“Howl Against Censorship” by Julie Mofford

Julie Mofford, a former staffer at the Lowell Historic Preservation Commission, who currently lives in midcoast Maine where she writes and works as a museum and historical society consultant, shares this story about government censorship with a Lowell connection:

As Lowell Historic Preservation Commission’s representative on the Kerouac Committee, I played hostess to Jack’s friends invited to perform at festivals.  Allen Ginsberg visited Lowell several times to celebrate Kerouac by reading poetry and chanting with his harmonium at Smith-Baker Center.  One year the Brush Gallery sponsored an exhibition of Allen’s photographs.  Sharing tea with the famous man after his events inspired me to reread Howl and in 2005. I was commissioned to write a play, “Howl On Trial” for the poem’s 50th anniversary,

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, now 95, came to Lowell in 1988 to participate in the dedication of Kerouac Park.  He opened the City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco in 1953, naming it after Charlie Chaplin’s film and soon began publishing the Pocket Poets Series.  ‘When Allen first walked into City Lights and handed me the manuscript of Howl,’ Ferlinghetti recalled, ‘I saw him as another one of those far-out poets and wandering intellectuals who had started hanging out in my bookstore, which the San Francisco Chronicle was already calling the intellectual center of the city.  Ginsberg showed me his manuscript with some hesitation, as if wondering whether I’d know what to do with it.’

Poetry as performance was then popular and the poet, translator and teacher Kenneth Rexroth, leader of the San Francisco Renaissance, organized a reading at the Six Gallery.  Ginsberg taped up signs, and mailed out mimeographed post cards advertising the event and on October 7, 1955, one hundred and fifty people squeezed into the former auto body shop that had been converted to an art venue.

“About 11 o’clock, it was my turn to read,” Allen Ginsberg remembered. “I gave a very wild, funny, tearful reading of Howl… and every time I’d finish a long line Kerouac shouted, ‘Go! Yeah!’ or ‘So there!’ which added an extra note of bop humor to the whole thing.  It was like a jam session, and I was astounded because Howl was a big, long poem and yet everybody seemed to understand and at the same time to sympathize with it.  Like it was the end of the McCarthy scene, and here I was talking about super-Communist pamphlets on Union Square and the national Golgotha and the Fascists and all the things that turned out to be implicit in a sort of social community revolution that was actually going on…”

According to Gregory Corso, who has presented poetry readings at LCK,  ‘Howl is the howl of the generation, the howl of black jackets, of James Dean, of hip beat angels, of mad saints, of cool Zen, the howl of the withdrawn, of the crazy sax-man, of the endless vision whose visionary is Allen Ginsberg, young sensitive timid mad beautiful poet Howler of Kerouac’s Beat Generation.  Howl is essentially a poem to be read aloud, but only by the Howler any other Howler would screw it up…’

When Allen finished reading he and Kenneth Rexroth were both in tears. “Allen, my friend,” said Jack Kerouac, “This poem is going to make you famous in San Francisco.”

“No, Ginsberg,” said Kenneth Rexroth,  “This poem will make you famous from bridge to bridge.”
Michael McClure, another participant in Lowell Celebrates Kerouac, was 22 when he read his own poem at Six Gallery.  He wrote about the event in Scratching the Beat Surface: ‘In all our memories no one had been so outspoken in poetry before.  So when Ginsberg drew the line with Howl, we had to decide whether our toe was on the line too… Ginsberg read on to the end of the poem which left us standing in wonder or cheering, knowing at the deepest level that a barrier had been broken, that a human voice and body had been hurled against the harsh wall of America and its supporting armies and academies and institutions and ownership systems and power-support bases …We had gone beyond a point of no return and we were ready for it. None of us wanted to go back to the gray, chill, militaristic silence, to the void–to the land without poetry–to spiritual drabness. We wanted to make it new and we wanted to invent it and the process of it as we went into it. We wanted voice and we wanted vision.’

Ferlinghetti sent Ginsberg a telegram echoing what Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote Walt Whitman after reading Leaves of Grass. ‘I greet you at the beginning of a great career,’ it said. ‘When do I get the manuscript?’

