[Paintings by ART BY DOC]
Jack Kerouac /Allen Ginsberg: The Letters
Edited by Bill Morgan & David Stanford
Hardcover: 528 pages
Publisher: Viking Adult
BY PAUL MAHER JR. BOOKS EDITOR Is there a point “reviewing” a collection of private letters that were never meant for publication? When the letters are written by Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, twin avatars of all things Beat, who saw the best minds of their generation destroyed madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging them through the negro streets at dawn, angel-headed hipsters that burned for the starry dynamo in the machinery of night — well, the answer is a resolute YES. These letters like their respective literary works will continue to amaze, inspire, astonish, anger and inform a new generation of readers and those in the past that have turned to the Beats for inspiration.
Even as young men, Ginsberg and Kerouac were remarkably worldly and prescient in a way that enabled them to see beyond the blinkered pieties and short-sightedness of their time. After On the Road hits the street, Kerouac will remark that men can no longer look each other in the eyes without negative insinuation as Ginsberg perches on the genius jock’s shoulder and becomes, for all intents and purposes, Jack’s Jiminy Cricket. Their worldview wasn’t just informed by Columbia knowledge. They read poets like Walt Whitman and William Blake at a time when professors dismissed both as eccentric cranks. They praised Blake and Whitman to the heavens, and the revelatory swagger of each bard’s barbaric yawp blew the billowed sails of both men. The intensity of their bond, not to mention their libertine hunger for experience, raises the inevitable question: Were they lovers? Ginsberg certainly wanted to be, and unable to consummate his lust for handsome Jack, he turned to poetry instead to sort out the stumblebum of desire eating away his mortal heart. One such poem written in 1945 brings us home to the Ginsberg/Kerouac bond soon after they first met:
Shared, Dionysiac Lucy’s shivering
Still hot, but we relax awhile and smoke,
Jack on her left tit, I on her right, discussing
Spengler whom I haven’t read, or joke
of the Arabian children of delight—
Aware that Nature knows no cognate lovers,
Till Lucy coyly giggles in the night
And tells us how she teased her older brothers,
simpering sweetly. After which I rise,
caress her placid face, which is still damp
With joy, and from her head unscrew her eyes
Like bulbs out of the sockets of a lamp.
Kerouac and Ginsberg stun us with their frankness, bewitching us with an all-seeing eye, a revelatory time travel illuminating sudden spectacles of intelligence, wit and utter vulnerability. When Ginsberg writes a letter on October 14, 1948, he has already passed through the Blakean fire that possessed him the previous summer. One day while reading Blake, Ginsberg was jerking off, came, and felt at that very moment Blake’s cosmic cry summoning a clarion call, a WAKE UP bringing the beat bard out of his self-professed doldrums and back to his senses. By the end of the year he is ready to take the hand he is dealt and comprehend from the incomprehensible that which will allow him to conjure from chaos a new world of creation. He writes to Kerouac, perhaps the very words that will dig the moat around the castle of their beat sensibilities, “All the fascination and beauty of people meeting and echoing comes from our innate instinct which is not yet emerged to consciousness, that we are here . . .” Love flickers, a tenderness vacillating like a flicker on a screen, deeper than mere want of flesh and blood, for Kerouac to Ginsberg is now no longer an object of lust, he is a comrade-in-arms ready to take up the battle as life-changing artists.
It is late 1948, and Kerouac is deep into the throes of polishing a novel. He has already been wandering the feverish road in a marijuana haze, he conjures anew his memories of being lost with Cassady in deep mystery swamps, or deserted by Cassady when he is sick in the hallucinogenic Mexican deserts. Swarming visions of dark endless highways can easily become the back drop, he just needs to people them with characters. There are loves, lost loves, and of those left behind to someday come back and pick up where he left off. There is also the sensual mystery of a beautiful Latina girl. Though the “Mexican Girl” know as Bea Franco of On the Road) writes Kerouac back (for she has it in her head that he will one day come back for her), she becomes fictional fodder, the veritable Fellaheen Bonita of the American West). Though he uses the letters of others to give his novel veracity, he does avoid resurrecting ties with Franco. She writes him on October 25, 1947. I include a letter here, to illustrate the power of letters to change history and bring perspective to a past we think we know all too well. She isn’t the Mexican girl with the broken English Kerouac gives her in On the Road, she is literate, sweet and misled:
My dearest Loveing Jackie:
(one in a million)
Hope, that when you get this letter in your sweet, little hands, you will have arrived safely home.
