The “lost” letter that forever changed Jack Kerouac’s writing style was recently “found” and put on auction at Christie’s last month. If you’re someone who has read any biography about Kerouac, you’ve heard of the infamous “Joan Anderson letter.” You know the importance of this letter.
It is — what for it! — legendary.
I was on my way to Christie’s on the day before auction to see the letter when I ran into my coworker on the elevator. We exchanged pleasantries about what we were having for lunch, and I burst out in excitement — or at least the equivalent of bursting out in excitement for my shy nerdy self — that I was on my way to see the Joan Anderson letter. He had never heard of it. He knew very little about the Beat Generation. He asked about it, and I was somewhat at a loss for how to explain it. I started explaining that it was written by Kerouac’s friend Neal Cassady, who wrote in a fast-paced, confessional style.
But what is it about? he wanted to know.
Ah. Now I blushed. I said something about it being … “scandalous.” How could I explain the contents of the letter without sounding like I was into reading other people’s sexcapades? The forty-page letter was Cassady’s sexual exploits in 1946. It included stories about a woman named Joan Anderson in a hospital and one named Cherry Mary who got caught by her aunt.
It wasn’t about the subject matter, though. That was not what ever interested me. And it’s not just what interested Kerouac — or even Cassady. It was about telling a good story. Capturing it in a way that is real. Authentic. Captivating.
I had met Neal Cassady’s daughter’s husband at a reading in Greenwich Village, and he had shown me a copy of the letter. What fascinated me was the illustrations and handwritten addenda that I hadn’t known about.
I went to Christie’s auction house because I wanted to see the real letter in person. I’ve never seen the scroll version of On the Road. I missed it the last time it was in New York City about ten years ago. So seeing the Joan Anderson letter, a letter purported to have been lost and unseen by so most, was one of those literary moments I couldn’t pass up.
Having never been to Christie’s before, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Would I have to be patted down? Would I have to turn in my iPhone? Would I even be able to find the letter amongst all the other treasures up for auction? I was surprised to discover it was the very first thing one could possibly see upon entering Christie’s. I could only see a few pages of the letter, as the whole thing wasn’t on display. It was difficult to read the entire thing, but I tilted my head and read sections. I took the whole thing in. It was exciting. It felt like history. Perhaps the way some people feel about seeing the Constitution. I didn’t press my luck and try to take a photograph, but I carried the memory of it with me as I walked back to work.
You can read Cassady’s letters in Neal Cassady: Collected Letters, 1944-1967.