Ginsberg’s Howl Versus American Censorship
On the 3rd of October 1957 Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl and Other Poems‘ was ruled not obscene.
‘Howl and Other Poems’ by Allen Ginsberg polarised American society of the 1950s. On one side of the barricade placed themselves bohemian writers and poets of the Beat Generation, to whom transgression of social standards and taboos became an axis of their artistic expression and a chance for breaking through the fossilised shell of social ignorance and Puritanism. On the other side, stood vigilant government officials, asserting limitations of the constitutional right to the freedom of speech. The friction between the two parties materialised in 1957, after publication of the book by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the owner of City Lights Bookshop and City Lights Press in San Francisco.
It had all really begun, though, in 1955 at the Six Gallery in San Francisco, where on the 7th of October Ginsberg, accompanied by five other poets, gave his first public reading of poetry. In terms of what followed afterwards this moment defined Ginsberg as one of the most powerful voices of his generation. “The 1955 Six Gallery reading was bohemianism at its best. It was something “brave and honest” – to borrow Tennessee Williams’ phrase – in the midst of a society that seemed cowardly and insincere, and it marked the start of the cultural revolution that would sweep across America in the 1960s. Indeed, the Six Gallery reading helped create the conditions for both the San Francisco protests against the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1960 and the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley in 1964. The Six Gallery reading was living proof that the First Amendment hadn’t been destroyed by McCarthyism and the committees that investigated artists, playwrights, Hollywood directors, and TV screenwriters. In America in the twentieth century, there was no public poetry reading that was a bigger bombshell than the Six Gallery reading.“ (Jonah Raskin, American Scream: Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” and the Making of the Beat Generation)
Soon after the Six Gallery reading Ginsberg received a letter from Ferlinghetti who, borrowing from Emerson’s letter to Whitman, wrote: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career. Please send manuscript.” The government officials did not share Ferlinghetti’s enthusiasm. Especially such lines as: “who let themselves be fucked in the ass by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy” caught the attentive eyes of the government censors. In June 1957, Shig Murao, City Lights Bookstore manager, was arrested for selling the book to undercover policemen; consequently, Ferlinghetti was arrested for publishing the book. With the support from the American Civil Liberties Union and nine literary experts, who testified on the poem’s behalf, Ferlinghetti eventually won the trial.
In terms of shifting the boundaries of artistic expression and freedom of speech, the significance of the trial was enormous. Thanks to the trial, publications of such literary positions as previously censored Tropic Of Cancer by Henry Miller or Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence became at last possible.