The legendary letter written by Neal Cassady to Jack Kerouac, which inspired the Beat Generation classic ‘On the Road’, is heading to auction at Christie’s.
Known as the ‘Joan Anderson’ letter, the document was believed lost for more than 60 years and is regarded as one of the most influential pieces of literary correspondence of the 20th century.
“Cassady left his mark on a generation of writers through the power of this one letter,” commented Christie’s. “Its rawness and speed focused this strain of postwar American thought, drew together an immediacy of life and living with a new intellectualism, fused existentialism with the coming of pop, the prosaic with the elegiac. And it did so by influencing the masters of the movement without the benefit of having its own critical appreciation.”
Kerouc called the letter “the greatest piece of writing I ever saw”, and hailed its influence on his work a 1968 interview with the Paris Review:
“I got the idea for the spontaneous style of On the Road from seeing how good old Neal Cassady wrote his letters to me, all first person, fast, mad, confessional, completely serious, all detailed, with real names in his case, however (being letters).”
Kerouac and Cassady had spent three years between 1947 and 1950 travelling across America, in a series of road trips which Kerouac documented in his journals. He began work on his novel as early as 1948, but had struggled to find the right style and form in which to tell his story.
Then in December 1950 Kerouac received a 40-page letter, written in a free-form, rambling style by Cassady whilst on a three-day-long Benzedrine high. Kerouac was inspired, and in April 1951 he sat down in front of his typewriter, loaded with a continuous, 120-foot scroll of tracing paper, and poured out ‘On the Road’ over the course of three weeks.
Kerouac loaned the letter to his friend, poet Alan Ginsberg, who in turn passed it to Gerd Stern, a West Coast rep for Ace Books, before it disappeared. For sixty years it was believed to have been lost over the side of Stern’s houseboat, but it had in fact sat undiscovered in the archives of the renowned poetry publishing company Golden Goose Press.
Having spent weeks, or even months, in the ‘To Read’ pile of company owner R.W. ‘Dick’ Emerson, it was later rescued by his office mate Jack Spinosa, who unknowingly took it home amongst the publishing company’s archives when they vacated their office in San Francisco.
The letter remained undiscovered until 2012, when Spinosa’s daughter Jean began delving into her late father’s archives. It was then offered at auction in 2014, but was withdrawn from the sale when both Kerouac and Cassady’s descendents claimed ownership.
Now, having reached an amicable settlement, the iconic document – which Kerouac claimed “ranked among the best things ever written in America” – will be offered for sale in New York on June 16 with an estimate of $400,000-$600,000.