Is there a point “reviewing” a collection of private letters that were never meant for publication? When the letters are written by Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, twin avatars of that counterculture that spawned all things 20th century countercultures, “who saw the best minds of their generation destroyed madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging them through the negro streets at dawn, angel-headed hipsters that burned for the starry dynamo in the machinery of night”—well, the answer is a resolute yes. These letters, like their respective literary works, will continue to amaze, inspire, astonish, anger and inform a new generation of readers, and those who have already turned to the Beats for inspiration.
The letters have been edited with a minimum of tampering; they do not suffer from copious amounts of those dreaded bracketed ellipses that deeply flawed the two volumes of Kerouac’s selected letters edited by Ann Charters from 1995 and 1999. Unlike the selected letters, these aren’t selected to shape an agenda, or to prop funhouse mirrors to distort relationships and make some appear more or less important than they were (for example, of all the letters offered for inclusion by novelist Joyce Glassman [Johnson], a girlfriend of Kerouac’s, Charters chose only those that placed her in the worst possible light, remedied by Johnson in her Door Wide Open: A Beat Love Affair in Letters in 2000 ). David Stanford, representing Kerouac’s letters, and Bill Morgan for Ginsberg seemed to want to do right by this book. Instead, unforgivably, it is drained of passion and they settled for less.
Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg: The Letters
(Viking; US: Jul 2010)
One of the book’s chief flaws are its footnotes. Though the editors give us the identities of some people mentioned in passing, most have no true significance at all to Kerouac, Ginsberg or even the lay audience. This is fine, but if one person is mentioned, they all need to be by way of editorial consistency. Indeed, it seems like the process went like this: “Hmm, hey I know who this is, I’ll footnote it.” “Hey, here she is on Wikipedia, let’s put that one down.” If they are truly stumped, then it’s, “forget it, it’s getting late, let’s move on to the next letter.”
Instead of underscoring vital passages that may possibly shed light on the dynamics of this coupling, they are ignored. In the book’s introduction, the editors justify their errant disregard: “Footnotes have been added in order to help identify people and events that might not be widely familiar, but the editors have tried to keep footnotes to a minimum, and we refer readers to their own reference sources.” In most cases there are no reference resources. Some of what Kerouac and Ginsberg write are word riffs stolen from a jazzy underworld that has moved on; what the lay reader cannot identify brings him no closer even by throwing a lifeline into Wikipedia, the Encyclopedia Britannica, or calling your eccentric uncle back home who knows everything.
There are occasions where Ginsberg and Kerouac’s worldliness lie far beyond the pale of mere logic-leaping. They aren’t just informed with Columbia knowledge; on their own they read artists like Walt Whitman and William Blake at a time when professors dismissed both as eccentric cranks. Jack and Allen’s heaped praises, the revelatory swagger of each bard’s barbaric yawp blew the billowed sails of both. Unable to engage their professors, they used the canvas of their extensive letters to convey their enthusiasm in each other’s absence. Ginsberg’s contacts with Mark Van Doren, the writer and critic, and Ginsberg’s Columbia English professor, were also vital to both. Van Doren’s sympathetic eye took in Kerouac’s novel-in-progress and Ginsberg’s poetry, giving blunt and unbiased criticism for each. In the late ‘40s, there are multiple factors influencing Ginsberg and Kerouac. The touchstone of these letters skims a rock across the pond’s surface without hinting at the depths below.
Were they lovers then? Ever? Ginsberg certainly wanted to be, and unable to consummate his lust for handsome Jack, he turned to poetry to help sort out the stumblebum of desire eating away at his mortal heart. One such poem, written in 1945, brings us home to the Ginsberg/Kerouac bond soon after they first met:
Shared, Dionysiac Lucy’s shivering
Still hot, but we relax awhile and smoke,
Jack on her left tit, I on her right, discussing
Spengler whom I haven’t read, or joke
of the Arabian children of delight—
Aware that Nature knows no cognate lovers,
Till Lucy coyly giggles in the night
And tells us how she teased her older brothers,
simpering sweetly. After which I rise,
caress her placid face, which is still damp
With joy, and from her head unscrew her eyes
Like bulbs out of the sockets of a lamp.
