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The Howl Obscenity Trial

by James Sederberg
Allen Ginsberg's Howl was written in
the summer of 1955 in an apartment
at 1010 Montgomery Street. His first
public reading of Howl was in
October, 1955 at the Six Gallery in
North Beach. After this eventful
performance, publisher and fellow
poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti,
borrowing from Emerson's message
to Whitman a century earlier, wired
Ginsberg: "I greet you at the
beginning of a great career. Please
send manuscript." City Lights
published Howl in 1956 and soon the
poem, the poet, and the San Francisco Rennaisance, or the Beats, were known throughout the
The Howl trial, 1957, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Shigeyoshi Murao were
defendants. (photo: City Lights Archive)

When U.S. Customs released the paperback version of Howl that had been printed in London,
Ferlinghetti and his partner, Shigeyosi Murao, were arrested by San Francisco police on
obscenity charges. One newspaper headline read: "Cops Don't Allow No Renaissance Here."
After a long trial (covered in a Life Magazine picture story) in which poets, critics, and
academics testified to the redeeming social value of Howl, it was ruled not obscene and City
Lights was exonerated. The decision that was handed down in the Howl obscenity trial led to
the American publication of the previously censored Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller and D.H.
Lawrence's Lady Chatterly's Lover. The trials publicity brought the San Francisco Beat
Movement into the national spotlight and inspired many would-be poets and seekers to make
their way out to the West Coast.
Howl is a poem that embodied the state of America and of the individual as Ginsberg saw it. It
is divided into three sections. The first has been described as a sometimes hysterical lament
about the political and cultural conservatism that has destroyed the best minds of the poet's
generation. The second is a poetic tirade against Moloch, the symbol of human avarice that
creates a society of dehumanized, desensitized, mechanized conformists. Ginsberg claims to
have seen the image of Moloch in the silhouette of the Sir Francis Drake Hotel at Union
Square. (Whether drugs were involved is uncertain.) The third part of the poem is addressed
to his friend in a mental institution--a victim of the mad society around him.
In Howl the sacred and the profane are weighed equally. Lines such as "The asshole is holy!"
probably had something to do with people taking offense. But they just didn't get it. Ginsberg,
in fact, exalts the perceptions of the irrational visionary immersed in an insane world. Howl is
a rage against conformity, inhibition, censorship, puritanism, and everything else that

restricts and limits the realization of one's true self. It is both a howl of defeat from a living
hell and a howl of defiant laughter.
What does the article tell us about the varied reception of the poem?
What does it tell us about the social context of the US at the time the poem was
What is the irony in the unsuccessful attempt at censorship?