By JANET MASLIN
Published: July 19, 2010
A late-1950s New York minute: clockwise from far right, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso (in cap), the painter Larry Rivers, Jack Kerouac and the musician David Amram.
In one of Allen Ginsberg’s more crazily virtuosic letters to his sometime soul mate, Jack Kerouac, Ginsberg included an apology of sorts. “I was too intent on self-fulfillment, and rather crude about it, with all my harlequinade and conscious manipulation of your pity,” he wrote. He also looked back on his life as an artist and described it witheringly: “Art has been for me, when I did not deceive myself, a meager compensation for what I desire.” And he acknowledged being worn, enervated and world-weary. “I am sick of this damned life!” he complained.
The year was 1945. Ginsberg was a precociously ancient 19-year-old. He would grow friskier, more pragmatic and less self-dramatizing during the course of his long correspondence with Kerouac, but one thing never changed: Ginsberg’s insistence on keeping the friendship alive. It lasted until Kerouac disappeared into an alcoholic haze and died in 1969, despite Ginsberg’s best efforts to save him.
Many of the two men’s letters went to separate university archives, Kerouac’s to Columbia, and Ginsberg’s to the University of Texas. And there they sat for decades, not without good reason. These letters can be as long-winded, rambling, visionary and impenetrable as each man’s writing style would suggest. But they can also be sharp, lucid, funny, tender, intimate, gossipy, jubilant and absolutely honest about the two aspiring authors’ gigantic ambitions.
And if their correspondence sounds one loud cautionary note, it’s a warning to be careful of what you wish for. The free-spirited energy of their early communications can be seen slowly ossifying into the discourse of eminences too busy being famous to be friends. As Kerouac predicted to their mutual friend and mentor, Lawrence Ferlinghetti: “Someday ‘The Letters of Allen Ginsberg to Jack Kerouac’ will make America cry.”
In the seductive collection they’ve called “Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg: The Letters,” the editors Bill Morgan and David Stanford stake out a distinct piece of literary turf. They do this despite the fact that Kerouac and Ginsberg were expansive letter writers, that each wrote to many correspondents, and that reams of these other letters have already shown up elsewhere. A third of the Kerouac-Ginsberg letters in this bumpy but transfixing volume have also been published before.
But this book’s emphasis is on the intensity and passion of two writers’ long conversation. That such a paper trail exists is never taken for granted. Amazingly, they wrote expansive, soul-searching letters even when in close proximity, let alone during the lengthy periods spent (as one of them put it) on the road. And the arc of the friendship is fully preserved here, from the hot-air excesses of college days to the chillier, fame-ravaged exchanges of later years. Each was an important critic of the other’s work. Each read as voraciously as he wrote. What Ginsberg called “the secret knowledge of reciprocal depths” helped bind them.
And neither was above noticing how the magazine Mademoiselle chose to cover the newly famous Beat Generation, once these two and their friends managed — to the everlasting amazement of one and all — to become published, celebrated, imitated and, in some quarters, reviled.
“Hasn’t it been awful?” Kerouac would write to Ginsberg in 1959. “We were so swingy? And now young poets are sneering at us?” Two years earlier it had been Ginsberg sagely advising Kerouac to be wary of becoming a symbol for the so-called Beat Generation: “You have too much else to offer to be tied down to that and have to talk about that every time someone asks your opinion of weather.”
But the Beat aura hangs over this book. Hindsight has made it impossible to avoid the shared myth that enveloped Kerouac, Ginsberg, their very close friends Neal Cassady and William S. Burroughs, and the wider circle that included Gregory Corso, Lucien Carr, Peter Orlovsky, Paul Bowles and Gary Snyder. And Mr. Morgan, one of the letters’ co-editors, is the authoritative Beat bibliographer who has devoted many years to the archives of Ginsberg, Burroughs, Mr. Ferlinghetti and many others.
Partly because Mr. Morgan has already mined this vein for other books — including the Ginsberg biography “I Celebrate Myself,” the Ginsberg-Snyder letters and Beat walking literary tour guides to New York and San Francisco — he has written a concise but broad survey of Beat history. It’s called “The Typewriter Is Holy,” and it’s a helpful, even necessary, companion piece to the letters, which are only minimally annotated. It’s also a book that tries to put the far-reaching Beat tentacles and vast Beat cultural legacy into perspective.
Mr. Morgan has said that he finds two different kinds of people interested in the Beats: either those who know nothing about them or those who know everything. “The Typewriter Is Holy” deliberately caters to both types.
For the unknowledgeable, it can be blisteringly obvious, as in: “Kerouac, a fast typist, decided that he would ignore punctuation, paragraph breaks and traditional form, and type the story in one long sustained burst of energy. For this book, he would put the words down on paper as fast as they came into his head without stopping to revise.” These same readers may be surprised to learn that “On the Road” was typed on an enormous paper scroll.
For readers who are already familiar with biographies of Beat personnel, Mr. Morgan just means to help with logistics. Who was in Tangier when? Or at the City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco? Or the Beat Hotel in Paris? Or visiting Neal Cassady? Or avoiding Cassady, as Kerouac did when his friend wound up in San Quentin on a drug charge?
Though “The Typewriter Is Holy” is most useful in conjunction with other books, it does neatly condense Beat lore. And it makes the same point to which Mr. Morgan has devoted decades’ worth of archival work. Both of these books underscore the very un-Beat concept of Beat power. One book shows where it came from. The other explains why it’s not going away.
A version of this review appeared in print on July 20, 2010, on page C2 of the New York edition.