- The Holy Grail of Beat Writing Rises from its Watery Grave
- Why the Joan Anderson Letter is so Important
- Why I Think This Letter is the Real Deal
- What I Would Like to See Happen with this Letter
- More Info
All kidding aside, I wouldn’t joke about a thing like this. Neal Cassady’s long lost and famous “Joan Anderson Letter” which for almost 60 years was thought to have been lost in the waters around Sausalito has been FOUND and will be auctioned off by a southern California auction house called Profiles in History in two weeks.
For us it started one week ago. We got a mysterious phone call from someone asking if we knew anything about the writings of Neal Cassady. We said, “Sure, what do you need to know.” They said, “It’s not what we need to know, it’s what the world needs to know. We’re going to be holding a Press Conference for CNN, USA Today, all the major TV networks and we’d like you to consider holding it at The Beat Museum.” “What’s this Press Conference going to be about?” I asked. “We can’t tell you until you sign a Non-Disclosure agreement,” they said.
For those of you who don’t know what an NDA is, it is basically a contract where you agree not to discuss any details of a secret that is about to be revealed to you for business purposes. I signed a lot of NDA’s when I worked for IBM and American Express over the years so I understood the responsibilities and potential legal consequences of them (as in you can be sued for monetary damages if you leak the information). For this reason I hesitated. Did I really want to get involved with an NDA for something having to do with the Beats? The person on the other end of the phone sensed my hesitation. “You’re going to want to be involved in this,” I was told. So, on Friday, November 14th I signed the NDA and sent it back to them.
What was revealed to me next was something I simply could not believe. The Joan Anderson Letter had been found intact, all 18 pages of it. It had been misplaced in Sausalito and sat inside of a box for almost 60 years. The greatest piece of writing the world had (n)ever seen, according to Jack Kerouac, the document that literally inspired ol’ Jack to change his writing style from a rather standard style of the day to “bop spontaneous prose” – and suddenly it’s reappeared!
This was crazy. This was too good to be true. This was impossible. Friday afternoon after I’d had a chance to review the rather cryptic secret documents that had been sent to me, I called the auction house near Los Angeles. “If you guys want me involved in this thing I’ve got to see the actual document in person. This is about the single biggest thing that could happen in the world of The Beat Generation and I won’t risk the reputation of The Beat Museum looking at some grainy photographs in an email and a story I can’t verify. I realize you’re a large and reputable outfit, but I don’t know you and I’ve been offered unsubstantiated documents myself. How do I know you haven’t been hoodwinked?” “Come on down to Calabasas,” they told me. “We’ll show you what we’ve got.’
The following Monday I was “on the road.” I decided to drive down as I like to put the top down and I had plenty of unrelated business phone calls I could make during the drive. I took my time driving, I checked into a local hotel and dreamed of all the possibilities that could come from the next morning’s meeting.
Tuesday, 10 AM sharp, I met the good people at Profiles in History. I was immediately introduced to Joe Maddalena who started the company thirty years ago. We instantly got down to business. He showed me the four large boxes of books, envelopes and other ephemera that were part of the Golden Goose Press archive in which the Joan Anderson Letter was buried, tucked safely away in a large format mailer. Golden Goose Press was a small little publisher that was started in Columbus, Ohio in the late 1940s and moved to Sausalito in the early 1950s. They published Kenneth Rexroth, Robert Creeley and many other Beat related poets. The publisher was a guy named Richard Wirtz Emerson and for some reason, in either late 1954 or early 1955 he suddenly and permanently shut down Gold Goose Press and tossed everything having to do with the business into boxes – inventory, correspondence, unopened submissions and even uncashed checks and unopened bills.
The story made sense to me. I’d heard of Golden Goose Press, even though I didn’t know the publisher’s name. And the Sausalito connection made a lot of sense to me, too, because I was very familiar with the legend and the lore and the myth of the Joan Anderson Letter and how both Allen Ginsberg & Jack Kerouac blamed the loss of the letter on a guy named Gerd Stern. I know Gerd Stern, he’s been to The Beat Museum. He vehemently denied he lost the Joan Anderson letter and said Ginsberg actually recanted that claim before he died in 1997. Gerd told me, “I gave that letter back to Ginsberg. I didn’t lose that letter – Allen did.”
Regardless of who had the better memory for something that happened three years before On The Road was published, long before the Beats got famous – the letter has been found! Boy, will Gerd Stern be vindicated as soon as he hears THIS news!
If you’re a student of The Beat Generation you’re aware that Jack Kerouac wrote his iconic “scroll” version of On The Road over a three week period in April of 1951 on fifteen foot long sections of tracing paper that he later taped together to form the 120 foot long “scroll” version of On The Road.
You see a number of things had come together around that time to make all this happen:
- Jack was a phenomenally fast typist. He grew up in his father’s printing shop and was writing his own little newspapers and other items from a very tender age. Because of this, legend and lore tells us, Jack could type 120 words a minute on a manual typewriter.
- Because he could type so fast, Jack found his mind was often outrunning the mechanical function of his typewriter. He’d zip through a traditional 8 ½’’ by 11″ piece of paper in no time, and after he’d pull the finished sheet out of the typewriter and thread a new blank sheet through the platen (that little black roller thing that holds the paper in place on a typewriter is called a platen), he’d often lose his train of thought, and have to retrace where he was and get up a whole new head of steam to move forward.
