Jack Kerouac already had written a draft of his famous novel On the Road when he received an amphetamine-fueled, 18-page letter from his friend Neal Cassady in 1950. The stream-of-consciousness style of the letter inspired Kerouac to scrap his draft of On the Road and rewrite it in a similar style. This style went on to define a completely new genre of prose: Beat literature.
Among Kerouac scholars, the letter is referred to as “the Joan Anderson letter”–named after a woman Cassady wrote about in the letter–and was known as the holy grail of the Beat Generation due to its disappearance. Poet Allen Ginsburg forwarded the letter to Gerd Stern in the 1950s, who was a literary agent at that time, and never received it back. Ginsberg started a rumor that Stern had dropped the letter off the side of a boat, but the letter had been forwarded by Ginsberg to another editor at a literary journal and laid unopened for decades until the owner’s daughter sorted through her late father’s house.
When asked by the Associated Press why Stern thought Ginsberg made up the boat rumor, Stern said, “At the best he forgot that I gave it to him. At the worst he said it just to stick it to me. But it doesn’t matter now. Allen’s dead. Jack’s dead. Neal’s dead. But I’m still alive.”
photo by Darron Cummings