“Yes boy got your big letter and in the midst of big wild mad events too so that I haven’t had time to answer it as immediately as I’d might want to (sic)… a good great raving letter full of snowballs snowbells flowers, boles of flowers, love, life, Charley Parker, you’re alright.”
— To John Clellon Holmes, October 1955
And so strange it is to finally be reading these letters, even attempting to write about them, almost four decades after I first tried imitating them without even having read them, inspired wholly by that first reception of On the Road 1957. Reading Kerouac it’s easy to imagine you’re in the writing chair. In that racing Road book there are these guys writing long letters full of detail to their friends in the night (“famous of self,” as Kerouac once said). Up late to cop the scoop on what just happened, was still to happen, jumping through all the embroiled participants. Made sense to me. I was hooked on the mutual jazz connection. Little did I know what kind of new being I was becoming, exactly how he was hatching me as a writer. And sometime later a bass player friend would always say before the gig, “Let’s go into that Great American Bop Night!” and howl with maniacal glee. Yes.
Kerouac’s books are so close to letter form anyway, even if not usually expressed in the I-to-you mode of Vanity of Duluoz. The first person seems already a form of address, the I needing a you, if only imaginary, to tell it all out to, complete the energy jump. Letters, novels, poems, all of a piece in the fairly seamless pattern, a processing of the daily jot. In a letter to John Clellon Holmes (1952) he says, “don’t you ever dare think I would ‘put off’ writing to you when what I actually do is practice… my letters to you.” We now know that he kept carbons of many of his letters, useful later as memory banks for his writings.
Kerouac’s is not a style. It is a practice. So it has to do with, and must be discussed in terms of, the momentary. Fleets of the passing, speed and its velocities, Thelonious Monk’s “I laid it down, you got to pick it up,” the use of peripheries and the parenthetical in its leaps. He made me realize how fully temporal the act of writing must be. Kerouac is a go-for-it writer, not a puzzle-paster. He’s from the wrong class, too working-folk to be smoothly admitted to the elites of academy and prize, no careerist of any planned or practical sort. He doesn’t fit and he never will. Here (U.S.A.) he’s thought of, if at all, as a sort of naive confessor or sociological curiosity, elsewhere (say, France) he’s not even taken seriously as an artist (a sort of latter-day “Red Indian”). To me, he contains or at least suggests everything I would ever want of, or think to do in, a book. For, isn’t it all about freedom finally anyway?
Over 600 pages one has the pleasure of stretching out through all the broodings, reactions, angers, and glees of those years, the embodied meditations and exasperations of bared spirit, mind-flashes there’s no time to say any other way. Book access at such length now places Kerouac in the company of those writers whose volumes of letters may be read straight through with profit as complete works in themselves. Flaubert, Rilke, Beckett (as will no doubt be shown when his letters to Thomas McGreevey are published at last), H.P. Lovecraft, and most recently William Burroughs come easily to mind.
The bulk of the letters in this first of two volumes comes from the period: late ’40s to mid ’50s, his most intense writing years, about three-fourths of his major books composed then. The main correspondents here being Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, John Clellon Holmes, Carolyn Cassady, his editor Malcolm Cowley and literary agent Sterling Lord. Unfortunately missing are the letters to Ed White, his Denver architect friend (only one, previously published, is included), a correspondence starting in the late ’40s and continuing to the end of Kerouac’s life. I recall White saying, at the On the Road Conference in Boulder, 1982, that he had a big book of letters from Jack all ready to go but so far couldn’t get the nod from Jack’s widow to proceed (a 50-page selection of these letters has just appeared in the current issue of The Missouri Review).
Here he is in some of the earliest letters (1941) arguing his serious youngman self of idealism and plan, his steadfast lifelong holding to youthful dreams (later, in 1955, to Ginsberg, “Don’t you remember your babyhood concerns any more?”). “I’m hitchhiking home Thursday (6th) casually and poetically” with “no trees to sing for me.” And in 1943, “I have devised new plans for my life” (so many plans throughout these writings). And already, “I have grown to hate rhetoric — or attempts at it — why don’t men devise new ways of communication?”
