Ginsberg’s Howl and the view from the street

howl.jpgJames Campbell in The Guardian this weekend writes about the arrest fifty years ago of Lawrence Ferlinghetti for his publishing Allen Ginsberg’s paean to ecstatic drug use and gay sex, Howl and Other Poems. Ferlinghetti was arrested on charges of selling (or “peddling”, as these prissy turns of phrase always have it) literature likely to be harmful to minors, even though it’s hard to imagine there were gangs of schoolkids rushing into his City Lights bookstore to buy a volume of experimental poetry. The ensuing trial was the first in a series of cases in the late Fifties and early Sixties which finally established (in America, at least) that the law needed to try and keep its hands off literary works.

America since 1957 has managed to grow up on one level, with Howl now regarded as a classic work of 20th century poetry, and grow more infantile on the other, with And Tango Makes Three, a childrens’ book about gay penguins, being the most-challenged book of 2006 according to the America Library Association; you can still rely on the “g” word to get the would-be book-burners agitated. The growing gulf between perceptions of morality in the US versus those in Europe can be seen in the way that US librarians need to hold an annual Banned Books Week to draw attention to the ongoing war between prudery and licence while there’s no equivalent to this in the UK. Britons used to look enviously at America’s freedoms of speech but the atmosphere has relaxed considerably here over the past twenty years while in America it sometimes seems that the clock is running backwards. That said, Russ Kick pointed out several years ago how, even among freedom-loving librarians, some books are more defensible than others.


The City Lights bookstore is located at 261 Columbus Avenue, San Francisco, and by coincidence I’ve spent the past couple of days exploring that locale using Google’s remarkable Street View facility which is now a feature on their San Francisco map, together with those for New York, Miami, Las Vegas and Denver. Not all the streets in these cities have been photographed yet but it’s fascinating to not only see places you’ve already been to but then turn down a side street and see the places you missed. If you want to know what it’s like to drive across the Golden Gate Bridge then here’s your chance.

Perhaps even more remarkably, you can use the Zoom feature to browse a shop window, and doing this with City Lights reveals (surprise, surprise) a copy of Howl in one of the windows. Much as I’d love to be blasé about this, I find it quite incredible that less than two years after I was there I can examine their windows while sitting at home. One tiny part of the science fiction future feels like it’s just crept into our lives with very little fanfare.


I was in San Francisco in 2005 with Jay Babcock and Richard Pleuger after we’d been up to Petaluma to interview psychedelic artist David Singer, one of the Fillmore poster artists during the Sixties and a friend of Wilfried Sätty, another psychedelic artist who I’d written about for Strange Attractor. Whilst in SF we found the house on Powell Street in the North Beach area where Sätty, Singer and others had been living during the late Sixties and early Seventies. I’d been reading a lot about this legendary place, with its dug-out basement which was Sätty’s living and working space, but found it impossible to picture accurately. Was it an elaborate Victorian Gothic structure like the Westerfield House where Kenneth Grant and Bobby Beausoleil were living during that period, or was it altogether more mundane?


left: the Sätty house in 2005 and right, the recent Google view.

It turned out to be a lot more mundane and the conundrum would have been solved immediately by Google which shows that the building has been repainted since we were there. This ability to explore a city street-by-street is going to have some fascinating repercussions as the facility develops and some concerns have already raised themselves where the Zoom feature is concerned. As the saying goes, watch this space.

Howl online
City Lights Books
Camera snaps of the Google street van

Previously on { feuilleton }
Wallace Burman and Semina
Kenneth Anger on DVD…finally
The Final Academy

3 thoughts on “Ginsberg’s Howl and the view from the street”

  1. Amazing capability. But although I quite like the idea of being able to go window shopping from behind my computer (and in San Fransisco too !), I cannot help feel a little awkward about the use of such facility to monitor people (for all we know that person seen in front of the book store might have told her/his love/employer that she/he was sick/at work and what then ?) – a little too “big Brother” for my tastes, really.

  2. As Nathalie states: fascinating, but worrying. Does this mean that to do ANY research you would not have to leave the comfort of your PC? If so, we can only ponder what Dracula would have been like if Bram Stoker were around to write it today (for instance), with the internet instead of travel guides…
    The Satty house must have come as a great disappointment – compared to Bobby B’s gothic wonder – considering how images of these places build up in the mind. Similarly, I was somewhat let-down a few years back when in Paris to find the address of 19th century erotomaniac Fred Hankey. Eventually we located it perched on top of a bank… his actual grave was a much more exciting matter.

  3. Nathalie: those are some of the issues people have raised already. One of the comments linked to above has someone spotting themselves sneaking into work late. Makes me wonder if people will start chasing the Google van out of town if they see it.

    Martin: it’s a mixed blessing, I think. On the one hand you can see somewhere you’ve never been in considerable detail; on the other, the muddy quality of many of the images doesn’t do justice to the light of the place. The Sätty house was a bit of a let-down but not too much since we’d seen a number of photos while with David Singer. But it was still smaller than I anticipated.

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