An Excerpt from the Joan Anderson Letter – Journal of Alta California

excerpt joan anderson letter alta

Pages from the Joan Anderson Letter (Emory University)

To say we’ve been eager to finally read the heretofore unpublished portions of the Joan Anderson Letter would be a profoundly absurd understatement. Yet, while the complete text of Neal Cassady’s legendary letter to Jack Kerouac has yet to be made available to the public, you can read this exclusive excerpt from the Joan Anderson letter in the latest Journal of Alta California.

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Cassady wrote the lengthy letter, practically a novella, to Jack Kerouac in December of 1950, describing a series of his libidinous exploits. Written in a frenetic, stream-of-consciousness style, Kerouac would later declare it was “the greatest piece of writing I ever saw.” As David L. Ulin writes in Alta:

The letter rambled vividly and profanely through a crazy story about a few days in Denver in late 1945, beginning with Cassady meeting “a perfect beauty of such loveliness that I forgot everything else and immediately swore to forgo all my ordinary pursuits until I made her”: Joan Anderson. Its stream of consciousness is a roller-coaster ride through devotion, a breakup, a suicide attempt, a reunion, a reconciliation, an arrest, incarceration and, finally, abandonment. Appropriately, Cassady described the tale, mid-letter, as a ‘pricky tearjerker.’

“This was what Kerouac admired most about the letter: the way Cassady’s personality exploded off the page. He had been looking for a strategy to open up his writing, and the immediacy of his friend’s account, full of digressions and moving back and forth in time, gave him an idea.

The letter undeniably influenced Kerouac’s entire body of work from that point onward. The style he would come to call “Spontaneous Prose”—Kerouac’s Proustian stream-of-consciousness, mimicking the rhythms of hard bebop jazz—is a literary achievement that would not have existed in its absence.

For sixty years, the Joan Anderson Letter was considered an artifact of American literature tragically lost. According to Allen Ginsberg, it presumably found its way over the side of poet Gerd Stern’s Sausalito houseboat, and had gone to a watery grave.

In November of 2014, a press conference was held here at the Beat Museum, where it was announced that the letter had been found, and was slated to be sold at auction. That auction never happened. After a series of lawsuits and unsuccessful attempts to auction the letter, it was purchased last year by Emory University, where it currently resides.

Video: Gerd Stern, the poet accused of losing the Joan Anderson Letter; with Mike McQuate, who was involved in finding the letter; and Jerry Cimino, in a December 2014 discussion about the finding of the letter.