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:
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.
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.
“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.
A Holy New Feeling Out There In the Streets
Kerouac attempted to define beat in a retaliating essay (for Esquire in March 1958), and it is first mentioned by Kerouac to Ginsberg in August 1957, during a disastrous stay in Mexico City where he fell ill and experienced a severe earthquake that he thought truly was the “natural end of the world”: “I hope they publish the article, in it I showed that “beat” is the Second Religiousness of Western Civilization as prophesied by Spengler.”
“The Second Religiousness of Western Civilization.” This is ignored by the editors who, probably never cracked Spengler at all for the purposes of this book. Morgan and Stanford will, however, write in their introduction that the “cultural construct of the Beat Generation” was “essential” to both writers. All the books will inform us that they are “beat”, but none will say with any degree of authority what the was glue that stuck them together. John Steinbeck relied upon Frazer’s The Golden Bough and the Catholic Bible to thematically underpin the bulk of his short stories and novels, a fact well-researched and accepted as fact by Steinbeck scholarship. Ginsberg and Kerouac, however, again and again, are short-shrifted due to the lack of archival research that will fully articulate this connection.
Spengler’s “Second Religiousness” in theory gives hope, a rebirth for civilizations content to make Faustian bargains under the illusion of “progress.” We are, it seems, on Spengler’s descending arc of the Classical age. Though Europe and the Americas are technologically advanced, as civilizations, they strive to obtain the unattainable, thus thrusting its people into a tragic doomed existence. Had the editors taken the time to articulate Spengler’s relevance to Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs (and even Neal Cassady), later references will become powerful and give the reader a perspective toward their mindsets.
When Kerouac rails against America in September 1954, (“All I’m saying is that the U.S. is in the hands of people like the publishers you hate and they are fucking us up in the rest of the world’s Spenglerian schemes. We should be feeding Asia not fighting her at this point.”), we know the source of his anger and frustration. Irate Kerouac still hasn’t published his road novel, yet refuses to sell out in a nation of burgeoning sell-outs. We also see ten years before the fact, Kerouac’s souring attitude toward the coalescing war in Vietnam. His pacifist stance and a grounded realization that the world is in need of tender compassion, and less blood crusades is all he preaches. Kerouac’s futility is heartbreaking, because we have learned that his only way of coping with it, when the demons of his creative impulse didn’t suffice, was to squash it like Falstaff in a daily Bacchanalian drinkfest (with the occasional tab of acid and a sundry assortment of uppers and downers).
It is also important and necessary to extend Ginsberg’s initial reference to Spengler . Of that original letter, Ginsberg’s life-changing experience with the voice of Blake in the summer of 1948, he tries to convince Kerouac of Spengler’s relevance (“something alien and higher, dwells in him”) to his Blake vision. The lack of thorough elucidation by the editors becomes glaring. Their frequent mentions of Spengler (as well as Fyodor Dostoevsky) supplements their belief that the cycles of life will unavoidably lead to an ever-spiraling circle of despair. Viking Penguin’s history of Kerouac, though they are commendable for putting out the posthumous stuff, seems shallow at best. They come across as this: just stick old Jack on the cover, make him look handsome, mannish and authorial, and have him smoke a cigarette and become the urban-equivalent of the Marlboro Man peering over the Manhattan skyline toward the mysterious West, and the book will sell thousands. It is sadly neglectful.
Other times Viking makes him and his prose look comic-bookish, with fonts kids use to emblazon their name on their My Space pages. Just check out Viking’s American book cover for
Book of Haikus. The editorial investment in what lies beneath the brooding movie-star exterior is nil. One scholar declared the threat of trivializing Kerouac in poorly-written graduate thesis papers recently, but the threat hardly occurs in universities. The trivialization starts with the publisher. Thankfully, it is the power and poetry of Kerouac’s words that endures through any and all shallow marketing schemes to make his books more salable.
Another case in point for these letters are their craftily-created literary allusions. Here’s one example: Kerouac dispenses advice to Ginsberg about meeting his book editor for The Town and the City, Robert Giroux, with prospects of his poetry to be published: “Be smart, now, and don’t shit your pants. The world is only waiting for you to pitch sad silent love in the place of excrement. Okay?” This is splendid; Kerouac slips in a literary reference with characteristic Kerouacian wordplay, bringing his scatological reference to another level. It is a moment that completely slips by the attention of the editors. Had they caught it, they would have footnoted that Kerouac’s allusion is to William Butler Yeats’s poem “Crazy Jane Talks with the Bishop”:
‘A woman can be proud and stiff
When on love intent;
But Love has pitched his mansion in
The place of excrement;
For nothing can be sole or whole
That has not been rent.’
