October 2, 2017

End of the Road for the Rare Letter that Inspired On the Road


“To hell with the dirty lousy shit,” the letter begins. Via Christie’s.

If you haven’t had a chance to read our years-running updates on the the long-lost letter that greatly influenced the prose style of Jack Kerouac and On The Road, let me get you up to speed (and trust that there is plenty of “speed” involved):

On December 17, 1950 Kerouac’s friend Neal Cassady—the legendary libertine that Kerouac lightly fictionalized as Dean Moriarty in On The Roadfired off a manic, 16,000-word missive to the author. Kerouac thought its stream-of-consciousness musings on one of Cassady’s lovers, Joan Anderson, made for “the greatest piece of writing I ever saw” and warranted comparisons like “truly, no Dreiser, no Wolfe has come close to it; Melville was never truer.”

As one does upon discovering great writing, he passed it on — specifically to poet Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg then purportedly passed it on to a friend who lived on a houseboat, where it was thought to have fallen overboard and met its soggy end. Not so! Turns out Ginsberg actually sent it (with a few more circuitous stops in between) to Golden Goose Press, within whose archive it was rediscovered in 2014.

But, the drama does not end there. Last year, the document was put up for auction at Christie’s, where it failed to fetch the minimum bid of $400,000. And so it went to auction again in March 2017, this time with Heritage Auctions — and was snatched up by Emory University for a cool $206,250.

As Jennifer Schuessler reports for the New York Times, the letter finally went on display last week as part of the university library’s exhibition “The Dream Machine: The Beat Generation and the Counterculture, 1940-1975.” Schuessler writes:

The exhibition, which runs through May 15, includes items from Emory’s deep Beat holdings, including Kerouac’s rucksack, a rare mimeographed first edition of Ginsberg’s “Howl” and one of Brion Gysin’s “dream machines,” a spinning contraption equipped with a flashing light that Gysin described as “the first work of art designed to be looked at with your eyes closed.” (While intended to induce creative hallucinations, it can also cause seizures and migraines, so will only be turned on for special events, the library said.)

The Cassady letter will be displayed in its entirety in facsimile, so the public can finally read all 19 pages. But some puzzles remain, including how a separate, one-page Cassady document included in the auction lot relates to the letter.

No developments yet on the Cassady family’s plan to publish the letter for the general public.



Ryan Harrington is a senior editor at Melville House.