The letter that inspired Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” before being (allegedly) dropped off a houseboat, misfiled at a small Bay Area publisher, nearly tossed out with the trash, and then fought over by two literary estates has now reached its seemingly final destination.
Emory University has revealed that it has acquired the rambling 16,000-word typed letter that Neal Cassady sent to Kerouac in 1950, which Kerouac later called “the greatest piece of writing I ever saw” and credited with influencing the stream-of-consciousness style of “On the Road.” The letter will be on view as part of “The Dream Machine: The Beat Generation and the Counterculture, 1940-1975,” an exhibition at the university’s library opening on Thursday.
The acquisition seemingly ties up one of the great shaggy-dog footnotes of postwar American letters. The letter, referred to as the Joan Anderson letter (after a woman with whom Cassady had an amorous adventure), had been known only from a fragment published in 1964. At some point after receiving it, Kerouac lent it to Allen Ginsberg, who passed it to a friend who was living on a houseboat, and “who dropped it, overboard, I presume,” Kerouac later said.
But as it turned out, Ginsberg had sent the letter to Golden Goose Press, where it sat, apparently unopened, and was discovered years later by the daughter of a man who had rescued it from the garbage after the firm moved offices. It was offered at a…