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release of a number of high profile movie adaptations (including Howl and On the Road), the publication of previously unpublished Beat works like The Sea is My Brother, and various major anniversaries (including the fifty years that have passed since Howl and On the Road were published,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 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.” Indeed, he had previously told Cassady that his letter “combines[s] the looseness of innovation with natural perfect rhythm – perfect natural speech.” 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.”
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.
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.
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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
Originally published in Beatdom #14, and excerpted from the forthcoming memoir/scrapbook, ...
by Wayne Mullins One of the most common quotes you will hear from fans of Jack Kerouac is...
The notion of Burroughs as a farmer – even an inept one - may not sit right with readers o...
On May 15, 1891, Mikhail Bulgakov was born. Today, also May 15, Patti Smith was kind en...
“When you look back over a year on the junk, it seems like no time at all” — William Bu...
This essay originally appeared in Beatdom #15: the WAR issue. By Pat Thomas &n...