Anniversary Exhibition Preview: Jack Kerouac at the Limit of Expression

Kerouac's postcard to Malcolm Cowley, 1956.
Jack Kerouac. Postcard and Note to Malcolm Cowley. Midwest MS Cowley, Box 35, Folder 2099.

To the extent that a one-word picture-less postcard can make any sense, it must be situated within a larger series of missives. Fortunately, the Newberry collection makes this possible, containing not only this laconic postcard, but a number of letters sent between Jack Kerouac and his editor Malcolm Cowley leading up to publication of On the Road in 1957.

In halcyon moments Jack Kerouac must have felt that getting On the Road published was just a matter of changing the names of a few characters and giving them absurd sinecures (e.g., managing a bowling alley empire in the western United States) in order to avoid possible charges of libel from the people upon whom they were based. But after six years of trying to publish his great rambling ode to the Beat Generation, Kerouac was largely unsure of himself and desperate for reassurance; and Malcolm Cowley, early in 1956 lecturing at Stanford in addition to keeping up with his editing responsibilities with Viking Press, couldn’t give Kerouac the requisite TLC.

Two letters, from February 10 and March 16, 1956, respectively, attest to a volatility made up of two opposing forces within Kerouac: an indiscriminate nervous energy and a single-minded fixation on On the Road. From his February letter to Cowley, Kerouac writes, “I wrote a short novel last summer…a complete book of 244 poems…I’d like to bring you the whole foot-high mass of my new works, to prove to you you’re not wastin (sic) your time on no sluggard.” And from his March letter, “The Rock n Roll craze is on, On the Road is the HIPSTER NOVEL (sic), the time is ripe…the GoGoGo (sic) situation is really ripe right now in USA.”

Cowley’s reply, of March 21, assumes the tone of a professor addressing one of his students, a register to which Cowley might have unconsciously defaulted, given the time he was spending in workshops at Stanford: “[Allen Ginsberg] is very wrong when he keeps encouraging you to do nothing but automatic writing. Automatic writing is fine for a start, but it has to be revised and put into shape or people will quite properly refuse to read it—and what you need now is to be read, not to be exhibited as a sort of natural phenomenon like Old Faithful geyser that sends up a jet of steam and mud every hour on the hour.” (Kerouac would eventually get around to mocking this last line, sending Cowley a postcard with a picture of Yellowstone National Park on it on July 3).

Jack Kerouac’s “BOO!” postcard was sent to Cowley on April 18, when the writer was growing frustrated with the unevenness of the correspondence with his editor and sensing the postponement of publication. “BOO!” is Kerouac at the limit of expression, the textual equivalent of a red-faced gasp in submission to the loneliness of awaiting reply through the United States post. And yet the three red letters are written with such childlike deliberation, the exclamation point marooned on the right margin as if it were not expressing anger or frustration, but the basic desire to belong.