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Writes of passage

In letters, Beat giants bolster each other and incubate ideas

Jack Kerouac (above) and Allen Ginsberg met in the early 1940s while both were living in New York, and they continued to correspond for two decades. “Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg: The Letters’’ is a compilation of 182 letters that offer a window into their friendship and the trials and tribulations of their times. Jack Kerouac (above) and Allen Ginsberg met in the early 1940s while both were living in New York, and they continued to correspond for two decades. “Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg: The Letters’’ is a compilation of 182 letters that offer a window into their friendship and the trials and tribulations of their times. (Associated Press)
By Jay Atkinson
July 18, 2010

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In his later years, poet-provocateur Allen Ginsberg, who died in 1997 at age 70, had a reputation for being fussy and demanding, a privileged icon of the Far Left, of the intelligentsia, of the Beat Generation — the man who wrote “Howl’’ and “Kaddish,’’ tried to levitate the Pentagon, jammed with Bob Dylan, and meditated with the Maharishi.

Prior to becoming an eminence grise with a bad attitude, however, the young Ginsberg was friend and de facto literary agent to his fellow Beats, namely Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, William S. Burroughs, and Gregory Corso. He was smart and funny and Jewish and “queer,’’ when only half of those qualities were fashionable. But Ginsberg, like his hero Walt Whitman, contained multitudes, and a lively new book of letters between him and Kerouac is teeming with the schemes, quirks, and contradictions of these indelible literary characters.

Kerouac and Ginsberg met in the early 1940s, when both were attending Columbia University. Kerouac, a football player from Lowell, and Ginsberg, then an earnest student being mentored by the critic Lionel Trilling, were an unlikely pair. In one of Ginsberg’s first letters to Kerouac in July 1945, he wrote, “[Y]ou are an American more completely than I, more fully a child of nature.’’ Over the next two decades, in person and within their voluminous correspondence, these differences would be sorted out, many times over. As Kerouac wrote back that summer, “You were right about my ‘peckerhead romanticism.’ Of course. I perfectly agree with you. . . . We can begin worrying our little heads about something else now.’’

What these groundbreaking artists were most preoccupied with was getting published and becoming famous. In their salad days, Ginsberg was an energetic and likeable tout, hustling his and his friend’s poems and scraps of prose like they were cheap watches, while Kerouac veered between the extremes of shrewd literary tactician and whimsical savant. (The fact that they each moved around a lot between the mid ’40s and early ’60s is a boon to this collection, and to our understanding of American literature.) Whether Paris or Paterson, N.J., Ginsberg typically remained too long in one place for his nomadic temperament, while Kerouac, who in one letter says, “I just wanta stay home and write and figure things out by myself,’’ inevitably left too soon. Ginsberg’s occasional paranoia and habit of making outrageous statements got him into trouble fairly often, despite Kerouac’s frequent warnings: “[D]on’t let them maneuver you into getting too hung up on slogans however good.’’

The 182 letters here, many of them quite long, present a marathon conversation between two writers that was an incubator for their creative ideas. Often broke and practically homeless, they swapped microloans, tips on available crash pads, and news of their triumphs and tribulations. In June 1949 Ginsberg was committed to a psychiatric hospital, describing the attendant shrinks as “the bloodless apoetic bourgeoisie, the social scientists and rat experimenters, the blue eyes who went to the proms.’’ In a letter, he tells Kerouac to “[s]ay what you want, but don’t write me tracts suggesting that I dynamite the establishment for instance. I mean, they may take offense.’’

The fundamental difference between the two writers, made clear in these letters, was that Ginsberg, chronically unsure of himself, was trying to forge an identity through his poetry. On the other hand, Kerouac knew instinctively who he was and became determined to publish his “true-story novels,’’ what he called the Duluoz Legend, come hell or high water. Well into adulthood, Ginsberg was still looking for approval from his old Columbia mentors, and established poets like William Carlos Williams. But Kerouac had already moved past the literary notions of the previous generation and was waiting for his friend to catch up. “Take this advice from a man who has created a masterpiece,’’ wrote Kerouac after finishing his novel “On the Road.’’ “Just type up your poems.’’

The biggest problem with this collection, despite its resonance, is that the Song of the Beat Generation was not a duet, but improvised jazz of different styles, sounds, and voices. Lurking throughout is the Adonis of Denver, Neal Cassady, lover to Ginsberg, Kerouac’s muse, and the much-celebrated con man, ladies’ man, male hustler, and thief. Beyond the obvious omission of letters from Cassady, gaps in this epistolary soundtrack cry out for solos from Gary Snyder, John Clellon Holmes, Corso, Burroughs, and others. Additionally, the editorial notes are brief and sparse, when a clearer sense of context and background would have improved the book.

In May 1959, Kerouac, depressed by the noisy acclaim over “On the Road,’’ wrote to Ginsberg, “Besides, soon we’ll part, later grow old, die, you won’t even be at my funeral.’’ Their friendship waned over the next 10 years, when Kerouac retreated further into isolation and alcoholism, and Ginsberg grooved on, into the Age of Aquarius. Kerouac died at age 47 in St. Petersburg, Fla., in 1969. His body was brought back to Lowell, and he was buried in Edson Cemetery. Ginsberg was one of his pallbearers.

Jay Atkinson’s latest book is “Paradise Road: Jack Kerouac’s Lost Highway and My Search for America.’’ Contact him at jaya@bu.edu.

JACK KEROUAC AND ALLEN GINSBERG: The Letters Edited by Bill Morgan and David Stanford

Viking, 500, pp. $35