Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, central figures of the Beat generation, were social and literary pioneers, experimenting tirelessly with literature, drugs and sexuality. Ginsberg’s Howl (1956) and Kerouac’s On the Road (1957) inspired a generation of youth culture in mid-twentieth-century America, and liberalised permanently what could and could not be published. Below are four letters selected from the pair’s extensive correspondence. Read an interview with Bill Morgan, one of the editors of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg: The Letters.
Jack Kerouac [New York, New York] to Allen Ginsberg [n.p., San Jose, California?]
ca. late May 1954
Please be reassured, angel, I think dearly of you whenever I do think of you, which is often, as I’m sure you do think of me often and dearly, naturally, and I’m not trying to be mysterious, or quiet, or anything, but just have reached the essence center of things where nothingness resides and does quite absolutely nothing, and this is my Chinese position.
I won’t quote you the Tao, or make demands or impositions, or go into detail about what I been doing, except to mention, as you’ll hear from Edgar Cayce Cassady and Carolyn, my discovery and espousal of sweet Buddha, which has been I guess in a wordly maybe even you sense my undoing, because, tho I always did suspect that life was a dream, now I am assured by the most brilliant man who ever lived, that it is indeed so, consequently I don’t want to do anything any more, no writing, no sex, no nothing, I have abandoned and that is, hope to abandon, all evil outflowings of ‘life’ for all good non-outflowings of mind essence recognition . . . no more Subterraneans to harass you with, or Alenes to kick myself in the ass with and no more anything but a kind of like 1948 realization of the nothingness and the who-cares-anyhow of Lucien drunks . . . tho once in a while I go out, because people call and write, and drink and fuck a little, but always come back, to my room, to do nothing, to take the privilege of doing nothing and claim it for my own, and so that, if my mother should want me to leave, I will and would go to El Paso Texas at first, to wash dishes and live across the river in $4 a month dobe cottage where with my Buddha Bibles and bean stews I would live life of mendicant thinker in this humble earth dream.
As for all your latest Mayan discoveries and poems, I want to hear every word of it if you want to transmit it, or tell it when we meet, but don’t expect me to get excited by anything any more.
I love you, you are a great man, a great little kid in my mind, full of bullshit but innocent of why you fully of bullshit, like a Lucien Carr hero properly, to give something for the Lucien Satan to rave and rant about I guess at dawn in front of his believing cribs and arrant wives, Allen boy, okay, make it Maya, Maya, Maya, which in Sanskrit, means, dreamlike, the earth, all living things in the Universe must be regarded as Maya, the reflection of the moon on the lake, ask Carolyn to let you read the big letter of about May 20 that I sent her, for a résumé of my philosophical expository thinking; and have good time with wonderful Neal who will certainly show you around as no one else could, the crazy inevitable American California, the likes of which, etc., and I’m so tired of all such discriminations which come and go with little radiant lifetimes one after another; if possible we meet again sometime and I’ll tell you about the gypsy shrouds, pull out the crystal meaning balls, and show you the secrets of the magic saints and the radiant perfumed hands of the Tathagatas that may one day be laid in a wheel shimmering upon your awakened brow, if I have anything to do with it before I lost myself in the recognition that I have no self, no ego, and therefore can no longer act as ‘I’ and because of that don’t find you or see you; until which time I hope to see you, to help you angel, in the final great radiant final filial heavenly discovery that believe me your you-said-sublime boy has accidentally and only accidentally recently and completely found—so after big Californias and washlines and rail roads and speeches and go dig my cactus grove in the backyard, and Jamie and Cathy and Johnny [Neal and Carolyn’s children], and Maw Cassady’s Pizzas, and the wine in the store across the street, and Neal’s tennis-chess-and kicks, write, if you want, for full explanation of the Blessed One, and I send, if, as I say, I’m still alive, or still recognize that you are Allen Ginsberg old friend of Jack Kerouac, which I guess even in and after eternity I won’t forget, but don’t you forget our liquid giants ogling behind buildings, and the eternity radar machine in the sky, and dead eyes see, because, boy, I’ve now found out that it was all instinct pure and true, and I must say, we weren’t so dumb, as I will prove, as I say, if I ever see you again, which, after all, may not be, for I am weary of the world and wish to weary from this globe, to other blobs where bloblessness grows more apparent with each passing kalpa—O So have a drink of wine, and dig the liquid sad ungraspable, fault-sour suffering Samsara sea of mournfulness for me, O Allen saint, Arhat, goodbye . . . I’ll see you in the Tathagata Worlds anon.
