Collection of Books by Lawrence Ferlinghetti Comes to Auction Shortly After Poet’s Death

James Ardis
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Lawrence Ferlinghetti outside City Lights. Photo from The Kitchen Sisters.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti outside City Lights. Photo from The Kitchen Sisters.

During McCarthyism and an era of American censorship, Lawrence Ferlinghetti offered a home to new and strange writing. His San Francisco bookstore, City Lights, was the first to sell only paperbacks, making book-buying cheaper. Just two years after founding City Lights, Ferlinghetti expanded into publishing in 1955. He’d eventually publish many of the Beat Generation’s foundational poets, including Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and himself. 

Lawrence Ferlinghetti died on February 22nd, 2021, at the age of 101. He was among the last living connections to the Beats. Collectors interested in this literary movement will have the opportunity to bid on books by Lawrence Ferlinghetti in Hindman’s upcoming literature auction.

Pictures of the Gone World by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Photo from Goodreads.
Pictures of the Gone World by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Photo from Goodreads.

The first book published by City Lights in 1955 was Ferlinghetti’s own Pictures of the Gone World. While he never considered himself a Beat poet, Ferlinghetti’s work in Pictures of the Gone World contains much of the movement’s signature elements, including social commentary. “Oh the world is a beautiful place,” declares one of the book’s most famous poems, “… if you don’t much mind/ a few dead minds… or a bomb or two.” Like Allen Ginsberg and many of the Beats, Ferlinghetti used his poetry to work through his anxieties over nuclear weapons.

In the same poem, Ferlinghetti launches into an ecstatic litany about “kissing people and making babies and wearing pants.” This playfulness, along with the social commentary, drew many to the Beats in the mid-20th century. Two copies of Pictures of the Gone World are included in a bundle of Lawrence Ferlinghetti books (estimate: USD 300 – $400), coming to auction with Hindman.

Bundle of Beat Generation books. Photo from Bidsquare.
Bundle of Beat Generation books. Photo from Bidsquare.

Also provided in the bundle is Ferlinghetti’s second book, A Coney Island of the Mind, from 1958. The book is not only Ferlinghetti’s most famous work but also one of the best-selling poetry books in American history. Each poem juxtaposes symbols of 1950s American consumerism with the constant fear of destruction during the Cold War. 

In the book’s first poem, Ferlinghetti compares the suffering shown in the artworks of Francisco Goya to America’s “strung-out citizens/ in painted cars.” Later in the book, Ferlinghetti relishes the candies of his childhood, “Oh Boy Gum,” “Tootsie Rolls,” and “licorice sticks,” giving them each a line in the poem to themselves. Meanwhile, outside the candy store, leaves begin to die on the branch, symbolizing a new stage of American decline.

A Coney Island of the Mind by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Photo from Third Mind Books.
A Coney Island of the Mind by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Photo from Third Mind Books.

While many artists were concerned by the surveillance state forming in the United States during the Cold War, the issue hit even closer to home for Lawrence Ferlinghetti. In 1957, he was arrested on obscenity charges for publishing Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems. In the ensuing trial, the defense managed to convince Judge Clayton Horn that Ginsberg’s work had social value. This helped protect experimental literature in the United States under the First Amendment.

Fans of “Howl” can consider a bundle of Allen Ginsberg’s books in the Hindman sale (estimate: $400 – $600). The available copy of Howl and Other Poems comes from a later edition in 1996, a year before Ginsberg’s death. Another highlight from the bundle is Kaddish and Other Poems. Named after the Jewish prayer for mourners, the poem “Kaddish” is Ginsberg’s reflection on the life and death of his mother, Naomi Ginsberg. Her lifelong struggles with mental illness influenced much of Allen Ginsberg’s life and work.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti posing with Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems. Photo from the City Lights Archive.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti posing with Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems. Photo from the City Lights Archive.

As the owner of City Lights, Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote, published, and went to jail for some of the most important poems of the 20th century. “Every great poem fulfills a longing and puts life back together,” Ferlinghetti advised in 2003. While he will be missed by many, his legacy of publishing and housing progressive work continues worldwide.

Bidding on a collection of books by Ferlinghetti begins on March 19th, 2021, at 11:00 AM EDT. Register to bid and view each of the lots on Bidsquare.

Interested in learning more about the auction history of books? Auction Daily spoke to Freeman’s Darren Winston last year about children’s books as an auction category. 

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James Ardis
James Ardis
Senior Writer and Editor

James Ardis is a writer, editor, and content strategist focused on the auction industry. His company, James Ardis Writing, has partnered with auction houses, galleries, and many clients outside the art world.

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