Howl on Trial
Howl on Trial
The Battle for Free Expression

Edited by Bill Morgan, Nancy J. Peters
Introduction by Lawrence Ferlinghetti





A Muse Unplugged
Oct 8, 2007
"At the height of his bardic powers, Allen Ginsberg could terrify the authorities with the mere utterance of the syllable 'om' as he led street throngs of citizens protesting the Vietnam War. Ginsberg reigned as the raucous poet of American hippiedom and as a literary pioneer whose freewheeling masterwork 'Howl' prevailed against government censorship in a landmark obscenity trial 50 years ago.

It is with a queasy feeling of history in retreat that poetry lovers discover that WBAI, long the radio flagship of cocky resistance to government excess, decided last week that it couldn’t risk a 50th anniversary broadcast of the late poet’s recording of 'Howl.' The station retreated out of fear that the Federal Communications Commission would levy large obscenity fines that might bankrupt the small-budget station."

- Editorial, The New York Times

FCC, Won't You Please Let Me Be?
Oct 12, 2007
"This past week, WBAI, a public radio station in New York City, was so worried about the FCC’s recent trend of levying astronomically high fines on stations found in violation of obscenity rules that it decided to not air Allen Ginsberg’s epic Beat poem, 'Howl.' Ironically, the impetus for the planned broadcast was that it was the 50th anniversary of a ruling that deemed the poem fit for the airwaves. On Oct. 3, 1957, the courts ruled that 'Howl' contained 'coarse and vulgar language,' but 'unless the book is entirely lacking in social importance, it cannot be held obscene.' Yet 50 years later, the threat of a six-figure fine has no radio station willing to bet on the poem’s social importance." - Kimberly E. Gittleson, The Harvard Crimson

Howl Against Censorship
Oct 3, 2007
"Fifty years ago, on October 3, Judge Clayton Horn ruled that Allen Ginsberg's great epic Beat-era poem HOWL was not obscene but instead, a work of literary and social merit. This ruling allowed for the publication of HOWL and exonerated the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who faced jail time and a fine 50 years ago for publishing 'HOWL.' Fifty years later, with draconian FCC fines for language infractions, you still can't hear HOWL on the radio. That's something to howl about. This October 3, WBAI and Pacifica Radio Network invite you to join our commemoration of Judge Horn’s ruling on behalf of free speech, by listening to a recording of the poet Allen Ginsberg, himself, reading the unadulterated HOWL.' Listen to the web broadcast of "Howl Against Censorship" here. - Pacifica.org

‘Howl’ obscenity prosecution still echoes 50 years later
Oct 3, 2007
"Fifty years have passed since the publisher of Allen Ginsberg’s poem 'Howl' was prosecuted in an obscenity trial in California. The publisher won the case, which became a landmark decision in free-speech protection. In 1955 Ginsberg began writing 'Howl,' a nearly 3,000-word poem that came to define the Beat Generation. It broke with contemporary literary tradition in its form and subject matter — repetitive, run-on sentences discussing drug use, homosexuality and an alienated generation." - Lydia Hailman King, First Amendment Center

'Howl' too hot to hear
Oct 3, 2007
"Fifty years ago today, a San Francisco Municipal Court judge ruled that Allen Ginsberg's Beat-era poem 'Howl' was not obscene. Yet today, a New York public broadcasting station decided not to air the poem, fearing that the Federal Communications Commission will find it indecent and crush the network with crippling fines. Free-speech advocates see tremendous irony in how Ginsberg's epic poem - which lambastes the consumerism and conformism of the 1950s and heralds a budding American counterculture - is, half a century later, chilled by a federal government crackdown on the broadcasting of provocative language." - Joe Garofoli, San Francisco Chronicle

A muse unplugged
Oct 8, 2007
"At the height of his powers, Allen Ginsberg could terrify the authorities with the mere utterance of the syllable 'om' as he led throngs of citizens protesting the Vietnam War. Ginsberg reigned as the poet of hippiedom whose masterwork 'Howl' prevailed against censorship in a landmark obscenity trial 50 years ago." - International Herald Tribune

