Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s one hundredth birthday in March was the occasion for a lot of celebration in San Francisco. Perhaps trying to counter its image as an exemplar of gentrification and greed, San Francisco took the opportunity to celebrate Ferlinghetti as representative of a life devoted to art and letters, a kind of life the city can no longer provide. City Lights Bookstore, which he opened in 1953, is now a place of pilgrimage, and like a church on Easter, it was draped with banners. North Beach streets were shut down for readings and parties, and the public library held a marathon reading in his honor. What Ferlinghetti did to celebrate his birthday, however, was remarkable for a person of his age: he became one of the oldest living people ever to publish a novel.
Little Boy, released just before his centenary, is a rambling, stream-of-consciousness narrative with splashes of free-form punctuation and very few paragraph breaks. The book’s narrator Little Boy is a man looking back on his long life as a bookseller and writer after a turbulent childhood, service in World War II, and a post-war sojourn in Paris. Much of the previous sentence could have been copied and pasted from Ferlinghetti’s own Wikipedia page. The book is not so much a novel, carrying the reader through the story with a narrative arc, as it is a look into the turbulent mind of a person who’s kept a creative flame alight for so very long.
The Beat writers, of course, thought this kind of untethered writing—mashing up autobiographical elements with fictionalized ones, often assisted by piles of drugs and gallons of alcohol—was a means of unlocking creativity. Jack Kerouac even had a nine-point guideline for writing “spontaneous prose.” Kerouac’s On the Road, the bible of straight young men in their senior year of high school who go on to become English majors and get MFAs in fiction writing, was famously written in a drug-addled three-week binge, on an actual scroll of paper, and without paragraph breaks.
Kerouac, like most of the other Beat writers (with the exception of the more modest forest-dwelling sage Gary Snyder) was a self-mythologizer. He claimed the book sprung forth unedited, whereas the writer Joyce Glassman, his girlfriend at the time, later corrected the record and said Kerouac had been tinkering with the manuscript for years. In Little Boy, Ferlinghetti alludes to On the Road as the product of a “mad mind and heart inflated with the rage to live” and grieves the loss of Kerouac decades after his death. Kerouac’s mad mind, its problems worsened by the spotlight of fame, led him to retreat to the home of his mother in middle age and to drink himself to death before the age of fifty.