The Ur-Text of the Beats: A Conversation with A. Robert Lee on The Joan Anderson Letter by Kurt Hemmer

The publication of The Joan Anderson Letter: The Holy Grail of the Beat Generation (The Black Spring Press Group, 2020) by Neal Cassady with a scanned original reproduction of the letter and an Introduction, Timeline, and Bibliography by A. Robert Lee should be a literary historical event. Beat scholars will recognize Professor Lee as one of the most esteemed readers of the Beats with an impressive range of expertise. He is the editor of The Beat Generation Writers (1996) and The Routledge Handbook of International Beat Literature (2018). He is the author of Designs of Blackness: Mappings in the Literature and Culture of Afro-America (1998), now re-issued in a 25th Anniversary Edition (2020) and which reprints the chapter on Black Beats; Gothic to Multicultural: Idioms of Imagining in American Literary Fiction (2009); Modern American Counter Writing: Beats, Outriders, Ethnics (2010), and The Beats: Authorships, Legacies (2019). In 2004, Lee won the American Book Award for Multicultural American Literature: Comparative Black, Native, Latino/a and Asian American Fictions. I have known Bob for a number of years, and the only thing that is as striking as his knowledge of literature is the warmth of his personality.

The “Joan Anderson Letter,” dated December 17, 1950 and sent to Jack Kerouac, is one of the most important artifacts of American literature because it was the most influential stimulant pushing Jack Kerouac’s style in On the Road (1957), which reads like an extended letter from the author to the reader—that is the novel’s charm. And On the Road is one of the foundational texts of Beat Studies and the arguably the most important American novel of the late 1950s.

Cassady’s seminal letter was thought to be lost since 1955 when Allen Ginsberg sent it to A. A. Wyn’s Ace Books West Coast representative, Gerd Stern. Some thought the letter had fallen off the side of a houseboat in Sausalito, California. Stern claimed the letter was rejected by Ace and sent back to Ginsberg. In 2012 Jean Spinosa found the letter among her dad’s ephemera after he passed away. Jack Spinosa, a record producer for Gold Coast Records, had got the letter from Richard Emerson, who ran the journal Golden Goose. Two years later, Jean tried to auction the letter, but was blocked by the Kerouac and Cassady Estates. Eighteen months later an undisclosed agreement was made among Spinosa, the Kerouac Estate, and the Cassady Estate. The $400,000 minimum bid was not reached in a 2016 auction by Christie’s. Emory University bought the letter for $206,250 in 2017. Then, seemingly out of the blue, this most American of American letters was published in England by Black Spring Press, with an introduction by a scholar who taught at the University of Kent (1967-96) and Nihon University, Tokyo (1997-2011) and with Cassady’s word “Honorable” changed to “Honourable.” What had happened? What did it mean? I decided to ask A. Robert Lee.

Kurt Hemmer: Congratulations on helping get the letter finally out to the public. Your introduction does a nice job of placing the letter in its historical context and within the context of Beat literature in general. The reproduced original facsimile of the letter at the end of the book by itself makes this an essential book for Beat scholars and fans. I had expected the letter to be published as part of an updated version of Cassady’s letters by Penguin, or an updated The First Third by City Lights, or in the form it is in now but by Penguin. The Kerouac Estate was not involved in this publication. Can you explain to the best of your knowledge why the Cassady Estate decided to publish with a smaller press and how you got involved?

A. Robert Lee: It first came about because Todd Swift, founder-editor at Eyewear Press in London asked me. I was involved with the press as they were en route to publishing my collection of antic vignettes Suspicious Circumstances — An Album of Events and Oddities with Thoughts on the word What That is now out (see the attachments). Todd knew I had a track-record in Beat Studies and simply asked me to take on the Letter for a full edition.

He had the facsimile of the Letter, there has been a transcript, and it fell to me, as you say, to fashion an Introduction together with a timeline and do a bibliography. His cover designer, Edwin Smet, Dutch poet-painter and typesetter based in Nijmegen, also was about business. So on we all rolled, yours truly at the keyboard, publisher and designer both with an eye to making the project happen.

How did Eyewear Press come to be the publisher? Interesting story. Eyewear, having amalgamated with the Black Spring Press Group, has become heir to other Cassady material. That is to say the Black Spring Press Group which Eyewear joined in 2019 had previously published Carolyn Cassady’s Off the Road in the UK and, I learn from the publisher, had been in negotiation with the Cassady Estate about other Cassady-related possibilities. Carolyn, as is well-known, was a longtime resident in the UK. There were then, I’m also told, confidential financial and legal negotiations as to acquiring rights to the Letter with the family lead taken by Jami Cassady. All in the aftermath of the Cassady/Kerouac estate wrangles and the eventual purchase of the manuscript by Emory University. So this edition didn’t come out of nowhere. It has provenance. As you know, I tell the story of Gerd Stern, Richard Emerson and Jean Spinosa and their part in the manuscript’s rediscovery and auction(s) in the Introduction.

