May 23, 2016
Whither gottest thou, Jack Kerouac, thy shiny prose style?
by Ryan Harrington
I saw the best minds of my generation corresponding exuberantly. And by “exuberantly,” I mean “on speed.”
One major influence on Jack Kerouac and the whole beat generation was a Benzedrine-fueled, 16,000-word letter from Kerouac’s friend Neal Cassady, which the revered On the Road author called “the greatest piece of writing I ever saw.” And perhaps you might like to buy it, if that dorm-room Kerouac poster isn’t quite cutting it: the original, eighteen-typewritten-page letter, newly discovered, is expected to fetch up $600,000 dollars in an auction at Christie’s.
Dated December 17, 1950, the epistle—commonly referred to as the “Joan Anderson letter,” for a former lover whom Cassady describes visiting in the hospital after a suicide attempt—has been believed lost for the last sixty-six years. In fact, Kerouac himself perpetuated the myth that it had been accidentally dropped over the side of Gerd Stern’s houseboat in Sausalito after being rejected for publication. In reality, it had been safely tucked away within the archives of the Golden Goose Press, a leading poetry publisher of its day.
In a 1968 interview for the Paris Review, Kerouac cited the breathless confessional letter as the inspiration for the spontaneous style of On the Road. Kerouac’s actual response to Cassady says it best:
I thought it ranked among the best things ever written in America… it was almost as good as the unbelievably good ‘Notes from the Underground’ of Dostoevsky… You gather together all the best styles… of Joyce, Celine, Dosy… and utilize them in the muscular rush of your own narrative style & excitement. I say truly, no Dreiser, no Wolfe has come close to it; Melville was never truer.
While Cassady’s influence on the 1960’s counterculture is hard to ignore, his papers are scarce and have never before gone to auction. For those of us bidders expecting to come in below the $600,000 mark, the Cassady family is hatching a plan to publish the material someday.
Ryan Harrington is a senior editor at Melville House.