Stamps and Beats
Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg: The Letters
(Viking Press, 2010)
I started reading The Letters as Peter Orlovsky, poet and longtime lover of Allen Ginsberg, was dying in a hospice in Vermont on May 30, 2010, and began writing this review after his memorial at St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery two months later. Fourteen years previously, on April 5, 1997, Ginsberg passed away in a hospital bed in his apartment in the East Village. Jack Kerouac left this earth on October 21, 1969. These deeply flawed beacons of their own belle lettres are all gone. What remains of their literary heritage includes this newly published cache of prescient and irritatingly human correspondence, one that will augment and embellish Ann Charters’s two volume set of Kerouac’s selected letters, and offer greater personal, literary and psychological insight into the Beats as a uniquely American phenomenon.
There is, of course, the substantial collection of their literary works; the novels and poems Kerouac and Ginsberg left behind as well as those of their friends William Burroughs, Gregory Corso, Philip Whalen, Gary Snyder, and others. What is clear from reading through these 450 pages of Kerouac’s and Ginsberg’s correspondence is how absolutely certain they both were of success, of the impeccability of their vision, the importance of their work, and of the snobbery and ignorance endemic in much of the publishing and literary worlds. These themes begin with a slow spate of epistolary exchanges in 1944, are reinforced full throttle by the 1950s, and wind down in the early 1960s when Kerouac, soured by his reclusive nature and too much liquor, and Ginsberg, lifted high on the wings of notoriety, revolution and Eastern religions, grew increasingly apart.
In 1949, Ginsberg was temporarily incarcerated in a mental hospital after his mix-up with the petty thief Herbert Huncke. While locked up he asked Kerouac to write a preface to his potential self-published book of poems, “Since near the time I am ready to be a famous author.” Kerouac meanwhile, was sending the legendary publisher Robert Giroux Ginsberg’s hospital scribbles, which caused Ginsberg to write, “I know…Giroux believes in Ginsberg, but…rejects his poetry.” Giroux would go on to publish Kerouac’s first novel The Town and the City, but reject his masterpiece scroll of On the Road, a mistake for which he castigated himself for the rest of his life.
By 1952, even though the poet William Carlos Williams was praising Ginsberg’s poems, it is clear Kerouac is the more rigorous writer. Kerouac scathingly tells Ginsberg that he is just plodding along; whiny, self-obsessed, and a tad mad. They go back and forth endlessly about whose books they are reading, so much that their correspondence resembles CliffsNotes from a graduate seminar in English lit. But like the famed medieval couple Abelard and Heloise, what would have become of one without the other? There is constant mention by Ginsberg of how closely he and Neal Cassady, another of their more fractured circle of comrades-in-arms, tracked the development of Kerouac’s novels over a three-year period. Kerouac acknowledges the importance of Neal’s lost “Joan Anderson letter” in propelling him towards his stream-of-consciousness style. Money or lack of it is a constant theme, with each borrowing from the other and always noting the exact amount upon repayment. Kerouac dismisses the work of the more lauded-at-the-time novel Go: by “Beat” writer John Clellon Holmes. He derides Holmes as a “late comer” and nowhere near the caliber of “our genuine literary movement made up of you, me, Neal, Bill, Hunkey (as yet unpublishable) and mebbe Lucian (Carr).” Kerouac rages that Atlantic Monthly, E.P. Dutton, and Little, Brown, whose snippy editor complained about his “craftsmanship,” turned down On the Road. Despite these slights Kerouac labors on, writing astute and poetic descriptions of imbibing peyote and smoking opium with Mexican Indians. It’s also insightful to read that right before Ginsberg fell head over heels in love with Peter Orlovsky in December 1954, he was in fact living with a woman in a failed attempt to “cure” his homosexuality.
Allen writes to Jack, “Much to be written about and much to be respected. In all of us not just…having tried and actually achieved a thing, namely literature and also possibly a certain spiritual eye at this point.” By 1955 Ginsberg longed to be a “saint” and began reading about Buddhism under Kerouac’s tutelage. By 1957 Joan Haverty, Kerouac’s ex-wife who had converted to Catholicism and had initially agreed to forego alimony and child support, developed TB and returned to haunt Kerouac with a vengeance. Her demands were so fierce he had to ask his friends to mail his legal correspondence from abroad into the States, so it would appear he was living out of the country. Another little-known fact emerges: the British painter Francis Bacon was in Tangiers with Ginsberg, Burroughs, and the Bowles (Paul and Jane). Ginsberg calls Bacon “The most interesting person here,” as he had offered to paint a big porno picture of Allen and Peter.
Just a short few months later, the yoke of poverty was broken when Kerouac became a literary sensation and everyone wanted a piece of him. Ginsberg finally published his seminal poem “Howl” in October 1956, while still pleading for money from Kerouac, who delivered, knowing all too well fame is one thing and cash another. With his increased success, Kerouac withdrew more and more from society into the comfort of his Memere, and alcohol. By 1959 he grew drunk and abusive, while Ginsberg was cheerleading the cause of “The Beat Generation.” Mentally exhausted and spiritually discouraged, Kerouac hated the “lionized manure” surrounding him, proclaiming, “I’m not a Messiah. I’m an artist.” By 1960 the fissure between the two widened, the letters grew less frequent, and in the book’s final correspondence dated October 1963, Ginsberg asks Kerouac, “Will you love me ever?”