Archives For Essays

Essays from the magazine.

Beaten White

The Beat Generation found itself mystified by the black culture of the time. This mystification granted them agency in manifesting their deepest desires of free-flowing sexuality in what they observed from the black people with which they surrounded themselves. Associating themselves with black people allowed them to further their performance as “The Hipster” or the “White Negro.” The very idea of being “beat” implies a white desire to be black and participate in black cultural norms, such as a wider acceptance of sexuality and jazz, instead of those set by white society, which was more mainstream. Jack Kerouac’s 1957 On the Road romanticizes black culture in this regard. However, Hettie Jones’ 1990 memoir How I Became Hettie Jones emphasizes different aspects of black life through her interracial relationship, which shows a new vision on the Beats’ desire to be black. How I Became Hettie Jones reinterprets Kerouac’s On the Road by demystifying the romanticization of his white desire to be “Negro.” Continue Reading…

Reconsidering Jack Kerouac a Half-Century Later

Not many prose writers alive (Céline, Genet, a few others) would dare the freedom and intelligence to trust their own minds, remember they made that jump, not censor it but  write it down and discover its beauty. That’s what I look for in K’s prose. He’s gone very far out in discovering (or remembering, or transcribing) the perfect patterns that his own mind makes, and trusting them, and seeing their importance – to rhythm, to imagery, to the very structure of the “novel.”

– Allen Ginsberg, Village Voice (1958) Continue Reading…

Sixty Years After the Six Gallery Reading

October 7th, 1955, was arguably one of the most important dates in American literature. On that date, in a “run down second rate experimental art gallery” (a former auto repair shop) in San Francisco, in a room crowded with a hundred young men and women, Allen Ginsberg read for the first time an early draft of his poem, “Howl.” Among the bohemian audience was the poem’s future publisher, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who immediately recognized its potential, and requested the manuscript. “Howl” would go on to become the most important poem of the late-twentieth century and, alongside T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland,” perhaps the most important of the entire century. It would challenge America’s censorship laws, inspire unprecedented cultural and social change, and give the country its most recognizable and influential poet since Walt Whitman. Continue Reading…

A Negative Score on the Happiness List: The Economics of Hustling in Bonnie Bremser’s For Love of Ray

Bonnie Bremser’s road book For Love of Ray gives a harrowing account of the effects of poverty on travellers. Poverty seems a necessary part of the authentic road experience, since it involves exile from mundane existence and steady income. Like Jack Kerouac’s mythic progenitors Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, the duo around which the story revolves are penniless drifters on the road in Mexico. But Ray and Bonnie Bremser were newly married with a child, and so the text allows insight into their bohemian marriage. This article focuses on how the Beat path runs for the woman in the relationship, with differences becoming apparent when Bonnie begins to work as a prostitute in order to remedy their poverty. Continue Reading…

The Burroughs Millions

In Search of the Origin of Burroughs’ Mythical Trust Fund

From Beatdom #16

William S. Burroughs was always quick to observe that, thanks to the novels of Jack Kerouac, he had been saddled with the reputation of being a rather wealthy man. He once explained to an audience:

I have never been able to divest myself of the trust fund that [Kerouac] foisted upon me. I mean there isn’t any trust fund. There never was a trust fund. When I was not able to support myself… I was supported by an allowance from my family… my hard working parents who ran a gift and art shop in Palm Beach, Florida, called Cobblestone …

But you see Kerouac thought a trust fund was more interesting and more romantic. Let’s face it there was a very strong Sunday supplement streak in his mind. And he also saddled me with a Russian countess. Well, she was a bit easier to get rid of than the trust fund. And he nurtured the myth of the Burroughs millions. There are no Burroughs millions except in the company. And the family got nothing out of it… Continue Reading…

Naked Performativity: Examining the Work of William Burroughs

“When you look back over a year on the junk, it seems like no time at all”

