Sunday, July 19, 2015

Still Howling After all These Years

In 1958 when The Beat on Ruby's Street happens, President Dwight D. Eisenhower was in the White House, and Richard Nixon was Vice President. The Supreme Court ruled that the schools of Little Rock, Arkansas had to integrate and the Yankees beat the Milwaukee Braves.

In New York’s Greenwich Village, the Beat Generation was making art, poetry and headlines. Jack Kerouac’s On the Road had been published in 1957 and 1958 saw two more of Kerouac's books out on shelves: The Subterraneans (my favorite) and The Dharma Bums.

Allen Ginsberg was making headlines, too. His poem Howl’s references to drugs and sex caused custom officials to seize 520 copies when they were being imported from a London printer. The poem was published with other poems by the author by City Lights publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

Both the City Lights bookstore manager Shigeyosi Murao and Ferlinghetti were arrested in 1957 for publishing and selling Allen’s poetry. In essence, Ferlinghetti and Murao were tried for obscenity; but with help from the American Civil Liberties Union, Ferlinghetti won the case and California State Superior Court Judge Clayton Horn decided that the poem was of "redeeming social importance.”

Today Ginsberg's poem is more likely to be considered a literary classic than an obscenity—but in 1957, it was hugely offensive to conventional society. On the other hand, while Howl might not be on trial now, censorship of art in movies, books, cartoons and more is still alive and well in 2015.

Growing up, I remember hearing about parents who demanded that certain books be taken out of school libraries because they contained passages that were supposed to be too “adult” for kids. I used to wonder about the message they were sending their kids about freedom of speech and think that was a lot more dangerous than any so-called obscene words might be.

We may not have obscenity trials going on in the U. S. now, but do we still have a lot of people trying to censor art—and each other. I’d love to know what you think about the Howl obscenity trial—and if you’ve experienced any personal censorship in your life. (If you have, send me a note through my website at

For more information on the trial, see this historical essay by James Sederberg.