“It was 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.”
– Jack Kerouac
In 1950, Jack Kerouac read a 16,000 word letter written by his friend and muse, Neal Cassady, that was so revolutionary it caused him to abandon previous attempts at the project that would eventually become On the Road. His new style – later to be dubbed “bop spontaneous prose” – would radically alter literature and culture in the latter half of the twentieth century. Kerouac’s innovation – directly taken from Cassady’s letter – would make his novel, On the Road, one of the most important pieces of literature of the century, going on to influence writers, artists, film-makers, and musicians for decades.
According to Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg – to whom Kerouac loaned the letter – lent it to a friend, Gerd Stern, who dropped it in the ocean and it was lost forever. “It was my property, a letter to me, so Allen shouldn’t have been so careless with it, nor the guy [who dropped it],” a typically belligerent late-60s Kerouac told the Paris Review. Kerouac reportedly wanted the letter to published so that his friend would gain even more counterculture fame than he already had.
However, the disappearance of the letter would appear to have been Ginsberg’s attempt to publish it, rather than a careless mishandling by the sea. It was sent to the offices of Golden Goose Press, who also published Kenneth Rexroth and Robert Creeley, but this publishing company soon shut its doors and the contents of the business were boxed and forgotten. While the intention was to throw everything in the trash, many files were rescued by the operator of a music label who shared the building, and – according to his daughter, who found the letter – couldn’t fathom throwing away someone’s words.
It was a performance artist called Jean Spinosa who found the letter two years ago. It will go on sale December 17th, with most Beat fans hoping that the buyer will make it available to the public. It has become legend in the annals of Beat history and this event is for all Beat enthusiasts truly monumental.
For a great write-up, please visit The Beat Museum website.