Writing Across the Landscape by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Writing Across the Landscape is a bountiful book covering the travels of Lawrence Ferlinghetti from 1960 until 2010, more than half the life of this remarkable 96-year old man. Time, as one can see from the clarity of Ferlinghetti’s writing and observations, has not dimmed his intellect.
Ferlinghetti’s journals begin in 1960, but he had already experienced travel of a very different kind. On June 6, 1944 he was the captain of an anti-submarine chaser during the Normandy invasion and was later stationed briefly in Nagasaki at the conclusion of World War II. Having graduated from the University of North Carolina in 1941, he completed his Ph.D. at the Sorbonne on the GI Bill. He writes of a return to Chapel Hill, his “old alma mater” in 1960 that all was much the same but more cosmopolitan in the “same slow sweet air. All forgotten, not out of memory, but forgotten, stoned in time.”
Writing Across the Landscape follows an ancient tradition. Herodotus wrote his Histories in the 5th century B.C. The great Arab writer Ibn Battuta wrote about his 30 years of journeys across the Muslim world in the 14th century, and Sir Richard Burton covered some of the same ground in the 19th century dodging death while in disguise. More recently, Paul Theroux and Bill Bryson have provided extended looks at countries as varied as China and Australia and nearly everywhere between.
Ferlinghetti’s approach is different, but equally effective. He chronicles his travels in short, impressionistic vignettes that capture the feel of the place, and then he moves on. The pieces include sketches he drew, poems, facts, and observations. He even covers the mundane, relating three days of diarrhea once in Mexico — Montezuma’s Revenge. Facts are occasionally incorrect but he was not consulting a guidebook as he wrote. For example, the sun appears to rise over the western horizon in one instance and he places Machu Picchu at 13,000 feet when it is just shy of 8,000.
Such minor quibbles aside, this is a wonderful look at how Ferlinghetti’s observations changed as he visited countries repeatedly. He travelled in the United States and Mexico and further south into a number of countries in South America. Europe was a favorite, returning again and again to France and Italy, both of which he considered homes. In 2004 he was finally able to find his father’s birth certificate in Brescia, Italy and went to find the old house. There is the account of his epic trip across the Soviet Union on the Trans-Siberian railroad and his meetings with Yevgeny Yevtushenko and other Russian literati. Nor does he ignore friends like Jean-Jacques Lebel, George Whitman, William Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg, whose seminal poem “Howl” Ferlinghetti published in 1956.
Leftist politics form a central theme in these journals. In one of his more extensive essays he reports on his time in the Santa Rita Rehabilitation Center, his first time in jail for blocking the “entrance to war” at the Oakland Army Induction Center. His commitment to thinking about war was still strong in an entry in May 1995 in Italy as he thought about the declining civilizations of the West. The next war, he writes, would be one against the Third World, including the Middle East. How prophetic. The final entry comes from Belize in February, 2010 and features his newly composed poem, “At Sea” for Pablo Neruda in which he worries that we are not our fathers “yet we carry on / breathing like them / loving and killing like them.”
These journals were superbly edited by Giada Diano and Matthew Gleeson. Their introductory essay provides a concise critique of Ferlinghetti’s unique place in America’s literary consciousness. Considered a Beat, he never thought of himself as one although he published them through his City Lights bookstore. As they point out, many of the trips originated with literary events around the world; however, Ferlinghetti uses them as springboards to descriptions of his travels and his political activities rather than a recitation of the meetings. Well-placed notes and an index provide additional markers to guide one’s reading.
Writing Across the Landscape shows a thoughtful, concerned citizen of the world in full control of his senses. There is so much here to savor and read again. There is something here for those of a certain generation who knew of Lawrence Ferlinghetti in the ’60s and for those of a new generation. His prose is more accessible and less abstruse than much of his poetry. Yet, his prose informs his poetry, much of which arose from what he saw and learned as he travelled. The journals, which form an important basis for so much of Ferlinghetti’s thinking and work, are a joy to read.