by Jonah Raskin
The Letters: Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, Edited by Bill Morgan and David Stanford, Viking Penguin; ISBN 978-0-670-02194-9, 528 pages, $35.
Author's note: All the quotations are from The Letters: Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.
(Swans - May 3, 2010) They grew up as bookish boys and wanted to become literary powerhouses. Born in 1922, Jack Kerouac was inspired by the novels of Leo Tolstoy, William Saroyan, and Thomas Wolfe. Allen Ginsberg, who was born in 1926, lost himself in the poetry of Carl Sandberg and Walt Whitman. At 15, he wrote in his notebook, "I'll be a genius of some kind or other, probably in literature." When they met in New York in 1944, they recognized one another as kindred spirits. Books bound them together in a mutual admiration literary society and a sibling rivalry in which year after year they both inflated and deflated egos -- their own, one another's, and their contemporaries'.
"I'm reading Jane Austen and finishing Dickens's Great Expectations," Ginsberg wrote in his first letter to Kerouac in August 1944. "I also started Wuthering Heights for the second time for an English course." (p.3-4) Books electrified him more than girls -- or boys. Kerouac wrote back immediately. "Look at Finnegan's Wake and Ulysses and The Magic Mountain," he exclaimed, aiming to bring Ginsberg out of Victorian literature and into 20th-century modernism. (p.5) Both of these letters and 178 others are collected in a new essential book for all aficionados of the Beats that's entitled Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg: The Letters, edited by Bill Morgan, Ginsberg's dedicated bibliographer, and David Stanford, who was a longtime editor at Viking Penguin. About one-third of these letters have been published previously -- in Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters (1940-1956) and Jack Kerouac Selected Letters (1957-1969), both edited by Ann Charters.
Scholars have long had access to the entire Ginsberg-Kerouac correspondence. Kerouac sold the letters in his possession to the University of Texas; Ginsberg sold his to Columbia and Stanford. Morgan and Stanford started out with about 300 archived letters, most of them typed, many without paragraphs and proper punctuation, and surprisingly free of the argot of hipsters and Beats. It's too bad all the letters aren't here, but 180 letters arranged chronologically and in a single volume focuses attention on one of the most important literary and cultural collaborations of the 20th century. Written from the mid 1940s to the early 1960s, they add up to a freewheeling, collaborative biography that traces the birth and evolution of the Beat Generation movement. Moreover, the letters tell the larger story about the growing commercialism of publishing in the United States and the entrenchment of the fame industry.
The first letter in the new book is from 1944, soon after Kerouac and Ginsberg met in New York -- two young men not in the military and out of step with their generation. Ginsberg initiated the correspondence, and while it took two to maintain it Ginsberg was the primary motivating force behind the correspondence, much as he was the primary driving force behind the Beat Generation as a literary movement. Kerouac was his first convert, followed by William Burroughs -- the Harvard graduate, heroin addict, and wanna-be novelist. Next, he converted Neal Cassady, a sometimes car thief who was married with children, and who became the hero of Kerouac's On the Road and Ginsberg's Howl. Burroughs, Cassady, their friends, and confederates turn up in the letters again and again. Many of them read like extended gossip columns about the doings of the Beat Generation's poets, con artists, and petty criminals.
Ginsberg's second letter to Kerouac in July 1945 set the tone for much of their volatile relationship. "I am a Jew," he wrote. "I am an exile from myself." He described himself as "ugly and imperfect," lacking Kerouac's "natural grace," and he added, "You are an American more completely than I." (p.10) In this letter and many that followed, Ginsberg took on the persona of the awkward, self-loathing outsider who was "alien" to himself. From the start, he also made it clear that what he sought in life was "self-aggrandizement." (p.10)
How Kerouac reacted to the specifics of this letter he didn't say, though he would often try to persuade Ginsberg that as a Catholic and a French-Canadian whose first language was French he wasn't as "American" as Ginsberg assumed. In his immediate reply to Ginsberg's letter of July 1945, he made no mention of Ginsberg's confessions. He was working as a soda jerk, he explained, and he was writing "magazine love stories" that he hoped to sell. (p.12) For the next twenty years, Kerouac would describe Ginsberg as a Jew, and as a Jewish writer, not as an American writer, and that hurt Ginsberg's feelings. Moreover, Kerouac would patronize Ginsberg as his little brother, and cast himself as the wiser, older brother.
