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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.

Tender Reproaches

Kerouac has girls city side, tucked safely away from where he lives with his mother. When he locks into focus at Ozone Park, he attempts testy forays of his road novel through the keys of his typewriter or urgently spills words at the end of his pencil. Kerouac, like Ginsberg, knows time. He is impatient waiting to hear from Little, Brown, and from Atlantic Monthly, both recipients of chunks of his manuscript in the making.

While he waits, Kerouac forges ahead surfing a tidal wave of concentrated prose. By the end of the day he tallies his accumulated word count: Nov. 19 – 1,500 words, Nov. 20 – 2,500 words, Nov. 21- 1,000 words. By the 23rd, Kerouac drops completely out of the tired progression of The Town and the City and picks up his gestating road novel. He sorts through Allen’s letters for ideas, inspiration or for veracity of detail (he doesn’t say). That day Kerouac attended a class at the New School for Social Research with Ginsberg and listens to Alfred Kazin lecture on Melville’s Redburn. Afterwards they share a beer with the celebrated American critic. Kazin splits and one beer becomes ten for Jack, and, later that night, Ginsberg and Lucien Carr, the very archangel of doom according to Kerouac, carries “sick drunk” Jean-Louis to the backseat of Lucien’s car where he passes out, wakes up and staggers home the next morning. Two days letter, the pattern is set and Kerouac’s mood blackens.

His homeless feet are now washed, his starving gullet is fed hot soup, and he is tenderly succored by Allen’s Prince Myshkin sensibilities...
“Everything is just it,” he will resign himself to in his journal. IT. The word becomes the shortest mantra ever writ in On the Road. For Kerouac, feebly grappling with a mood darkened to despair, he now matches the equally lovelorn and left-for-ruin Ginsberg who misses and still wants Neal Cassady, despite knowing that he is jumping between at least two known women back west, and there is no room for another in his life. Not in that sense. There is no alternative but to lie down and wait to die, or, to one up death and court it one novel (or one poem) at a time.

In September 1948, Ginsberg turns down Cassady’s offer, whether he meant it or not, of a life stipend. Ginsberg writes to Cassady: “If fate goes against me I will accept it gratefully and look on you as an angel from the Cosmos. But I think I must be my own angel if I am ever going to bring messages from heaven myself, and I will conquer or—Conquest at the moment is a matter of steeling myself to adjust to society.” Ginsberg prefers to go it alone, but by December 1948, he now has the beat par excellence stinking up his apartment. His homeless feet are now washed, his starving gullet is fed hot soup, and he is tenderly succored by Allen’s Prince Myshkin sensibilities, “Huncke moved in,” he informs Kerouac, “yakked at me irritably for a week and a half, ate my food, took my last nickel, and walked off with my last suits, a jacket, Russell Durgin’s winter clothes.” Hunke needs a nurse, or a sucker, but Allen, knowing that Jack’s tender reproaches are indeed the chicken soup for his soul, implores his muse not to “think ill of me.”

Shortly thereafter, Ginsberg returns to Paterson, New Jersey, away from sickly Huncke, from the madness of Manhattan’s demon metropolis, to escape an insane vortex of Benzedrine destruction and mental bewilderment. He reflects objectively to Kerouac that his “consciousness interposes itself between my soul and the world.” Between each polestar, he hardly detects the faint heartbeat of his natal poetry.

The moments between these two, sometimes, are like two brothers separated by circumstances beyond their control. Then the letters arrive, either as intercontinental shouts of encouragement, or requests for money (borrowed or owed), or to try out their new material, test runs of new stretches of prose, or stanzas leaping from Ginsberg’s mental coil. Later Kerouac will try out his genius word blast of Visions of Cody and the results are less-than-desirable because Allen doesn’t get it, nor do other close friends like John Clellon Holmes who have it in the back of their critical thinking minds, that Kerouac must bend, must sway a little bit in order to ever meet the demands of the publishing trade.

Ginsberg writes Kerouac in November 1952 (he is in New York, Kerouac in San Francisco, still on the road, dogging the heels of his subject, of being bitch-slapped by a tormenting muse that never lets him rest easy. Kerouac is again a Whitmanic incarnation of “seize the day”) that he believes Kerouac’s adolescent mythical Lowellelian hallucination is better than On the Road. Though he acknowledges the “original method” of On the Road, Sax has better reason to be published. It isn’t known if Ginsberg is smoking more weed than Kerouac did while writing Sax in Mexico City with Burroughs, On the Road’s standard roman á clef / picaresque narrative will prove to have the better reception, ultimately, after it becomes edited (“castrated” to use Jack’s description, by eminent editor Malcolm Cowley) and made acceptable for home use by the suits of Madison Avenue.

It is perhaps in this letter that the true magic and worth of Ginsberg for Kerouac becomes apparent, for Ginsberg is one of the earliest champions of Kerouac’s writing: “I believe with On the Road and Sax, which makes that tendency crystal clear, you really have hit a whole lode of originality of method of writing prose—method incidentally though like Joyce is your own origin and make and style, similarities only superficial your neologisms are not foggy philosophical precisions but aural (hear-able) inventions that carry meanings.” Ginsberg, the true poet that he is, recognizes that Jack’s power lies beyond what is on the printed page, but that it has voice, and that the nuances of its aural beauty resembles Joyce, but with a “natural Nealish speak cadence.” Of Doctor Sax, Kerouac’s adeptness at changing voices to suit his authorial intention is also exemplary: “The structure of reality and myth—shuttling back and forth, is a stroke of genius: casting the myth within the frame of childish fantasy, so giving it reality [?] in terms of its frame.” [Note: Ginsberg’s bracketed question mark, not mine.]

