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.
Judge Horn, it turned out, did his homework, taking two weeks to render a verdict—probing the legal precedents, reading not only Ginsberg's poetry but Joyce's Ulysses (which a federal court * had much earlier considered exempt from obscenity laws, despite its many four-letter words)—and ruled that, because Howl had "redeeming social importance" and was unlikely to "deprave or corrupt readers by exciting lascivious thoughts or arousing lustful desire," it, too, was "not obscene."
I wish the courtroom scenes were played less solemnly. Jon Hamm, who plays Ehrlich, comes off smart and suave but not as scrappy or showboating as the real Jake the Master. David Strathairn plays McIntosh as more decent and less plain-dumb than he really was. (One crucial flaw in McIntosh's case, the transcript makes clear, is that he wasn't up to date on the legal definition of obscene.) News stories of the time suggest a rollicking tableau, the full-house crowd tittering when one of the lawyers recited the poem's contentious passages (had the word fuck ever been uttered so many times in a courtroom?) and roaring with laughter when a defense witness scored a point off a prosecutor's ill-informed question.
(It can't be overstated how shocking these words were at the time. In fact, in an attempt to avoid an otherwise-certain Customs seizure, Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti decided, before publication, to bowdlerize the poem's most explicitly homoerotic passage to read "who let themselves be f ….. in the a … by saintly motorcyclists, and screamed with joy." In the trial transcript, but not in the movie, McIntosh tries to get several defense witnesses to fill in the blanks on those two self-censored words, but Ehrlich objects that any answer would be "speculative," and Judge Horn agrees. Ironically, after Ferlinghetti won the case, he felt emboldened to insert the unexpurgated words, "fucked in the ass," in all subsequent editions.)
The filmmakers are right in the larger sense, though: This was serious business. If Ferlinghetti had been found guilty, Capt. William Hanrahan, the juvie chief who arrested him, was going to send his cops to sweep the filth from every bookstore in the city—he'd drawn up a long list of titles—and San Francisco, which was just emerging as an avant-garde haven, would have retreated into backwater provincialism for years, if not decades.
The publicity surrounding the trial also turned Allen Ginsberg into a superstar—and the Beat movement into the aesthetic style of the counterculture to come. After word spread that this was once-forbidden fruit, Howl and Other Poems, which had been selling well enough for a thin paperback volume of poetry, flew off the shelves faster than Ferlinghetti could restock them. (By the time Ginsberg died in 1997, it had sold 800,000 copies.) He was written up in major magazines. His poetry readings on college campuses drew thousands of enthusiastic students. Ginsberg's success also persuaded Kerouac's reluctant publisher to put out On the Road, which ingrained the Beat style and ethos among restless young American men forever.
The decisive gust of fresh air for free speech wouldn't come until 1959, when Barney Rossett, publisher of Grove Press, successfully challenged the federal obscenity laws in a U.S. District Court, lifting the ban on D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover and forever ending the power of postal clerks and customs agents to determine what Americans can and cannot read in their own homes. But "Howl," in that sense as well as many others, landed the first blow and emboldened others to take a swing. The movie doesn't tell the whole story (nor does it try to), but it does give a taste of the rhythm of those blows and the shattering of taboos that followed.
Correction, Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2010: The article originally stated that the Ulysses ruling was made by the Supreme Court; in fact, the case didn't go up that far. (Return to the corrected sentence.) Clarification, Friday, Sept. 24, 2010: The sentence originally mentioned Baudelaire, but Rimbaud is a better example. ( Return.)
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 email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Still from Howl © 2010 Oscilloscope Pictures.