Thursday, January 21, 2010

Howl On Trial

While hardly a "beatnik" myself, I've always had an appreciation for the Beat Generation writers of the 1950s, especially Burroughs, Ginsberg, and Kerouac. These were the artists and intellectuals who started the youth and counter-culture movements that would become pop-culture (neither intellectual nor artistic) in the 1960s and 70s.

One crystallization of the Beat aesthetic was Allen Ginsberg's short poem Howl, an iconoclastic, counter-cultural canticle, considered a masterpiece by many literary pundits, and panned as trash by defenders of the status quo.

So I read with interest Howl on Trial: The Battle for Free Expression, published by City Lights Books as a 50th anniversary retrospective. The book includes the text of Ginsberg's famous poem, letters about the poem that Ginsberg exchanged with friends, family, writers, and his publisher, excerpts from and commentary on the 1957 obscenity trial, and reactions to the trial by the press and public. The collection of op-ed pieces and letters to the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle is especially interesting, some of it eerily similar to opinions on censorship expressed in 2009.

Of course there had to be a trial. Howl mentions sex with indelicacy. It raises the profane to the level of the sacred. It glorifies inconformity. And it was the 1950s. Obscenity laws were expansive and allowed much more censorship than courts would permit today. In fact the Roth v. United States case, the beginning of today's legal understanding of obscenity, was decided in 1957, amid the court proceedings against Howl.

The censorship carried out against Howl would be almost unimaginable today. This was a case of prior restraint by government, an act of censorship by anybody's definition. The first printing had created a literary stir, and customs agents seized part of the second printing, which had been shipped from the UK to San Francisco. While the Customs office dithered, public debate about the seizure raised demand. Lawrence Ferlinghetti and City Lights Books had a third printing done, this time within the US, specifically to keep the booklet out of Customs jurisdiction. The US Attorney in San Francisco refused to proceed against the book, and the overzealous Customs office was forced to release the copies they had seized.

In spite of the public ridicule heaped on the Customs office, the San Francisco Police department then undertook their own suppression of the work. They sent undercover (!) officers to City Lights Bookstore to purchase a copy, and on completing the transaction, they arrested the store clerk and issued a warrant for Ferlinghetti. At the trial in a San Francisco Municipal court, the Judge dismissed the charges against the clerk, but the trial continued against Ferlinghetti as the publisher. The court found, of course, that Howl had serious value and therefore could not be classified as obscene. The controversy over the attempted suppression of the work guaranteed its fame, and City Lights immediately ordered a fourth printing of 5,000 copies.

While quite different situations, there are surprising similarities between censorship in 1957 and censorship in 2010. As the 1957 letters to the editor make clear, there are always some citizens who support the censorship of "smut," even if they've never read the supposedly smutty book and have no idea what it actually contains. More importantly, it is clear that in any era those most likely to practice censorship are also those who are least qualified to evaluate the value of literature or any other art. Censorship is, by its very nature, the refuge of the undiscerning.

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