A long-lost letter written by Neal Cassady to his friend Jack Kerouac in December 1950, thought to be the inspiration for what would become Kerouac's confessional, stream-of-consciousness writing style, was just discovered stuffed in a box in a recently deceased man's home in Oakland. And suffice it to say that Kerouac fans, scholars, and historians the world over are kind of flipping out about this.
The 18-page letter, referred to by Kerouac, Cassady, and friend Allen Ginsberg who also claimed to have been inspired by it as "The Joan Anderson Letter" is a snapshot of Cassady's mind on a speed binge and recounts a "run-on tale of teenage sexual conquest" by Cassady, as the NYT notes. It was thought to have been thrown into the San Francisco Bay near Sausalito by a poet named Gerd Stern, who remains alive and well in New Jersey at 86 years old. Ginsberg was the one who put the blame on Stern for losing the letter, but Stern has maintained over the years that he never did any such thing. Jerry Cimino of The Beat Museum in North Beach says that Stern had told him years ago, "I gave that letter back to Ginsberg. I didn’t lose that letter Allen did.”
What appears to have happened, as the AP reports, is that Ginsberg sent Stern, then a literary agent for Ace Books, a trove of manuscripts from his friends including the manuscript for William Burroughs' novel Junky, that he was hoping to see published. Stern returned all the manuscripts to Ginsberg except one, Burroughs', and Ginsberg proceeded to perhaps forget what he did with the Cassady letter which was to send it separately to another publisher, Richard Emerson at Golden Goose Press. Emerson never read it, and when he folded Golden Goose a few years later, he sent his archives to a business associate. That associate was the father of performance artist Jean Spinosa, who began cleaning out her dad's Oakland home after his death two years ago.
There, among the boxes, was this famed, 16,000-word letter, which will now go up for auction along with the rest of the archive on December 17. It's expected to command as much as a half million dollars from a collector.
While Cassady himself never became a published author in his lifetime a partially written memoir was published posthumously, in 1971, called The First Third his influence on Kerouac can't be overstated. He was, of course, the inspiration for Dean Moriarty in Kerouac's barely fictionalized novel On the Road, and Kerouac says that it was the Joan Anderson Letter that caused him to scrap an earlier draft of On the Road and begin anew in a more spontaneous style inspired by Cassady's under the influence of amphetamines.
Kerouac once called it "the greatest piece of writing I ever saw, better’n anybody in America, or at least enough to make Melville, Twain, Dreiser, Wolfe, I dunno who, spin in their graves." And in 1968, he told The Paris Review the story of the letter getting dropped off the side of a boat in Sausalito, solidifying the legend.
Here's a brief snippet from the letter, which is full of strike-throughs, small drawings, and corrections:
To hell with all the dirty lousy shit, I've had enough horseshit. I got my own pure little bangtail mind and the confines of its binding please me yet. I wake to more horrors than Céline, not a vain statement for now I've passed thru just repetitious shudderings and nightmare twitches. I have discovered new sure doom, but this is my secret, and if I'm to find the pleasure of its devulgance in recognizable form I must tighten my grip while abiding the wait of years... I am fettered by cobwebs, countless fine creases indelibly etched on the brain. There are no unexplored paths in my mind and few that are not entangled in the weave of my misery mists. It is but gentle fog thru which I navigate and make friendly by constant intimate communion.
The Beat Museum of course hopes that someone will one day lend it to them, but it's more likely that if the public gets to see it it will be at a larger institution.
And at least now it can be published.
Stern, for his part, is just glad to be vindicated before he dies. "It doesn’t matter now,” he told the AP. “Allen’s dead. Jack’s dead. Neal’s dead. But I’m still alive."