— William Burroughs,


William Burroughs (1914-1997), the eccentric, the sardonic humoured, and the rebellious; he is a writer who took all traditional forms of literature and threw them into the garbage. Or rather, cut them into fragments, mixed them all around, and glued them back together in complete and utter random selections of prose. This is the technique in which he composed Naked Lunch, along with the help of Jack Kerouac (1922-1969) and Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) in 1957, and published in 1959. Considered to be “literature of risk” (Charters 103), it tells the story of Burroughs’s alter ego, William Lee, as he narrates his narcotic-fueled life of chosen criminality. Street life and crime are common themes throughout these texts, along with other works ranging from novels, poems, and letters of correspondence that take the form of various mediums—novels, poems, audio lectures, short films, etc. These two correlative themes are represented through an array of eclectic personas. Judith Butler’s theory of performativity is useful in examining Burroughs’s work to underscore the performative acts that his characters, and himself, take on as a way of elucidating that identity is formed through bodily acts to suit the needs of a discursively constructed self. Continue Reading…

The Beats and the Beatles: two sides of the same coin

“If two things are two sides of the same coin, they are very closely related although they seem different”
– The Cambridge Dictionary


As one might guess, the name of the world’s most successful (Hotten) band in history – the Beatles – does not completely incidentally sound so similar to that of the influential group of writers that called themselves the Beat Generation. What one might not guess, however, is how manifold and deeply rooted their connections are.
It must be said from the outset that there are multiple stories surrounding the origin of the Beatles’ name. Stuart Sutcliffe, the so-called ‘fifth Beatle’, who was a study friend of John Lennon and only a part of the first beginnings of what would later become the Beatles, suggested they call themselves ‘the Beatals’ in January 1960, as a tribute to the then famous rock ‘n’ roll band Buddy Holly and the Crickets. In the months that followed this name changed to ‘the Silver Beetles’ (May), ‘the Silver Beatles’ (July), and eventually ‘the Beatles’ (August) (Lewisohn 18-22). John Lennon himself in 1961, before their enormous success came about, already rejected every notion of a ‘meaning’ behind the name:

Many people ask what are Beatles? Why Beatles? Ugh, Beatles, how did the name arrive? So we will tell you. It came in a vision – a man appeared on a flaming pie and said unto them, ‘From this day on you are Beatles with an ‘A’’. Thank you, Mister Man, they said, thanking him.
(qtd. in Coupe 131) Continue Reading…

The Dharma Bums: Judging a Book by its Cover

On Dave Moore’s wonderful Beat Generation Facebook group – a partner to the very active Jack Kerouac group – there is at present a thread discussing the following cover for Jack Kerouac’s classic, The Dharma Bums.


(The discussion actually revolves around the front cover and not the whole jacket as featured above.)

The person who originally posted the cover remarked that it was the, “Worst cover ever!” and questioned whether or not the cartoony style made the reader expect a graphic novel rather than a modern literary classic.

While some people defended the cover or at least suggested that it was not all that awful, many commenters showed their disapproval. It was described as “truly ugly,” “unspeakably ugly,” “juvenile,” and a few people took issue with the fact that Kerouac is depicted as a dog.

Putting aside the inside flaps, which contain a bizarre comic strip (based upon dialogue from within the book), I must say that I take an opposing view to most of the people in the thread. I rather like the cover. For a start, the colours are pleasant. The simple orange and black appeal to me, seem to reflect the melancholy under-riding the book, and also are a nod to its publisher, Penguin, of whose Classics series this is a part. Moreover, Kerouac frequently describes the sun, and in particular the sunrise, as well as the fire and rocks of his mountain camp, as orange. He also drinks orange juice, eats oranges, eats on orange crates, and Japhy Ryder keeps his Buddhism books on shelves made of orange crates. Towards the end of the book, discussing what is and isn’t real, Kerouac argues with his family over the validity of an orange. Does it exist as we perceive it?

