Letters from the Beat Generation

June 8, 2010

I love to read books that are collections of letters. The best ones share intimate emotions and stories of success and disappointment in day-to-day living. They are conversations written down, and it’s the impassioned letter writer’s voice I like to hear inside my reading mind.

I add more books of letters to my bookshelf than I read, due to the hefty page counts of letter collections. When I do read the books, I like to linger in them. It doesn’t work to inhale a bunch of letters in a long sitting. I suppose the lingering imitates how I used to read letters back when they arrived in the mailbox by the front door with a stamp, those years before e-mail.

Next month, Viking Penguin will publish Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg: The Letters. Publisher’s Weekly describes the Kerouac-Ginsberg correspondence between 1944 – 1963 as “intense and offbeat.” It was the time when these young American authors were ushering into our post-war conservative country a countercultural, freer way of living and thinking, opening the doors for the sexual, political and social revolutions of the 1960s. They with William Burroughs were the authors who became known as the Beat Generation with Kerouac writing On the Road (1957), Ginsberg writing Howl (1956) and William Burroughs writing Naked Lunch (1959).

In On the Road, Kerouac writes: “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, desirous of everything at the same time.” He famously wrote the book on a continuous roll of Teletype paper. It took only three weeks to write, but seven years to get published. In the letters, according to Publisher’s Weekly, Ginsberg tells Kerouac that On the Road is unpublishable. Kerouac asks his friend to regard his magnum opus as the next Ulysses.

The book’s publisher Viking/Penguin says two-thirds of the letters have not before this book been published. Even so, I doubt Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg: The Letters will hit the “beach reads” summer lists coming out this time of year, but it will be a cool luxury to have close by during hot summer nights.

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