Ferlinghetti’s Torrent of Words
Little Boy offers little wisdom
By Stephen E. Smith
Here’s the theory: If a writer drags his audience into unknown intellectual territory — even if the journey’s destination is an unpleasant one — he’s lifted his readers out of the familiar and allowed them to perceive the world from a new and revelatory perspective. Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s A Coney Island of the Mind did that for a generation of poets, and the book remains one of the best-selling collections with over a million copies in print.
Ferlinghetti also achieved literary fame by publishing and defending in federal court Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. The lengthy First Amendment trial became a literary cause célèbre, and in the years since the Howl controversy, Ferlinghetti has continued to support leftist social and political causes while producing his own volumes of poetry and prose.
His latest book, Little Boy, was published on the author’s 100th birthday and immediately climbed the best-sellers list. Billed by its publisher as “a novel” and “last will and testament,” the book isn’t a novel, not in the traditional sense, and it isn’t the last word on anything. Call it bait and switch or simple misrepresentation, but Little Boy is, for better or worse, an adventurous, effusive, stream-of-consciousness rant that begins promisingly as a memoir complete with punctuation, plot and character development, and lapses almost immediately into an unpunctuated acerbic toxic word dump that occasionally sweeps up the reader in its rebellious energy.
If the designation “novel” is misleading, Ferlinghetti manages to hide a cursory explanation deep in his tangled text: “Ah yes indeed I must revert instead to the recounting and accounting of my own fantasies my ideas and agitations and dumb contemplations of the workings of the mind and heart . . . And so do I return to the monologue of my life seen as an endless novel simply because I don’t know how to end any life.”
The opening 15 pages of Little Boy recount how Ferlinghetti was separated from his mother shortly after birth, grew up in both privilege and poverty, and eventually graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, completing his doctoral study in comparative literature in France — all of which is conveyed in straightforward third-person prose. Then the structure of the narrative abruptly transforms, launching into a torrent of words sans grammatical niceties, e.g.: “ . . . the Greeks really all gone now down the drain And shall we tally it up now and see what’s left after capitalism hits the fan But in any case now it’s time it’s high tide time to try to make some sense or cents of our little life on earth and is it not all a dumb show of mummery a blindman’s bluff a buffoon’s antic asininities with clowns in masks jumping over the moon as in a Chagall painting or as if we each were dropped out of a womb into this earth so naked and alone we come to this world and blind in our courses, where do we wander and know not where we go nor what we do, with no assigned destinies . . . .”
There’s nothing new about this narrative technique (Joyce gave us Molly Bloom’s monologue more than a century ago), and Ferlinghetti’s deluge of words wears thin with surprising alacrity.
With the exception of an occasional brief interlude of traditional storytelling, he continues in this vein for the remainder of the novel. Since the monologue is essentially plotless, he rails again about global warming, capitalism, fascism, socialism, people with cellphones — “can you imagine millions of them a whole new generation on earth computing their lives in pixels” — and the world in general: “. . . it’s all like the old film The King of Hearts in which the inmates of an asylum consider themselves the only sane people in the world, while the people outside go forth every day to murder their dreams and ecstasies in the general conflagration of everyday life in the twenty-first century . . . .”
Allusions abound, most of them employed as similes or used as foils or objects of derision as in “‘Tea Ass’ Elliot” or twisted into puns as in “Let’s not fall deep into romanticism again for the warming world is too much with us late and soon . . . .” And there are literary references galore, if you can identify them: “Let us go then you and me-me-me . . .” “Drive she said,” or “a tale of sound and furry animals.”
And the name-dropping goes on ad nauseam: Thorstein Veblen, Nelson Algren, Louise Brooks, Mikhail Lermontov, J. M.W. Turner, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Sri Aurobindo, Giacometti, Edward Bellcamp, etc., personages with whom most readers are probably unfamiliar. Unfortunately, Ferlinghetti makes no use of these allusions. He’s in a position to supply important scholarly insights into Ginsberg, Burroughs, Corso, Beckett, Kerouac, Sartre, etc., but the mention of literary celebrities has all the intellectual import of the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s or an academic adaptation of Where’s Waldo? Readers can research the luminaries Ferlinghetti mentions — how likely is that? — or they can let the allusions ride and go plunging through the text, which is, of course, the more likely scenario.
Readers might presume, given Ferlinghetti’s appetite for social and political causes, that he’d have something to say about the political state of the country in which he’s lived for a century. It’s not unreasonable, after all, to expect a little wisdom from our elders, but Ferlinghetti disappoints on this count. Perhaps he’s correct when he writes: “. . . so I am just an onion peeling myself down to the core to find there is nothing there at all. . . .” The opening lines of his Coney Island poem “I Am Waiting”— “. . . and I am waiting/for the American Eagle/to really spread its wings/and straighten up and fly right . . .” — has more political oomph than all the words in Little Boy, and the sum of all the complaints and observations spewed forth in the novel tell us little more than we learned in A Coney Island of the Mind.
Ferlinghetti’s longevity and literary reputation have earned him the right to offer a parting public thought. For better or worse, this might be it: “. . . so bye-bye civilization as we know it and should I just let everybody else die as long as I got my piece of prime cheese oh man it’s all beyond me-me-me . . . .”
Stephen E. Smith is a retired professor and the author of seven books of poetry and prose. He’s the recipient of the Poetry Northwest Young Poet’s Prize, the Zoe Kincaid Brockman Prize for poetry and four North Carolina Press awards.