I’ll admit that the image of Kerouac as a cartoon dog is unusual and did catch me a bit off guard. The edition I own features a tramp-like man and the woman by his side. It adheres more to the hobo-beat vibe that pitched the book at a certain demographic in the footloose, hitch-hiking sixties.dharmabums

So why depict Kerouac as a cartoon dog? Maybe it’s again a matter of sales and demographics – Penguin Classics wants to grab readers of a certain age who are perhaps more interested in comic books or graphic novels. While the old debate about judging a book by its cover tells us that the content is more important, we can never forget that first you have to grab the reader’s attention. And if a cover endears a new generation of readers, what’s the harm? The old guard might complain, but they’re hardly going to give up on Kerouac because of one cover…

But, personally, I think the artist deserves a little more credit than having produced a cutesy cartoon dog for kids. I think the dog was a deliberate choice that went a little deeper. jackkwithcat

When we think of Kerouac, we’re more likely to think of cats. Not just because Kerouac, like so many other writers, including his friend William S. Burroughs, was a cat person, who wrote about and was photographed with his cats, but because in Beat parlance, he was a cat. A cool cat, a hep cat, etc. Indeed, in The Dharma Bums, Kerouac both references actual cats that he owned, and also refers to Gary Snyder’s character, Japhy, as a cat: “Japhy I gotta hand it to you, you’re the happiest little cat in the world.”

It is less frequent in Kerouac’s novels to see references to dogs, either as animals or a description for a person. They are sometimes viewed negatively. In On the Road, for example, dogs are barking at Kerouac and trying to bite him. Yet, in The Dharma Bums, there are more references to dogs than cats, and they are viewed as overwhelmingly positive. Even when these references are seemingly innocuous they are connected to the spiritual and religious ideas Kerouac had at the time. As the book advances, dogs become undeniably important to Kerouac’s personal journey.

About halfway into the book Kerouac describes a conversation between him and Gary Snyder, wherein Snyder asks “What would you say if someone was asked the question, ‘Does a dog have a Buddha nature?’ and said ‘Woof!'”Kerouac claims that this is part of Zen Buddhism, which is “silly” and concerned with verbal games rather than serious religious thought. Although he is dismissive of Zen Buddhism, Kerouac is tying the dog into the discussion and connecting it, as representative of the animal kingdom, to the Buddha. Until this point dogs had existed largely as a backdrop – their barks as the soundtrack to serene nights and meditation.

Later, we are introduced to “Bob, a big bird dog,” in a scene of pure serenity, where Kerouac’s character comes as close to nirvana (the word on his sign on the book’s cover) as he ever would:


After they’d gone to bed I put on my jacket and my earmuff cap and railroad gloves and over all that my nylon poncho and strode out in the cottonfield moonlight like a shroudy monk. The ground was covered with moonlit frost. The old cemetery down the road gleamed in the frost. The roofs of nearby farmhouses were like white panels of snow. I went through the cottonfield rows followed by Bob, a big bird dog, and little Sandy who belonged to the Joyners down the road, and a few other stray dogs (all dogs love me) and came to the edge of the forest. In there, the previous spring, I’d worn out a little path going to meditate under a favorite baby pine. The path was still there. My official entrance to the forest was still there, this being two evenly spaced young pines making kind of gate posts. I always bowed there and clasped my hands and thanked Avalokitesvara for the privilege of the wood. Then I went in, led moonwhite Bob direct to my pine, where my old bed of straw was still at the foot of the tree. I arranged my cape and legs and sat to meditate.
The dogs meditated on their paws. We were all absolutely quiet. The entire moony countryside was frosty silent, not even the little tick of rabbits or coons anywhere. An absolute cold blessed silence. Maybe a dog barking five miles away toward Sandy Cross. Just the faintest, faintest sound of trucks rolling out the night on 301, about twelve miles away, and of course the distant occasional Diesel baugh of the Atlantic Coast Line passenger and freight trains going north and south to New York and  Florida. A blessed night. I immediately fell into a blank thoughtless trance wherein it was again revealed to me “This thinking has stopped” and I sighed because I didn’t have to think any more and felt my whole body sink into a blessedness surely to be believed, completely relaxed and at peace with all the ephemeral world of dream and dreamer and the dreaming itself.

