The writers of the Beat Generation were not just great at composing poems or producing genre-smashing novels. They were also voluminous letter-writers, corresponding over vast distances by mail. They shared ideas, gave details of their lives and thoughts, and even experimented with writing styles through the act of writing these letters. Some, like the Joan Anderson Letter, were of incalculable significance. Thankfully, they were often careful enough to save their letters, knowing that some day in the future these might be of importance. Eventually, as telephone calls became cheaper, the letters dried up. However, during the heyday of the Beat Generation, they correspondence was frequent and often stretched into thousands of magnificent words. Continue Reading…
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In 2014, the world of Beat Studies was rocked by the discovery of the Joan Anderson letter. Believed lost at sea until that point, the letter was the Holy Grail of our field. Its role in Beat history was considered by many as of key importance. Its influence on the literary style of Jack Kerouac was believed to be massive. Continue Reading…
Almost two years ago the world of Beat studies was rocked by the discovery of a seemingly lost piece of history: the fabled Joan Anderson Letter. Written by Neal Cassady and sent to Jack Kerouac, the letter played a pivotal role in American literary history, only to supposedly be lost overboard into the cold Pacific Ocean. Continue Reading…
“He looks so old!” was my first thought as the hospital elevator doors parted, revealing my dad. I was aghast at the vision before me. He appeared to have aged twenty years since I’d seen him the year before. His skin was weathered and tanned, his clean-shaven face was wrinkled and worn, and his neatly combed hair was wispy and sparse. Despite the grin on Dad’s face, his faded blue eyes disclosed the harsh life he’d been leading. If I hadn’t known his age (41), I would’ve guessed he was at least 70 years old. Seeing him like that broke my heart.
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…
In 2013 I was asked to review a book called The Stray Bullet, about William S. Burroughs’ years in Mexico. I described it as “unreadable,” which made it rather surprising when, a year and a half later, the publishers asked me to review another book by the same author and translator – Jorge Garcia-Robles and Daniel C. Schechter – called At the End of the Road: Jack Kerouac in Mexico. Garcia-Robles styles himself as the “leading authority on the Beats in Mexico” and as with the first book, this concerns a major Beat figure in the author’s homeland.
Naturally, I found myself dreading this book, as reading the Burroughs one had been little more than a chore. When I opened the front cover and saw that they’d credited a photo to one “Allan Ginsberg” (sic), I was sure that I was about to slog through another entirely incomprehensible text. Continue Reading…
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. Continue Reading…
“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.
Passionate Kerouac starts off, “I’m praying that you’ll buy ON THE ROAD…”and then explains Dean as, “no dopey hot-rodder but a real intelligent (in fact, Jesuit) Irishman.” Come on, Mar, how can you resist? And Jack’s funny: “I’ll show you how Dean acts in real life.” Jack is going to show America’s best ever actor how to act, and he extends an invitation to visit Neal and the wife and kiddies. Far out, Jack, I wanna be there, too. And a bit of a PR man plugging The Subterraneans, his latest novel, which he notes can easily be turned into a play. And ambitious: “What I wanta do is re-do the theatre and the cinema in America.” Write on, Jack, give it “spontaneous dash.” He mentions Frank Sinatra and French cinema and all Jack’s ideas are dazzling, terrific, glorious ideas.
Jack—I love him forever for this—challenges the great Brando, the ex-boxer, “I coulda been a contender” Malloy. “Come on, Marlon, put up your dukes and write!” And what does Marlon do? Nothing. He never answers Jack’s letter.
Oh, MARLON, you coulda done it, you broke our hearts. Jack, we’re still feeling your pain.
Only one other person could have played Dean, and that would have been the wild, unorthodox, intelligent, rebellious, athletic, “frantic cat,” and Adonis of Denver, Neal Cassady. Art imitating life and life imitating art, and Neal just being Dean being Neal, an American original, as American as hot apple pie left on the windowsill to cool and snatched by a wayward cowboy.
One tiny be-it-too-late suggestion, Jack – you shoulda followed your letter with another letter from that public relations wiz, Master Ginsberg. Or better yet, sent Ambassador Ginsberg on a mission. How could Brando refuse?
On the set of the movie Heart Beat, the story of Carolyn Cassady’s relationship with Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, William S. Burroughs dwelled on the thought of Jack’s obsession with writing: “Who had killed Neal Cassady?” Dean Moriarty killed Neal Cassady. “He had died of exposure. And who had killed Jack Kerouac? A spy in his body known as Jack Kerouac the writer.” Life and art.
*Image by Isaac Bonan
Big beautiful black
47 Cadillac limo to Chicago i
Dreamboat in the fast American night
Ball the jack all the whitewall way
Zooming steady 110
Car thief 500
Angel of Terror
Fender cracked . . . bender
“I can’t stand it any more, I can’t look.”
Down on the floor of racing horrors
Fears of crash
Hid in backseat
Time to get out — fast
i Kerouac, Jack. On the Road: The Original Scroll. (New York: Viking 2007),. p. 322-340.