November 2014 | Nate Pedersen

Long Lost Letter Found, Inspiration for Kerouac's "On the Road"


In 1950, Jack Kerouac famously scrapped his first draft of On the Road after reading a 16,000-word stream-of-consciousness letter from Neal Cassady. That letter - called the "Joan Anderson Letter" and long presumed lost - has resurfaced and will be up for auction in December.

Deeply influenced by Cassady's spontaneous prose in the letter, Kerouac tried to emulate his style when he re-visited On the Road. The author would later claim that if the letter hadn't been lost, Cassady would have secured a place as a major literary voice.

"It was the greatest piece of writing I ever saw, better'n anybody in America, or at least enough to make Melville, Twain, Dreiser, Wolfe, I dunno who, spin in their graves," Kerouac said to an interviewer with The Paris Review in 1968.

How the letter was lost - and found again - brings in another famous Beat: Allen Ginsberg. Kerouac lent the letter to the poet, who in turn lent it to a friend who lived on a houseboat in northern California. Ginsberg's friend reported the letter as lost, assuming it blew off the boat and into the water.

"It was my property, a letter to me, so Allen shouldn't have been so careless with it, nor the guy on the houseboat," Kerouac continued in the same Paris Review interview.

The letter, however, was not lost on the houseboat. Ginsberg's friend eventually found the letter again and gave it back to the poet. Ginsberg then sent the letter to the Golden Goose Press in San Francisco for their consideration for publication. There, it lingered - unopened - for years until the press closed down. The Golden Goose intended to trash its unopened submissions but a thoughtful owner of a small record label that shared their office asked to take them home instead. Once again, the submissions lingered in limbo for years until the daughter of the record label owner found the letter after he died. She, in turn, is submitting the letter for auction.

The Joan Anderson Letter - so-named for a girlfriend of Neil Cassady's mentioned in the letter - will be offered by Profiles in History on December 17.