He we see Kerouac at his happiest and most content. He has achieved peace, or “blessedness.” And he is surrounded by dogs. “All dogs love me,” he claims, as they follow him. Then, as he meditates, so do they. “The dogs meditated on their paws,” he claims. As all thought is lost, he is aware only of sounds in the distance – one of which is a dog barking. His entire religious experience, here, is tied to the presence and existence of these animals.

He goes on to give one of the best known quotes from this novel when he says, “One man practicing kindness in the wilderness is worth all the temples this world pulls,” while petting Bob, and seems to relate this action as the aforementioned act of kindness. He observes that, when considering the concepts of Buddhism, he is no different from the dogs that sit around him as he meditates, saying, “All living and dying things like these dogs and me coming and going without any duration or self substance…” The dogs are clearly inextricably linked to his spiritual discoveries.

The dogs appear in the novel when Kerouac is happy or making some sort of discovery. Bob, a bright white dog, at one stage literally leads Kerouac down a “dark path.” The imagery there is hardly subtle. The dogs are leading or accompanying Kerouac on his personal journey. This means that dogs have acted as both his followers and his guides. Towards the end of the book, when spring comes and he is thinking less about philosophy and learning to enjoy simply existing, is is again surrounded by “happy dogs,” who are “yawning and almost swallowing [his] Dharma.” Along with the usual spring imagery of budding flowers, the dogs are ever present for his own reawakening. As he enjoys the feeling of “ecstasy of the endless truebody” (his enlightenment) he “consorted only with dogs and cats.” He has achieved total happiness at this stage and it is clear he views the dogs as an essential component of its attainment.


Sunday afternoon, then, I’d go to my woods with the dogs and sit and put out my hands palms up and accept handfuls of sun boiling over the palms. “Nirvana is the moving paw,” I’d say, seeing the first thing I saw as I opened my eyes from meditation, that being Bob’s paw moving in the grass as he dreamed.

Kerouac’s ecstasy is short-lived, however, as his family – who are largely disturbed by his happiness – want Bob chained up. His brother-in-law explains that the dog is simply too expensive to have its freedom. It should remain chained up in the back yard, lest he lose money. The symbolism here is obvious: freedom and happiness are all well and good, but the cold reality of life means that we are shackled and denied our natural state of being. At this point in the book, Kerouac’s family are trying to get him to give up his Buddhism and come back to his regular life. Indeed, in reality Kerouac was convinced to return from his Buddhist wanderings and live in the reality unto which he was born – living with his mother until his early death.

Kerouac returns to the woods to muse this situation, and finds shame in having pride in his kindness to animals. He comes to his next great realization – everything is “empty” and does not exist as perceived. “My pain was in getting rid of the conception of people and dogs anyway, and of myself.”

Throughout the book, dogs are symbolic for Kerouac. They have followed him, guided him, and surrounded him during his quest for enlightenment and understand. They are inseparable from his spiritual discoveries, and represent his adventure beyond simply a man with a backpack. So why not have him represented as a dog on the book’s cover? If Kerouac eventually realizes that “the conception of people and dogs” is false, why not swap a human for a dog? It seems to me that in The Dharma Bums Kerouac was going beyond the physical in search of a greater truth. If the orange that his brother-in-law presented did not exist, and nothing existed, then surely a dog is as valid a representation of the story as a man.

Reconsidering the Importance of the Joan Anderson Letter

It’s been an exciting few years for fans of the Beat Generation. Since Beatdom was founded, we have seen the release of a number of high profile movie adaptations (including Howl and On the Road), the publication of previously unpublished Beat works like The Sea is My Brother, and various major anniversaries (including the fifty years that have passed since Howl and On the Road were published, as well as the centenary of the birth of William S. Burroughs). Perhaps as a result of these events we have witnessed a revival of interest in the Beats, and as such a plethora of new critical works on their lives and art. Beat studies is thriving and the Beats are gaining respect as an important part of literary and cultural history.

