Essays

The Best Beat Generation Letter Collections

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. 

The letters of writers like Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs are not just of interest to scholars, but are fascinating reads. Luckily, you don’t need to visit their archives in order to access these letters. Many of them are available to the public in well-edited collections. Below are some of the best collections of Beat Generation letters available.

Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg: The Letters

edited by Bill Morgan and David Stanford

There are about two hundred letters in this collection, spanning twenty years of friendship between these incredibly minds. The back-and-forth between them is more enjoyable than any other collection. Clearly, both authors used the other as a sounding board for their own literary development, and so not only are the details of their lives shared, but the letters provide an insight into their developing art over the most critical period in both men’s lives.

Family Business: Selected Letters Between a Father and Son

edited by Michael Schumacher

This collection features letters sent between Louis Ginsberg and his son, Allen. They are filled with love but also frustration. Over the decades, the two poets (for whom poetry is the “family business) exchange ideas on their art. However, while in the beginning it is Louis who is the experienced and knowledgeable poet, after the success of “Howl” and “Kaddish,” Louis increasingly looks to his son for guidance. The letters here are revealing and touching.

The Letters of William S. Burroughs

Vol 1 edited by Oliver Harris, and Vol 2 edited by Bill Morgan

These two collections, featuring about thirty years of letters by one of America’s most brilliant and disturbed minds, make for exhilarating reading. Sometimes hilarious and sometimes utterly cryptic, Burroughs’ letters detail an amazing life and give insight to his notoriously difficult art. The dividing point between these collections is 1959 – the year Burroughs published his masterpiece, Naked Lunch, then got into Scientology and the Cut-up Method, which would shape his artistic output from that point onwards.

Collected Letters (of Neal Cassady), 1944-1967

edited by Dave Moore

Neal Cassady was a monumental influence on Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. He made his way into some of the most important literature of the late twentieth century, but was not just a muse. Cassady’s personality was infectious, yet he was also an influence on the writing style of the Beats. This collection of letters shows his true voice and why it was so important to his contemporaries.

Other Great Collections of Beat Letters

The above is just a short guide to some of the very best Beat letter collections. However, there are many more. Allen Ginsberg wrote countless letters, the best of which became The Letters of Allen Ginsberg. However, there are also specific collections devoted to his correspondence with Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gary Snyder that put the letters into a better context and make for a more enjoyable read. The Snyder collection in particular is excellent, and second only to this exchanges with Kerouac. Another wonderful collection featuring Ginsberg’s letters is a collaboration with Burroughs called The Yage Letters. Fans of Ginsberg’s work will also find Marc Olmsted’s Don’t Hesitate to be essential reading.

Jack Kerouac’s letters are collected in two volumes – 1940-56 and 1957-69.  Also of interest is a published correspondence between Kerouac and Joyce Johnson, Door Wide Open. This book is valuable insight into their love affair over the period that Kerouac was launched into notoriety after the publication of On the Road.

Gregory Corso’s collected letters were edited by Bill Morgan and provide valuable insight into the poet’s life and work.

David S. Wills

David S. Wills is the founder and editor of Beatdom literary journal and the author of Scientologist! William S. Burroughs the Weird Cult and World Citizen: Allen Ginsberg as Traveller. His next book, High White Notes: The Rise and Fall of Gonzo Journalism comes out in November, 2021.

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