After the initial flurry of letters, their correspondence simmered for years. Kerouac didn't open up to Ginsberg until the summer of 1949 when he was in Denver, Colorado, beginning to write On the Road, the "opus" in which he wanted "to write about the crazy generation and put them on the map and give them the importance and make everything begin to change once more." (p.96) From the start, he knew that the novel would be about his own generation, and that the main character would be in search of his own father, not surprisingly since both Kerouac and Ginsberg were in search of father figures all though the 1940s.
From 1949 to 1957, Kerouac continued to work on On the Road. His fierce loyalty to his work, which he likened to the work of both Dostoevsky and Joyce, ran deeper than his loyalty to Ginsberg, or to his own mother to whom he habitually returned after each road trip. (p.352) Ginsberg admired his persistence and self-confidence, and tried to emulate him. After Kerouac went to Mexico, Ginsberg wanted to explore Mexico though he would complain soon after his arrival, "I am beginning to hate Mexico." (p.205) He took to Buddhism after Kerouac and had better luck there.
"Madness" was another territory that Kerouac explored and that Ginsberg wanted to know. During World War II, Kerouac had been locked up in a US Navy mental hospital. He had volunteered for military service, but found he could not endure the discipline, and, when he threw down his rifle, he was incarcerated. From the moment he met him, Ginsberg thought of Kerouac as the central figure in a circle of "madmen and artists." In 1949, Ginsberg followed Kerouac's path and entered New York State Psychiatric Institute -- rather than serve prison time for his role as an accessory in a series of robberies -- an arrangement negotiated by his college teachers.
Ginsberg called the mental hospital a "madhouse," and in a long letter written while he was a patient, he described the ward, the doctors, and nurses, turning his nearly eight months in the hospital into a living novel in which he was the surreal anti-hero. (p.98) "Think Kafka," he told Kerouac when he wanted him to image his life as a patient. (p.100) When he described a fellow inmate, he called him "a pale Bartleby," after the main character in Melville's 1853 novella Bartleby, The Scrivener. (p.101)
At the start of his letter from the hospital, Ginsberg wrote, "There are no intellectuals in a mad house" (p.98). By the end of the letter, however, he was raving about a near-perfect intellectual: a Bronx-born Jewish existentialist named Carl Solomon who introduced him to Jean Genet and Antonin Artaud. It was the turning point in Ginsberg's life, and he made sure to relate the details to Kerouac. After his time at the New York State Psychiatric Hospital, he would go on to make "madness" the primary trope in his work. "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness," he wrote in Howl, which is "For Carl Solomon" and that is dedicated to Kerouac (as well as to Burroughs and Cassady) whom he called the "new Buddha of American prose."
Kerouac was impressed by Ginsberg's antics and adventures. "I admire you for delivering yourself to an actual bughouse," he wrote. "It shows your interest in things and people." (p.93) In fact, it showed his attention to the details of life right in front of him. Ginsberg had a tendency to abstraction, and to lose himself in his own words. In 1948, while still an undergraduate at Columbia College in New York, he wrote an essay, he told Kerouac, about "the idea of eternity" (p.51). His teacher had written "Pretentious generalization." (p.51) Ginsberg was honest enough to tell Kerouac, "I guess it really was too."
From the start of their relationship, he had set himself up as "imperfect," but that did not prevent him from telling Kerouac what he thought Kerouac needed to know about his own writing. In 1952, after agreeing to work as Kerouac's literary agent and to sell On The Road, he explained why he couldn't sell it. "I don't see how it will ever be published, it's so personal, it's so full of sex language, and so full of our local mythological references," he wrote. (p.176)
Kerouac was hurt. "You who I thought was my friend --- you sit there and look me in the eye and tell me the On the Road I wrote at Neal's is imperfect," he asked rhetorically. "My heart beats every time I look at On the Road." He turned Ginsberg's denunciation of the book into his own rallying cry: "I see it now, why it is great and why you hate it," he said. (pp.178, 179) He never fully recovered emotionally from Ginsberg's hurtful letter.
Meanwhile, Ginsberg began to develop a sense of self-confidence. In 1955, in San Francisco, he felt sexually liberated for the first time in his life, and boasted in a letter to Kerouac, "I'm in love with a twenty-two year old saint boy." (p.254) He also said, "I'm changed in Calif., like a dream." (p.255) Drawing on his experiences at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, and with the benefit of psychoanalysis at Langley Porter Clinic in San Francisco, he wrote Howl, and did exactly what he told Kerouac he ought not to have done in On the Road. "I steal from you," he proclaimed. (p.262) Indeed, he infused Howl with "sex language," "local mythological references," and he made it personal.