Last month, however, came the biggest event of them all. It was a shockwave that passed quickly through not only the Beat studies community, but the literary world as a whole. The fabled Joan Anderson Letter – thought to be the origin of Jack Kerouac’s bop spontaneous prose style, and until now considered lost at sea – was found and quickly put up for auction. The buzz spread far beyond the various online Kerouac communities to newspapers around the globe, and for seemingly good reason. It seemed hard to understate the importance of this letter in Beat history, but also, by proxy, its significance upon Western culture. It was considered the missing link, or even the Holy Grail, of Beat studies.

The Past

The story goes that the letter was a breakthrough for Jack Kerouac, who, when it was composed, was struggling with the genesis of what would become his most famous work, and one of the most important novels in American history, On the Road. On December 17th, 1950, Neal Cassady wrote Kerouac a letter that Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg would later refer to as “the Joan Anderson letter” due to a passage within that referred to a woman Cassady had slept with. The confessional style of Cassady’s writing was influential over the recipient, who would put down the “original scroll” version of On the Road only a few months later, in April, 1951. When, in 1965, he was asked about the origins of the book’s style, Kerouac explained, “I got the idea for the spontaneous style of On the Road from seeing how good old Neal Cassady wrote his letters to me, all first person, fast, mad, confessional, completely serious, all detailed, with real names.”

Kerouac, ever interested in mythologizing, and in creating and maintaining the image of Cassady as some immaculate saint, went on to call it “the greatest piece of writing I ever saw, better’n anybody in America, or at least enough to make Melville, Twain, Dreiser, Wolfe, I dunno who, spin in their graves.”[1] Indeed, he had previously told Cassady that his letter “combines[s] the looseness of innovation with natural perfect rhythm – perfect natural speech.”[2] Ginsberg was equally enthusiastic, writing to Cassady in March, 1951: “I am impressed and astonished at the magnitude of the work that you have done in the Joan Story, which seems to me an almost pure masterpiece.”[3]

It would seem that On the Road couldn’t have been written without the Joan Anderson letter. Without On the Road, the face of Western culture – or at least counterculture – over the next half century would be staggeringly different. It changed everything, giving rise to the hitch-hiking, hedonistic youth of the sixties, and by consequence influencing so much of our literature, music, and film thereafter. And, according to Kerouac’s own claims, all that seemed to have stemmed from Cassady’s letter.

Although part of the letter was transcribed – possibly by Kerouac or Ginsberg – and published posthumously in Cassady’s autobiography, The First Third, the entire letter went missing and was presumed lost. Naturally, this added to its mystique. The sacred text that Kerouac claimed to have been the greatest thing ever written, and the central piece in the creation of one of the most important novels in recent history, was apparently – and befitting such an epic tale – lost at sea. The story goes that Kerouac leant the letter to Ginsberg, who gave it to the literary agent, Gerd Stern (who helped publish William S. Burroughs’ Junky) in 1955. Later they claimed that Stern had been reading it on a houseboat when it had gone overboard and into the frigid waters of the San Francisco Bay, lost forever. The greatest words ever assembled on paper were washed away, never to be read by another soul. Kerouac chastised Ginsberg, and Ginsberg blamed Stern, and Stern insisted that he’d returned it to Ginsberg. According to Jerry Cimino, curator of the Beat Museum in San Francisco, Stern was pleading his innocence for decades, and claimed that Ginsberg admitted fault later in life.

The Present

However, as Stern always maintained, he had returned the letter to Ginsberg, and Ginsberg had sent it elsewhere. In fact, he had sent it to Richard Emerson at Golden Goose Press. The letter remained unread and, shortly after, Emerson closed the press and sent his archives to a friend. About two years ago, Jean Spinosa – the daughter of Emerson’s associate – found the letter in her father’s Oakland home, and last month she announced that it would go to auction through the Profiles in History auction house. The Holy Goof’s Holy Grail had been discovered.

Immediately there was a tremendous amount of speculation regarding its fate. The scroll version of On the Road was purchased by Jim Irsay in 2001 for $2.43 million, and so, given the perceived importance of the Joan Anderson Letter, it would surely fetch a sizeable sum. However, for most Beat fans, the greatest question lay in whether or not they would eventually get to read what Kerouac had claimed to be the best writing in American history – the magical 16,000 words that inspired On the Road. Cimino quickly started a crowdfunding venture in an attempt to secure its purchase for the Beat Museum. This move proved popular among online Beat communities, quickly raising more than $7,000 towards its $500,000 target, as it would place the artifact in trustworthy hands and ensure it was published rather than kept in a private collection.

