Yunte Huang

“Why do I voyage so much? And write so little?” Lawrence Ferlinghetti asked himself as he sat on a bus in Mexico, traveling from Manzanillo to Guadalajara, surrounded by women with hands like hens’ feet, amused by the sound of a rooster onboard or a goat “crying in a stubble field behind some house.” As the ancient bus climbed even more ancient mountain roads, Ferlinghetti—poet, publisher, beatnik—continued to scribble in his journal dated May 19, 1972: “The travel between the lines is enormous, whole passages left unsaid. On the Road, eventually the open space takes over, the white space, where all is silence…travel being a form of meditation.” Such enlightened inner monologues, Hamlet’s soliloquies of sort, mixed with lucid visions and dream-soaked descriptions, fill the pages of Writing Across the Landscape, a capacious collection of Ferlinghetti’s travel journals spanning five decades.

Even if it’s true that his literary output has seemed too little, especially compared to that of his more prolific fellow writers, such as Allen Ginsburg, Jack Kerouac, and William Burroughs, this does not eclipse the fact that Ferlinghetti has always stood at the front and center of the literary revolution, the counterculture movement that goes by the angelic name "Beat." In 1953, Ferlinghetti founded City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco as a gathering place for the literary avant-garde. Two years later, his City Lights Press began publishing the now-classic Pocket Poets series, which included Howl and Other Poems by Ginsburg. Copies of Howl were seized by U.S. Customs, and Ferlinghetti was arrested on obscenity charges, followed by the trial of the century, which resulted in a landmark victory for free speech. While these memorable events have graced our literary annals and become gospel to all students of American literature, the inner journey of Ferlinghetti, as he stood at the center of the countercultural storm, has not come to light until the publication of these records of global peregrination.

As Ferlinghetti noted in one entry, “Every journal is a confessional… For some reason, travel brings out confessions one would never make at home. I am trying to draw the rake of my journal over the landscape. Perhaps I will uncover something.” He wrote these lines as he, out of sheer boredom, was getting a haircut on the main street of El Centro, California. Near the Salton Sea, El Centro, to the critical eye of a restless beatnik, was not really a center of anything, but a little piece of “a great American vacuum,” where “the junk of American civilization—cars” littered the street and the public library was closed on a Saturday. “Some strange breed has taken over America,” quipped the Poetic Transient, echoing Henry Miller (“Some other breed of man has won out”). Like Sal Paradise, the sad-eyed protagonist in Kerouac’s classic novel, Ferlinghetti also condemned heartless capitalism, the Coca-colonization of the world, and state-sponsored terrorism. But unlike Paradise, who roams within the confines of America with an occasional trip down to Mexico for extra kicks, the persona in Ferlinghetti’s journals is global, planetary, a space traveler in a time warp.

Within a span of six decades, Ferlinghetti’s peripatetic travels, like those elastic lines crisscrossing the pages of his poetry, have taken him to Italy, France, Germany, Cuba, Nicaragua, Fiji, Russia, and every nook and cranny of the United States. A poet known for depicting the circus of the soul in A Coney Island of the Mind and other books, Ferlinghetti in these travel journals emerges as a sharp-eyed observer and an effortless prose stylist. The weary faces of miners at Lota, Inca raindrops splashing on the window of a night train, a harbor lying “like a lost pocket in a canvas poncho,” the sun wheeling like “the Aztec calendar stone,” and “clouds which once were islands”—these poetic imageries in Ferlinghetti’s writing acquire a surreal, somnolent quality. An itinerant black preacher “gesturing over his shoulder to the 1920s” on a modern-day bus, or a field of sunflowers in southern Spain turning their heads away as if “Van Gogh’s sun [was] too strong for them”—the past lurks just around the corner; a passing train takes you to the far end of creation.

Commenting on Herman Melville’s Typee, a beachcomber travelogue about the South Seas, D.H. Lawrence said, “Melville at his best invariably wrote from a sort of dream self, so that events which he relates as actual fact have indeed a far deeper reference to his own soul, his own inner life.” The events that enter into Ferlinghetti’s journals relate not only to his own soul, but also to the inner life of humanity at large. A global citizen, Ferlinghetti witnessed up close some of the apocalypses and devastations that define the twentieth century. As a young man, he served in World War II as a commanding officer on a Navy subchaser. His vivid account of the sound and fury on D-Day, the armada steaming full speed for the beaches in the dawn light, reads like a page from Erich Maria Remarque. And he saw Nagasaki in August 1945, just weeks after the nuclear bombing. The city was completely deserted, “a ghost port, a ghost town… Not a soul in sight. All souls melted too.” Like a wartime journalist, Ferlinghetti reports with telegraphic brevity on the nightmarish stupidity of humanity. Somewhere Ezra Pound said, “Literature is news that STAYS news.”

As a poet and publisher, Ferlinghetti frequently travels to poetry readings and literary festivals. These trips and capers bring rare glimpses of Ezra Pound, looking like an old Chinese sage in a theater in Italy, “lost in permanent abstraction”; of Pablo Neruda, “sitting in plush white suite with open spiral notebooks” in Cuba; and of Allen Ginsburg, a vegetarian turning omnivore for one day to avoid offending the tribal elders in Fiji. With utter candor, Ferlinghetti also gives us an insider’s view of some of the Chief Beatniks. About Kerouac, for instance, Ferlinghetti thinks that “Jack has nothing to do with Beat or beatnik except in the minds of thousands who read On the Road thinking he’s some sort of crazy wild rebel whereas really he’s just a ‘home boy’ from little ol’ Lowell and certainly no rebel.” And he defends Ginsburg against charges of “selling out,” sympathizing with the latter’s strategy of talking to the enemy and trying to win them over: “Don’t just put flowers in their guns. Talk to them!”

In the age of Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, journal-keeping may seem like a lost art. But these travel journals, interspersed with the author’s drawings and sketches, are a treasure trove of a generation, a powerful testament to what it means to be human in this proverbial global village. These records of an American beatnik on the road may, to use Ferlinghetti’s own words, “pass as news stories filed by a reporter from Outer Space, to cover the strange doings of these ‘humans’ down here, sent by a Managing Editor with a low tolerance for bullshit.”

Yunte Huang is a Guggenheim Fellow and a professor of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the author of Transpacific Imaginations and Charlie Chan, which won the 2011 Edgar Award. He is the editor of The Big Red Book of Modern Chinese Literature, forthcoming from W. W. Norton in 2016.

Writing Across the Landscape: Travel Journals 1960-2010
by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Edited by Giada Diano and Matthew Gleeson
Liveright, 2015
$35 (hardcover); ISBN: 9781631490019
496 pages