In the summer of 1949 (after finishing his Wolfean investigations of The Town and the City) he writes from Denver the full-blown letter to Holmes which ranges from reports on how cowboy families view all the class-C westerns and “in their conversations they continually make allusions to ‘Roy’ and ‘Dale Evans’… just as we make allusions to Dostoevsky and Whittaker Chambers,” to his belief in the “Rattling Trucks, where I don’t have to explain anything, and where nothing is explained, only real, REAL REAL, see?,” eventually coming to the buddyhood Lowell staging of a kiddie boxing match where a voice imitation (B-a-a-a-a-a!) of the preround buzzer proves the complete irrationality of everything from Shakespeare and Celine to “all my serious passages in On the Road.” This is essential text time here! In fact there’s a Melvillean elaboration of On the Road (one of his many Road versions) quoted in a letter to his New School professor Elbert Lenrow, same year, full of lines like “of course men in bed do grow tender and full of wonder, some child-comprehension steals their hammered iron wits,” “quivering with the quivering motion of the earth they could feel spite of steel and shelved suspension” (the men are in jail). And all throughout the late red afternoon light “always a symbol to me of my childhood solitariness” and of his very birth, which eventuates into the red neons of saturday citynight source of mystery and maturity, so central to his visions.
From November 1950 to January 1951 there’s a run of letters to Neal Cassady which comprise almost a whole 60-page novella wherein you see him rehearsing out of childhood memory in Lowell time, and of course with extensions to the present religious and sexual, so much of the writing to come. The book is worthwhile just for the ur-workings of these.
Through all these letters he’s battling out just what is “Fiction” and what it might be simply to “tell,” and how much of all that is dream or is it reality-remembered? His breakthroughs in memory-writing will eventually lead to the use of a line so tensile it can react at speed to the slightest variation in the memory-chords he’s blowing his present-time melodies over. He’ll develop an instinct for just which words sink into the furthest backgrounds and which ones bring the writing right up to the surface present. “Like Proust,” but American, so quicker, “more instant and interesting.” And overall the writing has a “real-time” feel I sometimes think only the gonzo writers (R. Meltzer at his Gulcher peak, Hunter Thompson on the Nixon trail) really picked up on. The sense too that you could write about anything, doesn’t matter what, with the expansiveness of Kerouac’s unceasing line. Something all poets speeding across time’s drop-offs well know.
The angry rant letter to Ginsberg, but really to everybody in Kerouac’s writing arena at the time (October 8, 1952), has to be one of the exemplary outbursts of writer’s pain in the literature. He is so like the Céline he loved here. No matter the disturbance of mental surface, his spirit remains bright. The explosion happens, then clears. It had been, as Holmes says, “an expression of localized pain,” and “there was no meanness in him.” A month later he is writing to Allen, “you are very nice to understand my writings. I felt honored.” And, speaking of John Holmes, there’s a special feeling in Jack’s letters to him, of a tender eloquence, shared jazz and bookly concern, and writing-buddy regard. From the letter (sadly not included in this collection) to Holmes (June 1952) which moves from musings on the mysteries of the Doctor Sax universe through exigency woes of the writer’s life and concludes paralleling his with Wilhelm Reich’s fate (“he will die in disgrace, poverty and loneliness. It will happen to me.”) to a later letter where he concludes “John — Please stay my friend thru life, it’ll be long and dark,” you feel the strong emotion of comradely stability (also found in his friendship with Ed White in the West).
In January of 1953 he announces to Neal Cassady, “In Mexico, after you left, I in 5 days wrote, in French, a novel about me and you when we was kids in 1935” — “it’s the solution to the On the Road plots, all of em.” I must have this book! Occasionally in these letters Kerouac will reveal the name of a previously unknown work (like “The Long Night of Life,” The Imbecile’s Christmas, or Hold Your Horn High), making you wonder and wait. Did these remain separate works, completed or no, or were they subsumed into the later books that we know? I wish Charters had annotated some of these mysterious but practical matters.