KH: Reading the full letter gave me a completely different understanding of the story Cassady tells in the second half of the letter that has been previously published. I was always under the impression that the child Joan loses was also Neal’s. David Sandison and Graham Vickers in Neal Cassady: The Fast Life of a Beat Hero (2006) refer to Joan as having an abortion of Neal’s child, which is now clearly not true. When reading the full letter, we now find out that Joan was “nearly 5 months in pregnancy” with another man’s child when Cassady began his affair with her. That changes everything. Were there parts of the letter that surprised you?

ARL: In truth the whole letter surprised me. I’m still not entirely sure quite when, where, Cassady is telling, as they say, the whole truth. But for sure Joan was pregnant. For sure the details of her might-have-been suicide sound about right. As do the Cherry Mary/Mary Ann Freeland story, the Feydeau bathroom escape, the Father Schmidt and Sergeant Garrard episodes. But the more you venture into the text the more you recognize that Cassady is also “performing” for Kerouac. That, not least, also includes some of the sexual bravado, Cassady as ever the priapic warrior-prince. Does or does not the chauvinism grate? Understandably Gerald Nicosia speaks of the letter as a species of New Journalism. I’ve called it a kind of found novella. These categories, of course, don’t matter in the long run. But they speak to the reflexive swerves in the writing, Cassady looking over his own writer’s shoulder. Not everyone is going to agree with Kerouac’s estimate, his own shock of recognition in Melville’s phrase. An admirer of the letter like Jan Herman in his November 2020 Arts Journal Blog ( can call him “an amateur writer, no question” but also “Proustian.” What is not in doubt is the importance of the letter not only for Kerouac’s novels but for Ginsberg and others Beats as an ethos, an aesthetic, a poetics.

KH: The second half of the letter appeared as “The First Third” in John Bryan’s first issue of Notes from Underground in 1964 where Charles Bukowski, who had a short story and four poems published in that issue, read it. In Notes of a Dirty Old Man (1969) Cassady comes up to Bukowski and says, “I’m the tough young jail kid. I’ve read your stuff.” Bukowski responds, “read your stuff too. that bit about climbing out the bathroom window and hiding in the bushes naked. good stuff.” Both Beat and Bukowski scholars tend to not address this exchange. Bukowski, Kerouac, and Ginsberg thought the letter was good—or great. John Clellon Holmes didn’t think much of it. What do you think of the quality of the writing in the letter?

ARL: This links to what I was saying before. For all its high-jinks I’m perhaps less taken with the storyline than Cassady’s resolve, his self-awareness, to make words stir and hum. His search for a style. We are not exactly in cut-up territory, Burroughs or Norse. But you can’t avoid the sense that Cassady’s wish is to release the story as though vivid fragmentation yet paradoxically joined into a one sequence. Given the rushes of disclosure, the asides, the sexual and other jokiness and the improvisatory riffs on writer names and like, it amounts to a wonderfully maverick but also at base serious piece of writing.

KH: The publication of this letter will raise so many interesting questions. It is an eighteen-page letter typed on both sides. The surviving part of the letter starts on the bottom of page nine and ends on the bottom of page fifteen. So, there are more than three additional pages to the ending. Just glancing through it, there were things edited in the original letter compared to what was eventually printed. We now have, at least, three distinct versions of the previously extant portion of the letter (four, if you count the editorial work by Susan Forrest in the book). Let me give you one example of what I mean. The version of the letter published in Notes from Underground (1964) names the priest who is Neal’s godfather Harlan Fischer. He is called Harley Schmitt in Cassady’s Collected Letters, 1944-1967 (2004), and in the original letter Harlan Schmidt. Certainly, there are other minor discrepancies. The second half of the letter as it appeared in Notes from Underground has been published in The First Third (1971), but as a fragment of Cassady’s autobiography, not as a letter. In Cassady’s Collected Letters, 1944-1967 (2004) it is published as if it were part of a letter Kerouac actually received. But reading the end of the letter, we notice that the letter from Notes from Underground has been edited drastically. It has been assumed that Kerouac typed this part of the letter that was published in Notes from the Underground. It has also been noted that Cassady helped put this journal together with John Bryan by running off copies. Who do you think made the changes?

