In December 1950, Neal Cassady wrote a letter to his friend Jack Kerouac. Like a message in a bottle, these pieces of paper traveled, lost in time, only to resurface years later in a group of discarded poems.
Cassady famously inspired the character Dean Moriarty, Jack Kerouac’s protagonist in his classic Beat novel On the Road. Though Cassady is commonly viewed as the muse of the Beat Generation, the re-emergence of this 18-page, single-spaced typed letter is further evidence of Cassady the gifted writer. Jean Spinosa discovered the letter, known as the “Joan Anderson letter” (named after Cassady’s girlfriend who is referenced in the correspondence), in her father’s belongings, which included discarded publishing submissions from the Golden Goose Press, with which he had shared an office.
Jerry Cimino of the Beat Museum in San Francisco said, “This is the greatest find in the history of the Beat Generation. This is even more important than Jack Kerouac’s original scroll version of On the Road that sold at auction for $2.4 million in 2001. This is the letter that caused Jack Kerouac to shift his writing style from a rather staid, Thomas Wolfean style of writing to what Kerouac called ‘bop spontaneous prose,’ which he used for On the Road.”
Cassady died when he was just 41, cementing his place in the counterculture of the 1950s and ’60s. His early death seemed to reinforce his legend as muse. Poet and publisher Charles Plymell lived with Cassady on Gough Street in San Francisco in the early ’60s and recognized his enormous talent and his somewhat tense relationship with his identity as a Beat legend. “No wonder he had an underlying hostility for being the ‘errand boy’ for the famous names who had no story but him. All of whom could not hold a candle to this writing, which is not a Benzedrine rush as much as an accomplished prose of a great writer,” said Plymell.
Cassady’s instinctive, feverish writing style as presented in the Joan Anderson letter might help to redefine his place in the world of 20th century literature as a talent extending beyond that footnote to Jack Kerouac’s development and as a presence larger than the inspiration behind Dean Moriarty.
The Beat Museum has started a crowd-funding campaign (kerouac.com/lost
letter) and hopes to purchase the letter at auction. Spinosa originally planned to auction the Joan Anderson letter last month, but the auction has been called off indefinitely because the Cassady and Kerouac estates are disputing ownership of the document.