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Email will never replace this 20th century correspondence between Beat Generation friends, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg

Book Review: Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg: The Letters edited by Bill Morgan and David Stanford

Even the best of friends today are not likely to build such a powerful record of conscious thought as these two friends, in letters written to each other over two decades and across several countries. Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg: The Letters contains nearly 200 letters, and the book is the first publication of nearly two-thirds of the letters.

Both men provide very personal self-portraits in these private letters, Without this correspondence, we would miss the insights into their own writing, critiques of each other, and interdependence of people who really care for each other. Not to mention a friendship so strong, they willingly snatched words and ideas from each other.

The two Beat Generation writers met in 1944 and kept up their correspondence, through military service, time in mental hospitals, and while doing serious writing. The letters stopped in 1963 when Ginsberg’s last two letters to Jack went unanswered. Kerouack died in 1969.

At times they were on opposite sides of the country, or off to Mexico. At other times, the two authors lived in the same city, yet kept up the written correspondence, as if they were across the country. Only when Jack was down to one sheet of paper, or awaiting a new typewriter did their correspondence slow down. Without the instant nature of today’s flitting communication, if their letters crossed in the mail, the next letter became a thoughtful postscript to the prior one.

Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg: The Letters includes frank discussions of Ginsberg’s stay in a psychiatric hospital, of which he wrote: “I am too sick to do anything but go to the hatch – sicker than I or anybody knows… I breathe a great sigh of relief; at last I have maneuvered myself to the position I have always fancied the most proper and true for me. … I really believe or want to believe really that I am nuts, otherwise I’ll never be sane.” Many months later, on leaving the hospital, Ginsberg went to his publishers office, picked up his mail, and stole a book by T.S. Eiliot’s work, writing to Jack: “The world owes me at least that $3 worth of heart balm.”

Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg: The Letters is valuable for those studying development of the well-known works of Kerouac and Ginsberg’s poetry and of the Beat Generation in America. It also reveals a powerful relationship that went beyond friendship, to an admirabe loyalty and commitment to supporting each other’s work, and Ginsberg taking an active role as agent for Kerouac’s writing.

(Review based on 2010 hardcover edition, provided by publisher.)

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