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  • Experience Transmuted into Gold
  • Erik Mortenson (bio)
Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg: The Letters. Bill Morgan and David Stanford, eds. Penguin. 528pages; paper, $22.00, eBook, $17.99.

Beat writers like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg have enjoyed a remarkable staying power over the years. Not only have their works come to be valued as American classics, but younger readers continue to rediscover them. Indeed, the vast majority of Ginsberg and Kerouac’s writing, including their journals, notes, and correspondence, has found its way into print, and hardly a few years pass without the publication of another posthumous work. Given this level of saturation, it would seem that yet another collection of Beat letters might be superfluous; but Morgan and Stanford’s Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg: The Letters (2010) is more than simply another compilation.

Starting with a Ginsberg letter to an incarcerated Kerouac in August 1944 and ending with their increasingly infrequent missives a few years before Kerouac’s death in 1969, the editors have judiciously selected a series of letters, two-thirds of which are previously unpublished, that are integral to understanding Kerouac, Ginsberg, and the Beat movement they helped create. Ginsberg and Kerouac’s twenty-plus-year correspondence allows the reader to follow the friendship of two of the seminal figures of the Beat Generation as they discuss some of the issues, moments, and texts that have shaped our conception of their work and the very idea of “Beat.”

These letters represent more than an interesting exchange between friends. They record a correspondence instrumental to both Kerouac’s and Ginsberg’s development. As those fortunate enough to see the originals know, these two writers wrote on anything—postcards, envelopes, even loose scraps of paper. Both espoused a belief in transposing thought immediately into word, and this volume not only chronicles the development of their spontaneous aesthetic (Ginsberg’s primarily coming from William Carlos Williams and Kerouac’s through Neal Cassady’s mythical but non-extant “Joan Anderson letter”), but also provides access to letters that read like the prose and poetry they would go on to inspire.

The Letters shows two friends desperately trying to understand each other, mutual friends such as William S. Burroughs, Lucien Carr, and Gregory Corso, and perhaps most importantly, themselves. This extensive correspondence involved nothing less than a search for meaning and a means to convey it through the written word. The letters are instrumental in Kerouac and Ginsberg’s struggles to find a way to both live and write, and the missives form the basis for a practice that would result in the best work of both writers. As Ginsberg explains to Kerouac, “It is what you are which you don’t admit that I actually see you as.” Understanding requires an interlocutor to reach those hidden places where truth resides, and writers need a helpful audience as they hone their craft. Ginsberg and Kerouac provided each other with both.

This pair’s desire to transmute base experience into literary gold provides a fascinating glimpse into their intellectual and artistic development. One of the true joys of the volume is watching the process of collaboration and criticism unfold as these two pillars of the Beat Generation share and debate their work. For example, both spend time trying to understand and explain the sort of visionary experience that was so integral to both of their literary careers. Ginsberg’s Harlem visions, Kerouac’s discovery of Buddhist states of being, and their experiments with drugs are treated in detail as both writers discuss the importance of these matters for their lives and their writing. The reader thus becomes privy to early attempts to make sense of transcendent experience that would become a hallmark of both writers.

In fact, Morgan and Stanford have included a number of letters where famous passages from Kerouac and Ginsberg’s later works appear in rudimentary outline. In a letter describing his experience in a mental institution, Ginsberg decries his treatment in an exclamatory tone foreshadowing “Footnote to Howl”: “the doctors! the doctors! my god, the doctors! They are fiends, I tell you, absolute Ghouls of Mediocrity. Horrible! They have the truth! They...


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