American Literature Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Todd Tietchen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 October 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 October 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0124


Born on March 24, 1919, Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s life began in a state of tumult and tragedy, as his father died just prior to Lawrence’s birth and his mother was soon after institutionalized for mental health reasons. As a result, Lawrence spent his earliest years passed among family members and orphanages, finally finding a secure home with the Zilla Larned Wilson family of Bronxville. A stone’s throw from New York City, Bronxville allowed him early access to the urban scenes grounding his most impressive Poetry. As his adoptive family stressed education, Ferlinghetti went on to obtain his B.A. in English and Journalism from University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; his M.A. in literature from Columbia University; and his doctorate from the Sorbonne with his dissertation entitled The City as Symbol in Modern Poetry: In Search of a Metropolitan Tradition. His studies at Columbia and the Sorbonne were financed largely through the GI Bill, since Ferlinghetti had served during WWII as a lieutenant commander in the US Navy, taking part in the Normandy invasion. The diversity of locales and experiences that the formative years of Ferlinghetti’s life comprised go a long way toward explaining his choice, upon returning to the United States in 1950, to make San Francisco, which he considered a cosmopolitan city, his home. Ferlinghetti’s background and education up until that point also sheds light on the diversity of influences animating his corpus, including romanticism, existentialism, phenomenology, and surrealism. His creative work—over thirty volumes—includes Poetry, Prose, and Drama. His poetry has been widely anthologized, including in Donald Allen’s influential The New American Poetry 1945–1960. Despite his prodigious output, Ferlinghetti’s reputation as a writer has at times been overshadowed by his work as a publisher—and not without significant reason. Along with Barney Rosset’s Grove Press, Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Press and Bookstore (founded in 1953) was central to the postwar cultural revolution, providing affordable paperback issues of avant-garde writing and Cold War literature of social protest, including Allen Ginsberg’s epochal Howl and Other Poems (1956) (see The “Howl” Trial). Ferlinghetti’s career has been synonymous with the artistic life of the Bay Area, and he remains one of San Francisco’s most important cultural representatives.

General Overviews

The following sources serve as useful overviews of Ferlinghetti’s work, framed within broadly defined historical and cultural contexts. Kherdian 1967 discusses Ferlinghetti’s poetics in comparison with other major figures of the San Francisco Renaissance—including Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, and Philip Whalen—and remains well-suited to an undergraduate readership. Davidson 1991 takes a similar approach, although Davidson’s overall treatment of the renaissance is far more detailed in its scope and academic in its motivations, providing one of the more accomplished studies of the literary movement in which Ferlinghetti played such a notable role. Composed for a popular rather than academic audience, Morgan 2003 reconstructs the postwar artistic history of San Francisco via a richly detailed and knowledgeable tour through the city’s neighborhoods, with Ferlinghetti providing a central focus. Composed of interviews with the major Bay Area poets of the postwar period, Meltzer 2001 reads as a collective oral history of San Francisco poetic and artistic culture; the catalyzing influence of Ferlinghetti is captured over the course of two separate interviews. Charters 1983 is a two-volume collection contextualizing Ferlinghetti within an expansive pantheon of Beat writers working across the United States. In many ways, Charters 1992, an anthology, represents a more compact version of her 1983 editorial project, with all of the headnotes and editorial commentary composed by Charters. As is the case with these overviews, Campbell 2001 also casts a wide interpretive net, while remaining more particularly interested in the extent to which international influences ranging from Buddhism to the European avant-garde found a home in the Poetry of Ferlinghetti and his contemporaries. Sterritt 2013 provides an accessible narrative of the Beat Movement and its chief contributions to US culture, with Ferlinghetti’s particular contributions highlighted throughout.

  • Campbell, James. This is the Beat Generation: New York, San Francisco, Paris. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

    Campbell focuses on the Beat movement as home to a number of international influences. He approaches Ferlinghetti as the publishing and artistic heir of Sylvia Beach and American poet Kenneth Rexroth, respectively. Campbell’s discussion of Ferlinghetti’s rejection of Eliotic concepts such as the objective correlative is particularly useful.

  • Charters, Ann, ed. The Beats: Literary Bohemians in Postwar America. 2 vols. Dictionary of Literary Biography 16. Detroit: Gale Research, 1983.

    Charters provides an academically informed collection running in excess of 700 pages. Contains Bibliographies, archival photographs, critical commentary, and literary biography. Larry Smith composed the Ferlinghetti entry.

  • Charters, Ann, ed. The Portable Beat Reader. New York: Penguin, 1992.

    The classic anthology of Beat Literature, containing eight selections by Ferlinghetti and a concise biography. Charters skillfully arranges the anthologized writers into several well-conceived groupings, with the bulk of Ferlinghetti’s writing appearing in a section dedicated to the San Francisco renaissance.

  • Davidson, Michael. San Francisco Renaissance: Poetics and Community at Mid-Century. Cambridge Studies in American Literature and Culture 35. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

    Davidson’s study remains notable for its focused attention on the varying poetic styles and voices inhabiting postwar San Francisco, including those of oft-neglected female writers. Davidson casts Ferlinghetti among those voices as a Whitmanesque populist.

  • Kherdian, David. Six Poets of the San Francisco Renaissance: Portraits and Checklists. Fresno, CA: Giligia, 1967.

    While Kherdian’s sketch of Ferlinghettii is shorter than the other critical and biographical assessments within this volume, he helpfully discusses the laconic and phlegmatic qualities of Ferlinghetti’s Poetry. The volume also contains a worthy analysis of the New American Writing in an introductory essay by William Saroyan.

  • Meltzer, David. San Francisco Beat: Talking with the Poets. San Francisco: City Lights, 2001.

    Meltzer’s collection contains two separate interviews with Ferlinghetti—one conducted in 1969 and one from 1999—in which the poet laments his continual identification as a political poet, as such identifications often ignore the influences of surrealism and eastern philosophy on Ferlinghetti’s work.

  • Morgan, Bill. The Beat Generation in San Francisco: A Literary Tour. San Francisco: City Lights, 2003.

    Morgan’s account pays special attention to the literary haunts and landmarks of San Francisco. Ferlinghetti remains central to Morgan’s reconstruction of the city’s literary milieu, as he catalogs several locations that served as inspiration for Ferlinghetti’s poems. The book is notable for its wealth of archival images.

  • Sterritt, David. The Beats: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

    DOI: 10.1093/actrade/9780199796779.001.0001

    Provides a concise history of the founding of City Lights Books, along with a helpful gloss of some of Ferlinghetti’s major poems. This is an excellent entry point for undergraduate students.

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