November 25, 2014
Long-lost letter that inspired On the Road uncovered
by Nick Davies
For fifty years, Beat poet Gerd Stern has been blamed for discarding a letter that Jack Kerouac described as “the greatest piece of writing I ever saw,” a move that could have doomed its writer to the depths of obscurity like so many others. The letter, written by Neal Cassady, was long thought to have been tossed over the side of a houseboat by Stern, but now, John Rogers reports for the Associated Press, it has been recovered.
Performance artist Jean Spinosa recently found the letter as she cleaned out her late father’s house (not mentioned by name, her father was a business associate of Golden Goose Press publisher Richard Emerson). Kerouac once told the Paris Review that the note could have transformed Cassady from a “car-stealing, marijuana-dealing, con-man” into a major literary figure. Cassady wrote it over the course of three days in 1950, spurred on by amphetamines. He sent it to Kerouac, who was so impressed that he threw out an early draft of On the Road and rewrote the book in a stream-of-consciousness, emulating the style of Cassady’s letter in his classic of Beat literature.
So what actually happened to the letter, and why did the blame for its disappearance fall on Stern? It started with another Beat luminary, Allen Ginsberg, who had collected a stack of books and manuscripts from his friends and sent them to Stern—who was working at legendary sci-fi publisher Ace Books—hoping to get them published. Stern sent everything back to Ginsberg, with the exception of William S. Burroughs’s novel Junky.
Ginsberg then sent the letter to Richard Emerson at Golden Goose, who never bothered to read it. When Emerson closed Golden Goose, he gave his archives to Spinosa’s father, and the letter sat unopened until she came across it. Ginsberg is the one who started the rumor about Stern tossing it overboard, and Stern still isn’t sure why; he tells the AP, “At the best he forgot that I gave it to him. At the worst he said it just to stick it to me.” And Stern is able to look on the sunny side, laughing, “It doesn’t matter now. Allen’s dead. Jack’s dead. Neal’s dead. But I’m still alive.”
The letter, along with the rest of the archives from Golden Goose, will be sold by the auction house Profiles in History on December 17.
Nick Davies is a publicist at Melville House.