Allen Ginsberg [San Jose, California] to Jack Kerouac [n.p., New York, New York?]
June 18, 1954
I am in San Jose, have your letters, have heard Neal’s Cayce; nothing has happened among us here yet. I sent you card from North Mexico; have answered Burroughs etc. all that’s out of the way, except to say that I wasn’t being mysterious in Mexico. I kept writing letters to one and all every week or so, some never got there, also I was in an isolated locality where mail was difficult; I didn’t intentionally create a mystery though was pleased afterward by all the fuss. In T and C [The Town and the City] you mention Stofsky’s ability to disappear as one of his virtues (disappear on trip or whatever and suddenly reappear) and that’s what I thought of when I got word that I was missed.
Well, let me get on to this letter.
If you left here the end of March you didn’t see the letters I wrote to you and Neal here; I don’t know if you’ve seen Lucien who also got account of what happened. But I will give you the story assuming you haven’t been informed. [Ginsberg retells the story of his Mexican earthquake visit, as already described in his April 4 letter . . . ]
I wound up spending last night in Mexico overlooking the poor barrio Kasbah outside of my room on the garbage cliff of Mexicali, tin shacks down the cliff , white roofs and dirty little gardens with superhighway and other cliff leading to uptown border hipsters streets, so anyway I stood on a garbage cliff in the darkness to see I was at the end of my Mexico trip.
The first night I got here (after spending week with relatives around L.A.) Neal got me hi and talked continually building the whole fragmentary Cayce structure like an unfinished reverie. The great thing, despite all obvious absurdities, is that he has conceived of possibility of a final idea, got religion, whether Voices of Rock or Buddha balloon or Cayce transmigrations, new level of conceptions opened for him as actual possiblies and necessaries. These are the roads to heaven, I do not forget liquid giants ogling, and forests of absolute Arden on 8th Ave., the sensations of the sublime we ken, great steps and hints
of the stairway:
On codeine on the bus up to Veracruz: an image, as in a Giotto painting, likeness of a heavenly file of female saints ascending a starry gold stairway winding up into the sky, daintily regularly stepping up the miniature gold steps, the thousands of little saintesses in blue hoods with round sweet smiling faces looking out directly at me the beholder, their hands beckoning up, palms out, as they climb. Salvation! it’s true, as simple as in the picture.
The above is just a random conception.
And now with all this conflict of theologies, I made out my credo:
1. The weight of the world is love.
2. The mind images all visions.
3. Man is as far divine as his imagination.
4. We go create a world of divine love as much as we can image. (That is, we must go on interpreting recreating the given blank world (lack of imagination is death by physical starvation) according to the most extreme absolute of divine love divinity that we can conceive.)
I haven’t said much about Neal but will in next letter whenever it is. At the moment my greatest pleasure has been in looking at him as in a great dream, the unreality of it, that we are in the same space-time room again. As if resurrection from dead past, fresh and full of life, though with the drag of old knowledge, but we have not yet begun to talk. I don’t know what it is I want to tell him. Or he me yet.
As to you Kerouac, it is clear that your heavenly duty, your Buddha balloon, is to write, and that your unhappiness is undeserved in a way that only acceptance can make clear.
What I mean to say is there stands the structure of your works and sublimity towering in my imagination untarnished. My tea leaves still read \$\$\$ and FAME for you whether or not in the next ten years probably in this lifetime.
. . .
Your isolation like mine is sad and frightful mainly the blind alleys of money and love but life is not over, and much to be written and much to be respected in all of us not just for being humanity but for having tried and actually achieved a thing, namely literature and also possibly a certain spiritual eye at this point. And Neal who has money and love is desperate at the gate of heaven for he is unhappy with his existence. God knows what starvation’s behind the blankness, was behind, now he is seeking in his soul. As for Bill he thinks he is lost. Lucien knows his way but may have a period of having to expand his spiritual horizon in order to accommodate the depth and height of possibility and this may be preceded by the appearance of a prison in his soul, not his existence.
PS: I am not finished with my poem so will send this as is and send the fine poem soon.
Neal will read Visions of Neal if you will send it registered and insured here.
We talked about him not reading those things.
What are you writing now since I last saw you?
Have you seen Lucien?
Have you seen Holmes, Kingsland, Solomon, and the others, Alene [Lee], and Dusty [Moreland]? Please give me news of them.
Write me when and if you want, don’t worry.
Please return the pages about Acavalna. There is no other copy.
