LITTLE BOY by Lawrence Ferlinghetti (2019)
Lawrence Monsanto Ferlinghetti, perhaps the best-known American bookstore owner/publisher of the second half of the 20th Century, died on February 22, 2021 at the age of 101. He was also a poet, novelist, artist, iconoclast, WWII veteran, self-described “dissident romantic or romantic dissident,” [p. 179], “victor of my own life,” [p. 169], traveler, father, humanist, cultural critic, mentor to the most famous of the Beats, master of words and language, recipient of many awards, and more. Little Boy is Ferlinghetti’s version of a memoir, of trying to find the plot of his life at the age of 99.
I think that to best understand an author’s work, it’s important to know his beginnings. There’s no question that Ferlinghetti had one of the most unusual starts to his life of anyone I can remember.
His father Carlo was an immigrant from the Lombard area of Italy. His mother, Clemence Albertine Mendez-Monsanto, descended from Sephardic Jews who escaped the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal. They fled to Saint Thomas in the Virgin Islands where they established a sugar plantation. They lost their wealth in the sugar market collapse of the late 1890s, at which time they moved to Rhode Island. During their time in Saint Thomas, the wealthy Monsantos intermarried with Danish and French settlers.
Lawrence was born into this amazing mix of cultures on March 24, 1919 in Yonkers. He was the fifth son of this couple, but there was a catch: his father had died from a heart attack several months before he was born. His mother was unable to support the 5 boys, and a childless relative took Lawrence to raise.
At the age of 2, Tante Emilie took him to France, where he learned to speak French before English. Although Emilie was probably the only person in his childhood who truly loved him, the situation was unstable, and he spent a year in an orphanage in New York. At that point, Emilie retrieved him when she acquired a governess position with a wealthy family.
Within a few months Emilie disappeared, leaving Lawrence with the wealthy family. As it happened, this set his life on a course that he could not have even imagined had he stayed with his birth family. During this time, he started his lifelong love of learning and reading with the encouragement of the family’s father.
When Lawrence was about 6, his birth mother and 2 brothers came to the wealthy family’s house to ask if he wanted to come home with them or stay with the family. He chose to stay with the family, a decision that certainly changed his life course. Before he was an adult, he had experienced life in poverty and in wealth, absorbing the social and class lessons from each status. He also learned not to trust that life would provide stability for him.
Ferlinghetti studied journalism at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, after which he enlisted in the Navy and served in WWII. He survived the D-Day landing, then was sent to the Pacific. He said that seeing Nagasaki after the bombing turned him into an “instant pacifist.”
After being discharged, he completed his M.A. at Columbia, used the G.I. Bill to earn his doctorate in comparative literature at the Sorbonne in Paris, then returned to the U.S. In 1953, he founded City Lights all-paperback bookstore in San Francisco. In 1955 he established his publishing house and began publishing the Pocket Poets Series with the aim of “democratizing” American literature.
Ferlinghetti became involved in a landmark First Amendment court case when he published and sold Beat poet Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl” and was charged with disseminating obscene literature. In October 1957 a judge ruled the poem was not obscene, thus paving the way for Beat and other authors of that time to publish their work. City Lights became a literary haven that exists to this day.
As we may imagine, a memoir written by a man of his unusual background, intelligence, education, and profession is nothing short of brilliant. Little Boy is written in stream-of-consciousness style using almost no punctuation and without the usual paragraphing. Yet in the hands of the skilled writer that Ferlinghetti was, this reader had no difficulty reading as though the punctuation and paragraphs were present.
Ferlinghetti’s brilliant use of words and language can only be conveyed here by an example:
“…I unlock my word-hoard of ruminations meditations exhortations celebrations condemnations excitations lamentations liberations and ecstasies plotless as a life that is to say like a life whose plot is only discovered after it is lived oh blimey isn’t that a mouthful….” [p. 119]
I admit to feeling joy as I read this book filled with language used in such fashion. His mind certainly captured my attention!
Another interesting quirk of this book is that Ferlinghetti talks about the boy that he was in the third person. However, when he talks about the man he became, he switches to first person. While it’s possible that this was a result of writing the book over time, I think it’s deliberate and represents his emotional distance from the child he was.
As an adult, he realized that the boy experienced a “lack of love at a tender age:”
“…this little kid’s youth was a trauma of loneliness and unfeeling yes he was a stranger among strangers and a stranger to himself…and he could not even know that what he was longing for was love….” [p. 111]
When this boy grows up, “…to whom does he naturally fall in with if not with the other lost souls or alienated bodies and thereby hangs the tale of alienation and from all the Others the regular people of normal life and normal society….” [p. 111]
History was made when Ferlinghetti and the Beats—”other lost souls or alienated bodies”—found each other at City Lights in San Francisco.
Ferlinghetti often used references to literature and classics of various nations, times, and languages. Older readers who have also read widely will understand the references and enjoy this book the most.
We can simply say that he used the span of his years well, both in terms of what he accomplished and of how he impacted millions of people with his words and ideas. The clarity of an outsider/outlier is needed in all societies and times.
Reading Little Boy stirred joy at his use of words and language in a way I don’t recall feeling from any other author. I was fortunate enough to be present at poetry readings by Ferlinghetti and of “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg in my lifetime. I treasure those memories.
Ferlinghetti lived a long life, touched so many people in a positive way, and we were fortunate to have him among us for a good long time. He will be missed, and thankfully we have Little Boy and his poetry to find him again.
To learn more about the Beat Generation:
Probably the best single volume to read is:
This book will be available at the Grover Beach Community Library.