Mad to Talk
By BLAKE BAILEY
JACK KEROUAC AND ALLEN GINSBERG: THE LETTERS
Edited by Bill Morgan and David Stanford
500 pp. Viking. $35
“Tonight while walking on the waterfront in the angelic streets I suddenly wanted to tell you how wonderful I think you are,” Jack Kerouac began a typical letter to his friend Allen Ginsberg in 1950. “God’s angels are ravishing and fooling me. I saw a whore and an old man in a lunch cart, and God — their faces! I wondered what God was up to.” God’s purpose would remain opaque to Kerouac — try as he might to impart some glimpse of it in his work — and a decade later he was pretty much a burnt-out case. Poring over his old correspondence with Ginsberg and others in 1961, he sadly wondered at “the enthusiasms of younger men.” “Someday ‘The Letters of Allen Ginsberg to Jack Kerouac’ will make America cry,” he wrote.
And well might we be moved to weep, for any number of reasons: for a time when “angelheaded hipsters” (as they delighted in mythologizing themselves) hit the road looking for kicks and Whitmanesque connection with those (generally male) who were likewise “mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved,” when mainstream society seemed so dull and doomed (by the Bomb, of course) that a wayward life was all the more fun for being heroic, too. Mostly we weep because we know it ends badly — for all of us, really, but especially poor Kerouac, who became famous and was blamed in part for the beatniks in Washington Square and the hippies to come. “We gotta get out of NY,” he wrote Ginsberg in 1959, having warned his friend the year before, “Beware of California.” Already the world — a world he helped create — was closing in on him from both sides.
But in the beginning Kerouac’s only claque consisted of his fellow hipsters — among them William S. Burroughs, Neal Cassady, Gregory Corso and especially Ginsberg, who offered himself as an adoring little brother. It becomes clear while reading “Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg: The Letters” that, to a remarkable degree, each was dependent on the other for encouragement and advice, and it’s rather astonishing how well founded their mutual regard proved to be. Even before Ginsberg published his masterpiece, “Howl” (1956), Kerouac had predicted that someday his friend would be a “Jewish National Hero”: “Ginsberg will be the name, like Einstein in Science, that the Jews will bring up when they claim pride in Poetry.” And lo, it came to pass. Indeed, the only writer for whom Kerouac had greater expectations was himself, and Ginsberg would learn the hard way that it was best to concur in this. “It’s late for me to say it but I see how much better you are than I,” he wrote Kerouac in 1955, two and a half years after he’d rashly ventured to suggest that a draft of “On the Road”(which Kerouac had likened to “Ulysses”) was “crazy” but “salvageable.” He never made that mistake again. Kerouac blasted back: “Do you think I don’t realize how jealous you are and how you and Holmes and Solomon” — their mutual friends John Clellon Holmes and Carl Solomon — “all would give your right arm to be able to write like the writing in ‘On the Road.’ ” He added that he’d like to punch them all “in the kisser,” if not for “too many glasses to take off.”
Ginsberg was contrite, and rightly so, since nobody would benefit from Kerouac’s example more than he. “[It] isn’t writing at all — it’s typing,” Truman Capote remarked, apropos of Kerouac’s having composed “On the Road”via a 120-foot-long roll of tracing paper fed continuously through his typewriter. Inspired by the spontaneity of bebop, Kerouac called his method “blowing” or “sketching,” and was eager, as ever, to explain the matter to Ginsberg: “You just have to purify your mind and let it pour the words (which effortless angels of the vision fly when you stand in front of reality) . . . and slap it all down shameless, willy-nilly, rapidly until sometimes I got so inspired I lost consciousness I was writing.”
As one may surmise from Kerouac’s prose style (epistolary and otherwise), a steady ingestion of drugs was also crucial to the process — primarily Benzedrine to keep the flow going, and marijuana (or, this being the ’50s, “tea”) to keep the angels flying. Ginsberg hipped to that aspect of things, too, and in one letter he describes staring, stoned on peyote, at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel in San Francisco, impressed by its “Golgotha-robot” visage. “This peyote vision was the original inspiration for Ginsberg’s poem ‘Howl,’ ” the editors, Bill Morgan and David Stanford, gloss in a footnote. “I realize how right you are,” Ginsberg enthused of his breakthrough work, “that was the first time I sat down to blow, it came out in your method, sounding like you, an imitation practically.” Nor did Kerouac’s contribution end there. Not only did he suggest the title (nixing the author’s lame “Strophes”) of what would become perhaps the most famous American poem of the latter 20th century, but he led the cheering when Ginsberg introduced “Howl” to the public with a frenzied reading at the Six Gallery in San Francisco on Oct. 7, 1955.
By then Kerouac had discovered Buddhism, and this is where things begin to get thick for the reader of these letters. Two stoned white guys writing almost exclusively about dhyana and the like — and I can think of no better way to describe the long middle section of this book — are generally interesting only to each other. “Neal begins there is no beginning and end to the world, the karmic etheric akasha essence substance vibrating continuously in all the billion universes and our atman-entities rushing around” is a typical passage, the like of which made me wish I had a butler standing behind me exploding paper bags every time I nodded. Given that Kerouac was beginning to drink too much on top of everything else (“because of silly elation, wine and benny, I cannot sit down and practice true dhyana”), there is even more of the blowhard grandiosity, too, with Ginsberg supplying the usual indiscriminate applause, in the absence of which we might have been spared “The Dharma Bums” (1958).
Ginsberg, always the more worldly of the two, got a kick out of fame. “What inevitable mad dream of life we’ve turned up,” he wrote Kerouac (once Viking had finally published “On the Road” in 1957), wisely advising his friend, “SAVE YOUR MONEY!!!!!!” Kerouac took this to heart, more or less: he made drunken jazz records with Steve Allen and Norman Granz, and waxed indignant when Sloan Wilson sold his novel “A Summer Place” to the movies for big bucks, whereas Kerouac was getting jerked around by Marlon Brando (who “doesn’t answer letter from greatest writer in America,” he railed, “and he’s only a piddling king’s clown of the stage”). In the end, of course, money was slight consolation for a shy, paranoid man who could scarcely leave his house anymore without being accosted by the beatniks he deplored, and never mind riding rails and hitchhiking and “balling the jack” from one coast to another in Neal Cassady’s 1949 Hudson. What he himself had named the Beat Generation was, he sensed, drifting away from “Buddha kindness” toward rabble-rousing of the leftist “blood in the street” sort. “I DON’T WANT NOTHIN TO DO WITH POLITICS,” he roared at Ginsberg, whose own Communist sympathies (earning him the moniker “Carlo Marx” in “On the Road”) were more suspect than ever. “You and I and Burroughs and Gregory . . . believe in God and TELL THEM THAT, YELL IT!”
So it went in those sad final years. The last exchange of letters in the present volume is from 1963; five years later Kerouac would appear on “Firing Line,” William F. Buckley Jr.’s television program, bloated and drunk, knocking hippies and explaining the war in Asia as a Vietnamese “plot to get Jeeps into their country.” One year later, at the age of 47, he was dead of cirrhosis. Ginsberg, meanwhile, became a beloved and quite benign public figure, paying tribute to his friend’s memory by helping to found the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in Boulder, Colo. A place for those who “burn, burn, burn” with literary vocation just might have pleased Kerouac, whose favorite review of “On the Road” concluded with the words “O I wish I was young again.” That, more than anything, may have been what it was all about.
Blake Bailey is writing a book about Charles Jackson, author of the novel “The Lost Weekend.”