It’s a 16,000-word letter that Neal Cassady wrote to Jack Kerouac, who said it was his inspiration for On The Road. The letter, written in 1950, went missing and was found in an attic in Oakland, California, in 2011. Now for the first time it is being brought out in full by the London-based publisher Black Spring with an introduction by the noted Beat scholar A. Robert Lee, along with illustrations. I’m betting Lee will tell us if the letter really was the inspiration for On the Road—Kerouac, true to his calling, loved to make things up— and if he really did adopt his prose style from it. The reality is likely more nuanced than the legend.
Here’s an excerpt from Cassady’s letter:
I decided to take a bath. I had barely gotten in the hot tub when Mary Lou stormed along the short hallway and pounded on the bathroom door, yelling to be let in at once. I opened to her and without preamble she tore into me at a furious rate. “Joan just told me you were leaving her and she’s sittin’ in there crying fit to die. You son-of-a-bitch. I knew you had a dirty look in your eye when you called her out in the hall. You goddamn bastard, get up out of that tub and go in there and tell her you didn’t mean it, you lousy cock-sucking prick, or else I’ll beat the shit out of you, and if I can’t do it I’ll get my boyfriend in there to help me and we’ll pound your face in together, you motherfuckin’ cheapskate.”
She went on and on, getting hotter every minute and coming up with a really fine collection of words, a string of names for me poured from her angry red mouth that still tingle the brain. … She pounced on me. Standing in the slippery tub, I had difficulty holding her off right away. As she scratched my nude body while struggling to get her hands free from my grip, I kept worrying that she would take it in her head to give me the knee. … Finally she tired and I said I’d let her go if she promised to sit down and talk sensibly.
Postscript: Aug. 13 — Jay Jeff Jones writes in an email:
It has been speculated that a letter John Clellon Holmes sent to Cassady a couple of weeks before he [Cassady] wrote the Joan Anderson letter might have partly inspired him. The “Fay Kenney” letter is a saucy reminisce about Holmes’ teenage girlfriend and their early sexual explorations, followed by a rambling update on what the Beat circle in NYC had been up to. Cassady wrote back, saying what a great letter it was.
The Joan Anderson letter excerpt (not the full content, which wasn’t available) was the basis of a 1997 film titled “The Last Time I Committed Suicide.”
This is the best rundown that I’ve read so far: “Reconsidering the Importance of the Joan Anderson Letter” by David S. Wills, posted in his annual literary journal Beatdom, which is dedicated to the work of the Beat Generation.