Are we as readers made aware of this? It’s the editor’s elbow grease that brings the psychic universe pulsing in arterial spurts beneath these letters. Kerouac and Ginsberg stun us with their frankness, bewitching us with an all-seeing eye, a revelatory time travel illuminating sudden spectacles of intelligence, wit and utter vulnerability. When Ginsberg writes a letter on 14 October 1948, he has already passed through the Blakean fire that possessed him the previous summer (one day while reading Blake, Ginzy was jerking off, came, and felt at that very moment Blake’s cosmic cry summoning a clarion call, a WAKE UP bringing the beat bard out of his self-professed doldrums and back to his senses).
By the end of the year he is ready to take the hand he is dealt and comprehend from the incomprehensible that which will allow him to conjure from chaos a new world of creation. He writes to Kerouac, perhaps the very words that will dig the moat around the castle of their beat sensibilities, “All the fascination and beauty of people meeting and echoing comes from our innate instinct which is not yet emerged to consciousness, that we are here…” Love flickers, a tenderness vacillating like a flicker on a screen, deeper than mere want of flesh and blood, for Kerouac to Ginsberg is now no longer an object of lust, he is a comrade-in-arms ready to take up the battle as life-changing artists.
Kerouac and Ginsberg are cosmic twins borne from Whitman’s Universal skull, bonded as comrades, cerebrally-joined as poets—but it will sour Kerouac when Ginsberg uses his poetic voice as a political trump card in the ‘60s. Whitman describes comrades as such:
I will plant companionship thick as trees along all the rivers of America, and along the
shores of the great lakes, and all over the prairies,
I will make inseparable cities with their arms about each other’s necks,
By the love of comrades,
By the manly love of comrades.
It is manly love. After On the Road hits the streets, Kerouac will remark that men can no longer look each other in the eyes without negative insinuation. (How true men! Go ahead and look a guy in the eyes as you pass him on the street, see what he does. But do it not as a dude eyeing another dude, but as two vessels of Mortal Humanity passing through this life, never to see one another ever again). Ginsberg perches the genius jock’s shoulder and becomes, for all intents and purposes, Jack’s Jiminy
IIt’s late 1948, and Kerouac is deep in the throes of polishing a novel. He has already been wandering the feverish road in a marijuana haze, he conjures anew his memories of being lost with Cassady in deep mystery swamps, or deserted by Cassady when he is sick in the hallucinogenic Mexican deserts. Swarming visions of dark endless highways can easily become the back drop, he just needs to people them with characters. There are loves, lost loves, and of those left behind to someday come back and pick up where he left off.
There is also the sensual mystery of a beautiful Latina girl. Though the “Mexican Girl” know as Bea Franco of On the Road) writes Kerouac back (for she has it in her head that he will one day come back for her), she becomes fictional fodder, the veritable Fellaheen Bonita of the American West). Though he uses the letters of others to give his novel veracity, he does avoid resurrecting ties with Franco. She writes him on October 25, 1947 (I include a letter here, to illustrate the importance of letters, to bring perspective to a past we think we know all too well. She isn’t the Mexican girl with the broken English Kerouac gives her in On the Road, she is literate, sweet and misled:
My dearest Loving Jackie:
(one in a million)
Hope, that when you get this letter in your sweet, little hands, you will have arrived safely home.
I bet your mom, will be there waiting at the door with her arms, ready to welcome you back. Haw! I wish I were there also, next to her.
I missed you, even before you said good by. you see I’ve never met anyone- as sweet an unspoiled before in my life.
Jackie you know that if it weren’t for little Albert I would have gone with you even if it were Hitchhiking. You say its pretty hard, but, even then, I would have gone, willingly. Well, I’ll work very hard starting Monday. And I will save as much money as I can, then I will be able to come to see you, and your lovely mother, for Christmas I will bring you both a little gift. I hope you have that little Xmas tree, by the window, waiting. Jackie, I bet you’ll be glad to see the Frigadaire you’re mom had for you. Think! What all the things you can do with it. Ice Cream any time you want.
Jackie I’m going to start picking Oct. 26, Sunday, that’s tomorrow morning at 10. And I promise you, that I will save all the Monday I can. Because I really want to spend the Holidays in new york. I’ll close this letter now hoping to hear from you soon- give my regards to your mom. Although I don’t know her, I think she’s tops (I guess most mothers are)
With love and best wishes
remain as ever
She has no more of a chance of ever meeting Kerouac’s mother as does Mardou Fox, the African-American female protagonist (or could she be an antagonist?) of The Subterraneans. Gabrielle Kerouac, the God-fearing xenophobe has no good use for Mexicans, Blacks, or Jews for that matter, as Ginsberg knew all too well.