Alas, perhaps predictably, both the Cassady and Kerouac estates entered into the fray and had the auction indefinitely postponed. The Kerouac estate claims ownership over the physical letter while the Cassady estate merely contends that they own the copyright to the words, while they would be content to allow Spinosa to continue with the auction. In any case, with such a large sum of money and such an important piece of literary history hanging in the balance, it is unclear what will happen. The legal situation is somewhat difficult to determine, too. Who exactly owns the letter? Cassady wrote it, but wrote it for Kerouac. It was sent to Kerouac, but Kerouac gave it away to Ginsberg. Ginsberg sent it to Golden Goose Press, and from there is ended up with Jean Spinosa… Surely, then even the Allen Ginsberg Estate has a claim for ownership of the letter!

In any case, the letter is now stuck in legal limbo until the lawyers have had their say, and we can all just hope that it is resolved amicably and with due consideration to its value as an historical document deserving of public display.

The Future

Regardless of the present situation, it would seem that the letter is invaluable, as a part of Beat history almost as important as the scroll itself. Yet Beat fans and scholars are often guilty of perpetuating myths, and in order to take the movement seriously, one needs to be critical and ask questions that are often unpleasant and now it is time that we ask whether the letter was as important as Kerouac claimed. We need to acknowledge that Kerouac’s obsession with Cassady often blinded him to his friend’s flaws, and that Cassady was far from a saint.  Indeed, it hard to imagine the contents of the letter – once published – living up to the hype. After so many years and after such a staggering twist in the tale, it truly would need to be, as Kerouac claimed, one of the best pieces of writing in American history. Yet while Kerouac touted it as of unimaginable importance, he was unable to recall even its length – placing it at 40,000 words, rather than 16,000. This is indicative of his propensity to exaggeration, and we should not so readily fall into the trap of believe his every word. Too much of Beat biography already comes from Beat fiction.

Furthermore, as Ann Charters explained, firstly in Brother-Souls and later to the New York Times, Cassady had received a letter from John Clellon Holmes only ten days prior to writing the Joan Anderson Letter. This was known as the Fay Kenney Letter, and it elicited much the same response from Cassady as Kerouac displayed to Neal’s. “Woooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo-EEEE, a real whiz of a letter!” Cassady replied to Holmes, before penning his own imitation.  Indeed, Cassady’s was not only similar in terms of content, but also in regards its style. That would then take some of the burden of responsibility off Cassady and place it on another of Kerouac’s friend, Holmes, whose own novel on the Beat Generation, Go, was published in 1953. John Tytell, in The Beat Interviews, noted that Holmes had viewed the On the Road scroll in 1951 and more or less copied the content, minus the style, for his own book. It is bizarre to think, then, that Kerouac may have inadvertently copied Holmes’ style himself, before Holmes took Kerouac’s book and dropped the style that he created… In any case, in addition to the conflated lineage of style Holmes may also be partly responsible for Kerouac’s gushing praise over the letter, as Charters suggests that Holmes’ lack of enthusiasm for Cassady’s  letter may have contributed to a childish defensiveness that pushed Kerouac further into his Cassasdy myth-making.

Joyce Johnson believes that there is altogether far too much importance placed upon the influence of Neal Cassady in Kerouac’s work – even if that largely stemmed from Kerouac’s own words. In her latest book, The Voice is All, and in an e-mail to Beatdom, she stated that Kerouac’s opus was the result of countless years of hard work, rather than simply an epiphany after reading Cassady’s letter. Such a view, she believes, is typical of a tendency to downplay Kerouac’s intelligence and ability, and she places the blame firmly at the feet of the Sampas family, whose reluctance to grant access to the archives for so many years resulted in sub-par scholarship based upon assumption and myth. She argues that Kerouac’s original versions of On the Road featured Cassady-like characters before he’d even met Cassady, and that these originated with his reading Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night in 1945. “While the Neal Cassady legend, along with the notion that Jack dashed off  OTR in only three weeks, has always fascinated Jack’s fans, it has contributed to the lack of respect for Jack’s contribution to American literature,” she points out.

