Writers are made, for anybody who isn’t illiterate can write; but geniuses of the writing art like Melville, Whitman or Thoreau are born.
He turns to the word “genius” itself — the history of which has a played a powerful role in shaping creative culture — and examines its meaning:
[Genius] doesn’t mean screwiness or eccentricity or excessive “talent.” It is derived from the Latin word gignere (to beget) and a genius is simply a person who originates something never known before. Nobody but Melville could have written Moby-Dick, not even Whitman or Shakespeare. Nobody but Whitman could have written Leaves of Grass; Whitman was born to write Leaves of Grass and Melville was born to write Moby-Dick.
Kerouac takes particular issue with the conflation of “talent” and “genius”:
Some perfect virtuoso who can interpret Brahms on the violin is called a “genius,” but the genius, the originating force, really belongs to Brahms; the violin virtuoso is simply a talented interpreter — in other words, a “Talent.” Or you’ll hear people say that so-and-so is a “major writer” because of his “talent.” There can be no major writers without original genius. Artists of genius, like Jackson Pollock, have painted things that have never been seen before… Take the case of James Joyce: people say he “wasted” his “talent” on the stream-of-consciousness style, when in fact he was simply born to originate it.
In a sentiment that Joni Mitchell would later come to echo in asserting that “an artist needs a certain amount of turmoil and confusion,” Kerouac adds:
Some geniuses come with heavy feet and march solemnly forward… Geniuses can be scintillating and geniuses can be somber, but it’s that unescapable sorrowful depth that shines through — originality.
But because originality, by definition, requires breaking out of the common canon, “geniuses” — as Kierkegaard so eloquently lamented — are often subjected to ridicule and rejection before they come to be revered. Kerouac returns to Joyce, who endured his share of derogatory attacks:
Joyce was insulted all his life by practically all of Ireland and the world for being a genius. Some Celtic Twilight idiots even conceded he had some talent. What else were they going to say, since they were all going to start imitating him? But five thousand university-trained writers could put their hand to a day in June in Dublin in 1904, or one night’s dreams, and never do with it what Joyce did with it: he was simply born to do it.
When the question is therefore asked, “Are writers born or made?” one should first ask, “Do you mean writers of talent or writers of originality?” Because everybody can write but not everybody invents new forms of writing. Gertrude Stein invented new forms of writing and her imitators are just “talents.”
The criterion for judging talent or genius is ephemeral, speaking rationally in this world of graphs, but one gets the feeling definitely when a writer of genius amazes him by strokes of force never seen before and yet hauntingly familiar…
The main thing to remember is that talent imitates genius, because there’s nothing else to imitate. Since talent can’t originate, it has to imitate, or interpret…
Genius gives birth, talent delivers. What Rembrandt or Van Gogh saw in the night sky can never be seen again… Born writers of the future are amazed already at what they’re seeing now, what we’ll all see in time for the first time, and see many times imitated by made writers.
Speaking to the jealousy behind all mockery, Kerouac signs off with a remark particularly prescient in our age of quick, loud, widely trumpeted judgments, riffing Sy Oliver and James Young’s 1950s performance of the jazz tune “Tain’t What You Do (It’s The Way That Cha Do It)”:
Discovery: The letter Jack Kerouac described as ‘The greatest piece of writing I ever saw’
Considered ‘lost’ for 66 years, Neal Cassady’s visionary ‘Joan Anderson letter’ is a foundational document of the Beat era and the inspiration for Kerouac’s literary revolutions, beginning withOn the Road
Neal Cassady’s long-lost letter to Jack Kerouac, dated 17 December 1950, has permeated virtually every conversation about the Beat era. Referenced not only by Kerouac but by Allen Ginsberg, Laurence Ferlinghetti, Herbert Hunke, and a host of their contemporaries, Cassady’s fluid, incantatory, and deeply revealing prose influenced the entire generation of Beat writers.
The letter was written on a three-day Benzedrine high, Cassady later confessed. It contained, by Kerouac’s first calculation, at least 13,000 words and ran to 40 pages, offering a compelling, unaffected and discursive account of Cassady’s frenetic love life in 1946, particularly with Joan Anderson (whom he visited in a hospital after a failed suicide), and ‘Cherry Mary’, recounting an acrobatic escape through a bathroom window when they were surprised by Mary’s aunt. The uninhibited, non-literary narrative pointed the way to the free, truthful style to which Kerouac aspired.
Overwhelmed by what he read, Kerouac wrote ecstatically to Cassady on 27 December: ‘I thought it ranked among the best things ever written in America… it was almost as good as the unbelievably good ‘Notes from the Underground’ of Dostoevsky… You gather together all the best styles… of Joyce, Céline, Dosy… and utilize them in the muscular rush of your own narrative style & excitement. I say truly, no Dreiser, no Wolfe has come close to it; Melville was never truer.’
