Revealing Kerouac's middle-class side

January 15, 1995|By Kansas City Star

Jack Kerouac hung out with Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, William S. Burroughs and other flamboyant members of the Beat Generation. But according to Speer Morgan, novelist and editor of the Missouri Review, Kerouac's best friend may have been a Denver architect named Ed White.

"Kerouac had a conservative, middle-class side," Mr. Morgan said. "He felt more comfortable, more intimate with White, a straight guy pursuing a career, than with Ginsberg or even Cassady (the model for his "On the Road" character Dean Moriarty)."

The Missouri Review, published at the University of Missouri-Columbia, will have 15 of Kerouac's letters to White in its winter issue, which comes out this month. The journal's "Found Text Series" has previously included never-before-published works by William Faulkner and Mark Twain.

The letters span Kerouac's writing career, beginning in 1947, 10 years before "On The Road" was published. The last letter was written in 1968 -- a year before his death -- when Kerouac was an alcoholic, struggling with the demons of fame.

"Kerouac bares his soul in these letters," said Mr. Morgan, who worked for nearly three years with White and the Kerouac estate to get permission to publish them. "He talks about things he wouldn't feel comfortable talking to others about."

And White played a part in literary history, Mr. Morgan said.

"In 1950, Kerouac was hanging out in New York, where White was studying to be an architect. Kerouac was trying to write 'On the Road' the same way he wrote 'The Town and the City,' in that kind of Thomas Wolfe style, very labored, very literary. White, who carried around sketch books to sketch buildings, told him to loosen up, to carry notebooks around and just write things down, to sketch words. Kerouac started doing just that and it totally fit his talent. His style changed to this kind of wild, instantaneous thing, done with a lot of energy and sprezzatura. It became at times an ecstatic effort to catch the moment, without laboring over it until you've squeezed out all the juice."

Twice in the letters Kerouac thanks White, who later designed the Denver Arboretum, for being one of the main literary influences in his life, Mr. Morgan said.

One letter written from Mexico City in 1950 is classic Kerouac, gushing with the incantations Kerouac became famous for. He dreams of "A pen that spurts golden fire and winds white shrouds around the man." He rhapsodizes about plumbing the depths of his subconscious and bringing back his findings into the light of objective clarity.

"I want to work in revelations, not just spin silly tales for money. . . . With my inexhaustible supplies of Elitch I daily dive again into BTC these dim regions and crawl to the surface with the stub of a pencil, sweating, to record what I have observed." (Elitch is a code word for drugs and refers to Elitch's Gardens, a park in Denver where Kerouac and his friends often gathered to get stoned.)

The Ed White letters may serve to whet readers' appetites for a new collection, "Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters, 1940-1956," which Viking is set to publish in March. That volume, edited by the Kerouac scholar Ann Charters, includes one letter to White among a wide selection of the writer's friends and contemporaries.

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