Friday, August 1, 2014


If you're a fan of Jack Kerouac and/or Allen Ginsberg or have any interest in the historic changes they influenced not just in American literature but in American cultural and even world history, you'll probably dig this book. I did. And despite the fact that I've read everything published of and about Kerouac and probably ditto for Ginsberg, who I also knew, I still found myself surprised and delighted by unexpected revelations of character and intellect revealed in their correspondence.

I've read other letters of Ginsberg's and most of them are nothing like these (the book that collects Gary Synder's and Ginsberg's letters is almost stilted compared to this one), which cover the period from just after they met c. 1944 to the beginnings of their wider influence on American culture in 1963 (after which Kerouac receded from most contact with audiences and the media and even the scene he had helped create while Ginsberg became more engaged with all of the above).

In many spots in these letters, these men speak to each other not only like close friends but like what lovers might sound like. They may just be doing what used to be called "camping" but there's an intimacy sometimes that's more than that. Unfortunately, as with Kerouac's notebooks, there are many ellipses, and only a couple explained. In the case of his journals we know that most of the material removed had to do with Kerouac's sexual experiences with men or negative comments about someone in the Sampas family.

Sebastian Sampas was a Greek-American childhood friend of Kerouac's who turned Jack on to philosophers and writers and was an inspiration to Kerouac who always wrote but wasn't as self educated as Sebastion. But he died in WWII and in many ways Ginsberg took his place. Sebastion had a bunch of siblings including Stella, a shy sister, who had a big crush on Jack. She never married, taking care of her brothers etc. and when Jack withdrew from the world to a large degree and was slowly killing himself with alcohol, like many drunks he would call up old friends and even recent acquaintances in the middle of the night to talk (and probably not remember in the morning like many drunks).

After years of this most stopped taking his calls. But Stella would take them. Jack had made a promise on his deathbed to his father that he'd take care of his mother, but he knew he was drinking himself to death so he asked Stella to marry him and come live with him and his mother in Florida (she still lived in Lowell Mass. where Jack grew up) and she did, taking care of both of them until Jack died. One of the last letters Jack wrote was to his nephew, his sister's son, saying something like "and don't let any of my thousand Greek relatives get near my archives" or something like that.

His manuscripts and letters and ephemera of his life and writing was the most organized archive anyone had ever seen, the way I heard it, and he wanted it to go to somewhere that would let his fans and scholars and anyone be able to use it. He left it all to his mother but when she died she left it supposedly to Stella, though his mother's signature was questioned and other questions were raised, especially by Kerouac biographer Gerry Nicosia who wrote MEMORY BABE and tried to help Jan Kerouac, Jack's daughter, get the archives but was blocked because by then Stella had died and her family had Jack's archives. People at Viking needed the Sampas family because Kerouac's books began selling much more after he died, and people who were published by Viking or wanted to be, and even by Ginsberg (speculation was he wanted to get the Nobel for Literature and thought people at Viking could help including Jack's first biographer Ann Charters). Meanwhile the Sampas family began selling the archive off piecemeal, like Jack's raincoat to Johnny Depp for supposedly a million (or maybe that was a letter of Jack's)...

...anyway, point is, the material cut out of Jack's notebooks and letters and I assume the ones to Ginsberg in this book too were, like I said, probably often too sexually explicit about Jack's encounters with sex with men or too critical of the Sampas family etc. But despite that missing material, whatever it might be (and even if it's not about the things I think it probably is, whatever it is and even if it added another fifty or a hundred pages to the book, so what it's Allen f*cking Ginsberg and f*cking Jack Kerouac for f*ck's sake) this book is still a gas to read, it's like an autobiographical duet by the two most original word riffers of their time.

They show that Kerouac was always the original thinker and most insightful and intellectually rigorous and spiritually evolved, and clearly it was his influence that helped Ginsberg evolve intellectually, spiritually and especially as a poet. Kerouac could be verbally abusive obviously when drunk, especially in personal encounters, but in these letters his affection for Ginsberg is obvious and vice versa. It's really a love story in letters, and not just love for each other but for what they considered important writers and books and spiritual teachers and sex and opening up the possibilities so repressed and hidden in the society they grew up in. Yeah, I dug it.

[PS: I am not saying in any way that Kerouac was a repressed homosexual as some have contended, at most he was bisexual, or at least happy to be sexually gratified by whomever....]

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