- To solve this problem Jack invented a whole new technology for himself by threading 15 foot long pieces of paper (OTR was tracing paper, later manuscripts like The Dharma Bums were teletype paper) through his typewriter so he could blast along just as fast as he could without worrying about running out of paper.
- And that brings us to Jack’s new confessional style of writing that started with On The Road. When he wrote The Town & The City Jack was compared to Thomas Wolfe. The book is epic in sweep and it is written in a traditional style, thereby putting the lie to the opinion that Jack invented Bop Spontaneous Prose for himself because he wasn’t able to write in a traditional fashion. Ol’ Jack knew the rules, he just chose to break them! (There’s a lesson in there for you, kids!)
So, that brings us to the big news of the day:
The initial idea for Jack’s decision to write in a confessional style may have come from Goethe or Dostoyevsky, but the true inspiration for Jack’s new spontaneous style of confessional writing came from none other than his good buddy Neal Cassady.
See, Neal and Jack & Allen were constantly writing letters to each other (and many others) in the 1940s and 1950s, but there is one particular letter Neal wrote Jack on December 17, 1950 that finally caused everything to gel in Jack’s mind. Jack & Neal & Allen called it “The Joan Anderson Letter” for short and they would often refer to it in subsequent letters and in conversation. Jack would gush over it and Neal would say, “aw, shucks” and it also influenced Ginsberg in a big way, so much so that Allen tried to get it published a few years later.
LEGEND & LORE
And this is where all the Myth and Legend and Lore comes in, but there is truth in mythmaking and the legend and the lore expand the story to Greek Tragi-Comedy proportions. In an attempt to have the letter published, Allen Ginsberg related how he had given the letter to a publishing agent by the name of Gerd Stern and that Gerd lost the letter on his houseboat in Sausalito (on the other side of The Golden Gate Bridge north of San Francisco). Fortunately someone had retyped a portion of this letter and that excerpt can be found in The First Third where it starts, “To have seen a specter isn’t everything…” The person who retyped that portion of the letter was most likely Kerouac himself according to Beat scholar & author Dave Moore, editor of Neal Cassady: Collected Letters and by whom most of this information has been gathered.
I’m not a handwriting expert, but I’m 99.9% sure this is the real deal. My reasons are as follows:
- The Golden Goose Press story, as told by the auctioneers, includes Gerd Stern & Sausalito, and complements everything everyone knows about when the letter was lost, and all the surrounding circumstances…
- Gerd Stern mentions in an interview that has been online for many years called “From Beat Scene Poet to Multimedia Artist & Beyond” that he knew the publisher of Golden Goose, Richard Wirtz Emerson, from his Sausalito days…
- Gerd Stern told me personally and emphatically years ago when he visited The Beat Museum that he gave the letter back to Ginsberg & he did not lose it or misplace it. He also said Ginsberg recanted the story sometime in the 1990s before he died, but I can find no record of that recantation…
- We’re not handwriting experts, but the people at Profiles in History work with handwriting experts all the time and they pointed out to me some distinctions about Neal Cassady’s handwriting on this document they found unique and compelling…
- From my layman’s perspective (I am not a forensics expert, either) the paper, feel, texture, markings, etc of the letter matches other Beat related manuscripts I’ve seen from that era…
- The names, addresses and other personal details contained in the documents I saw matched what I know about these people and these times…
Lastly, I was able to very closely examine a companion document found with the letter, purported to have also been written by Neal. This is a very unusual item as it is written on the reverse side of a hand written letter by someone else – and it is signed by a man named Michael. I did some research directly with Dave Moore and discovered a letter written to Allen Ginsberg by Neal Cassady around that same period that was also typed on the back of a similarly handwritten letter, with similar handwriting, and also signed by a person named Michael. It turns out it was a man named Michael Walton who was Carolyn & Neal’s landlord when they lived at 24th Avenue in SF in late 1947.
This letter will likely sell for a lot of money. My most fervent hope is it will be purchased by someone who has a love of Neal & Jack and the other Beats and it will eventually be published in book form and also made available for viewing by the public. The world deserves to see this manuscript. It is historic in a general context, and in the world of the Beats it is beyond historic. It really is The Holy Grail of The Beat Generation in the sense of its significance – the fact it was lost for so many years and the legend and lore and myth that grew up around it in the 60 years it’s been missing only adds to the allure.
My first wish is someone with deep pockets will buy it and donate it or loan it on occasion to The Beat Museum (Of course! What else would you expect me to say?).
My second wish is the person who buys it will ensure that everyone who wants to see it will get to see it. This includes putting it on display at least occasionally and also ensuring it is available for publication.
Just about everyone in the know about The Beat Generation agrees Jim Irsay has been a good steward of Jack Kerouac’s original scroll. There was great fear and trepidation when the scroll was originally put up for auction in 2001 that the scroll would go into some rich guy’s vault strictly for investment purposes and never be seen again by the masses. Irsay’s immediate announcement upon purchasing the scroll was, “This important piece of history is going to travel the world.” And so it did. Thank you, Jim Irsay. Let’s hope who ever buys the “Joan Anderson Letter” will be of a similar sentiment and good will and this important document will enjoy the same fate.
Profiles in History Auction site – Get more information, register, and bid:
- Profiles In History – Golden Goose Press Archive Collection
- UPDATE: Browse the Golden Goose auction catalog
National Public Radio
CBC Radio Canada
- 11/23/14 – AP Exclusive: Letter that inspired Kerouac found | The Columbus Dispatch
- AP Interview with Gerd Stern
San Francisco Chronicle