Shakespeare arrives as well, he lurks in the Kerouac line over the time of his books anyhow, a quality little noticed by critics of the nod. A 1956 letter to poet Philip Whalen, “in Shakespeare’s time they didnt know what autobiographical naturalism was, and well for us, we dont know what spontaneous writing is… How else can you spit forth yr. intelligence? In meats, in parcels of meats? In wrappings? in hesitations, in bean-pots, in hooks and hams and ahems and holes of thought? in hems and haws?” Here he’s been reading the Bard while writing Visions of Gerard, an influence particularly noticeable there. Was it especially Henry V? In an earlier letter to Ginsberg he had quoted from the play, “[w]hose blood is fet from fathers of war-/proof!” and then commented, “wottaline!” His great essay, “Shakespeare and the Outsider” (included in Good Blonde & Others), makes plain their kinship in lines like “wrote in an inspired hurry what he immediately heard sound-wise while his steeltrap brain kept shutting down on the exigencies of plot and character in that sea of ravening English that came out of him.” Eloquence. And, to Ginsberg re Howl, “the first spout is the only spout, the rest is time’s tired faucet.”
It becomes sorely apparent as these letters progress through the many stages of On the Road revision that this book became in many hard-born ways his cross to bear. Forced, either by his own lights or the pressuring of his book-mill editors, to rewrite it so many times, he had to create Visions of Cody (using much of the same material) to get some of his own back, to get back into his own stream of developing writing safely away from the cookie cutters of the industry. All through the early ’50s you see them pestering him to tangle his perfect books together and make up a “seller” he rightly rejects (“I dont care”). To Sterling Lord, January 1955, “publishing to me (the big kind like Town & City) is like a threat over my head.” April 15, 1955, to Neal Cassady, “for the rest of my life, I’m dedicating myself to enormous artistic labors, for better or worse, I dont give a fuck whether it brings me riches or nothin… it’s the work itself, I want, want to see the ordered sentences typed up neat on perfect pages under a soft lamp, wild prose describing the world as it raced through my brain and cock once…” But they keep pressing and prodding, making him rush around gathering permission signatures from all the persons in Road, even though he’d long since changed all their names (was libel so much easier to prove in those years?). Then in a letter to Sterling Lord (October 1956) re a request that he make “minor changes throughout” (what a hideous threat phrase!), this time in The Subterraneans, he says, “I only want to stress, however, that… we do not dare touch the rhythm of that prose and those sentences; I assume they want to remove objectionable words, I will replace them with words of similar sonic rhythm. I don’t want a repetition of, as in the case of ‘The Town and The City,’ letting an editor change a good big book into a mediocre shorter book.” “Tell Don Allen ‘Doctor Sax’ is a master-piece as it stands, and ‘Visions of Gerard’ suits me as it stands. As it comes, so it flows, and that’s literature at its purest.” “I’ve been through every conceivable disgrace now and no rejection or acceptance by publishers can alter that awful final feeling of death — of-life-which-is-death.” How like a stab to the heart then his final comment of that letter: “Dear Sterling, excuse me my convictions.”
But he was so aware of his abilities and accomplishments always. Even as his closest friends quibbled over his every advance: “A lot of people say I don’t know what I’m doing, but of course, I do.” Every time he comes up with a new book “they revert & start in, re-saying, ‘He doesn’t know,’ but then it will be proven all over again with disastrous boring regularity, of course I know what I’m doing.” It’s painful to realize that as Jack hung out through the early ’50s in the literary bars of New York City with writers who regularly abused him for non-accomplishment, maybe half a dozen people had so far read the beauties he’d already written but not yet published, and so were able to see him in his true light. To Philip Whalen, March 1956, “I’m amazed you dont seem to realize that I’ve already written so much I’m afraid to go on for fear of being a windbag” — “a huge lifework already accomplished” — “so that I’m really a weary old writer now and I’m amazed that nobody knows it, except possibly Allen and Will Lee and Cowley and Giroux.” And the same year to Sterling Lord, “I just keep turning out manuscripts like a machine/ and they just keep flying away into the void…/what other writer can keep this up and not go crazy/like I’m about to do?/It’s been going on such a long time/it doesn’t seem like/accidental neglect anymore.” How terrible that he knew this.