I bet your mom, will be there waiting at the door with her arms, ready to welcome you back. Haw! I wish I were there also, next to her.
I missed you, even before you said good by. you see I’ve never met anyone- as sweet an unspoiled before in my life.
Jackie you know that if it weren’t for little albert I would have gone with you even if it were Hitchhiking. You say its pretty hard, but, even then, I would have gone, willingly. Well, I’ll work very hard starting Monday. And I will save as much money as I can, then I will be able to come to see you, and your lovely mother, for Christmas I will bring you both a little gift. I hope you have that little Xmass tree, by the window, waiting. Jackie, I bet you’ll be glad to see the frigadaire you’re mom had for you. Think! What all the things you can do with it. Ice Cream any time you want.
Jackie I’m going to start picking Oct. 26, Sunday, that’s tomorrow morning at 10. And I promise you, that I will save all the Monday I can. Because I really want to spend the Holidays in new york. I’ll close this letter now hoping to hear from you soon- give my regards to your mom. Although I don’t know her, I think she’s tops (I guess most mothers are)
With love and best wishes
remain as ever Bea Franco
She has no more of a chance of ever meeting Kerouac’s mother as does Mardou Fox, the African-American female protagonist of The Subterraneans. Gabrielle Kerouac, the God-fearing xenophobe, has no good use for Mexicans or Blacks, or Jews for that matter, as Ginsberg will come to know all too well. Kerouac keeps his girls city side, tucked safely away from where he lives with his mother.
When he locks into focus at Ozone Park, he attempts testy forays of his road novel through the keys of his typewriter or urgently spills words at the end of his pencil. Kerouac, like Ginsberg, knows time. He is impatient waiting to hear from Little, Brown, and from Atlantic Monthly, both recepients of chunks of his manuscript in the making. While he waits, Kerouac forges ahead surfing a tidal wave of concentrated prose. By the end of the day he tallies his accumulated word count: Nov. 19 – 1500 words, Nov. 20 – 2500 words, Nov. 21- 1000 words. By the 23rd, Kerouac drops completely out of the tired progression of The Town and the City and picks up his gestating road novel. He sorts through Allen’s letters for ideas, inspiration or for veracity of detail. Like that day Kerouac attended a class at the New School for Social Research with Ginsberg and listens to Alfred Kazin lecture on Melville’s Redburn. Afterwards they share a beer with the celebrated American critic. Kazin splits and one beer becomes ten for Jack, and, later that night, Ginsberg and Lucien Carr, the archangel of doom according to Kerouac, carries “sick drunk” Jean-Louis to the backseat of Lucien’s car where he passes out, wakes up and staggers home the next morning.
Two days letter, the pattern is set and Kerouac’s mood begins to blackens. “Everything is just it,” he will resign himself to in his journal. IT. The word becomes the shortest mantra ever writ in On the Road. For Kerouac, feebly grappling with a mood darkened to despair, he now matches the equally lovelorn and left-for-ruin Ginsberg who misses and still wants Neal Cassady, despite knowing that he is jumping between at least two women back west, and there is no room for a nerdy Jewish homosexual poet in his life. Not in that sense. There is no alternative but to lie down and wait to die, or, to one up death and court it one novel (or one poem) at a time. In September 1948, Ginsberg turns down Cassady’s offer, whether he meant it or not, of a life stipend. Ginsberg writes to Cassady: “If fate goes against me I will accept it gratefully and look on you as an angel from the Cosmos. But I think I must be my own angel if I am ever going to bring messages from heaven myself, and I will conquer or—Conquest at the moment is a matter of steeling myself to adjust to society.”
Ginsberg fancies himself a lone wolf, but by December 1948 he has Herbert Hunke stinking up his apartment. His homeless feet have been washed and his starving gullet fed hot soup as he is tenderly succored by Allen’s Prince Myshkin sensibilities. “Huncke moved in,” he informs Kerouac, “yakked at me irritably for a week and a half, ate my food, took my last nickel, and walked off with my last suits, a jacket, Russell Durgin’s winter clothes.” Hunke needs a nurse, or a sucker, Ginsberg acknowledges, imploring Kerouac not to “think ill of me.” Shortly thereafter, Ginsberg returns to Paterson, New Jersey, away from sickly Huncke, from the madness of Manhattan’s demon metropolis, to escape a crazy-making vortex of Benzedrine destruction and mental bewilderment. He writes Kerouac that his “consciousness interposes itself between my soul and the world.” Between each polestar, he can barely detect the faint heartbeat of his natal poetry.