Had Bill Morgan, the editor who is a career man in all matters Ginsberg, dug a bit deeper, he also would have mentioned that Ginsberg included the “Crazy Jane “ poems in his “Celestial Homework”, a reading list he compiled and handed out to Naropa Institute students attending his Literary History of the Beat Generation course in 1977.
Ignoring this and others in a collection of this magnitude will pick away collateral damage done by critics like Norman Podhoretz’s who attempted an ignorant “bitch-slap” to the Beats in his 1958 Partisan Review essay, “The Know-Nothing Bohemians.” The process of editing primary source documents demands scrutiny from its editors; otherwise the process amounts to nothing more than mere transcription. Historical and literary references run amok in the expansive and wide-ranging dispatches of Ginsberg and Kerouac. To refer to them once in a while will not hazard the book to sail astray into the dry, sterile oceans of academic publishing. Such attention to detail demands a significant editorial investment from its editors, the respective estates and the publisher.
In short, there is no attention paid to the creative process.
This slipshod approach appears to again be a lack of respect for Jack Kerouac by Viking. Ginsberg seems to be treated better, for the poet was alive and well anticipating the eventual publication of his journals and letters, he had a hand in annotating much of them with Bill Morgan and others. Though Viking Penguin and the Kerouac Estate are champions of Kerouac’s posthumous work, they seem to tack on (with the exception of On the Road (The Original Scroll) and Wake Up) introductions serving as mere fluff. For a while the Kerouac estate was content to duly appoint poet Robert Creeley to write meandering introductions that bore no true relevance to the work itself (other than they were both from Massachusetts and were contemporaries and were somewhat in contact during Kerouac’s life time).
Later they assigned the task of writing introductions to historian Douglas Brinkley who contributed wholeheartedly but still amid a myriad of factual errors, unforgivable since he at that time had sole access to Kerouac’s archives. The little understood Book of Sketches, instead of being treated as a groundbreaking example of Kerouac’s mature writing voice, was handed off to a graphic artist, George Condo who did his best to match Kerouac’s written “sketching” method with his own literaral pen-and-ink sketching, he displays an eye for verisimilitude, but little else.
Again, it looks like a comic book, maybe a graphic novel instead of a serious piece of literature. The American division of Viking, no doubt, has a long history of designing tacky covers for Kerouac’s books, check out their 50th anniversary issue of The Dharma Bums (at first glance it appears to be a rucksacked hitchhiker in black face (it’s a dog) holding a sign reading “Nirvana”. For real?). The numerous unpublished documents that could have brought Book of Sketches into a fuller perspective about what Kerouac was trying to achieve are disregarded. Condo’s fluff does more to deflate the book before Kerouac’s original mind-sketches of a bygone America resurrects the title to its full dignity.
Should we expect long academic dissertations in books like these? No. However Kerouac’s own extensive archive contains frequent notes made about the author about his works-in-progress, something that would have made the 50th anniversary reissue of on the Road special, by supp,enting it with portions of the various proto-versions of this important canonical novel. Instead we get, no lie, almost one-hundred pages of navel-gazing essays written by a band of U.K. and American professors. During one course I taught on Kerouac in Lowell, Massachusetts, I witnessed several students ripping out the introductory pages from their brand-new copies of On the Road: The Original Scroll, as if they were a series of trespassing texts that had no right infringing on a personal experience they wanted to discover for themselves. Jack Kerouac deserves better.
One approach for The Letters also would have been for Viking to negotiate with the Cassady estate (they have already published his Collected Letters), and made this book a three-way approach, letters sent to and from each other, a frantic crossfire of intellegence that contains the true heart and soul of what the beat generation is all about. Such a book would reveal the gradual evolution of Kerouac’s writing style, a by-product of Cassady’s erratic, spontaneous volley of stream-of-consciousness machine-gunning rap. Confessional and candid, Ginsberg, Cassady and Kerouac lash out spooky displays of heightened sensitivity displaying a psychic awareness of the phenomena of their lives.
One letter of Cassady’s from December 1950 ultimately inspires Kerouac to cut loose the psychic baggage of his haunted childhood (giving us soon thereafter Dr. Sax). Cassady’s letters become a constant source of reference and inspiration for Kerouac and Ginsberg. Had this collection included Cassady’s letters, it would have illustrated most completely the male dynamic informing On the Road, Visions of Cody and “Howl”, a Whitmanic camaraderie that influenced and changed the lives of all three men. Cassady, in short, was the creative glue of Kerouac and Ginsberg.
However, we have this, and a great book it remains, hurling us into the wilderness of creation, the Beats are fully fleshed out as individuals bent on creating art and forging a new path into American letters. That they acknowledged the raw, primitive beauty of America is a vital element toward comprehending that “holy new feeling out there in the streets.” Their passions burn unabated; flickering fires of creation rightly inspiring, influencing and placating generations young and old to take it to the streets.