Poet, retail entrepreneur, social critic, publisher, combat veteran, pacifist, poor boy, privileged boy, outspoken socialist and successful capitalist, with roots in the East Coast and the West Coast (as well as Paris), Ferlinghetti has not just survived for a century: He epitomizes the American culture of that century.
Specifically, he has been a unique protagonist in a national drama: the American struggle to imagine a democratic culture. How does the ideal of social mobility affect notions of high and low, Europe and the New World, tradition and progress? That struggle of imagination underlies the art of Walt Whitman and Duke Ellington, Emily Dickinson and Buster Keaton. It also underlies a range of American issues, from the segregation of public schools to the reality of human-caused climate change. Those political issues involve our interbreeding of the highbrow and the vulgarian in a supercharged process whose complexities defy simplifying terms like “culture wars.”
The founder of the San Francisco landmark City Lights bookshop rang in the turn of his very own century as his adopted city—he’s originally from New York—celebrated “Lawrence Ferlinghetti Day,” one of many centennial celebrations held throughout March in his honor.
Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer, who once worked at City Lights and has been a lifelong friend of Ferlinghetti, writes about the city’s festivities, “Lawrence turns 100 today and poetry owns the Barbary Coast in a wild romp of readings at bars, galleries, and other watering holes in North Beach around Broadway and Columbus where City Lights Bookstore still stands as the best rebuke to the slick mindlessness of capitalist culture that now overwhelms Ferlinghetti’s once beloved bohemian San Francisco.”