On this day in 1957, my favorite banned book was found to have “some redeeming social importance” by a judge in San Francisco who ruled that it was officially “not obscene.” That a full trial was held to determine such a thing about a book of poems is less a testament to the content of the writing than it is a sad commentary on the role of censorship in the United States during the middle of the last century.
The book, Howl and Other Poems, would hardly seem “obscene” or even controversial by today’s standards, but 55 years ago its countercultural poems were so worrisome to the government that the U.S. Customs Department confiscated 520 copies of the book and police arrested the publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, after undercover officers purchased it from him at his bookstore.
To Ferlinghetti’s rescue came the ACLU, which bailed him out of jail and provided him legal defense in what became a well-publicized trial with lasting implications. Nine experts were called upon to speak to the literary value of the book of poems, and eventually the judge agreed that it was not obscene. As is often the case with censorship, the government’s attempt to keep the public from reading Howl backfired. The trial brought significant attention to the poem, and it went on to become one of the most famous of its generation. The author, a young Allen Ginsberg, was likewise catapulted into fame and continued to influence other writers for decades to come.
Though the “other poems” included in the book are wonderful and noteworthy, it is Howl that is most famous, and perhaps most groundbreaking. Beginning with the iconic opening line – “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,” – Ginsberg proceeds to describe American society in blunt and unvarnished terms. He writes of “dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, with alcohol and cock and endless balls,” and “platonic conversationalists jumping down the stoops off fire escapes off windowsills of Empire State out of the moon, yacketayakking screaming vomiting whispering facts and memories and anecdotes and eyeball kicks and shocks of hospitals and jails and wars.”
Passages like that – many with overt and unfiltered references to drugs and gay sex – helped cause the uproar over the book’s publishing. But it wasn’t just the content that riled the status quo; the poem’s structure was also a threat. Howl broke new poetic ground not only with its intense and psychedelic imagery, but also with its stream-of-consciousness style, including a 2,124-word sentence that cast aside traditional meter and rhythm like never before.
Today Howl is considered a classic, and rightly so. It is also precisely the type of writing that needs protection from the First Amendment. Its subject matter is intense and wild and rebellious. Its message runs counter to the prevailing themes being pushed by the government, yet it rings true and speaks to the real concerns of a complex society. While at first it was met with doubt and charges of obscenity, over time it became recognized for its ingenuity and innovation, and its influence has grown ever since.
It makes me proud that in 1957 the ACLU was there to defend Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti against the government’s misguided effort to silence them. It speaks not only to our organization’s firm commitment to the ideals of free speech and free press, but also to our longevity. We’ve been fighting this fight for a long, long time. As we celebrate Banned Books Week, poems like Howl remind us why it is so important to challenge censorship, and why the ACLU plays such a critical role in doing so.
I hope you’re enjoying our staff’s “favorite banned book” series, and please join in the fun by sending us your favorites as well. We’d love to hear which banned books mean the most to you, so e-mail me your pick at jgaither@aclumaine.org or follow us on Facebook and post your choice in the comments section.