Howl by Alan Ginsberg

Howl by Alan Ginsberg

Ferlinghetti suspected he might be arrested so he contacted the American Civil Liberties Union before sending the manuscript to press.  They said Howl was not an obscene document and should he be arrested, the ACLU would defend him.

The first shipment of Howl passed through customs without incident in the  fall of 1956 but a few weeks later when the second shipment arrived from the British printer it ran into trouble.  Chester MacPhee was Customs Collector for the Port of San Francisco and according to Ferlinghetti, ‘he took his job very seriously, convinced it was his duty to keep smut out of the hands of children.’  On March 25, 1957 MacPhee ordered 520 copies seized under Section 305 of the Tariff Act of 1930.

The U. S. Attorney General of San Francisco decided against prosecution and four days later, the little books were released.  MacPhee then turned the matter over to Captain William Hanrahan, Chief of the San Francisco Police Department’s Juvenile Bureau.  Hanrahan claimed to have ‘quite a list of books’ and was ‘having his men take a close look at bookshelves all over the city.’

On May 21, 1957, the Captain sent two uniformed men to City Lights Bookstore with a warrant for Ferlinghetti’s arrest.  The charge was that he ‘willfully and lewdly printed and sold obscene and indecent writings.’

The wanted storekeeper was camping at Big Sur and his wife was behind the desk when the police entered.  She immediately phoned the store manager, Shigeyoshi Murao who called the ACLU who immediately sent over a lawyer.  They all went down to the Hall of Justice where Murao was booked for violating Section 311 of the California Penal Code that prohibited any person from writing, printing, publishing or selling obscene pictures or print material.  The manager was fingerprinted, photographed and locked in the Drunk Tank.  The American Civil Liberties Union quickly posted bail. Ferlinghetti was arrested upon returning to San Francisco and the ACLU posted his $500 bail.

Although some said this marked official recognition of the flowering of poetry in San Francisco, one newspaper headline announced, “The Cops Don’t Allow No Renaissance Here!”

In a piece Ferlinghetti wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle, he thanked the Collector of Customs and the police for the publicity he’d received for his Pocket Poets Series.  He even suggested a medal for Customs Collector MacPhee, whose actions had made Howl famous.  Ferlinghetti decorated the front window of City Lights Bookstore with a poster of Big Brother glaring over stacks of once-banned books that represented a cross-section of the world’s great literature including the Bible.  A banner above the display advertised Banned Books For Sale.

The poem went to court on August 16th.  The defendants were charged with a violation of Section 311.3 of the Penal Code of the State of California, claiming they ‘did willfully and lewdly print, publish and sell obscene and indecent writings, papers and books, to wit: Howl and Other Poems.’   Obscenity did not have First Amendment protection so the challenge before the court was to define it. ‘The prosecution had the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt and to a moral certainty two things: first, that the book is obscene and, second, that the defendants willfully and lewdly committed the crime alleged…’  The presiding judge, Clayton W. Horn, made it clear Howl was to be judged in its entirety and not on the basis of its four-letter words.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Shigeyoshi Murao faced $500 fines and six months  in jail under California’s obscenity law, then one of this nation’s toughest. Both pleaded Not Guilty.  When it was determined Murao had been unaware of the poem’s language when he sold the police a copy of Howl, the charges against him were dropped and Ferlinghetti faced the court as sole defendant.

Allen Ginsberg was traveling abroad but stayed in close touch with friends, particularly Ferlinghetti, regarding trial proceedings.  The Defense’s nine witnesses were for the most part professors of literature who were themselves published authors.  Witnesses for the Prosecution numbered three.

Ralph McIntosh, a deputy district attorney, was prosecuting attorney.  Considered a “specialist in smut cases,” he had extensive experience prosecuting magazines and films considered pornographic.

J. W. (Jake) Ehrlich was chief attorney for the defense.  A former boxer, he boasted of having “taught that manly art to a judge or two.”  Ehrlich’s biography is titled, Never Plead Guilty, the advice he gave all his clients.  When asked why he volunteered to defend Howl, Ehrlich replied:

“Because I have strong feelings about a policeman acting as a literary giant.  Here is a man, a policeman who earns $400 a month.  He walks into a book store, reads a book and suddenly decides the book is going to ruin mankind, including children, and he makes that judgment never having read two other books in his life.  I don’t want anyone telling me what to read.  If it’s going to ruin me, let me be ruined.  As far as Ginsberg is concerned, I think he has a lot to learn about construction, but I think his poem was just a man setting down what he thought. Sure, it isn’t Longfellow and it isn’t Walt Whitman and it isn’t Lord Byron, either, but it is Ginsberg.”

