Jack Kerouac’s Inspiration for On the Road Up for Auction

Neal Cassady's long-lost letter was a founding document of the Beat movement.

Cassady and Kerouac. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Cassady and Kerouac. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Jack Kerouac called it the greatest piece of writing he ever saw. “I thought it ranked among the best things ever written in America,” the Lowell native gushed. “It was almost as good as the unbelievably good ‘Notes from the Underground’ of Dostoevsky.”

Now, Neal Cassady’s long-lost “Joan Anderson letter,” a founding document of America’s Beat movement, is up for auction at Christie’s, expected to sell for between $400,000 and $600,000.

Dated December 17, 1950 and written on a three-day Benzedrine bender, the letter details Cassady’s calamitous love-life in 1946, in the same frenetic, stream-of-consciousness style that Kerouac would later emulate in his seminal 1957 novel On the Road. The letter changed hands from Kerouac to Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, to Ginsberg’s friend Gerd Stern, back to Ginsberg, back to Stern, then presumed lost for 66 years. Kerouac told people it was lost off the side of Stein’s houseboat in Sausalito.

It begins:

Dear Jack:

To hell with the dirty lousy shit, I’ve had enough horseshit. I got my own pure little bangtail mind and the confines of its binding please me yet. I wake to more horrors than Céline, not a vain statement for now I’ve passed thru just repetitious shudderings and nightmare twitches. I have discovered new sure doom, but this is my secret, and if I’m to find the pleasure of its devulgence [sic] in recognizable form I must tighten my grip while abiding the wait of years. The exquisite twists of this self-wrought terror rival Fleur de Mal in that they are as hopeless. Aha! I am well beyond hope, though, and my helplessness has only tiny Action to dominate. I am fettered by cobwebs, countless fine creases indelibly etched on the brain. There are no unexplored paths in my mind and few that are not entangled in the weave of my misery mists . . .

In reality, it was tucked away in the files of the Golden Goose Press, owned by Ginsberg and Stein’s friend R.W. ‘Dick’ Emerson. When Golden Goose Press was forced to vacate its space at 40 Gold Streett in San Francisco, Emerson’s officemate Jack Spinoza saved the boxes of files from the dumpster and kept them in his home until his death in 2011. Spinoza’s daughter Jean found the letter the following May.

Cassady’s letter will, not unlike its intended recipient, travel across the country, making stops in Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York. (Sadly, Lowell didn’t make the list.)