It is moments like these, when Ginsberg fully articulates his critique that this book begins to gel without the intrusion of constant referencing. However, some letters require explanation.

Though this book is subjugated to the editorial limitations of not one, but two experienced editors, one has to wonder if it was not worth their time to dig a little deeper, to decipher the intelligent word play, or uncover the obscure literary/historical references that Kerouac and Ginsberg frequently allude to in their missives? Publishing personal correspondences demands a higher level of editorial respect, perhaps even an uncanny mind melding with its subject(s). An index of all of the identities of that era could have been provided as an addendum; they are herewith placed at the bottom of the page haphazardly. Some get mentioned, others not.

How then are footnotes best employed? The seven-volume trade paper collection of Walt Whitman’s correspondence, recently published (as print-on-demand titles) by New York University raises the bar as collections of letters go. The Good Grey Poet’s tumultuous times, his complex family life, his ever-lasting poetry-in-flux, and the kicked-over beehive of the United States caught in violent flux is expertly captured by extensive (but not trite) footnoting and knowledgeable cross-referencing brings the reader as close to a life as one can reasonably get. True, it’s a university press, but material as sensitive and enlightening as personal correspondence should undergo nothing less, for what is its true purpose other than to clarify and compound what we already know?

Another recent single-volume best-scenario example is Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, March 2010). The editors provide a full, exhaustive glossary of names and “because the correspondence between Bishop and Lowell records not only their friendship but their lives as readers, the editors have identified books and articles the poets were reading, as well as literary allusions.” Are we asking too much for a similar treatment for the Beats, or does Viking deem their key readership to be nothing less, or more, than nitwits and inbreeds that wouldn’t know the difference between a Hemingway and a herring-bone?

The editors claim they began with 300 letters and settled with 192. The Bishop/Lowell letters are complete, unexpurgated and amount to a hardcover book brimming over 900 pages. What is the excuse then of Viking cutting so many letters? The editors claim it is “impractical” to include them all. I call it irresponsible. Having demonstrated little editorial scrutiny with the letters they chose, ignoring the rest seems to make no sense at all. Anyways, what about it is impractical? Every shred of primary source evidence becomes important to someone at some time. Books of this caliber must not speak only to us, but to generations ahead if the title is to have any shelf longevity.

Of what then, could they have contributed? Here are some examples: Ginsberg writes early in the book when he meets the future dedicatee of his groundbreaking poem “Howl" (for Carl Solomon) in a madhouse Ginsberg has been committed to on suspicion of his homosexuality after being indirectly involved in some criminal activities of Huncke and Co.: “He apparently was full of great mad gestures when he first came in (with a copy of Nightwood) threatening to smear the walls with excrement if he didn’t get a seclusion (private) room so that he could finish his book in peace.” Though the editors note that Nightwood is a “novel written by Djuna Barnes in 1936,” it is, for all its verisimilitude, unimportant. The book, other than Solomon holding it in his hands, doesn’t bring any depth to the letter itself, it is simply anecdote that Ginsberg adds to describe Solomon to Kerouac.

Earlier in the book, a reference to German historian/philosopher Oswald Spengler is made by Ginsberg when he asks Kerouac “Do you remember Spengler’s description of the magician idea of god?” and then goes on to quote the relevant passage in full. Ginsberg made it easy for the editors who could have then clarified what Ginsberg was getting at simply by analyzing the quoted passage and putting in a description that wouldn’t have come off so cryptically for the lay reader (the readership Viking is no doubt aiming for). Instead, we get this footnote, “A reference to Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West.” Really, guys? Well,

In truth, Spengler’s theory of how civilizations rise and fall in cycles was highly influential to Kerouac and then, via Burroughs, to Ginsberg. Kerouac had been reading Spengler since 1940 after he became tremendously interested in evolution and its consequent rise of civilizations, both by the Columbia course he was taken on Western Civilization, and his infatuation with H.G. Wells’ The Outline of History and Hendrik Willem Van Loon’s The Story of Mankind. Kerouac’s studies of evolution and the progressive/regressive states of early civilizations built a foundation for his later understanding and development of the concept of being “beat”.

“Beat” has historic significance and it has become, in part through Ginsberg’s clever manipulation of the media to promote his constituents, good and not-so-good, many of which were ultimately fated to line the pages of Ann Charters’ The Deplorable Beat Reader (Viking). In part, Kerouac derived beat from Spengler who wrote “All that is cosmic bears the hall-mark of periodicity; it has beat (rhythm, tact). All that is microcosmic possesses polarity.” Spengler incites in Kerouac’s literature the very credo that informs his singular objectives, that of the great flow of generations through civilizations and through the Fellaheen, that which “binds them in a great linkage of destiny, beat, and time.” If one takes Kerouac’s "Visions of Gerard" into consideration, one draws more meaning from it prefaced by its Spenglerian ties. The “child has to die,” Spengler writes, “because, brought into existence out of discordant cycles of the blood, it is the fruit of cosmic sin.” Nothing could stamp Kerouac’s tragic ode to loss of innocence so aptly.

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