Designs of Blackness – 25th Anniversary Edition

ARL: Changes? Hard to say. You’re surely right to think maybe Kerouac had a hand in the version we now have of the letter. Did he type any of the versions? Did John Bryant play a part, even Ginsberg? We will need close-eyed textual scholars and archeologists to get to work. For the moment we have to go with what we have. It makes sense, however, to issue a general call for further excavation. As to the name likely we have to go with the name Schmidt. That, after all, is what the manuscript gives. But again let there be some sleuthing. Did Cassady play fast and loose with the name? Was he more concerned with the episode as such than with literal accuracy? As I suggest it rather depends upon what we want from the letter -– the performance, the juggling and riffs, quite as much as a scrupulous diary of events.

KH: Sandison and Vickers question the veracity of the second half of the letter that we already had: “The narrative content of the fragment is not only rather slight but suspect as well, having the ring of The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders or some other picaresque seventeenth-century novel packed with bawdy incidents and frankly improbable familial coincidences. ‘But it really happened,’ Carolyn Cassady insists, even though the event took place before she ever met Neal. We are entitled to remain skeptical, so closely does this anecdote resemble some of Neal’s earlier embellished or untrue anecdotes that conclude with a major coincidence.” To give their theory some credence, it is strange that Joan Anderson and Cherry Mary, who are so important to Cassady’s life in the letter, are not mentioned in any of Cassady’s other letters. Do you feel that what Cassady wrote in the letter really happened?

ARL:  Not sure. Who can be? As I say earlier, I do think Cassady is as much about performance as he is true self-history. Which raises the question of whether we are reading the letter as free-flow riff or as “literary autobiography” or maybe some picaresque hybridization of both. It’s often been said that Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Kerouac wrote their letters one to another knowing they were actually composing their own grand epistolary novel. And not the least of it with a thought as to eventual publication. Can something similar be said of Cassady? Then, too, does any writer ever tell his/her “all” in autobiography or memoir?

KH: Ann Charters mistakenly says that the “Joan Anderson Letter” was handwritten, maybe because a surviving note that came with the letter was handwritten and apologized for his handwriting. We now see that the handwriting he was apologizing for was the last bits he wrote around the eighteenth page because he had run out of paper or did not want to use another piece. Were there things you noticed that changed your former opinion about the letter?

ARL:  I have to say not especially. It’s in fact not always easy to make out the handwriting. There’s a fair bit of compression towards the end, almost telegraphese. But that can hardly not be said to comport with the earlier stretches of the letter — its detail, exuberance, hectivity.

KH: Certainly, we can see a connection between the style of the “Joan Anderson Letter” and On the Road, particularly the scroll version of On the Road. In Brother Souls: John Clellon Holmes, Jack Kerouac, and the Beat Generation (2010), Ann and Samuel Charters suggest that the model for Cassady’s “Joan Anderson Letter” was Holmes’s “Fay Kenney Letter,” in which “Holmes described in wildly improbable sexual detail nights when he would go out on double dates with Fay and her parents.” They also suggest that reading Holmes’s Go and wanting to respond to it was more of a factor than the “Joan Anderson Letter” in the creation of the scroll version of On the Road: “Cassady’s ‘Joan Anderson’ letter may have fueled Kerouac’s determination to find a way to write about his trips with Cassady, but it had been three months since that letter had arrived. When Kerouac finally began his weeks of typing after his waterfront walk with Holmes, it had been only three weeks since he had read the last chapter of Go.” Is it possible that Kerouac and we, as scholars, give too much credit to the “Joan Anderson Letter” for the creation of On the Road?

ARL. That is what Gerd Stern thought in the Beat Museum podcast with Jerry Cimino in December 2014. He rates jazz as the more important factor. Not a bad thought when you consider Mexico City Blues. But whether you think there really is a one-for-one stylistic equivalence, or that the letter was more a necessary release for Kerouac from the “naturalism” of The Town and The City into the fashioning of what he called his “true life novels,” the impact was incontrovertibly at once momentous and over time historic for him. We know that especially in the light of his interview with Ted Berrigan for the Paris Review in Summer 1968 (“all first person, fast, mad, confessional, completely serious”).

KH: How has the response to the publication of the letter been so far? What do you hope will be the response to the letter in the future?

ARL: Early days. The publisher tells me that early sales are going well. If the initial run takes all before it then consideration apparently will go into a paperback edition. That, however, is not in my hands. For the future anyone with Kerouac or Beat literary interests will be advantaged to have the letter in its complete form to hand. It is simply part of the necessary Beat furniture in kind with “Howl” or City Lights or the 6 Gallery reading.

—For a review of The Joan Anderson Letter see Jan Herman’s article for International Times.