Bill Morgan speaks to Granta’s Patrick Ryan about editing the Jack Kerouac-Allen Ginsberg correspondence – and the various effects that alcohol and long-distance phone calls had on it. Read an excerpt from Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg: The Letters here.
PR: Given that so much has already been written by and about these two figures, were there any surprises to be had, going through their entire correspondence?
BM: Certainly there are surprises for the reader. What surprised me most was the quality of the letters. Ginsberg and Kerouac were both great writers, but they were also both great letter writers. They each possessed a wonderful depth of perception for what the other was thinking and feeling at the time, and they wrote to that.
Did their respective styles of letter-writing change over the years?
Kerouac’s gusto certainly diminished – primarily due to his alcohol consumption. When he was younger, he was constantly in training to be a writer, just like an athlete trains for a sport. He was still a fairly young man when he died – 47 – but he didn’t have the energy necessary to devote to writing anything substantial, and you can see that in the letters he wrote during the last few years of his life. Ginsberg, on the other hand, always intended to be famous. He saved everything, and starting in the mid-1950s, he began to be aware that his letters would be read years after he died. He was always honest and said what he wanted to say, but he wrote knowing there were going to be collections like this one.
Is there any evidence of career jealousy in either man?
Not really. Ginsberg wanted all his friends to be successful. Kerouac was disappointed with his own career – he carried around a lot of novels for years without being able to sell any of them – and he was bitter about that, but I don’t think he was jealous.
When you’re editing a collection like this one, do you find yourself excising passages or whole swaths of letters as you pick up recurring threads? In other words, do you shape a narrative as part of your contribution to the project?
The editor’s job is to be invisible. We probably had to cut about a third of the letters – mainly because the book would have been too large – but we didn’t shape the discussions. There are gaps in the book, but those are largely because the two men were together, so they weren’t writing to each other. I worked with Ginsberg as his archivist for twenty years, and I got used to correcting his spelling, but both he and Kerouac liked to make up words, and those we left alone.
Is there a notable difference in the way Ginsberg wrote to Kerouac and they way he wrote to, say, Gary Snyder?
Ginsberg was always genuine, he had no secrets. He was always dragging his own skeletons out of the closet and revealing everything he thought. But he wrote differently to everyone. He wrote political letters to his father – writing as the wiser, politically astute son trying to explain, for instance, what was really happening in Vietnam. He wrote reverential letters to Snyder because, in his eyes, Snyder was so spiritually advanced. And he wrote very intimate, personal letters to Kerouac. They had a great fondness for each other.
Kerouac eventually claimed that the hippies were ‘good kids’ but that the later beats were hoodlums. He also claimed that Communists had ridden on his coattails. Did Ginsberg share or dispute this change in Kerouac’s outlook?
Kerouac started off saying the Beat Generation was beaten down and played out in the aftermath of WWII, and then later dropped that and said that the term ‘beat’ came from beatific. He got sick of the label and of so many people using it. But Ginsberg saw the rise of the term as an opportunity to get a larger audience for their work. He didn’t argue about such things in his letters. He didn’t get political with Kerouac. He was also, in general, very forgiving of his friends. Kerouac would get raving drunk and the booze would start talking for him. He’d call Ginsberg and say awful, insulting things, he’d call him every name you could think of, and Ginsberg always forgave him, always took the next call. That was the nail in the coffin for letter writing, by the way: affordable long distance phone service. We’ve fallen out of the habit of writing out our lives for one another, and instead we just pick up the phone.
Photograph by Mademoiselle