The collection ends on the hinge of 1957, the year of On the Road’s publication and submission to America’s most mad commercial judgments, making me ponder the eve of its first review when, as Joyce Johnson so perfectly and terrifyingly puts it in Minor Characters, “Jack lay down obscure for the last time in his life. The ringing phone woke him the next morning and he was famous.” The next volume of Kerouac letters will show how he went on, nevertheless, into the shock and the blear.
There are some problems with this edition that I have to mention, many having to do with just what Ann Charters chose to remove from these letters. There are, by my count, 171 deletions over 600 pages of text, and as these gaps mounted up over my reading through the book, I began to wish that Charters had given the reader some indication as to the nature of her pruning. In fact I think she owes the reader such an explanation. As several of the letters have appeared previously, apparently in their entirety (or at least more completely), I was able to compare the texts and could see the little consistency or reason in her deletions. Sometimes what she might have considered a gratuitous insult to a perhaps still living person has been removed, while another such remark has been left to stand, sometimes later on in the same letter and even referring to the same person (!). Then there are senselessly annoying gaps, as in the letter to Ginsberg concerning a visit to poet Philip Lamantia, “but I was disappointed in Neal that night for not at least digging (…).” Much less frustrating if she had left the whole passage out? She has torn great rents in the “Rattling Trucks” letter to Holmes, leaving out the whole marvelous “America is an Egyptian land” section, and others including his great comment about how “the dividing line between seriousness and unseriousness is almost unknown, and is where our best knowledges take flower.” In the big Buddhist instructional letter to Ginsberg, a passage of several pages of great interest regarding Kerouac’s juggling of Christianity and Buddhism is missing, a removal seemingly with an eye to little more than space limitations. This sort of surgery (combined with notational errors like Charters’s misplacement of his “Saturday Night Red Neons Making Me Think of Chocolate Candy Boxes in Drugstores” in the early cafeteria-sketches section of Visions of Cody rather than where it belongs in the later “Neon Heart of Saturday Night” section, one of the wellsprings of his work), all this, as I say, becomes even more troubling in light of rumors that the Sampas family has dictated considerable censorship of the letters prior to publication. Whether this be true or not, the book as it stands betrays shoddy treatment of a man who believed in hiding nothing, and whose statement “What a man most wishes to hide, revise, and un-say, is precisely what Literature is waiting and bleeding for” graces the jacket copy of this very volume.
Viking Portables… My image is of Frank Sinatra just off the bus home from the war in Some Came Running; he takes them out of his duffel bag and in his furnished room and places them in a line on the dresser top, Hemingway Faulkner Dos Passos Wolfe, he’s going to be a big novelist and show everybody. So it is some justice that Jack Kerouac is finally being included in such company, only sad that this didn’t happen in his lifetime, a chance to externalize his pride. Charters has chosen perhaps the more popular of the two obvious schemes for organizing such a reader, a chronological series of excerpts from his life story as fictionalized in the books. While this may go easier on the reader, I don’t think it serves Kerouac’s work as well as a trip through the changes in his writing life, the lifeline of a writer thus showing forth as the history of a mind. The late John Clellon Holmes, to whom this volume is dedicated and who gets the credit for originating the idea of a Kerouac reader (with Jack’s approval), seems to have leaned toward this second organizational method. At the On the Road Conference in 1982, he said: “If you read the books in the sequence in which they were written, then you are watching the evolution of the writer’s consciousness as it changes in real time.” It seems to me (maybe my bias as a writer?) that there is a richer focus provided in looking at the life detail through a succession of writing acts, the movements of a delving consciousness, rather than by the opposite method of seeing the writing always in terms of the more “reader-friendly” life-story approach. It’s as if Charters has tried to tweak Kerouac into at last becoming the plot-driven writer that the critics of his time disparaged him for not being, to the detriment of the more complex and strange Jack Kerouac visible in the orders of his writing life. Plot, after all, was not central to his purpose, but memories of character and place and thing were. It’s entirely too simple to conclude, as Charters does, that “he considered himself an old-fashioned storyteller.” See the 1954 letter to his editor Robert Giroux: “I’m now going to endeavor to write pure narrative… but new narrative, unplanned, ored up from the bottom of the mind, orgasmically rushing from the center out.” That ellipsis is not only his own but it strongly illustrates (in real time) how his mind’s complexities would never let him settle for “story.”
