Thursday, August 26, 2010

"jack kerouac and allen ginsberg: the letters" book review

"jack kerouac and allen ginsberg: the letters" edited by bill morgan and david stanford was published last month, together with a second book by bill morgan, "the typewriter is holy: the complete uncensored history of the beat generation." while "the letters" will become a must have for fans of the beat generation, the same can't be said for "the typewriter is holy," a short, superficial history of the beat generation. this post is a review of the kerouac and ginsberg letters. i'll post a separate review of "the typewriter is holy" next week.

i've been reading the beats, and about the beats, for more than 30 years. that said, reading the chronological correspondence between jack kerouac and allen ginsberg was a revelation. the collection of letters selected runs from 1945 to 1963 (roughly a third have already been published elsewhere). the book is a treasure trove of kerouac-ginsberg material. for those familiar with the outlines of their respective lives, the letters flesh out their inner feelings and motivations.

the most fascinating aspect is watching the two develop as writers. the early enthusiasm of kerouac was beaten into submission by the endless stream of rejections he received during most of the 1950s. despite publication of "the town and city" in 1950, more than 7 long years elapsed until "on the road" was finally published in 1957. during that time kerouac amassed a trunk full of unpublished manuscripts (including, just to list a few, "dr. sax," "visions of cody," "maggie cassidy," "visions of gerard," "the subterraneans," "mexico city blues," and, "some of the dharma").

the extent that allen ginsberg worked tirelessly to get these kerouace books published (along with those of william burroughs, gregory corso, and his many other friends) was remarkable. ginsberg was a one-man publicity machine, anticipating his role as the major force behind promoting the beats and beat generation in the years ahead. ginsberg was the more social, extroverted, of the two. as the years wore on kerouac, because of his alcoholism and notoriety of fame, became more and more withdrawn and removed from the beat circle.

while there are some gaps in the chronology (they didn't write when they were together), the volume tapers off at the turn of the decade - and the book concludes with a handful of letters from 1963. the final decade witnessed kerouac fall into a downward alcoholic spiral that ended with his tragic death, at 47, in 1969. by that time he was a shadow of the man who began corresponding with ginsberg in 1945. still, kerouac was prescient when he wrote (to lawrence ferlingetti), "someday, 'the letters of allen ginsberg to jack kerouac' will make america cry."

the letters didn't bring me to tears, but they did evoke mixed feelings of awe and sadness. clearly these two guys loved each other and supported their respective works and endeavors. but in the end, despite so many similarities, they walked down two very different paths. if you're a fan of either one, or the beats in general, this book is a must read.

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