In Search of Shig Murao

November 11, 2011

“Imagine being arrested for selling poetry!” These were the
astonished words of Shigeyoshi Murao, for over two decades the legendary
manager of City Lights Bookstore, haven for bookworms worldwide. But in the
summer of 1957, the Japanese American book clerk, affectionately known as
“Shig” by people in the neighborhood, was arrested on charges of obscenity
after selling to undercover San Francisco police officers a copy of Allen
Ginsberg’s Howl and other Poems.

Shig is virtually unknown to today’s generation, despite his
prominent role in a landmark piece of cultural history. Several years ago, I
began delving into the archives of people's memories and tracing Shig's life
history, mostly through a network of interviews with people whom he had
influenced over the years. In the process, I discovered that Shig was no
ordinary JA, silenced by the harrowing years spent in an American concentration
camp located in Minidoka, ID. Shig was an anarchist of sorts, a maverick who
led a revolution by selling books with guts and soul, and who quite
accidentally, yet unwaveringly, took a stand before the entire nation to defend
one’s right to free expression. He was also a confidant for nearly every major
San Francisco literary figure that haunted the book scene: the man responsible
for creating the very ambience, the heart, of City Lights bookstore.

In 1956, City Lights owner and
publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti released poet Allen Ginsburg's book Howl as Number Four in the Pocket Poets
Series, which led to the arrest in May 1957 of Ferlinghetti and Shigeyoshi
Murao on charges of obscenity. Howl is
often referred to as the "Beat Manifesto," and became one of the most
influential books of twentieth century American poetry. Against the background
of heightened publicity, Judge Clayton W. Horn, a Sunday School bible teacher,
found Ferlinghetti and Murao not guilty in October 1957, a triumph for
twentieth century literature and the freedom of speech for generations to come.

Despite the fact that Shig was
arrested, taken to the SF police department for fingerprints and a mug shot,
and actually stood trial with Ferlinghetti in court, makers of the new film HOWL deemed him extraneous to the story.
The film’s artistic approach to Shig? Erasure.

I finally went to see HOWL a month after its release, and
though the first few minutes brought indignant tears of rage to my eyes, I
began to feel that dissolve away when it actually hit me how feeble the film is. It is a slap in the face to witness the deliberate act of writing people of
color out of mainstream history and culture. But let's grant that, because the main
character of the film was the poem "Howl" and not really Ginsberg
himself, many important people in Ginsberg's life were excised out, or relegated
to the role of cardboard mugs of handsome men and women in their clunky ’50s
eyewear and cardigans. However, I still bear a grudge precisely because the
film focused on the controversy of the poem, its publication and the trial that
ensued -- and thus Shig was indispensable to the tale.

Perhaps it’s an easy thing for me
to dismiss the film HOWL as a major
disappointment, given that the court scenes had zero tension (all of the
witnesses who saw no artistic or literary value to the poem were depicted as
self-satisfied, uptight morons stuck in their ye olde Chaucer ways); and the
script lacked any sense of the context in which the poem was written and
conceived, other than Ginsberg's personal search for identity. (No mention of
World War II, say, or how it birthed the corporate military machine and a
generation of complacent squares all marching towards their prefab suburban
life of consumerism.) In other words, what was it that this book of poems was
pushing against?

Yet I can't help but wonder, at
what point in the screenplay was it was agreed that Shig was a disposable
character? How was the inclusion of Shig as a co-defendant (as was historically
accurate) hindering the script? What gains were made by streamlining a piece of
the story that might have brought a much needed twist of irony and complexity
to the film? After all, a man who had been put into an American concentration
camp without due process had now been arrested and put on trial for another
man's right to freedom of speech.

Having never met Shig (he died in 1999 in Cupertino, CA), what I
know of him is what I’ve heard. According to some, if Shig was ever down on any particular
poet, it was because a certain dishonesty in his or her character, his or her
approach, didn’t make the cut. It is said that he was always looking for
the authentic in every person, and I can imagine that that was an issue which
he was confronted with personally. Yet what Shig understood most and created in
his time was a destination for the restless mind, for those who were seeking
answers. The City Lights that Shig built was a respite from the world: part
clubhouse, part spontaneous art happening, where you could come in, sit
forever, and read.

* *

For more on the
omission of Shig Murao from the HOWL
film, see JK Yamamoto's article "Murao is Missing"

Richard Reynold's website is also
collecting more stories about Shig at

Wakida is a bibliophile and publisher, authoring a biography on Shig Murao. She is the Associate Curator of History
at the Japanese American National Museum. An early version of this piece may be found at her blog.