Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the poet, publisher and political iconoclast who inspired and nurtured generations of San Francisco artists and writers from City Lights, his famed bookstore, died on Monday at his home in San Francisco. He was 101.
The cause was interstitial lung disease, his daughter, Julie Sasser, said.
The spiritual godfather of the Beat movement, Mr. Ferlinghetti made his home base in the modest independent book haven now formally known as City Lights Booksellers & Publishers. A self-described “literary meeting place” founded in 1953 and located on the border of the city’s sometimes swank, sometimes seedy North Beach neighborhood, City Lights soon became as much a part of the San Francisco scene as the Golden Gate Bridge or Fisherman’s Wharf. (The city’s board of supervisors designated it a historic landmark in 2001.)
While older and not a practitioner of their freewheeling personal style, Mr. Ferlinghetti befriended, published and championed many of the major Beat poets, among them Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and Michael McClure. His connection to their work was exemplified — and cemented — in 1956 with his publication of Ginsberg’s most famous poem, the ribald and revolutionary “Howl,” an act that later led to his arrest on charges of “willfully and lewdly” printing “indecent writings.”
In a significant First Amendment decision, Mr. Ferlinghetti was acquitted, and “Howl” became one of the 20th century’s best-known poems. (The trial was the centerpiece of the 2010 film “Howl,” in which James Franco played Ginsberg and Andrew Rogers played Mr. Ferlinghetti.)
In addition to being a champion of the Beats, Mr. Ferlinghetti was himself a prolific writer of wide talents and interests whose work evaded easy definition, mixing disarming simplicity, sharp humor and social consciousness.
“Every great poem fulfills a longing and puts life back together,” he wrote in a “non-lecture” after being awarded the Poetry Society of America’s Frost Medal in 2003. A poem, he added, “should arise to ecstasy somewhere between speech and song.”
Critics and fellow poets were never in agreement about whether Mr. Ferlinghetti should be regarded as a Beat poet. He himself didn’t think so.
“In some ways what I really did was mind the store,” he told The Guardian in 2006. “When I arrived in San Francisco in 1951 I was wearing a beret. If anything I was the last of the bohemians rather than the first of the Beats.”
A complete obituary will be published shortly.
Richard Severo, Peter Keepnews and Alex Traub contributed reporting.