Regarding the letter, Johnson explains:

Unfortunately, what gets lost in all the discussion about the importance of the letter is the real story of the many years of grueling work and abandoned trial efforts that led the way to the writing of On the Road. While Cassady definitely deserves some credit, he is given far too much, and Kerouac, as usual, is given far too little for his artistry, imagination and dedication.

Until the spring of 1951, Jack resisted writing in the first-person. All the discarded versions of OTR had omniscient third–person narrators. When he received the Joan Anderson letter in December 1950, Jack immediately felt inspired to write Neal a series of memoir-like letters about the death of his brother Gerard. But the powerful voice he unleashed in those letters had appeared before in passages in his journals–Jack had been capable for years of writing that way but had held back in his fiction. This may have had a good deal to do with his ambivalent feelings about his Franco-American identity, his determination to master his second language, which was English, and to suppress the French in which he thought. Between the summer of 1950 and the spring of 1951, one abortive version of OTR  followed another, and out of desperation Jack even attempted to write one in French. But then, in March 1951, he put OTR aside and wrote the novella La Nuit Est Ma Femme about an unsuccessful Franco-American writer named Michele Bretagne, who was never able to hold a job because of his need to write. Writing in French, in the first-person, Jack gave Bretagne a direct, conversational voice that was strikingly similar to the one he would give Sal Paradise. Having found the voice he was looking for, Jack was finally able to write OTR–a book that would incorporate some episodes and passages from discarded manuscripts.

Looking beyond its influence over Kerouac and to its importance as a piece of literature, we must also avoid being carried away by Kerouac’s enthusiasm, or Ginsberg’s, for that matter. While it was Ginsberg who leant the letter to Stern, and Ginsberg who sent it to Golden Goose, and who even called it a “masterpiece,” the poet was also of the opinion that it could not be published in its original state. It was, he believed, unfinished. He also had criticism about its use of language and sound, which he seemed to consider easily fixed. In any case, while the Beat Generation has long been associated with the notion of “first thought, best thought,” and their work characterized as hastily composed and unedited in its published form, this has been proven false, and had Ginsberg succeeded in finding a publisher for the letter, it surely would’ve been finished and fixed before going to print.

The Joan Anderson Letter is then hard to separate from the myth that has long-surrounded it. In books about the Beat Generation it is simply referred to as the letter that made everything fall into place for Kerouac, yet the scholars cannot place its word count, page count, or exact content – despite often writing as though they had studied the letter in detail. Even now that it has risen from its watery grave, it is in some ways a productive of the myth-making Beat Generation, and we need to examine it fairly and reasonably in order to give it any genuine sense of importance. From the stories Kerouac and Ginsberg spun about their friends and the hopeless praise they bestowed upon one another, to the persona Burroughs created for himself, it was a movement based upon legends which are freely parroted by biographers and journalists, and it has continued to hold sway over its readers largely for the same reason. Now that the story about its disappearance has been proven as a fiction, we must look carefully at the letter itself. Kerouac may be known as the great rememberer, but he was also rather loose with the truth, and it would be sensible to avoid further perpetuating myth by taking his words for granted. None of this means we should ignore the letter by any means, but rather that we should be skeptical and not be carried away by the excitement of its discovery.


[1] Over the years, Kerouac would compared Cassady’s writing, and in particular this letter, to Proust, Twain, Wolfe, Dostoevsky, Joyce, Celine, Thoreau, Melville, Poe, Fitzgerald, Whitman, Hemingway, and Dreiser.

[2] Carolyn Cassady, in a phrase that foreshadows the false story about the letter’s disappearance, observed that Kerouac had gone “overboard” in his praise for Cassady’s writing, and astutely observed that Kerouac simply could not see the flaws in his friend’s writing.

