Literary Daybook, March 25

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

By the Salon Books Editors

Published March 25, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

Today in fiction

On March 25, Ivan Yakovlevich slices open a loaf of bread and finds a nose inside.
-- "The Nose" (1842)
by Gogol

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
occurred? Send it to

- - - - - - - - - - -

Today in Literary History
On this day in 1957, U.S. Customs agents seized 520 copies of Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" on the grounds of obscenity. Ginsberg had given the poem its first, famous reading a year and a half earlier, at Six Gallery in San Francisco. In the audience were many later-famous Beat writers, among them Jack Kerouac, thumping on his wine jug and shouting "Go, Go," at the end of every long line. After the reading Kerouac told Ginsberg he was going to be famous all over San Francisco; Kenneth Rexroth corrected that to "famous from bridge to bridge"; Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who was already running City Lights Bookstore went home and wrote Ginsberg a telegram: "I greet you at the beginning of a great career. When do I get the manuscript?"

Ferlinghetti's telegram was an echo of Emerson's famous letter to Walt Whitman a century earlier, praising "Leaves of Grass":

"I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere, for such a start. I rubbed my eyes a little, to see if this sunbeam were no illusion; but the solid sense of the book is a sober certainty."

It was Ferlinghetti's edition of "Howl" that was confiscated, leading to a trial that October -- before a judge who was a Sunday school teacher, and who had recently been in the news for sentencing five shoplifters to a screening of "The Ten Commandments." Nonetheless, it was soon clear that the prosecution had little response to the long line of scholars and critics who testified to the literary importance of "Howl" -- many comparing it in importance to "Leaves of Grass." The judge ruled that despite its graphic homosexuality, the poem was of redeeming social value, being a protest against "those elements in modern society destructive of the best qualities of human nature: ... materialism, conformity and mechanization leading toward war."

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," e-mail Steve King.

the Salon Books Editors

MORE FROM the Salon Books Editors

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Books Richard Blumenthal