Books | February 23, 2021 5:39 pm

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Beat Poet and City Lights Bookstore Founder, Dead at 101

Ferlinghetti fostered the Beat Generation, championed free speech and was a beloved poet in his own right

poet and publisher lawrence ferlinghetti
Poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti at his home in San Francisco on March 1, 2018.
Carlos Avila Gonzalez/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

A literary and countercultural icon has left us. As The Washington Post reports, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Beat poet and founder of San Francisco’s famous City Lights bookstore and publishing house, has died at the age of 101. According to his son Lorenzo, Ferlinghetti died of interstitial lung disease.

Ferlinghetti was a champion of free speech, and he famously stood trial on obscenity charges in the 1950s for publishing Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.” “I consider ‘Howl’ to be the most significant single long poem published in this country since World War II,” he wrote at the time. “If it is also a condemnation of our official culture, if it is also an unseemly voice of dissent, perhaps this is really why officials object to it.” He was eventually acquitted, and the case set an important precedent that works of “redeeming social importance” couldn’t be ruled obscene — an argument later used to defend books like Henry Miller’s Tropic of Capricorn and William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch.

Ferlinghetti moved to San Francisco in 1951 after serving in the Navy. He founded City Lights in 1953, and it eventually became a popular hangout for many of the Beat Generation’s most important figures, including Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Gregory Corso.

“City Lights became about the only place around where you could go in, sit down and read books without being pestered to buy something,” he told The New York Times in 1968. “I had this idea that a bookstore should be a center of intellectual activity, and I knew it was a natural for a publishing company, too.’’

Aside from gathering and championing some of the most important literary voices of his generation, Ferlinghetti was also, of course, a beloved poet in his own right. His 1958 collection A Coney Island of the Mind remains one of the best-selling books of poetry ever published to this day.

Ferlinghetti is survived by his son, his daughter and three grandchildren.