Tag Archives: letters

10 Books of Beat Generation Letters

14 Jul

The other day I wrote about viewing Neal Cassady’s infamous “lost” Joan Anderson letter at Christie’s Auction House.. Letters are a great way to get to know and understand the writers of the Beat Generation. The novelists and poets were prodigious letter writers. Here are ten books of collected letters by the poets and writers of the Beat Generation.

1.

CassadyLetters

 Neal Cassady: Collected Letters, 1944-1967

2.

KerouacLetters

Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters, 1940-1956

3.

Carolyn

Jack Kerouac’s Dear Carolyn: Letters to Carolyn Cassady

4.

KerouacGinsberg

Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg: The Letters

5.

YageLetters

William S. Burroughs’ and Allen Ginsberg’s The Yage Letters Redux

6.

GinsbergSnyder

The Selected Letter of Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder

7.

GinsbergDad

Allen Ginsberg and his father’s Family Business: Selected Letters between a Father and Son

8.

HettieJonesLoveH

Love, H: The Letters of Helene Dorn and Hettie Jones

9.

DistantNeighbors

Distant Neighbors: The Selected Letters of Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder

10.

CorsoBiography

An Accident Autobiography: The Selected Letters of Gregory Corso

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Viewing Cassady’s “Lost” Joan Anderson Letter

7 Jul

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.

The letter didn’t end up selling at auction. You can read about Neal Cassady’s Joan Anderson letter here, on Christie’s auction house website and here.

You can read Cassady’s letters in Neal Cassady: Collected Letters, 1944-1967.

 

 

 

 

Image-Making in Correspondence: Hemingway and Kerouac

19 Feb
HemingwayLetters
There’s something so intimate about reading other people’s letters. I remember in high school one of my friends found someone’s folded up note, and I read it over and over again because I was so fascinated by their voice and the bluntness of what they’d written.
The New Criterion has an interesting article up about The Letters of Ernest Hemingway 1926-1929, edited by Rena Sanderson, Sandra Spanier, and Robert W. Trogdon. In “The master off duty,”  Bruce Bawer writes:
One thing that needs to be said about these letters is that there’s a lot of conscious image-making going on in them. As one of his biographers, Jeffrey Meyers, has noted, Hemingway pursued a path of “scrupulous honesty in his fiction” but routinely felt compelled, in both his conversation and correspondence, “to distort and rewrite the story of his life.” Indeed, already in these documents dating to his late twenties, we find Hemingway recounting his experiences in a way calculated to make him come off as the same strong, stoic figure who, in succeeding decades, would take hold of imaginations around the world, thanks largely to splashy Life and Look photo spreads of the Nobel laureate on safari, at bullfights, and deep-sea fishing.
It reminded me a lot of Jack Kerouac, who both in his novels and his letters rewrote the story of his life. On message boards, people often ask what Kerouac biography they should read. It feels too presumptuous to recommend my own Kerouac biography, but I like to suggest people read Kerouac’s letters, edited by Ann Charters. Not only do they provide insight into his life, but they’re as engaging as his novels. Full of vigorous prose.
I’ve often wondered if writers correspond with the knowledge or hope that their letters might one day be collected and read by literary critics and obsessive fans and therefore take extra care in writing them? Or, was it that they were already writing to literary critics—their author friends, their agents, their publishers—and therefore trying to write in an entertaining, impressive style? Or perhaps, they are such great writers that even their letters come out with flair?
Bawer says:
Not Hemingway. He didn’t labor over these things—to put it mildly. When he wrote to his parents and editors, his main objective was to get certain personal or professional obligations out of the way; his letters to such eminences as T. S. Eliot and James Joyce, in which he faked at least a touch of humility and deference, were chiefly a means of networking. Even when he’s sending off dispatches to such authentic amis as Ezra Pound, Archibald MacLeish, and Gerald and Sara Murphy, with whom he’s truly eager to stay in touch and swap literary news and gossip, he’s not out to amuse or scintillate; on the contrary, you can feel him winding down after a day of “real” writing.
Perhaps there’s encouragement in that. One doesn’t just “sit down at a typewriter and bleed,” as Hemingway said. Nor did Kerouac simply write On the Road in three weeks after seven years on the road, as discussed in Burning Furiously Beautiful. Authors—even the very best ones—consider their audience, write, and rewrite.
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Mary Karr Reveals Her Favorite Memoirs

28 Oct

KarrMary Karr Credit Illustration by Jillian Tamaki via The New York Times

Mary Karr, memoirist extraordinaire, has a new book out. It’s not a memoir but a book about writing memoir: The Art of Memoir. I’m adding it to my ever-growing must-read list.

I’ve had the opportunity to hear Mary Karr speak at the Brooklyn Book Festival and at the Festival of Faith & Writing, and of course she is the author of The Liar’s Club, Lit, and Cherry.

I love Q&As and was thrilled to read her answers to The New York Times’ Sunday Book Review “By the Book” column. I got some great reading inspiration (Annie LiontasLet Me Explain You, about a Greek-American family), I loved her answers to whom she’d invite to a literary party (can I get an invite?!), and I was happy to discover her favorite memoir is St. Augustine’s Confessions, since I had recently discussed the book in my class “Writing Under the Influence of the Beat Generation” at the Hobart Festival of Women Writers.

I was especially intrigued by her question “Do Flannery O’Connor’s letters count?” to the question “Who are the best memoirists ever?” I used Kerouac’s letters for much of my research for Burning Furiously Beautiful. I think in some way, letters are a form of memoir. In another way, though, they don’t necessarily adhere to the intentional literary craft I discussed in my response to “In the Age of Memoir, What’s the Legacy of the Confessional Mode?” Though a great letter writer is better than a mediocre memoirist!

You can read the full interview with Mary Karr here.

A Chat with My Editor Brings Exciting News

1 Apr

Had a great chat with my former editor last week.  He told me about some great events at Cornelia Street Café;  I told him about a reading by a political prisoner I attended at The New School.

He also let me in on some exciting news::: the ebook edition of A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains—letters by Isabella Bird, introduction by yours truly—is currently one of his bestsellers!

 

 

Obviously, I’m happy on a personal and professional level, but I’m also happy because Isabella Bird’s story is so beautiful and inspiring and it deserves a wider audience.  The short of it is that Bird left the comforts of home in Victorian England to travel by herself through the rough terrain of America’s Rocky Mountains.  As I wrote in my introduction to the book, “Whether you’re interested in nature, the history of the Rocky Mountain region, travel writing, Christianity, or women’s studies, Bird’s simple yet provocative letters will entertain your imagination.”

I’d say that’s worth the $1.99 for the nook book!