For nearly three years, Jack Kerouac and his editor at Viking Press, Malcolm Cowley, had been working together to publish On the Road.
A respected author, critic, and mentor, Cowley was determined to get Kerouac’s rambling ode to the Beat Generation across the finish line. But by the spring of 1956, Kerouac was getting frustrated with the pace of the editing process. Out of impatience and, perhaps, a little anxiety, Kerouace sent Cowley a one-word postcard on April 18: “BOO!”
Thanks to the Malcolm Cowley papers available at the Newberry, it’s possible to reconstruct the Kerouac-Cowley correspondence leading up to this unusual missive. Their letters capture a tense moment in their relationship; sensing how close he was to publishing On the Road, Kerouac demanded Cowley’s full attention and was disappointed by his response times.
In a letter on February 10, 1956, Kerouac told Cowley that he expected feedback on the novel sooner: “I had no idea you were going to bring my manuscript to the coast with you, for work. If so, I’d have waited. As it is, I hurried home for Xmas.”
On March 16, having not received a response to his February letter, Kerouac wrote again, informing Cowley that he would visit Stanford University (where Cowley was lecturing) to prepare On the Road for publication. On March 21, Cowley wrote that he would be leaving Stanford before Kerouac got there, noting, “Some sort of malign fate is keeping us from getting together.” Frustrated by the delays, Kerouac sent his one-word postcard before Cowley’s letter reached him.
Fortunately, Kerouac did not have to wait much longer. The following year, Viking published On the Road, which the New York Times hailed as “the most beautifully executed, the clearest and most important utterance” of Kerouac’s generation. Cowley, already noted for his work with some of the major literary figures of his time (Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald), moved on to editing a new generation of authors, including Ken Kesey and Tillie Olsen.
The Malcolm Cowley papers are a keystone of the Newberry’s Midwest Manuscript Collection. In 1954, at the behest of Newberry librarian Stanley Pargellis (1898–1968), Cowley became a Newberry Fellow, writing on a monthly stipend and advising the library on the acquisition of 20th-century Americana. That same year, he gave the first batch of his papers to the library, and periodically from then on donated or made his papers available for purchase.
About the Author
Alex Teller is the Director of Communications and Editorial Services at the Newberry.