Who said you should never meet your heroes?
My pals in the defunct Provo, Utah band from the 1980s had a song called “The Devil Lives in Moab” and the Canyon Country Zephyr newspaper also had an article about Satan sightings in the area. With these facts in mind, i wrote a story about Satan living in Moab and (as the song dictated) sold hot dogs.
Then, for a spoken word performance of the story, i (and Marty Kendall) painted this mixed media mural on a refrigerator box. Along with a few others, it lived in my VW bus for many years and now it is gone.
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’.
“Where you going?” His first question. A little vague.
Well I’ll tell you. That’s a toughie. I wish I knew. Finish school, get a job, wife, kids, that sort of thing. Or maybe not. You know how it goes. It was just a thought. A logical answer to his question.
“Utah.” The reply.
“Where you been?” Another question. A thinking man’s question at that.
A whole load of places, Disneyland even. Remind me to tell you about this great little diner in Nebraska sometime. How about you? Religiously speaking, however, I couldn’t tell exactly. Too deep for me. Just another thought.
“Just up skiing in Banff.”
“How long were you out of the country?”
Long enough to spend every bit of our money, see the sights, take advantage of the 18 year old drinking age, lock the keys in the car, get three flat tires, get ripped off, be savagely humiliated, not to mention the headaches and general frustration.
Kind of a hellish trip all in all.
“Oh, about four or five days.”
“Four or five?”
Well, sorry, Mr. Picky. You writing a book? “Since Wednesday night.”
“What’s your purpose?”
Ah! There we go, the eternal question. Why the heck are we on this sphere anyhow? Tell you one thing though, I’m pretty damn sure my purpose isn’t the same as yours.
“Just four college boys taking off for Thanksgiving to go dig some scenery.”
Last one out
close the door
to my heart
The Janitor hums, sweeping the last of the hallway flotsam into a dust pan, tipping into the trash barrel with wheels, apparatus to hold spray bottles holding fading solutions, rags, extra trash bags and brooms. Checks the double glass doors leading outside to the courtyard where people eat lunch and flirt on sunny days. Dark now, crispy leaves skate along benches, colliding with ashtrays and disappearing in to stairwells. Beyond the wooded area, late delivery truck downshifts, aching the sigh of a man lonely for a hundred years. Shuffling the hall, turning off each light in turn, flickering while closing each door. Supplies into closet, change smock for jacket and scarf. Squinting into the tiny mirror attached to the towel rack, he smoothes hair and puts on a driving cap with half ear flaps folded up and walks outside. In the shadow, someone – somewhat familiar – waits for him.
Gracious in silhouette, leaning
Against grey primer fender
I knew I was completely in love with her the night she made the bean soup. Fourteen kinds of beans in a crock-pot like a suburban housewife would have done. She blushed like she meant it and I told her I loved her, and it still sounded inadequate, as sincere as a postcard. I felt stupid afterwards like she always made me feel, not stupid like regrettable but more adolescent like I should be awkward and nervous and gangly.
But I’m not sure I was because she seemed to think was witty and occasionally brilliant and she kissed me. She kissed me often and she was gentle and fluid and involved and right. Not like she had had a lot of practice (nor did I ask, undignified I thought) but she kissed with the reckless precision that would humble you if you let it. Like someone carefully destroying you in a friendly game of pool without you noticing, like it would be a waste of their time if they weren’t fully involved.
This is good, I said and sometimes I thought she thought at least the same about me, she was more vocal and always aroused.
I liked this, all of it. Especially when we were in the desert in the spring or when she would tell me stories about Spain or when she would see me on the street and follow me for blocks before she would yell to me or when she told me about her sister and herself and how would gently touch the brashest of my artifacts or when she would eat with her fingers out of the jar and how she would lie on the bed and watch everything I did. Watch me fold my socks and brush my teeth and when I twirled a pencil like a drumstick when I would write a letter. She looked and watched and stared with the eyes of a statue or a madman staring at the sun knowing that he couldn’t really go blind. Unnerving at first then only lovely and the thing that has made me cry the most in my life. Cry big, sloppy silver tears.
I would have watched her too but my clumsiness and uneasy eye could never have done the same for her. I could never do anything that flowing and pure. Instead I wrote her poems, poems borrowed for here and there at first and later more self-conscious and bewildered and I would present them to her like a genius waiting for a world in return. She never said a thing, just one pressing, random kiss. I think she put them carefully in a box, probably with a ribbon on it, but I never did see one and I never did ask. I stopped looking the day she told me she thought I was destined for greatness. An astrologer told me the same thing since my birthday fell on the day four planets lined up and the end of the world was supposed to come or at least Niagara Falls was going to start going backwards or upside-down. I took this and used it for an alibi and told anyone who’d believe it.
I was a great hockey player until I was fourteen and gave up trying to skate backwards and I was a great liar and storyteller and kids loved me sometimes and I read a Kafka book and James Joyce’s Ulysses to the end which is almost a great thing to do. I had been to some great places and met some people who were pretty and great and now I’m only great at cooking Ukrainian food, filling out forms, juggling any three objects and changing the oil on my car. I remain a good liar when necessity dictates and I do eat healthy and I do plan on being a great uncle if any of my brothers could convince a woman to conceive.
Aside from the justifications, I waited for the destined part she meant and watched the seconds and weeks tick by in the corner of her patient eye. I would touch her eyelid; she would close her eyes, smile and blow the bangs from her face — it was then that I would remember to thank all the prophets and gods I could think of.
She listened to me carefully when I was spoke on the phone with someone, and always knew where I was. The canvasses, she painted me on were always five foot, always body length portraits and hazy backgrounds. I was usually dark purples, gray or brown and always in broad, abrupt brushstrokes. Sometimes with a beard and my hair down and tangled. The eyes were always looking straight on. They almost followed me around the room. She was deliberate and calculating in her work. I wasn’t that thin in real life either. My skin wasn’t stretched over high cheekbones and I wasn’t pasty and gaunt and emaciated like that. She smiled when I sat still so she could set the lights right.
Sometimes on the nights when we sat on her brass bed and listened to scratchy Patsy Cline or Robert Johnson records, she would tell her dreams and nightmares about me finally finding peace of mind or something as blissfully confusing and intangible and she meant it. I said sometimes I felt that I would find all the comforts and joys if things were more predictable and I knew one morning I would wake up and my hair would be silvery white or that I would be getting something great in the mail every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for the rest of my life or that she would have the same glorious, vivid expression on her face every morning or that I knew the sun wouldn’t go down some days and I could go mow the lawn at three in the morning like they do in Alaska.
Only then could I worry contently about important things. About walking around like a chosen one, being as brilliant as a great idea or as enlightening as a car burning on the side of the road. I would go kissing all the babies and telling jokes and stories before I had to shatter and fall and get around to dying.
And my love would be there, sitting in the other corner of the room on the footstool, hands between her knees, looking. Looking and watching. Deliberate and aware, looking exactly like she was exactly now, her eyes filled with metaphors, something about infatuation and control, the spirit glinting and winking in the corner.
And me, sitting across from her, not being able to talk or say anything, and I couldn’t even look back at her, because I just couldn’t, or shouldn’t, or I didn’t know how to look at her when she was right in front of me, waiting.
Written 1990 in SLC, UT