Sometimes they are like two brothers separated by wives, by children, by circumstances beyond their control. Then the letters arrive, either as intercontinental shouts of encouragement, or requests for money (borrowed or owed), or to try out their new material, test runs of new stretches of prose, or stanzas leaping from Ginsberg’s mental coil. Kerouac dispenses advice to Ginsberg about meeting his editor, Robert Giroux, who is considering publishing Ginsberg’s poetry: “Be smart, now, and don’t shit your pants. The world is only waiting for you to pitch sad silent love in the place of excrement. Okay?” Ginsberg fires back with a love letter to Kerouac’s talent: “You really have hit a whole lode of originality of method of writing prose—method incidentally though like Joyce is your own origin and make and style, similarities only superficial your neologisms are not foggy philosophical precisions but aural (hear-able) inventions that carry meanings.” Kerouac and Ginsberg are cosmic twins borne out of Whitman’s Universal skull, bonded as comrades, joined-at-the-cerebellum as poets — a connection that will sour Kerouac when Ginsberg uses his poetic voice as a political soapbox in the 1960s.
When Kerouac rails against America in September 1954, (“All I’m saying is that the U.S. is in the hands of people like the publishers you hate and they are fucking us up in the rest of the world’s Spenglerian schemes. We should be feeding Asia not fighting her at this point.”), we know the source of his anger and frustration. Irate Kerouac still hasn’t published his road novel, yet refuses to sell out in a nation of burgeoning sell-outs. We also see ten years before the fact, Kerouac’s souring attitude toward the quagmire of Vietnam. His pacifist stance and a grounded realization that the world is in need of tender compassion, and less blood crusades is all he preaches. Kerouac’s futility is heartbreaking, because we have learned that his only way of coping with it, when the demons of his creative impulse didn’t suffice, was to squash it like Falstaff in a daily Bacchanalian drinkfest, along with the occasional tab of acid and a sundry assortment of uppers and downers.
The term ‘beat’ was first coined by Kerouac in a letter to Ginsberg in August 1957, during a disastrous trip to Mexico City where he fell ill and experienced a severe earthquake that he thought truly was the “natural end of the world.” He declared that Beat is “the Second Religiousness of Western Civilization.” Kerouac aligns his beliefs with Biblical intensities and an abiding belief that the Western world will soon turn its stone ears to the music of the East. Buddhism comes and goes for Kerouac, and for Ginsberg, who at first scoffs at Kerouac’s immersion in the Sutras, later will adopt Buddhism as his chief spiritual aim until the day when Buddhist monks are chanting over his dead body in his brand-new New York City loft.
By November 1957, everything they ever built up to and presumably prepared for is, to Kerouac, a dead bust. His cherished privacy for sidewalk brooding and road diner sketching is a thing of the past and the hot sting of the spotlights follow him like prison spotlights. Fame, he finds, has no perks. The celebrities he hoped to collaborate with, ignore him (Brando and Sinatra are two that ignored his letters). It is to Allen Ginsberg he aims the hollow-point ammo of his recondite ponderings:
“Allen, you know why I said I was the greatest American poet and you greatest Israeli poet? Because you didn’t pick up on Americana till you read Visions of Neal, before that you were big Burroughsian putter-downer of Americana. […] You suddenly saw Americana of Neal and all, and picked up on it, and made a killing on it, but your heart’s in the mountains, O Tribe of the Mountains, the Mountains of Judea! Am I not right? You KNOW I’M RIGHT!”
Meanwhile, back at the Eternal Now, we have this, and a great book it remains, hurling us into the wilderness of creation, each writer is fully fleshed out as individuals bent on creating art and forging a new path into the wilderness of American letters. That they acknowledged the raw, primitive beauty of America is a vital element toward comprehending that “holy new feeling out there in the streets.” Their passions continue to burn unabated; flickering fires of creation rightly inspiring, influencing and placating generations young and old to take it to the streets.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Paul Maher Jr. is the writer of two biographies of Jack Kerouac, the editor of two volumes of interviews with Kerouac and Miles Davis and another with Tom Waits due out in fall 2010. He is also a photographer. Maher is working on two screenplays about the captivity of Mary Rowlandson and the prison years of Dostoevsky.