Cassady, Neal (1926-1968). Typed letter completed in autograph and with autograph additions, corrections, and deletions in pencil and pen, to Jack Kerouac (1922-1969), Denver, 17 December 1950. 18 pages, comprising nearly 16,000 words, some pale browning and minor marginal chipping. Estimate: $400,000-600,000. This lot is offered in the Books & Manuscripts sale on 16 June at Christie’s New York. © Cathy Sylvia Cassady, Jami Cassady and John Cassady
© Cathy Sylvia Cassady, Jami Cassady and John Cassady
In an interview published in the Summer 1968 issue of The Paris Review, Kerouac famously hailed the letter’s impact: ‘I got the idea for the spontaneous style of On the Road from seeing how good old Neal Cassady wrote his letters to me, all first person, fast, mad, confessional, completely serious, all detailed, with real names in his case, however (being letters).’
Nearly everyone who knew Cassady was struck by his natural verbal virtuosity as a monologist. Kerouac’s first wife, Joan Haverty Kerouac, recounted his tales of ‘cares and escapades, jail memories and women and nights and blues’, though she was certain that no writing ‘could… capture the vitality and intensity of the voice I now heard, describing everything in such a way that lived it just by listening.’
Never read, or merely neglected, the letter remained untended until its discovery in 2012
As with many documents of the era, the ‘Joan Anderson’ letter travelled a complex path through many hands, and for the majority of the last 66 years was considered lost. After being entranced by it and responding, Kerouac gave the letter to Allen Ginsberg to read and offer to publishers.
Ginsberg then took the letter to his friend Gerd Stern, who was living in Sausalito in California on a houseboat and working as a West Coast rep for Ace Books. Within the tight Beat nexus, Ginsberg and Stern formed a bond after meeting at the mental facility where they were both introduced to (Howl-dedicatee) Carl Solomon. Solomon’s uncle owned Ace Books, and it was Ace that had published William S. Burroughs’ Junkie in 1953.
Despite their enthusiasm, Ace rejected publication of Cassady’s typescript and it was returned by Stern to Ginsberg. The letter then went missing and the story was born — perpetuated most emphatically by Kerouac — that it had been lost over the side of Stern’s boat.
In fact, Cassady’s letter had been preserved in the files of the Golden Goose Press. Owned by Ginsberg and Stern’s friend R.W. ‘Dick’ Emerson, the Golden Goose Press was known for publishing some of the finest poets of the period, and for making audio recordings of their readings. Emerson placed the envelope containing the letter on his ‘to read’ pile. Never read, or merely neglected, it remained untended until its discovery in 2012 by Jean Spinosa.
No records of any sales are recorded in the online databases for any Cassady material, let alone for material of this literary consequence
Ginsberg later had no memory of giving the Joan Anderson Letter to Stern, and when Emerson closed the Golden Goose Press the letter was packed further into obscurity. It may have been lost for ever had not John ‘Jack’ Spinosa, Emerson’s officemate at 40 Gold Street in San Francisco, insisted on preserving the press’s archives when they were forced to vacate their rental space.
Spinosa recognized that literary history was preserved in those files, and saved them from being thrown away as Emerson cleared the office. The boxes remained with Spinosa and his wife Kathleen Cohan until after his death on 29 November 2011. On the following 15 May, Jack’s daughter Jean discovered this long-lost treasure of post-war American literature, buried among the files of the Golden Goose Press.
Only a fragment of the letter has ever been published — 14 years after it was written, and after the great works it influenced had come out. A portion of the letter, apparently copied by Kerouac before he passed it on to Ginsberg, was published in 1964 by John Bryan in his Notes from Underground #1, where it was called ‘The First Third’. Bryan claimed that Cassady himself came to help print it, while the title suggests that Cassady was by this time considering it as the first portion of his ongoing autobiography.
The same extract was published by City Lights in 1971 as an addendum to Cassady’s book The First Third, and later formed the basis of the 1997 film The Last Time I Committed Suicide, directed by Stephen T. Kay, and starring Thomas Jane and Keanu Reeves.
It is an understatement to remark that Neal Cassady material is scarce at auction: it is unprecedented. No records of any sales are recorded in the online databases for any Cassady material, let alone for material of this literary significance. The circumstances of its preservation and appearance at auction constitute a unique opportunity to acquire a foundational post-war literary manuscript that transcends its humble origins as a ‘letter’.
Dylan and Ginsberg at Jack Kerouac’s grave in Lowell, reading excerpts from Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues, the first poetry that hit Dylan to the soul.