LOS ANGELES (AP) — It's been called the letter that launched a literary genre — 16,000 amphetamine-fueled, stream-of-consciousness words written by Neal Cassady to his friend Jack Kerouac in 1950.
Jack Kerouac, 1962 file photo
Upon reading them, Kerouac scrapped an early draft of "On The Road" and, during a three-week writing binge, revised his novel into a style similar to Cassady's, one that would become known as Beat literature.
The letter, Kerouac said shortly before his death, would have transformed his counterculture muse Cassady into a towering literary figure, if only it hadn't been lost.
Turns out it wasn't, says Joe Maddalena, whose Southern California auction house Profiles in History is putting the letter up for sale Dec. 17. It was just misplaced, for 60-some years.
Like the ivy leaves that grow slowly over the once-new university buildings, the past shape-shifts with the passage of time. I forget how many times Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" was rejected by publishers before one of them took the plunge in 1957, but I can remember reading the book when it first came out and thinking that I could see both the energy and inspiration the book provided AND why the publishers had shied away from it.
In Greenwich Village where I hung out with friends, there was a lot of excitement over espresso and cigarettes: Kerouac had broken some conformist boundaries, we all agreed, and we were all of an age to be skeptical of, if not outraged by, boundaries. I don't specifically remember anyone describing the book as "good writing," but I suppose they did: If you like something, it's good, right? I liked the book but wasn't convinced it was all that good.
Now, of course, the ivy of time has grown and Kerouac et al have grown into an intellectual blob described as the "Beat Generation." Following on the heels of the safe and sane, white-picket-fence conformity that followed the gut-wrenching uncertainties and sorrow of World War II, the beats helped to throw open the doors of imagination and possibility ... and paved the way for the flower power hippies who would follow in their wake ... as well as a school system and lifestyle that turns out dumber and dumber graduates.
As Cassady was an inspiration to Kerouac, so I count Kerouac as an inspiration of my own. But it was nothing literary, for me. His inspiration led me to hitchhike across America twice. Looking back through the ivy leaves, I am happy and a bit surprised I did such a thing. But at the time, and in the event, it was plain as salt: Hitchhiking, like doing a military tour, is only interesting and elevating in retrospect. Hitchhiking is predominantly a matter of patience -- waiting and patience, two pretty good exercises.
Kerouac climbed into a bottle and pointed to wider vistas. I packed a small, dime-store suitcase and stuck my thumb out. Both are now capable of growing some handsome and overblown ivy, for my money.
Funny how the ordinary becomes noteworthy as time passes. Just look at the artifacts up for sale in auction houses.