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Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the poet, publisher, bookseller and activist who helped launch the Beat movement in the 1950s and embody its curious and rebellious spirit well into the 21st century, has died at age 101. 

Ferlinghetti, a San Francisco institution, died Monday at his home, his son Lorenzo Ferlinghetti said. Ferlinghetti died “in his own room,” holding the hands of his son and his son’s girlfriend, as he took his last breath. The cause of death was lung disease.

He had received the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine last week and was a month shy of turning 102.

Few poets of the past 60 years were so well known, or so influential. He won numerous awards throughout his life, and maintained a status as one of America’s most influential poets for decades.

Alongside establishing himself as a successful writer and publisher, and he ran one of the world’s most famous and distinctive bookstores, City Lights. It became an essential meeting place for the Beats and other bohemians, and remains beloved today.

Ferlinghetti, left, with Beat poet Allen Ginsberg in South Kensington, London, on June 11, 1965. Ferlinghetti published Ginsberg’s poem Howl in 1956. (M. Stroud/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Its publishing arm released books by Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs and many others. The most famous release was Ginsberg’s anthemic poem Howl. It led to a 1957 obscenity trial that broke new ground for freedom of expression.

In that trial, Ferlinghetti was accused of printing “indecent writings,” but he was later acquitted. The poem went on to become one of the 20th century’s most well-known pieces of writing.

Ferlinghetti published his first collection, Pictures of the Gone World, in 1955, a small-run series of his early poems. He followed up with A Coney Island of the Mind in 1958, which went on to sell more than one million copies and established Ferlinghetti as a serious author. 

Defied expectations 

Tall with sharp blue eyes and soft spoken and introverted in unfamiliar settings, Ferlinghetti defied definition. Critics often debated whether he should be considered a Beat poet, but he never considered himself one. He told the Guardian newspaper in 2006 that his work was more centred on maintaining the movement than participating in it. 

“In some ways, what I really did was mind the store,” he said. “When I arrived in San Francisco in 1951, I was wearing a beret. If anything, I was the last of the bohemians rather than the first of the Beats.”

Still, he shared the Beats’ taste for agitation and cultural criticism. 

“Am I the consciousness of a generation or just some old fool sounding off and trying to escape the dominant materialist avaricious consciousness of America?” he asked in Little Boy, a stream of consciousness novel published around his 100th birthday.

Ferlinghetti stands outside his bookstore in San Francisco on Aug. 18, 1998. (Reuters)

Ferlinghetti’s bookstore defied expectations as much as the author himself. As the internet, superstore chains and high rents shut down numerous booksellers in the Bay Area and beyond, City Lights remained a thriving political and cultural outlet. One section was devoted to books enabling “revolutionary competence,” where employees could get the day off to attend an anti-war protest.

“Generally, people seem to get more conservative as they age, but in my case, I seem to have gotten more radical,” Ferlinghetti told Interview magazine in 2013. “Poetry must be capable of answering the challenge of apocalyptic times, even if this means sounding apocalyptic.”

City Lights even endured during the coronavirus, as a GoFundMe campaign quickly raised $400,000 US after it was forced to close and needed $300,000 US to stay in business. A memorial post on the bookstore’s website described Ferlinghetti as an instrumental force in “democratizing American literature.”

“For over 60 years, those of us who have worked with him at City Lights have been inspired by his knowledge and love of literature, his courage in defence of the right to freedom of expression, and his vital role as an American cultural ambassador,” the post reads.

“His curiosity was unbounded, and his enthusiasm was infectious, and we will miss him greatly.

Ferlinghetti appeared in many documentaries, including 2013’s Ferlinghetti: A Rebirth of Wonder. The 2010 movie Howl, starring James Franco and Jon Hamm, dramatized the poem’s obscenity trial. In it, Ferlinghetti was portrayed by American actor Andrew Rogers.