Now, with the success that Howl and On the Road provided, Ginsberg and Kerouac became household names. Ginsberg enjoyed fame. Kerouac resented it, tried to run from it, and poured out his agony to Ginsberg: "What this honeyed manure has done to me: it's killing me rapidly. I have to escape or die, don't you see." (p.433) Ginsberg didn't see, though Kerouac repeated his message and added nuances to it. "I don't want to see anyone or talk to anyone," he wrote. (p.440) "Anyone" included Ginsberg, and he used his own mother as an excuse not to see his friend.
Ginsberg tried to involve Kerouac in overtly political activity -- to vote for Kennedy in 1960, and to join the protest movements of the 1960s, and, though Kerouac had attended US Communist Party meetings in the 1940s, and had called himself "a wandering revolutionist," (p.41) and a "Leftist" (p.53), he now wanted what he called in Dharma Bums (1958) a "rucksack revolution" -- a revolution by young people who would turn their backs on society.
At the start of the 1960s, Kerouac predicted profound upheaval in the United States. He offered trenchant criticism of the society, perhaps more trenchant than Ginsberg's, though Ginsberg affiliated himself with the counterculture and the peace movement of the 1960s, from which Kerouac recoiled. "Our mind essence is completely blasted by music, people, books, papers, movies, games, sex, talk, business, taxes, cars, asses, gasses, yah ach etc," Kerouac bemoaned. (p.471) He wanted citizens, he explained to Ginsberg, to turn to the classics of American literature -- to "the calm hearts of Melville, Whitman and Thoreau." (p.474)
While he did not march, protest or sit-in, as Ginsberg did, On the Road profoundly influenced radical activists such as Tom Hayden, Jerry Rubin, Mark Rudd, and Abbie Hoffman, all of whom went on the road and into the wilderness, wearing jeans, writing poetry, and in search of freedom.
Kerouac had long complained that Ginsberg was bleak and despairing. Now, it was his turn to offer a dark vision and for Ginsberg to become the bright optimist. Their letters show that they changed places and reversed their positions. "All's well," Ginsberg wrote in 1963. "Everything is alright." (p.474) He had been depressed for years and felt the need to reinvent himself. "I write white Howl, no more death," he told Kerouac. (p.475)
The epigraph for this book of letters comes from a 1962 letter by Kerouac to Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the poet, bookstore owner, and Ginsberg's longtime publisher. "Some day 'The Letters of Allen Ginsberg to Jack Kerouac' will make Americans cry," he wrote. (p.11) Indeed, they reveal the sad journey of a young man who often wallowed in self-pity even as he embraced self-aggrandizement and became, for much of the 1960s, a facile optimist. Kerouac's letters might also make a reader cry; they honestly described his own lonesomeness even as he was a world-famous author surrounded by admirers.
He also recounted the joys and ecstasies that he often experienced outside the United States and among the "fellaheen," as he called the earth's peasants. Perhaps his most heartfelt letter is one he wrote from Jalisco, Mexico, to Ginsberg in 1952, when he was an unknown writer, and On the Road existed only as an unfinished manuscript. "The Indian, the Mexican is great, straight and perfect," he told Ginsberg. "There is no more beautiful land than that of Jalisco." (p.167) Kerouac did not overtly include women in his circle, but women read his books, and women joined the Beat Generation literary movement. They opened up the open road to the women of the world, and women the world over have celebrated Jack Kerouac as a brother who sparked their own liberation. So, too, writers of color -- like Bob Kaufman and Amiri Baraka -- adapted the Beat credo and extended it.
Kerouac's view of Mexico was romantic, idealized, and very male centered, indeed, but in his Mexico letters he was at his most elegiac about the earth itself and the human beings who inhabited it, and it is not hard to understand why he is to this day a beloved writer in Mexico. Kerouac came a long way from the teenage boy who entitled his first novel The Sea Is My Brother, but he never surrendered that sense of brotherhood that he felt with men around the world. Forging a real friendship with Ginsberg wasn't as easy. "There's nothing that I hate more than the condescension you begin to show whenever I allow my affectionate instincts full play with regard to you," he wrote in 1945. "It gives me the feeling that I'm wasting a perfectly good store of friendship on a little self-aggrandizing weasel." (p.25)
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About the Author
Jonah Raskin is the author of American Scream: Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" and the Making of the Beat Generation and The Mythology of Imperialism: A Revolutionary Critique of British Literature and Society in the Modern Age. He lives in Northern California and is a professor at Sonoma State University. (back)