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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.

Of course, the Beats were hippies 20 years before the term was invented. In their correspondence, Ginsberg and Kerouac exchange accounts of drug trips, philosophize about Buddhism, discuss the genius of Wilhelm Reich (creator of the orgone box) and praise the visions of the spiritualist Edgar Cayce. At one point, Kerouac was asked by the editors of a dictionary to define the "beat generation" and described himself and his friends as a group whose members express "a relaxation of social and sexual tensions and espouse anti-regimentation, mystic disaffiliation and material-simplicity values, supposedly as a result of Cold War disillusionment."

Though commonly viewed as iconic free spirits, Ginsberg and Kerouac were well educated and intently focused on their careers. Ginsberg attended Columbia, where his mentor was the revered professor Mark Van Doren. Kerouac was a protege of two famous editors, Malcolm Cowley and Robert Giroux, and was represented by the eminent Sterling Lord literary agency. Both were voracious readers. At one point Kerouac writes that he "never was so happy in my life than in that splendid attic with 11th edition Encyclopedia Britannica." At another, he tells Ginsberg, "Glad you're reading Caesar Birroteau, great novel," adding "you know the greatest of all Balzac's novels is Cousin Bette."

Not surprisingly, these 200 or so letters seem to build toward the publications of "Howl" and "On the Road," those masterpieces of what Kerouac here calls "lingual spontaneity," a kind of trancelike automatic writing. Published by City Lights Books, Ginsberg's poem made its way steadily, but "On the Road" earned a rave review in the New York Times, and Kerouac, like Byron, awoke one day to find himself famous, the voice of a new generation.

Diverging paths

In the end, though, only Allen Ginsberg continued to espouse the Beat philosophy into the 1960s, becoming one of the gurus of that hectic time. Kerouac retreated into himself and chose to move to Orlando, where his mother lived:

"I don't want no more frantic nights, association with hepcats and queers and Village types, far less mad trips to unholy Frisco, I just wanta stay home and write and figure things out by myself, in my own Child mind. . . . I'm retired from the world now and going into my mountain shack later and eventually just disappear in woods as far as it can be done these days."

Today, many of these letters seem windy and dated and, were it not for the work Ginsberg and Kerouac actually produced, might be dismissed as simply the sophomoric gushings of bright young men. Of the two correspondents, Kerouac seems marginally the better writer and deserves the final, typically ecstatic word:

"I believe in shelter from the cold, and good food, and drinks, and many women all around, the interplay of the sexes, and much happy meaningless talk, and tales, and books, and Dickensy joy."

Visit Dirda's online book discussion at http://washingtonpost.com/readingroom.


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