Judge Horn wrapped up the trial with a lengthy summary before announcing   the verdict,  “Howl presents “unorthodox and controversial ideas.  Coarse and vulgar language is used and sex acts are mentioned, but unless the book is entirely lacking in social importance, it cannot be held obscene.  No hard and fast rule can be fixed for the determination of what is obscene because such determination depends on the locale, the time, the mind of the community and prevailing mores…There are a number of words used that are presently considered coarse and vulgar in some circles of the community; in other circles such words are in everyday use…The author of Howl has used those words because he believed his portrayal required them ….  The People state that it is not necessary to use such words and that others would be more palatable to good taste…but life is not encased in one formula whereby everyone acts the same or conforms to a particular pattern.  No two persons think alike; we were all made from the same mold but in different patterns.  Would there be any freedom of press or speech if one must reduce his vocabulary to vapid innocuous euphemisms?  An author should be allowed to express his thoughts and ideas in his own words… Censorship by Government should be held in tight reign.  To act otherwise would destroy our freedoms of free speech and press… The freedoms of speech and press are inherent in a nation of free people.  These freedoms must be protected if we are to remain free, both individually and as a nation.  The protection for this is found in the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution and in the Constitution of California, which provides that… In considering material claimed to be obscene it is well to remember the motto ‘Evil to him who evil thinks           …

I do not believe Howl to be without redeeming social significance.  The first part presents a picture of a nightmare world; the second part is an indictment of those elements in modern society destructive of the best qualities of human nature; such elements are predominantly identified as materialism, conformity, and mechanization leading toward war.  The third part presents a picture of an individual who is a specific representation of what the author conceives as a general condition.  Footnote to Howl declares that everything in the world is holy, including parts of the body.  It ends in a plea for holy living.

Therefore, I find the book is not obscene and pronounce the defendant  Not Guilty.’

Justice Horn’s verdict was a landmark victory for freedom of speech and for artists and authors everywhere.  It seemed that permission to read whatever one chose had been legally won, ending government book-banning forever.  A series of court decisions followed including lifting the ban on the 1749 novel Fanny Hill: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, forbidden since 1821 in this nation’s first known obscenity case.  James Joyce’s Ulysses, restricted from entry into America from 1918 through 1933 and periodically seized and burned by the U.S. Postal Service, was no longer illegal.  Lady Chatterly’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer were allowed in.  William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch was published in Paris in 1959 but due to U.S. laws, Grove Press‘ complete edition was banned until 1962.  J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series was blacklisted for ‘anti-Christian Satanism.’  Even Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is still banned in some places for “lewdness.”        The Grapes of Wrath,  I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Catcher in the Rye, remain on many bad book lists. There have always been disagreements about the definition of obscenity and determining what is ‘indecent’ and who is being offended.  Many books are forbidden in schools and libraries around the country.  Some institutions follow Ferlinghetti’s creative lead in displaying Banned Books or celebrate Banned Book Months.

The trial made Ginsberg a celebrity and Howl legendary.  The poem has  never been out of print and by the time of Ginsberg’s death in 1997, it had sold over 800,000 copies and had been translated into 24 languages.  For the next thirty years it was occasionally read over the radio. Then it was banned by the Federal Communications Commission during the Reagan Administration and cannot be read over the airways or on television now without risking a stiff fine for ‘broadcasting indecent material.’  In 1978’s Federal Communications Commission v. Pacifica Foundation, the court held that the FCC ‘could determine time, place and matter restrictions on material that was broadcast.’  ‘Adult material’ such as Howl was among works restricted to the hours between 6 a. m. and 10 p. m. when ‘children might be listening.’  This is a sign of how far we still haven’t come since 1957, when Judge Clayton Horn ruled Howl within the law.