‘Greatest piece of writing I ever saw, better’n anybody in America’ for auction

It’s been called the letter that launched a literary genre — 16,000 amphetamine-fueled, stream-of-consciousness words written by Neal Cassady to his friend Jack Kerouac in 1950.

It’s been called the letter that launched a literary genre — 16,000 amphetamine-fueled, stream-of-consciousness words written by Neal Cassady to his friend Jack Kerouac in 1950.

Upon reading them, Kerouac scrapped a draft of On The Road and, during a three-week writing binge, revised his novel into a style similar to Cassady’s, one that would become known as Beat literature.

The letter, Kerouac said shortly before his death, would have transformed his counter-culture muse Cassady into a towering literary figure, if only it hadn’t been lost. Turns out it wasn’t, says Joe Maddalena, whose Southern California auction house Profiles in History is putting the letter up for sale on December 17. It was just misplaced, for 60-something years.

It’s being offered as part of a collection that includes papers by EE Cummings, Kenneth Rexroth, Robert Penn Warren and other prominent literary figures. But Maddalena believes what the item bidders will want most is Cassady’s 18-page, single-spaced screed describing a drunken, sexually charged, sometimes comical visit to his hometown of Denver.

“It’s the seminal piece of literature of the Beat Generation, and there are so many rumours and speculation of what happened to it,” Maddalena said.

Kerouac told The Paris Review in 1968 that poet Allen Ginsberg loaned the letter to a friend who lived on a houseboat in Northern California. Kerouac believed the friend then dropped it overboard.

As for the quality of the letter, Kerouac described it this way: “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.”

It turns out Ginsberg was trying to get it published when he mailed the letter to Golden Goose Press in San Francisco. There it stayed, unopened, until the small publishing house folded.

Then the operator of an independent music label who shared an office with publisher Richard Emerson came to the rescue. He took every manuscript, letter and receipt in the Golden Goose Archives home with him.


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