REVIEW OF KEROUAC/GINSBERG: THE LETTERS
By: Cynthia Andrews I think it was the “Sound Bite” of the prime time news show that really began to change human communication as we know it. We only needed to hear the “gist” of the Senator’s speech, and the guy who witnessed the neighborhood crime was eventually cut off in mid-sentence, but viewers got the general idea so what’s the difference? Then with the introduction of E-mail and texting into our lives, the expression of our thoughts and feelings became even more abbreviated into cute words and phrases (looking more like code!) in the interest of time and efficiency, but sacrificing personal style and depth of thought. It is therefore with much enthusiasm that I eagerly picked up the long-awaited Jack Kerouac/Allen Ginsberg: Letters, beautifully edited by Bill Morgan and David Stanford, and absolutely reeking of personal style and depth of thought! One does not even tire of the almost five-hundred page length covering the period of 1944 to 1961, beginning with Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac as eighteen and twenty-two years old, respectively, and offering a fascinating glimpse into the minds of the two young geniuses who created a movement in literature and the cultural transformation that followed. Interestingly, the “Beat Generation” did not always resonate in tones of brilliant clarity and distinction, as indicated in a review of Kerouac’s The Subterraneans for Esquire in 1957, in which Dorothy Parker propounds: “There were among the Lost [Generation] those who made fairly important contributions to their time. The Beat Ones never have to be anywhere, never want to go anywhere except just to some other place. There is little laughter among them, and they speak mainly to tell one another how great they are. Through all the wild whirl of their days and nights, they find time, or so they tell, to perform the act of love as constantly as do Japanese beetles… I think, as perhaps you have discerned, that if Mr. Kerouac and his followers did not think of themselves as so glorious, as intellectual as all hell and very Christlike, I should not be in such bad humor.”
Ironically, it seems much more has been said about the “wild whirl” of the Algonquin Table, while Mrs. Parker also overlooks the new form of expression in language Jack Kerouac displays in his book; choosing rather, to concentrate on the lifestyle of the “Beat Ones” – which adds further irony to the Counter-Culture eventually rising out of their ideas to include the Hippy movement, the Sexual Revolution, Women’s Liberation and the exploration of Eastern religions, to name just a few. As for thinking of themselves as “so glorious,” in 1945 Kerouac writes Ginsberg: “There is always something to talk about because you are so unutterably stupid and vain, and that always leaves a splendid electrically charged gap for argument.”
This is the book for anyone who is at all interested in delving into the evolution of these two individual artists, offering an historical account of their thoughts on Yeats, Pound Williams, as well as their earliest opinions of the first examples of “Spontaneous Prose” and poetry, which would soon change American literature as we know it today, and influence future writers forever. For some Hipsters, I would imagine this would be The Book for an accurate account of the “Beat” Lifestyle in the middle of the last century, proving invaluable to the “Subterranean” at heart. I would also like to note the beautiful reflection of a friendship lasting more than twenty years in these letters, is expressed with an easy openness and trust regarding everything from their work and finances, to their most intimate relationships and experiences.
As a student of Allen Ginsberg’s in the MFA Program at Brooklyn College (thirty-five years after these letters were first written), I was always curious to know the development of both the man and the poet. For one thing, I understand now his constant insistence that I change my life to elevate the vision and power of my own poetry, while grounding myself in the practical values needed to form the artist as a whole. In 1945 Allen Ginsberg wrote Jack Kerouac: “… We violent and pensive children will be reenacting our crimes and judging ourselves… You must change your life! … what I miscalled “Emotional Smugness” – a sense of something missing in your head besides bourgeois idealism… You have what my grandmother calls a Goy’s head.”
To which Kerouac replied:
“Yes, my friend, I long to be the proud possessor of a Yiddishe Kopfe’s head. There’s a head which senses the only true values … When you write letters to me, try not to be sophomoric and moribund about your criticism of Jean… A little more finesse, please, or if possible, a dash of humour.”
By 1963 The Beat Generation was already established as a phenomenon of 20th century literature and American culture, and Ginsberg and Kerouac were now more concerned with checks publications, publishers and taxes. Even after the great success and fame that On the Road and Howl brought to their lives, it is well worth it to note the child-like enthusiasm and emotion in each of their letters still remained after at least four-hundred pages of a most astounding growth as both artists and men.