THE JOAN ANDERSON LETTER: THE HOLY GRAIL OF THE BEAT GENERATION
By Neal Cassady (Introduction by A. Robert Lee)
Black Spring Press. 188 pages. £20. ISBN 978-1-913606-33-6
Reviewed by Jim Burns
According to Jack Kerouac the “Joan Anderson Letter” was “The greatest piece of writing I ever saw”, an enthusiastic approbation by a man given to spontaneous responses to a variety of experiences. Did Kerouac really feel that way? And did the letter truly influence the writing of On the Road, the book that launched him into the limelight and created the myth of Dean Moriarty, the fictional character based on the real-life Neal Cassady? There are those who believe that there is little to choose between the two, but On the Road is a novel and best read as such.
So what was the “Joan Anderson Letter”, and why is it said to have made such an impression on Kerouac? It was sent by Cassady to Kerouac in December, 1950, and laid, out in some detail, Cassady’s activities in Denver during a period around 1945/46. Perhaps I should qualify this and say that the letter mostly involves his encounters with various young females, including Joan Anderson. A. Robert Lee, in an informative introduction, rightly points out that Cassady was writing as much for Kerouac as to him. He knew what Kerouac wanted to hear in a way that would help create an image of Cassady as a dynamic and hyper-active new hero. Writers and intellectuals, engaged as they are in largely sedentary occupations, often admire others who are more physically active. And for Kerouac and Ginsberg, Cassady seemed to “embody the figure of life-force and resuscitation, little short of a Rocky Mountain messiah”. Others, like John Clellon Holmes and Alan Harrington, had a more down-to-earth notion of him. Holmes’ portrayal of Cassady as Hart Kennedy in Go certainly doesn’t invest him with legendary qualities. And Harrington once said that, by any definition he knew, Cassady was a “complete psychopath”.
Cassady claimed to have stolen hundreds of cars, seduced any number of women, and had seen the inside of prison cells. His childhood had involved being dragged around hobo hangouts, bar-rooms, and doss-houses by an alcoholic father, That he had managed to pick up some sort of education on the way is to his credit. Those who knew him said he read voraciously, and he did have ambitions to become a writer. He drops the names of Celine, Dostoyevsky, and Herman Melville into the rush of words in the letter. And some time later he did manage to put together a narrative of his early life that Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Books published with the title, The First Third & Other Writings, the latter being a handful of fragments. But The First Third is a more-sustained piece of work. If someone who now only knows Cassady’s writing through the Anderson letter reads it they might be surprised by the relative formality of the prose. But letters frequently are looser in their use of language, unless the writer is aware that he’s writing for posterity to read. I doubt that Cassady had any such aim in mind when he sent his letter to Kerouac.
The letter, however, achieved legendary status over the years. People talked about it, but no-one seemed to know where it was or if it still existed. It was said by Kerouac to have been 40,000 words long, but was actually nearer 16,000. At some point it was passed to the poet Gerd Stern in the hope that he might persuade Carl Solomon’s uncle, who ran Ace Books, to publish it. Ace published William Burroughs’ Junkie, but that had commercial potential as a pulp paperback. When nothing happened Stern then sent the letter to the publishers of The Golden Goose, a West Coast little magazine. Its editor later gave it to the owner of Gold Coast Records, and it stayed with him, hidden in a box, until his daughter discovered it when sorting out his possessions in 2011. What happened after that, in terms of the letter accumulating in value and being auctioned, is explained by A. Robert Lee. It might be worth mentioning that, during the years it was assumed “lost”, Allen Ginsberg added fuel to the fire by suggesting that Gerd Stern had destroyed it. This no doubt heightened the legendary status of the letter as people thought about what might have been in it, and why it had been so highly rated by Kerouac and Ginsberg.
Now, seventy or so years after it was written, it can be looked at with a degree of detachment. It certainly does seem to have had an effect on Kerouac. He had produced one novel, The Town and the City which was straightforward in terms of its overall structure and writing style. It did hint at some of his later concerns when it talked about night-life in New York and what might be seen as the first stirrings of the Beat Generation. But Kerouac was looking for something different, and it’s debatable if he would have led a writing life of literary conventionality had Cassady and his letter not arrived on the scene. Cassady’s loose oral style, with asides and interventions, and the words tumbling over reach other, supposedly led Kerouac to writing On the Road in the way that he did. But It does occur to me to consider whether or not Kerouac would have produced a fresh style, anyway, if Cassady had not written to him? Other people had urged him to look at prose in a different way, suggesting he write quickly and in a sketch-like manner.
Lee says that “Kerouac‘s styling of the novel lies as much at the centre of its appeal as the events it records”. And that’s true enough. I’ve met people with no particular interest in the Beats, and no idea of who Dean Moriarty was created from, but who have enjoyed On the Road. They may not have thought too much about what the characters get up to – “So, what’s new?” one person said with a shrug. But they liked the pace, the energy, the enthusiasm in the narrative. The same could be said about Cassady’s letter. There isn’t all that much under the surface of what he’s saying, but the account is racy and bright and keeps going on its speed and enthusiasm. The difference between the letter and the book is that Kerouac had a better idea of how to “style” his novel. I’ve also long been of the opinion that some editing was involved. The book gave the impression of spontaneity, but had been shaped to do that.
I mentioned earlier that Alan Harrington thought of Cassady as a “complete psychopath”. It’s a comment he made in his book, Psychopaths (Simon & Schuster, New York, 1973), and his general view of Cassady is a fairly critical one, and based on personal observation. Harrington appears in On the Road as Hal Hingham. Was his description of Cassady accurate? Certainly the personality that comes across from the letter would suggest that it is. In his behaviour with women generally he appears to have little or no sense of responsibility. His relationship with Joan Anderson is such that she attempts suicide at one point. Other females, including a sixteen year old, are treated in an offhand manner and, like the cars he stole, are abandoned once he has used them for his own gratification. Perhaps we shouldn’t comment on Cassady’s character, and his moral flaws, and should simply look at the letter now in terms of its literary value in relation to On the Road, and its place in Beat history. But it’s frankly hard not to wonder why people ever saw Neal Cassady in any sort of positive light.
It’s useful that the Joan Anderson letter finally came to light, and that it’s now available in an edition making it available to a wide audience. The introduction by A. Robert Lee places Cassady and the letter in a wider Beat context. There are useful notes, and an ample bibliography.