Books

Manly Love: Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg's Letters

Kerouac and Ginsberg are cosmic twins borne from Whitman’s Universal skull, bonded as comrades, cerebrally-joined as poets -- but it will sour for Kerouac when Ginsberg uses his poetic voice as a political trump card.


Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg: The Letters

Publisher: Viking
Length: 528 pages
Author: Bill Morgan & David Stanford (Eds)
Price: $35.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2010-07
Amazon

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.

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:

Gang Bang

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

Bea Franco

XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX

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.

Next Page

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image