How "Howl" Changed the World
Allen Ginsberg's anguished protest broke all the rules—and encouraged a generation of artists to do the same.
Read Dana Stevens' review of Howl, the movie.
In later interviews (some of which are included in the movie), Ginsberg said that he wrote "Howl" not only as a paean to self-expression in general but also as a coming-to-terms with his own identity as a gay man. This was a daring thing to do, at a time when the medical profession deemed homosexuality a sickness and many states in the Union punished it as a crime.
The writer-directors of Howl the movie, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, focus more than most accounts of Ginsberg on his sexuality. (Their earlier films include The Celluloid Closet, a documentary about gay characters in Hollywood movies, and The Times of Harvey Milk.)
It's more pertinent, I think, that nearly all the cultural rebels of the era were outsiders of one sort or another: gay (not just Ginsberg but many of the Beat writers, as well as Rauschenberg, Johns, and most of the Pop artists), Jewish (Mailer, Bruce, Sahl, Roth, and, in a double whammy, Ginsberg), or black (the vast majority of the jazz innovators). But even within this broader universe of outcasts and misfits, Ginsberg was the first to come out, not just openly but brazenly, to make something of it, to make it central to his voice, his art.
The filmmakers also focus on "Howl's" eruptions of graphic profanity, devoting one-third of the movie to a re-enactment of the obscenity trial that greeted its publication.
A little background: On March 25, 1957, U.S. Customs officials seized 520 copies of Howl and Other Poems, as their shipping crates arrived from City Lights' London-based printer, on the grounds that the book was obscene. (One of the inspectors told reporters, "You wouldn't want your children to come across it.") After two months, the U.S. Attorney's office declined to prosecute, and the copies were released.
Five days after that decision, on June 3, two undercover cops with the San Francisco Police Department's Juvenile Bureau went into City Lights bookstore, bought a copy of Howl, then arrested the owner, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, for publishing obscene materials.
The case came before Municipal Court Judge Clayton W. Horn on Aug. 16. Horn was no civil libertarian. One of the city's four police magistrates and a regular Sunday-school teacher, he'd recently caused a stir by sentencing five women found guilty of shoplifting to go see the movie The Ten Commandments and to write reports on its moral lessons afterward.
The prosecutor, Ralph McIntosh, was an elderly assistant D.A. who in recent years had made a crusade of going after porn merchants.
Ferlinghetti's saving grace may have been that he was defended pro bono by J.W. Ehrlich, nicknamed "Jake the Master," the city's shrewdest and most flamboyant criminal attorney, who represented such high-profile clients as the stripper Sally Rand, the kidnapper and death-row inmate Caryl Chessman, and, as one obituary put it when he died in 1971, "a seemingly endless stream of women accused of killing their husbands."
The movie's courtroom scenes are taken verbatim from the trial's transcript (much of which was reprinted in the highly entertaining 2006 book Howl on Trial: The Battle for Free Expression). It all really did happen: the parade of prominent literary critics attesting to Howl's artistic mastery and cultural wisdom; the prosecution's pathetic troika of nobodies called to the stand to say otherwise (including the deliciously dotty Gail Potter, former educational director of a local TV station, who boasts of having rewritten the 40 versions of Faust into a single volume); and the battle between McIntosh, who builds his case on a count of the poem's dirty words, and Ehrlich, who got by on a cool style, rhetorical agility, and a sheer mastery of the legal record.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter.
Still from Howl © 2010 Oscilloscope Pictures.