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

By Michael Dirda
Thursday, July 29, 2010; C01


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.

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."

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