Eclectica Magazine
Jan 1, 2009

"Howl on Trial as a whole is something of a documentary history, including letters between Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg (the latter remaining in Europe beyond the reach of law), photocopies of various contemporary newspaper and magazine articles written about the trial, excerpts from the trial transcript and the text of the Judge Clayton W. Horn's decision. These are rounded out with brief commemorative essays. The combination is highly informative and eminently readable. . . . the hero of Howl on Trial is clearly Lawrence Ferlinghetti. . . . A considerable majority of Americans would approve of both Judge Horn's decision and Lawrence Ferlinghetti's courage. . . . The hero of Howl on Trial deserves our unqualified respect and gratitude."

—Gilbert Purdy


"Featuring extensive trial transcripts, letters between Ferlinghetti and Ginsberg and clips from the San Francisco Chronicle – whose columnists strongly supported Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti and Howl – the book offers a broad perspective. After a brief trial, federal Judge Clayton Horn ruled that Howl wasn't obscene because it had not been written with lewd intent and had 'redeeming social importance.' This set a landmark precedent, enabling the publication of books by, among others, Burroughs, Henry Miller and Vladimir Nabokov." - The Los Angeles Times Book Review

"Howl on Trial uses original sources, from Ginsberg's and others' letters to the trial transcripts, photos and media coverage of the time, and illuminates the private thoughts of some of the protagonists. It's sad, funny, silly and deadly serious in turns and at the same time." - The San Francisco Chronicle

"A fascinating assortment of material-newspaper articles, transcripts, photographs, letters from the principals, commentary-on the 1957 obscenity trial in San Francisco that pitted the 'people' against City Lights, the bookshop that published and sold Allen Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems. A volume that will appeal to all who cherish their right to read uncensored the outpourings of the human heart." - Kirkus Reviews

"This year is the fiftieth anniversary of Howl and Other Poems, and to read the various volumes issued to celebrate the book's golden jubilee is to be reminded that half a century later, Ginsberg has remained an iconic countercultural figure . . . Howl and Other Poems was, of course, at the center of a landmark legal battle over obscenity (summaries of the battle and a collection of key documents relating to it are available in Howl on Trial: The Battle for Free Expression.)" - Bookforum

"When Allen Ginsberg's Howl and Other Poems was published Nov. 1, 1956, most of the first printing of 1,000 copies was seized by authorities in San Francisco on the grounds that the book was obscene. A year later, Ginsberg's publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, was acquitted of selling obscenity. Fifty years later, more than 1 million copies of Howl are in print. New books about the poet, a gay leftist during the Cold War, include . . . Howl on Trial edited by Morgan and Nancy Peters." - USA Today

"This book is a kind of literary mix tape: a compendium of letters, newspaper articles, trial testimony transcripts, and other archival material that takes you right back to that culturally fraught time, when publishing great art could be considered a crime against society. It's both chilling and enlightening to read through it all." - Marc Weingarten, San Francisco Magazine

"A fitting tribute to Howl on its 50th anniversary, this casebook reprints Allen Ginsberg's landmark poem and collects important sources related to the obscenity trial that followed the 1957 sale of Howl & Other Poems at Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco. With chronologies for Howl and "Milestones of Literary Censorship"; highly recommended." - William Gargan, Brooklyn Coll. Lib., CUNY in the Library Journal

'Howl' in an Era That Fears Indecency
Oct 4, 2007
"Those who happened to click on Pacifica.org yesterday could hear Allen Ginsberg intoning, 'I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,' along with the rest of his classic poem 'Howl.'

The occasion was the 50th anniversary of a court ruling that found the poem had “redeeming social importance” and was thus not obscene."
- Patricia Cohen, The New York Times

A Howl for Literary Freedom
Jul 1, 2007
It was 50 years ago this summer that Americans finally won the unfettered right to read whatever they wanted to read, a half-century since poet Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" went on trial in a San Francisco courtroom.

Like many works before it, "Howl" had been declared "obscene" by law enforcement authorities who banned its sale. But this time it led to the summer-long trial that cleared "Howl" and virtually ended government book-banning... - Dick Meister, ZNet