With the possible exception of ‘Shakespeare and Company’ founded in 1919 by Sylvia Beach and forever associated with the likes of James Joyce, Ezra Pound and Ernest Hemingway, City Lights Bookstore, opened in 1953 by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Peter Martin retains its heritage as the cradle of the Beat Generation Movement, and one of the few truly great independent bookshops in the United States. Six decades have passed since the birth of the Beat explosion became the byword for the burgeoning counterculture in American literature, and Ferlinghetti’s famous store, located in San Francisco at 261 Columbus Avenue, remains a destination for book-lovers the world over. Expanded several times during its 63-year history, City Lights continues to keep the flame of the Beat Generation alive, with extensive titles by the leading figures of the movement. Famed for its reprints of important texts from such luminaries as Ginsberg and Burroughs, there are also sections on politics, philosophy, music, spirituality and ‘alternative’ lifestyle. With its famous masthead ‘A Literary Meeting-place since 1953’, City Lights remains the premier outlet for writers and readers seeking an alternative American voice. In 1955, Ferlinghetti launched City Lights Publishers with the now-famous ‘Pocket Poets’ series, and throughout the decades, has published a wide range of both poetry and prose titles, with over 200 still in print. Recognised and respected for its commitment to innovation and progressive ideologies in poetry and fiction, it remains a resistant force in the face of conservatism and literary censorship, and holds to the tenets of its founders as an invitation to participate in what they termed ‘the great conversation’ between authors of all ages. Though renowned throughout the literary world, the store has retained its sense of intimacy, with a liberal dose of anarchic charm.
Perhaps the most enduring image of the store remains its poster of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, based on a photograph taken by Caroline Cassady in 1952. Available for sale since it appeared in the 1950’s, the image was also used for the Penguin reprint of Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’. First published in 1957, it remains perhaps Kerouac’s most defining literary achievement – and certainly the work for which he is most recognised. A classic roman a’ clef, Kerouac employed the key figures of the Beat movement as characters, including himself in the guise of narrator Sal Paradise. On publication, the New York Times hailed it as ‘the most beautifully executed, the clearest and the most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as ‘beat’ and whose principal avatar he is’. Continuously in print, ‘On the Road’ was chosen by Time magazine as one of the greatest works in the English language, whilst Modern Library ranked it 55th on a shortlist of the best novels of the 20th century.
Caroline Cassady’s iconic image for the City Lights Bookstore poster was taken in the early fifties during one of the trio’s many road trips. She met Neal Cassady in 1947 whilst studying theatre arts at the University of Denver. Cassady, a working class man with literary aspirations, was close friends with budding writers Kerouac and Ginsberg, and the complexities of their conjoined relationship was detailed in her memoir ‘On and Off the Road: Twenty years with Cassady, Kerouac and Ginsberg’, published in 1990. She tolerated Cassady’s ramblings with Kerouac (and also their on-off sexual relationship) and competed with a series of women throughout their tempestuous marriage. After ‘On the Road’ was published – in which he was forever mythologised as Dean Moriarty, Neal served three years in San Quentin for selling marijuana to an undercover policeman. On his release in 1963, the Cassadys divorced.
Caroline Cassady’s enduring photograph of Jack and Neal shows two men at the apex of their beauty, and as avatars of their era, and there is a timelessness to the image which transcends the age of its capture. Lovingly referred to as ‘The Boys’ by Ferlinghetti, the photograph retained its appeal long after the bloom of the Beat Generation faded, and it remains the essence of both innocence and experience for those that blazed their own trail in the decades that followed.