An alternative arrangement according to the order of writing would also avoid the awkward back-of-the-bus sections here labeled “On Buddhism,” “On Bop and the Beat Generation,” or “Poetry.” (Come on! His whole project was poetry.) How much more magnificent an architecture might appear, starting with a section from his earliest novel, The Sea Is My Brother (does the manuscript still exist?), and moving through some of his vast Wolfean soundings of the Martin family, then on to a selection from the early On the Road manuscripts (why are unpublished sources not brought to bear here? Would not the estate permit?). A succession of Road changes might have shown some considerable writing differences: the Melvillean version cited above, etc. (In fact a collection of all the On the Road manuscripts in the order of their writing would make a useful study volume à la The Waste Land or Howl.) Then on into Visions of Cody and Doctor Sax practically simultaneously (the red sun of his birth memories leading seamlessly to the red neon heart of his adult adventures), “The Railroad Earth” in its entirety, and on through the third-person framings of the Maggie book, the Dostoyevskian explorations of The Subterraneans, and the beginning of the “Blues” sequences (“San Francisco Blues,” Mexico City Blues, and beyond). Why not include also parts of Some of the Dharma in illustration of his serious Buddhist interests? Then some chapters from Visions of Gerard placed next to his “Shakespeare and the Outsider” essay, to show Shakespearean language effect on the writing of Gerard. Then how about some of “Berkeley Blues” standing next to the Berkeley section of Desolation Angels featuring Jack’s mother and Philip Whalen? Plus Old Angel Midnight next to “The Scripture of the Golden Eternity” (both written in the same notebook). Then perhaps the full Pull My Daisy narration, followed by some “Big Trip to Europe” sadnesses leading into the crack-up writing of Big Sur, the later genealogical concerns of Satori in Paris and “Among the Iroquois,” and concluding in the “nothing ever came of it” darknesses of Vanity of Duluoz. All with the pertinent letters, shorter poems, and notebook entries interspersed. Not too spare an alternative design?
Again, there are enough sloppy errors throughout her commentary to raise severe doubts as to the degree of Charters’s commitment to a full realization of Kerouac’s genius. But what really got to me was a passage in the “Editor’s Introduction” wherein she manages somehow to casually insult both Kerouac and his readers. Here’s what I mean: “Perhaps it is poetic justice that few of Kerouac’s readers can claim to have finished all the books making up his Duluoz Legend.” (She’s previously cited Philip Whalen as saying that Jack never finished reading Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, but how can she possibly know or claim such a failure on the part of Kerouac’s readers?) “As with Proust, there are just too many words” (in Joyce too, right? And didn’t Coltrane play those overly long solos? etc., etc., etc.). “Who has the time to sit down and plow through [my emphasis] the dozen books comprising Kerouac’s saga?” Who, you have to ask? Only those of us who couldn’t wait upon reading On the Road to go on and read all of his work (and each book many times) and still can’t wait for the unpublished rest of it all to be released to us, who will always treasure our fascination with all facets Kerouac, whose lives and senses and works have been transformed by his brilliance and so don’t need it reduced by explication or framed in disinterest, who read anyway to attain the direct ecstatic connection and not to occupy some backseat of abstraction, who love and revere him with no reservation, no need to meddle or to judge, and who take him seriously entire, as the magnificent artist that he will remain.
“Ah me, John, but, but, but — it will all end in love I promise you. Another letter follows. Because I am thoroughly exhausted. Sweet John. Soon. Wait for my next letter… Write. Forgive — give — cry — wait — Jack.” ■
JACK KEROUAC: SELECTED LETTERS 1940–1956
Edited by Ann Charters
THE PORTABLE JACK KEROUAC
Edited by Ann Charters
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 4, 2020