Wednesday, January 12, 2011

It was Shigeyoshi “Shig” Murao, not Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who was arrested by the San Francisco police department for selling a copy of Howl on June 3, 1957. As I noted in my original review last September. Shig, the manager of City Lights Books from the mid-1950s until 1976, spent the night in the Bryant Street jail and was bailed out the following day. He was tried alongside Ferlinghetti, but where the latter had published the book as well as owned the bookstore in which it was sold, and thus really depended on the Judge Horn’s ruling that Howl was not obscene, Murao had only to testify that he didn’t know its contents and had not read every single book in the store.

Having been interned in the US concentration camps for the Japanese in the first years of the Second World War, Murao later served as a US intelligence specialist in the South Pacific. I don’t know of any other job he had during his career, though he must have done something between the end of the War and when he was hired at the bookstore in 1955. In his day, Shig was as much an icon of City Lights as was Ferlinghetti. He died in 1999.

The one person of color in the history of the Howl bust and trial, Shig does not appear anywhere in the motion picture Howl & thus nobody portrays him in the Epstein-Friedman film. Of the first 68 entries into my little contest, somewhat less than half got the two questions correct. The first three to get both right did so within 35 minutes of the contest being posted. They are, in order,

Steven Coons of Salt Lake City
Stephen Ross of Oxford, UK
David Wilk of Weston, Connecticut

During the first couple of hours, most of the responses guessed Ferlinghetti – it was a logical choice, but way too easy, an obvious misdirection (or so I imagined) – but by early evening, most of the entries still trickling in were right.

It’s worth noting that Oscilloscope, the distributors of the film, knew in advance exactly what my questions were going to be, and the answers, and thought it was a great idea. Shig’s absence from the film may have been the strangest erasure since Tom Bombadil disappeared from Lord of the Rings, but it’s in the redactive nature of filmic narrative, not unlike having none of the other major characters – Kerouac, Cassady, even Ferlinghetti – say a single line, not explaining the historic nature of the reading at the Six Gallery, tho it’s shown on screen, or leaving out more famous witnesses than those presented, including Kenneth Rexroth, Mark Linenthal, Walter Van Tilburg Clark & Herbert Blau, or maybe even – I think the jury’s out on this one – filming the bulk of the movie in New York City.

My thanks to Oscilloscope, to all who sent entries, and especially to the memory of Shig Murao, who took the hit for poetry readers worldwide. We owe you.