[3] It should be noted here, if not elsewhere, that both Kerouac and Ginsberg were tireless in heaping praise upon the work of their close friends, and terribly liberal in their use of grand comparisons to history’s finest writers.

Borne out of War: The British Beats

This essay originally appeared in Beatdom #15 – the WAR issue.

For about ten years after World War II Britain was a grey place. When Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady were gallivanting around the United States, the UK was recovering from Nazi bombing raids. Kids played in bomb craters and air-raid shelters. You could still find shell casings among the rubble and there were wrecked German Messershmitts in the fields. The big kids got the best bits.

It wasn’t until the end of the fifties that things started to change, and kids who’d been too young to die in the trenches came of age. TVs arrived in suburban homes, bringing American culture to the British youth. Brit pop music was pretty tame at first – Petula Clark, Frankie Vaughan – but it had potential. Then Bill Haley came over leaving a trail of smashed up cinemas, and Gene Vincent records appeared in the shops.

Proto-Beatniks were first spotted on the Aldermaston March. They were called Bohemians. There was a revival of traditional jazz among art students and a few bearded denizens of Soho pubs. Then Skiffle came along and whatever it was spread to the suburbs. Lonnie Donnegan got on TV with songs like Leadbelly’s “Rock Island Line” (“John Henry” was on the B-side) and suddenly England had a whole new sub-culture.

The spillover from places like Ken Colyer’s Club and Eel Pie Island followed… scruffy, hairy young people with bedrolls would find their way down to Brighton either by hitchhiking or by the infamous Milk Train from Victoria. It usually happened at weekends. They’d sleep on the beach under the pier or in upturned fishing boats on the hard pebbles and meet up in the fish market to share bottles of stolen milk and Mars Bars. Some of the beatnik chicks were quite attractive in a Bohemian kind of way. French actress style. It wasn’t that difficult to entice them into your sleeping bag; one at a time, of course.

Drugs? There weren’t many around. You could get a buzz off Dr. Collis Browne’s Mixture but speed and pot were hard to find. Acid was still some way in the future.

Primitive music was played there on the pebbles. Some people, like Davy Graham and Martin Wyndham, Wizz Jones (shoulder-length curly hair and owlish glasses), Clive Palmer (quiet, gaunt, and haunted), would have banjos and guitars. Somebody might show up with a battered trumpet. Perhaps there would even be enough instruments to make an impromptu band! Bemused old folk and other passersby on the sea front above would gather to watch this curious cultural phenomenon. Teddy Boys – working class lads in pseudo-Edwardian suits – would shout rude things at the Beatniks. Things like “Do you ever wash?” or “Get a bleedin’ ’aircut!” and “Are you a boy or a girl?”

Teds wore drape jackets, drainpipe trousers, and suede shoes with big crepe soles. They liked Gene Vincent and Elvis. Then the Mods came along, a younger group, who liked the Kinks, Small Faces, The Who, and early Reggae. They showed up like a shoal of piranha fish in their Fred Perry Polo shirts and parkas, driving Lambrettas and noisy little Vespas covered with superfluous headlights. They got a lot of media attention which annoyed the Teds, who had somehow morphed into Rockers while nobody was watching. They traded in their suits for leather jackets, bought motorbikes and rode around shouting rude things at the Mods.

It may have been youthful high-spirits, or excess testosterone. Historians are still puzzling over it. Or maybe the various fashion styles and musical tastes just didn’t mix well. Anyway, fights broke out which quickly became running battles, and it wasn’t long before the Great British Press was all over it. Coppers got in some weekend overtime with their truncheons. Arrests were made. Newspapers were sold. The public was shocked.

The Beatniks, being peaceful folk for the most part, stayed out of it. Some simply went home to read their copies of On the Road. Some decided to hitchhike to India in search of spiritual enlightenment and cheap hash. They in turn evolved into Hippies. Most of these young people eventually got jobs, started families and settled down in front of the telly. Some have since joined the old folk on the seafront where they sit in Regency shelters, feeding sliced bread to gulls and discussing the youth of today.