I’ve been slowly reading The Letters, a collection of correspondence between Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg from 1944 to 1963. Many things have struck me in the reading, among them the tremendous insecurities writers have, in between bouts of vigorous boasting (which is perhaps a component of that insecurity). Their own self-professed literary flounderings and scrapings for a dollar here and a dollar there also put in mind how a newly open door—for instance, the publishing of Kerouac’s On the Road in 1957—can catapult the near dumpster-diving author into a life equally as bizarre (but more baroquely grand) as the one from the splintered past.
First things first: the sheer volume of their communications. The handwritten letter is nearly a relic, a nicety reserved for 50th birthday greetings or a scribbled postcard that proves you finally did make it to Lake Como. The gushing cataract of words between these two is astonishing, particularly when we consider how we communicate today. Some of the letters roll from page to page to page, chockablock with imagery, prose and poetic snippets, passages copied from other authors, asides to asides to man overboards! of exclamation and moment.
Their content feels like Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights looks: a crazy quilt of devilry, debauchery, intense sniping, imagined and real enemies, anxiety over money, transcendence. The regular name-dropping of other literary and social figures is amusing too, because both Kerouac and Ginsberg struggled mightily to place their works in the hands of various literary agents and in front of the literati of the New York publishing scene, and they bewailed their contemporaries’ lack of insight. You read that Malcolm Cowley lacks the vision to see their vision, that William Carlos Williams is a good man, but somehow missing insight. But they criticize each other’s works too, often exchanging loving “you’re the sole genius” comments, only three letters later to declare the stale, derivative aspects of their opposite’s work. Not surprisingly, the criticisms would engender a new spasm of words from the other.
I Give Up. Forever. But On Second Thought…
Another thing of note: both Ginsberg and Kerouac often made world-weary pronouncements, frequently of the “I’m now an ascetic” nature, uttered as an irrevocable change. “I’ve stopped drinking forever, I won’t sleep with men again, I am through with Buddhism, Neal [Cassady] and I are no longer friends.” Of course, another week’s worth of letters would prove that drink, men, Buddhism and Neal Cassady had winning charms yet again.
I’m about 300 pages in on the 500-page book, and it’s late spring of 1955. Ginsberg had published a few poems in small journals, but wasn’t known in wide circles. Kerouac had published a minor novel, the Town and the City, in 1950, which hadn’t gained much attention. Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems would come out from City Lights Press in 1956; Kerouac’s On the Road in 1957—rapid publications for both followed, and the literary orbits of these authors widened immeasurably from there.
I’m jealous of the intimacy of this literary friendship, its depth, its crazed rages, its tendernesses, its longevity. Kerouac, always a drinker, moved even deeper into that pond, and died from alcohol-induced internal bleeding in 1969 at age 47. But it’s the pre-fame lives of these authors I find most interesting, because they are filled with the dailyness of life, the grubbing for work and attention, the comradely clap on the shoulder. It’s good to have a writer pal, to toss allusions (and illusions) to, and have them tossed back. Reading The Letters make me want to check out Patti Smith’s recent National Book Award-winning book Just Kids. There she limns her long and deep relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe in the hardscrabble streets of New York, long before they ascended into the limelight.
Writers, if you are keeping long correspondence with some crazed coterie, don’t be surprised to have it dissected in some creative-writing class years hence. Good reason not to reveal where the bodies or the jewels can be found—but more fun for readers if you do.
Postscript: RIP Augustus
A skull-and-lightning-bolt wave to Owsley, now on a comet ride to the Dark Star.