions to the trial. It also provides excerpts from the trial transcript and Horn’s amazing opinion. The book does not, however, reprint the full text of “Howl,” which is still available from its original City Lights publisher in its original black-and-white pocket-size format.
The book ends with a thoughtful essay by Albert Bendich, the indispensable American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who helped to defend Ferlinghetti. Morgan also has an interesting essay on more recent censorship challenges to “Howl” (and other contemporary artistic endeavors).
This small volume is complemented by black-and-white photographs of the major players alongside clippings from newspaper reports and magazine stories, all of which lend an air of mid-1950s journalistic realism to the book.
I Celebrate Myself
Morgan and Peters have done a splendid job in offering the essential materials that document an amazing moment in the history of the law of obscenity. Of course, there is more to the story — there is the man behind the great poem, Allen Ginsberg. For that, the reader can turn, among other places, to Bill Morgan’s just-published 720-page work, I Celebrate Myself: The Somewhat Private Life of Allen Ginsberg.
The life of a poem, to be sure, is more than its ink. Reading “Howl” with our eyes, as wondrous as that can be, is nowhere as rich an experience as actually listening to the poem read by its author. In its audio form, the poem leaps from the pages and into the ear with poetic passion. Thankfully, there is a 50th anniversary audio offering of the poem — a late 1950s reading of “Howl” by Ginsberg. It accompanies the hardcover version of “Howl”: The Poem that Changed America, edited by Jason Shinder.
There’s also a just-released boxed CD set (Caedmon, HarperCollins, 2006) with an audio collection of Ginsberg doing a 1995 reading of 53 of his poems, including “Howl.”
Thanks to the First Amendment, faithfully applied, we can buy and read “Howl.” Yet full freedom still eludes us because this great American poem cannot be read on the public airwaves without fear of FCC fines or more. That is a sad sign of how far we’ve fallen since 1957, when a practicing Christian judge ruled the poem to be within the bounds of the law. Incredibly, “Howl” may still be literary contraband.
Its brevity notwithstanding, Howl on Trial rescues from oblivion the strange story of a literary run-in with the law at once bizarre and at the same time baffling — as is much censorship done in the name of safeguarding so-called community values. In that sense and others, it is an indispensable book for Ginsberg enthusiasts, fans of the “beat” generation, and free-speech advocates who rail against censorship in all of its novel guises.
The legal history of “Howl” reveals how incredibly far off the mark zealots can go in their prosecutorial campaigns to foster “decency.” It is a lesson to be learned and remembered. Perhaps for that reason alone some freedom-loving patriot should send a copy of Howl on Trial to the nine justices who grace our nation’s high court — it will serve them well.
David M. Skover is the Dean’s Distinguished Scholar and Professor of Constitutional Law at Seattle University School of Law. Skover and Ronald K.L. Collins are co-authors of The Trials of Lenny Bruce and The Death of Discourse.