Books: 'Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg: The Letters,' review by Michael Dirda

There is more to Beat poet Allen Ginsberg than "Howl." The National Gallery of Art displays 79 of the literary legend's photographs, including portraits of other well-known writers.
By Michael Dirda
Thursday, July 29, 2010


The Letters

Edited by Bill Morgan and David Stanford

Viking. 500 pp. $35

"I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked" -- so opens Allen Ginsberg's 1956 anthem "Howl." Similar violence, excess and hysteria mark the poet's longtime correspondence with the novelist Jack Kerouac, whom he met in 1944 when the two young writers were both living in New York.

The first letter in this collection is addressed to Kerouac in the Bronx County Jail, where the future author of "On the Road" had been locked up for helping to dispose of evidence in a murder case. A few years later, Ginsberg was himself arrested for storing stolen merchandise in his apartment. Instead of being sent to prison, he was remanded to a psychiatric asylum, where he met Carl Solomon, to whom "Howl" is dedicated. Ginsberg's letters about his experiences while hospitalized are charged with a manic energy and humor reminiscent of the poem:

"Here the abysses are real; people explode daily and the doctors! the doctors! my god, the doctors! They are fiends, I tell you, absolute Ghouls of Mediocrity. Horrible! They have the truth! They are right! They are all thin, pale lipped, four eyed, gawky, ungainly psychology majors from the colleges! All the seersucker liberals, dressed in the same suits, always with a vapid, half embarrassed, polite smile on their faces. 'What? Mr. Solomon doesn't eat today? Send him down to shock!' "

Later still, Kerouac made an epic drug-fueled odyssey through Mexico to visit novelist William Burroughs, who had accidentally killed his wife, Joan, while playing a kind of William Tell game:

"Bill is great. Greater than he ever was. Misses Joan terribly," Kerouac writes in 1952. "Joan made him great, lives on in him like mad, vibrating. We went to the Ballet Mexicano together, Bill danced out to catch bus we went on a weekend to Tenecingo in the mountains, did some shooting (it was an accident, you know, no doubt about it anywhere's)."

From 1944 to 1963 -- the years covered in this volume -- Ginsberg and Kerouac were constantly on the move from New York to California to Mexico to Europe, always meeting new people. Visiting Burroughs in Tangiers, Morocco, in 1957, Kerouac encountered Francis Bacon, the great painter of modern angst and ugliness, who, he wrote, "looks like overgrown seventeen year old English schoolboy, born in Dublin, started painting late at thirty and now he's forty-seven and wears sneakers and tight dungarees and black silk shirts and . . . likes to be whipped and paints mad gorillas in grey hotel rooms drest in evening dress with deathly black umbrellas."

Along with Neal Cassady (the inspiration for Dean Moriarty in "On the Road"), Burroughs was never far from their thoughts. The author of "Naked Lunch" is certainly, in his quiet way, the most shocking of the three writers. At one point, he engaged in a "macabre" infatuation focused on a boy described by Ginsberg as a "sickly myopic pebblemouthed scarecrow" with "skin the texture of a badly shaved hemophiliac."

The first hippies

The 21st-century reader of these letters may be somewhat surprised at the easygoing, polymorphous sexuality of the supposedly staid 1940s and '50s. Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs slept with both men and women. Ginsberg actually took up for a while with the former girlfriend of novelists John Dos Passos and Thomas Heggen (author of "Mister Roberts"), before losing his heart to Peter Orlovsky, the love of his life.

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