An excerpt of Neal Cassady’s “Joan Anderson Letter” is enough to leave even a casual student of the Beat Generation with the indelible impression that Jack Kerouac gave it a read and never looked back.
“That’s why they call it the ‘Holy Grail’ of the Beat Generation,” says Cassady's daughter Jami Cassady Ratto. “Kerouac was writing his first novel, The Town and the City, more like the old writers and novelists.”
Although Cassady's poetry, prose and correspondence have been published, he is perhaps best known as muse to countless writers and musicians and appears as a character in multiple works, most famously as Dean Moriarty in On the Road. An iconic figure of the Beat Generation, he was later associated with writer Ken Kesey in the 1960s, then died in Mexico under mysterious circumstances in 1968.
Jami Cassady Ratto says that her father’s work is seeing a resurgence in popularity, particularly after the publication last year of the infamous letter, which Cassady wrote in 1950 and sent to Kerouac. “When the 'Joan Anderson Letter' came out, we had orders and orders and orders,” she says. “So many people wanted it."
“The Joan Anderson Letter,” which some consider the single greatest piece of writing, displays the stream-of-consciousness style that Kerouac subsequently used in On the Road, his best-known work. The letter was initially thought to have been accidentally tossed over the side of a houseboat in northern California and lost to a watery grave, says Randy Ratto, Jami's husband. It appeared years later in a manila envelope at the bottom of a filing cabinet in a small California publishing house and, after legal battles over its ownership, was finally published last year.
The subject matter in the letter is fairly dirty, even by today’s standards, and would have been outright prurient in 1950. It doesn’t tell a linear narrative, but Cassady's freewheeling way of writing was new and exciting to Kerouac and his colleagues.
“It isn’t a story unto itself,” says Randy. “That’s not why we printed it — so you could read the story — even though it’s a pretty interesting story. The writing style — no one had ever written anything like it.”
He notes that in some circles, the letter is considered to be the first piece of counterculture in America that indirectly influenced gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, who once said he wouldn't have become a writer if it weren't for Jack Kerouac, according to the Beat Museum.
“It’s got a couple of different mini stories,” Jami says. “There’s a bunch of girls. This is an X-rated girlfriend story about his sexual accomplishments, to Jack. I don’t know if he’s exaggerating, because that’s the way he was anyway. But he’s writing to his buddy. We think it’s the New Journalism, fictional truth.”
Her sister won’t read the letter because of its lurid content, Jami adds.
The Rattos are coming to Denver this weekend to visit Denver and Boulder bookshops, where they'll sell Neal Cassady merchandise and meet with fans of the writer. Jami's father grew up somewhat feral on the streets of Denver, and several of the writers associated with the Beat Generation followed Cassady to the Mile High City after meeting him in New York.
On June 28, a group of poets will read portions of the “Joan Anderson Letter” during Beat Book Shop owner Tom Peters’s long-running weekly poetry reading at a church in Boulder.
“We are getting three people from Denver to read parts of the letter,” Jami says. “It’s the first time it’s ever been read aloud, so it’s going to be quite an event.”
The couple is also bringing a portion of the archives of Carolyn Cassady — Neal’s wife, Jami’s mother and another big Beat Generation figure — as well as some Neal Cassady ephemera, including his childhood rosary, a hammer he used to flip end over end while hanging out with Ken Kesey and some of his [and Carolyn’s] ashes.
“They came from Mexico, and of course Mom saved them forever,” Jami says of the ashes. “We are bringing a bit of those. So it’s weird. … It’s going to be fun. We are very excited.”
Randy says that he’s spent the past several years compiling Carolyn Cassady’s archives. She was apparently a “very organized hoarder,” and he’s not sure the task will be completed, at least not in his lifetime. They continue to find interesting items as they go through a large amount of boxed-up Beat Generation artifacts.
“There will be big holes in stuff,” he says. “I’m still going through the boxes.”
They are also bringing a collection of the official documents from Cassady’s untimely death in Mexico.
“I’ve got all the Mexican government’s death certificate and the Mexican coroner’s [report] — all in Spanish, of course,” Randy notes. “No really knows the facts about Neal’s death, because he was basically by himself. And then Kesey wrote that thing about ‘The Day After Superman Died,’ where he was counting the tracks and all that. Things have gotten really mythicized.”
Jami Cassady Ratto and Randy Ratto will be at Mutiny Information Cafe, 2 South Broadway, all day, on Friday, June 25 and Saturday, June 26; at BookBar, 4280 Tennyson Street, all day, on Sunday, June 27; the Beat Book Shop at 1200 Pearl Street, #10, in Boulder, starting at 1 p.m., on Monday, June 28. A special reading of the "Joan Anderson Letter" will follow at 8:30 p.m. at 1290 Folsom Street in Boulder. More information on Cassady is available at the Neal Cassady Estate archives.
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