I will be reading Bagavad Gita and some Buddhism soon, if you have directions
Allen Ginsberg [New York, New York] to Jack Kerouac [n.p., Northport, New York?]
ca. Oct. 13, 1960
Just finished hamburger sandwich. Pete and Laf on 14th St. helping LeRoi Jones paint new huge apartment. I didn’t mean to sadden you leaving you in taxi alone speeding away uptown. Here’s a poem. You OK? Your book [Lonesome Traveler] is very good, I sat down and read it yesterday at one reading and laughed aloud tickled by sentences lots times, aloud. I don’t know what Lucien was screaming about except he thought you shouldn’t have been so nice to McGraw Hill filling out their form. However saw Cessa last nite to watch Nixon Kennedy debate, and later found, what upset her and Lucien, you drunk started telling her kid brother Lucien saga 1943 she said and were talking to Lucien about writing book on him. I heard that part in passing but hadn’t known it was the center of the evening for him. You ought to go there non-drunk some time and just have a nice quiet evening chatting with him and makem happy. The biography of him is just an open nerve if you throw it at him, particularly when drunk.
I also read Leadbelly’s poems (songs) this afternoon. He’s great poet. Also reread Happy Birthday of Death, Gregory is even better than I thought. I hadn’t read anything of his or thought about him for a month and read this and it made so much ethical sense, especially his poem about Clown.
Anyway two days ago I finished my book [Kaddish and Other Poems] and sent it off airmail special complete to Ferlinghetti. I have one more big raving politics poem to add in if I finish it ever.
Saw the debate. Nixon is saying we should war against China for Matsu and Quemoy [Islands]. Kennedy is saying, no, which is a mistake to say tactically. But Nixon is taking advantage of this and talking hypocritically about U.S. not ‘giving an inch’ to the communists. He is very evil, like that. I registered I’ll vote for Kennedy. Both are phony and both are outright warmongers, the communists are right on that. Both want to START physical war on Cuba—have said so. But at least Kennedy’s hypocrisies on this seem to mask some desire to withdraw from the whole U.S. aggression shot, and Nixon seems like he really wants war, like the Daily News. The Daily News really is asking for war, I read it. Or at least Nixon seems the more loudmouth super-patriot demagogue of the two. I don’t see why you’ve switched your judgment back to favoring him. Obviously Kennedy is more liberal and for more foreign wheat aid type and less tied up with phony military patriotic grandeur and less an FBI type, in intention. Not that it makes much difference America is sunk either way because it’s just plain selfish. The more extremely nasty we get the worse the communists get and anybody who doesn’t want to give a shit gets caught in the middle.
Like it occurred to me today we already have a planned economy but all the planning of most of our government huge budgets is military. So we’re already socialist so what’s all the shouting about why don’t we be hip planned socialists and make food and power instead of gas bombs, to defend ourselves against socialism. You don’t think anybody’s starving in the world. Nobody in America thinks so. This country is evil and Whitman and I now spit on it and tell it to be nice or die, because that’s what’s coming. I HATE AMERICA! Ugh, and Nixon and Kennedy combine all that’s most obnoxious. But Nixon does take the cake.
I suppose all this hate is unpatriotic to eternity but fuckit I’m going to die anyway.
The subliminal suggestions I receive reading the papers are horrid. I don’t see why you like Nixon already, yet. AGHHHHHhhh! I gotta go uptown see my father for supper he goes to a play tonight I have supper. Forgive my rant.
Jack Kerouac [Northport, New York] to Allen Ginsberg [New York, New York]
October 18, 1960
No, I was kidding about 1943 biog.—also about Nixon—making old argumentative scenes on couch, see—tell them. I not goin vote but would for Kennedy—everybody should simply make a vow of kindness and let it go at that, try to stay sober too—start new party Vow of Kindness party. Yes, starvation in world, because too many new babies everywhere, so no need for vow of poverty. Make vow of kindness. All hate unpatriotic to eternity after all—people forgetting that lately, even you, me, s’why world blooing. I gotta stay outa NY now, no more go there now—if Greg come you come him Petey you we talk in Mrs. O’s big pad. Me no drink no more—me crazy now—me see hoodoo voodoo—is your chimu turtle voodoed? I can’t answer you questions bout politics because it is all bloody impossible discrimination of riots and yelling horror on account don’t blame em for fear of bombs, I pray for world and pray it works, I feelawful today, can’t write later.
Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg: The Letters, edited by Bill Morgan and David Stanford, will be published by Viking on 8 July 2010. Read an interview with Bill Morgan, also published today.