Kerouac’s Schizoid Letters and Postcards

by sweatermanifesto

If realizing that a novel’s publication abides the technical rigmarole of any other industrial process shatters the comforting myth of artistic genius, it also fosters the equally comforting belief (delusion) that “I could write the next On the Road if I just had the right editor.” The correspondence  between Jack Kerouac and his editor Malcolm Cowley leading up to the 1957 publication of On the Road, showcases the important and unappreciated nature of editorship. It also makes, to be perfectly honest, for a more compelling read than On the Road itself. The postcards pictured here, as well as many of the letters that were sent before and after their posting, can be found at the Newberry Library in Chicago, which this year will celebrate its 125th anniversary with an exhibition featuring, among other things, some of this correspondence.

In halcyon moments early in 1956, Jack Kerouac must have felt that getting On the Road published was just a matter of changing the names of a few characters and giving them absurd sinecures (e.g., managing a bowling alley empire in the western United States) in order to avoid possible charges of libel from the people upon whom they were based. But after six years of trying to publish his great rambling ode to the Beat Generation, Kerouac was largely unsure of himself and desperate for reassurance; and Malcolm Cowley, lecturing at Stanford in addition to keeping up with his editing responsibilities with Viking Press, couldn’t give Kerouac the requisite TLC.

Two letters, from February 10 and March 16, 1956, respectively, attest to a volatility, made up of two opposing forces, within Kerouac: an indiscriminate nervous energy and a single-minded fixation on seeing On the Road go to print. From his February letter to Cowley, Kerouac writes, “I wrote a short novel last summer…a complete book of 244 poems…I’d like to bring you the whole foot-high mass of my new works, to prove to you you’re not wastin (sic) your time on no sluggard (sic).” And from his March letter, “The Rock n Roll craze is on, On the Road is the HIPSTER NOVEL (sic), the time is ripe…the GoGoGo (sic) situation is really ripe right now in USA.”

Cowley’s reply, of March 21, assumes the tone of a professor addressing one of his students, a register to which Cowley might have unconsciously defaulted, given the time he was spending in writing workshops in Palo Alto: “[Allen Ginsberg] is very wrong when he keeps encouraging you to do nothing but automatic writing. Automatic writing is fine for a start, but it has to be revised and put into shape or people will quite properly refuse to read it—and what you need now is to be read, not to be exhibited as a sort of natural phenomenon like Old Faithful geyser that sends up a jet of steam and mud every hour on the hour.” Cowley encouraged Kerouac to abandon the impossible ideal of spontaneity, but the romance of the road extended to its literate rendering and refused to take any exit ramp: in Kerouac’s New York Times obituary of 1969, Joseph Lelyveld wrote, “His method was to write as spontaneously as possible by threading a hefty roll of tele-type paper into his typewriter and setting down his story on one continuous sheet. What resulted he would later transcribe for forwarding to his publisher, but never revise, in principle he regarded revision as a form of lying.”

Kerouac would get around to mocking his editor’s line about Old Faithful, sending him a postcard (pictured above) with a picture of Yellowstone National Park on it on July 3. But as defiant and threatening as he could be (in this postcard he promises Cowley he will withdraw his manuscript if not sent a contract by October 1), Kerouac always betrayed a thinly veiled diffidence, a plea for entry into the literary world people like Cowley stewarded. The “BOO!” postcard, for example, sent April 18, is Kerouac at the limit of expression. It is the textual equivalent of a red-faced gasp in submission to the loneliness of awaiting reply through the United States post. And yet the three red letters are written with such childlike deliberation, the exclamation point marooned on the right margin as if it were not expressing anger or frustration, but the simple desire to belong.