Big Man Looks Back at Little Boy: Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Last Book

Lawrence Ferlinghetti turned 100 in March. City Lights Bookstore—which he co-founded in 1953 with Peter Martin— celebrated the event with an all-day party that took place in the store, in the streets and at other venues in San Francisco’s North Beach. I did not attend, though I stayed at home and read Ferlinghetti’s new book, Little Boy (Doubleday; $24), that was published to coincide with his birthday and that is surely the last book to appear in print in his lifetime.

Poet Billy Collins calls Little Boy, “the last wild, motor-mouth, book length riff of this poet’s generation.” It’s a short book; just 178 pages, but it doesn’t exactly fly by since it is for the most part written without punctuation. Ferlinghetti’s sentences don’t end quickly. They just keep rolling along. It takes time to follow the poetic logic and not get lost in the undertow and the flow. Some of the things that Ferlinghetti says are clear, while others are not. The author describes his book as “mumblings, mouthings of various personal assininities  irrelevancies, obscenities and obsessions.”

An anarchist and a rebel for much of his life, Ferlinghetti is still an anarchist and a rebel, though he insists, “I was never much of a rebel.” Near the very end of Little Boy, he urges readers: “Join the pacifists Discover anarchism Resist and Disobey!” His book is the last gasp of a lifelong anti-authoritarian.

At 100, Ferlinghetti is rather pessimistic. In the last sentence of his subversive memoir he writes, “The cries of birds now are not cries of ecstasy but cries of despair.”

Little Boy begins as a kind of extended resume with the names of places that were important in the author’s early life: Manhattan, Portugal, France and New York. Before long, he drifts into extended word play with a list of nouns un-separated by commas: “confusions transplantations transformations instigations fornications confessions prognostications hallucinations.” And on and on. Little Boy goes forward and backward in time and around and around.

Clearly the two most important places in Ferlinghetti’s life have been Paris, France, and San Francisco, California, which he calls “this existentialist café on the left coast of this country.” The author has had a long love/hate relationship with the city that has evolved and devolved and turned, in his view, into one of the world centers for global capitalism that has pushed out working class people and turned thanks to banksters into a plush pad for the super-rich.

At its best, Little Boy offers indelible snapshots of Paris and San Francisco. In one of the snapshots, Ferlinghetti depicts Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir at the Brasserie Lipp in Saint-Germain. “Me living on sixty-five dollars a month on the G.I. Bill and could not afford to even sit down in the Brasserie Lipp,” he writes.

Ferlinghetti portrays himself as an outsider and a misfit. “I’m some kind of literary freak,” he explains. “I love to be alone with my own thoughts.” That much is clear. Into Little Boy the author has dumped a lifetime of thoughts, ruminations and memories, including memories of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and Neal Cassady, the anti-hero of On the Road, whom he romanticizes as an “outlaw cowboy.”

Little Boy is a source book of all the volumes Ferlinghetti has read and many of the movies he has watched. It is also a barbed manifesto.

Ferlinghetti ridicules the notion that the generation to which he belongs is “The Greatest Generation”—an idea that members of that generation have promulgated to promote themselves. Ferlinghetti also belongs to the generation, which fought in World War II. He embraces some of its ways of thinking about and looking at the world in terms of binary oppositions, for example, and who is confused when he sees men who look like they might be women and women who look like they might be men.

Though he published the writers of the Beat Generation, he doesn’t really belong to the Beat Generation. On one of the occasions when I interviewed him, Ferlinghetti explained that City Lights was “pre-beat and post-beat” and that it harkened back to French writers such as Francois Villon, Arthur Rimbaud and Charles Baudelaire.

Much of the time in Little Boy the author is self-deprecating. “I’m no genius,” he says. “I’m a broken record.” He adds, “I don’t know which way to go.” Ferlinghetti’s self-portrait can be tiresome, but there are vivid surrealistic passages, including one of a young man sitting at a table in a cafe, “typing on his laptop, both ears stopped with earphones,” and who refuses to acknowledge anyone else around him.

“I’m alarmed,” Ferlinghetti exclaims. “I call 911. After some time a cop car arrives and he’s arrested for ‘nonparticipation in humanity.’ They haul the corpse away.” It does seem odd that a self-proclaimed anarchist would call the police. But don’t forget that Ferlinghetti was a bookstore owner who wanted to sell books as well as promote great literature and plant the seeds for a counterculture.

His judgment on the laptop generation is harsh, too harsh, but it’s unabashed Ferlinghetti. In Little Boy, he’s honest about how he feels. “Life is absurd,” he says as though he’s a character in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. He’s also a character in nearly all the books he has read.

“I was Tom Sawyer and I was Huck Finn and I was Injun Joe,” he exclaims. One wishes he had said, “Indian” and not “Injun,” but Little Boy is Ferlinghetti uncensored and politically incorrect, by the standards of the politically correct police. “The world’s an ice cream melting down and we are tiny animals,” he insists. “The only animalcules that recognize themselves in mirrors and go wow!”


Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.