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The off-Beat friendship of Kerouac and Ginsberg

JACK KEROUAC AND ALLEN GINSBERG: THE LETTERS, edited by Bill Morgan and David Stanford. Viking, 500 pages, $35.

One was gone at age 47, after a lifetime of heavy drinking. The other died at 70, nearly three decades later. Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg sustained an intimate friendship and an extraordinary correspondence that began soon after they met, in 1944, and endured until Kerouac's death in 1969.

As the central figures of the Beat Generation, they were obsessive chroniclers of their own lives. Their letters and postcards - rambling, bizarre, anguished, philosophical, funny and confessional - have been compiled by editors Bill Morgan and David Stanford in "Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg: The Letters," and most have never been published. (Morgan is the author of other Beat-related books, including "The Typewriter Is Holy: The Complete Uncensored History of the Beat Generation"; Stanford is a former Viking editor who worked on several Kerouac projects.)

The Beats have their share of detractors - justifiably so - but it's hard not to appreciate this collection for its sheer volume and range, and the valuable insight it offers into the major works of Ginsberg and Kerouac. Regardless of your response to "On the Road" or "Howl," these men were among the most influential American writers of the latter half of the 20th century, and these letters are an absolute treasure for scholars and fans alike.

Kerouac was 22 when he became friends with Ginsberg, who was 17 and a freshman at Columbia University. Their correspondence started just months after they met, even as they saw each other daily.

In his earliest letter to Kerouac, Ginsberg greeted his new friend warmly ("Cher Jacques"), and, noting that Kerouac was reading Gogol's "Dead Souls," he wrote, "Good! That book is my family bible. . . . it has all the melancholy grandeur of [Mother Russia], all the borscht and caviar that bubbles in the veins of the Slav, all the ethereal emptiness of that priceless possession, the Russian soul. I have a good critical book on it at home - I'll send it to you (or, I hope, give it to you) when you're finished with the book."

"I find in you a kindred absorption with identity, dramatic meaning, classic unity, and immortality," Kerouac replied. "You pace a stage, yet sit in the boxes and watch."

Ginsberg's homosexuality caused occasional tension between them (Kerouac accused him of hating women and children), but their dialogue was always open. "I am a cosmic queer, that's true," Ginsberg wrote, "if you only knew what an isolated existence that exiles me to in comparison with your moderately healthy outlook in the universe. . . . Let us be brothers from now on. You be my big brother. I am your little brother just out of college."

Above all, this ongoing epistolary conversation analyzed, critiqued and endlessly pondered the writing life to which they were so devoted. ("I write best when I weep," Ginsberg admitted to Kerouac in 1957.) As the editors note, these letters were "an essential part of their work, and often the vehicle through which that work evolved."

Having traded so many letters across the years, anger and hurt inevitably arose. "Don't yell at me so drunk and wicked as in first aerogram from Fla., it is actually very upsetting," Ginsberg wrote in 1958. "I don't know how to answer - teach gentler." In Kerouac's sweet response, he wrote that "technically, technically you're probably the best writer in the world . . . don't forget I love you, but I'm afraid of you now, and for you, such depression."

Luckily, both men had an eye toward posterity and were careful to save and organize their letters. It's remarkable to have this glimpse into their most intimate thoughts - on spirituality, literary competitors, critical rejections, travels, money, drugs, fame, love and the overwhelming Beat Generation phenomenon. Kerouac was ambivalent: "I'm not a Messiah, I'm an artist." (He's also a pricey posthumous commodity: Recently, the last typewriter he owned, up until his death - the Hermes 3000 manual - sold for $22,500 at a Christie's auction.)

On its own, the collection is deeply affecting. With their free-floating imagery and jazzy diction, many letters feel like prose poems. Read alongside Kerouac's and Ginsberg's other writings, such as "Dharma Bums" or "Kaddish," the letters are mini-autobiographies, revealing what they went through and how they were feeling as they produced works now regarded as classics.

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