Censorship and Free Expression


In their commitment to free expression and sexual liberation, the Beats frequently experienced attempted censorship, and those who published or sold their work were often subject to arrest and prosecution. Most famously, two early and preeminent works of Beat literature, Allen Ginsberg’s Howl (1956) and William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch (1959), were subjects of prolonged obscenity trials that radically extended the range of what was permissible in a published work. In both cases, explicit homoerotic content was singled out for, ultimately unsuccessful, prosecution.

When the Chicago Review editors were not allowed to publish excerpts from Burroughs’s Naked Lunch and other Beat authors in 1958 they left the journal and founded Big Table, which was in turn impounded by the Post Office before eventually being released.

Later attempts at censorship focused on frankly erotic content in art by (Marjorie) Cameron, published in Wallace Berman’s Semina; Lenore Kandel’s poetic celebration of women’s sexuality in The Love Book; and Michael McClure’s carnal play The Beard, along with many other examples. The Beats found a kindred spirit in comedian Lenny Bruce, who faced numerous obscenity charges during the same period and who, like them, valued absolute honesty in his subject matter and language.

Allen Ginsberg
Howl: And Other Poems, 1956
City Lights Books, San Francisco
Pocket Poets Series no. 4

City Lights Books
Statement of facts Relating to Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, 1957
Robert A. Wilson Collection

Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Howl of the Censor, 1961
Nourse Pub. Co., San Francisco.
Robert A. Wilson Collection

William S. Burroughs
Naked Lunch, 1962 edition
Grove Press, New York

Big Table, no. 1, 1959

Michael McClure et al.
Censored Further West: New Mexico Quarter, winter-spring 1969.
Writings by Michael McClure, Leonore Kandel, Robert Creeley and others that were censored from the regular edition of New Mexico Quarterly and here published independently.

Wallace Berman
[Lenny Bruce], from Semina 8, 1963.
(The rest of Semina 8 is on view in a case nearby.)

Arts leaders protest Lenny Bruce arrest, 1964
Robert A. Wilson Collection

Lenore Kandel
Love Book, 1966
Stolen Paper Review Editions, San Francisco

(Margaret) Cameron
drawing from Semina 1, 1955
facsimile edition, 1992