It seems fitting, somehow, that the correspondence of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, literary rebels and scourges of convention, should begin with a prison postmark.
The two got to know each other in 1944, and their first letter, Ginsberg to Kerouac, came in mid-August of that year, when Kerouac was cooling his heels in the Bronx County Jail for his small part in a sordid murder. That case is well documented in biographies of both Kerouac and Ginsberg, of which Ann Charters’s Kerouac (1994) and Bill Morgan’s I Celebrate Myself (2006), respectively, are essential. The letter is hitherto not well known, however, and it reveals no remorse on the part of the 18-year-old Ginsberg, who was also tangled up in the business, and the 22-year-old Kerouac. Instead, Ginsberg wrestles a novice’s apercu out of the fact that the victim’s apartment had been freshly redecorated: “The snows of yesteryear seem to have been covered by equally white paint.” For his part, newly married even while behind bars, Kerouac replies of Carr, “Hating himself as he does, hating his ‘human-kindness,’ he seeks new vision, a post-human post-intelligence.”
Whitman meets Nietzsche, with some Keats and Dostoyevsky thrown in for good measure. But both Kerouac and Ginsberg would soon be on to something else—Apollo wrestling with Dionysus. Their letters multiplied, hundreds of them now collected in Bill Morgan and David Stanford’s new anthology Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg: The Letters, letters that skip over oceans and continents—but also travel only a hop, from Ozone Park to Sheepshead Bay, say, on the rare occasions when the two were in the same town at the same time.
Whatever the provenance or destination, the letters are full of enthusiasms: for books read, for people met, for impulses satisfied or soon to be satisfied. Kerouac is pleased because a child watching him work is “amazed because I type so fast.” Ginsberg is pleased because “I Allen Ginsberg one and only, have just finished cutting down my book from 89 poems to a mere perfect 42.”
But then there are the professional jealousies, the squabbles and the gossip. Kerouac rails because others are being published. “Can you even tell me for instance…why they publish [John Clellon] Holmes’s book [Go] which stinks and don’t publish mine because it’s not as good as some of the other things I’ve done?” he demands. (This is in 1952, some years before his ship is definitively to come in.) Ginsberg replies, unhelpfully, that he thinks Doctor Sax is better than On the Road, as perhaps it was, given that On the Road was much different from the version we now know.
The collection shows two writers on the ascent, hungry, seeking fame and, at times, even the endorsement of the establishment. (Ginsberg sends T.S. Eliot a copy of Howl, seeking a blurb.) It tracks them as they achieve notoriety, then fame, and it hints at fissures that will soon open—chronicled, one hopes, in Volume 2, since this group of letters ends in 1963, before the Dionysian moment fully kicks in. (It’s there, though. Ginsberg to Kerouac: “Got high on junk last night and thought of you.”) Stay tuned as the long, strange trip unfolds.