Books September 20, 2010 By Alex Shephard


Book cover courtesy of Viking Press

kandg title Jack Kerouac & Allen Ginsberg
The Beats’ place in the popular imagination is akin to Che Guevara’s face on a faded t-shirt: iconic and romantic, emblematic of a myth, not a historical reality. Still, this much is immune from any kind of distortion: the work the Beats produced permanently altered not only American literature and culture, but world literature and culture as well.
     Somewhere in the process, however, they too were altered. Shortly after the publication of On the Road in 1957, the small circle of beat (as in crushed) writers, hipsters, and junkies became Beatific, a generation with a capital G, caricatures of characters they had created. Transformed into avatars of authenticity, they became legends, but also lost a great deal — namely, a sense of humanity.
     The epigraph of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg: The Letters, which comes from a letter from Kerouac to William S. Burroughs, promises to remedy that. “Someday The Letters of Allen Ginsberg to Jack Kerouac will make America cry,” wrote Kerouac in 1961, by which point he had finally attained the recognition he had sought for so long, only to recoil from the “voice of a generation” moniker that had been thrust upon him. He had been famous for four years, had produced all of his major works, and had all but resigned himself to the fact that he would be unable to quit drinking. He retreated from public life, emerging only periodically throughout the 1960s, his body swollen from drink, to make increasingly reactionary statements about Vietnam and hippies and sit-ins.

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