Tag Archives: Jack Kerouac

The Found Art of Letter Writing

letters cover

What would you say if I told you there is a brand new collection of letters that you just have to see?

“Letters,” I can hear you saying, “who writes letters, let alone reads letters, anymore?”

Well, bear with me a moment. I think you’ll find this worthwhile.

Might you be interested in a letter written by Emily Dickinson to her one, true love? Or one written by Mahatma Gandhi to Adolf Hitler? What about one by Philip K. Dick on getting a brief preview (he didn’t live to see the final cut) of Bladerunner, the movie adaptation of his novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Or maybe a letter by Groucho Marx to Woody Allen might hit just the right spot?

Still not sold? There is a smoking note by Nick Cave to MTV, written with appropriate sarcastic grace (often referred to as the “My Muse is Not a Horse” Letter), in rejection of their nomination of “Best Male Artist of the Year.” Or a letter from Jack Kerouac to Marlon Brando saying he’d be great as Dean Moriarty in a film version of On The Road. Or Mark David Chapmen to a memorabilia expert inquiring as to the possible worth of an album signed by John Lennon mere hours before he murdered him?

I could probably go on and on tantalizing you with glimpses into Letters of Note: An Eclectic Collection of Correspondence Deserving a Wider Audience.

Nearly as amazing as the contents, however, is the presentation. It is something of a coffee table book, though perhaps a bit on the smaller end of the format. The fact that it is a tad oversize is put to great advantage – it reproduces, in large format, the original typed or handwritten letters, telegrams (one from the Titanic), plus a clay tablet, alongside transcripts (particularly useful in deciphering the dodgy handwriting of creative types), as well as brief summaries giving context to the various exchanges.

May I mention just a few more? How about letters by Charles Dickens, Jack the Ripper, Charles Bukowski, Leonardo da Vinci, Mary Stuart, and Albert Einstein addressing, respectively, the topics of public executions, unimaginably abominable behavior, censorship, employment as a military engineer, final thoughts before being executed, and a sixth grade class’s query as to whether scientists pray?

And, oh, yes, there is the thousand plus years old ancient Chinese form letter written in apology for drunken behavior at a dinner party the evening before. It begins:

Yesterday, having drunk too much, I was intoxicated as to pass all bounds; but none of the rude and coarse language I used was uttered in a conscious state. The next morning, after hearing others speak on the subject I realized what had happened, whereupon I was overwhelmed with confusion and ready to sink into the earth with shame.  …

That’s right, it’s a form letter – and you thought you knew how to party!

Billed by the publisher as a “spectacular collection of more than 125 letters,” this is no adperson’s hyberbole: it’s the real deal.

In my estimation, this collection is not the mourning of a passing art form but a celebration, a celebration perhaps not so much of the specific form itself (though it is, of course, that), but of the human races’ constant striving to communicate, to understand, and to survive.

Even if we don’t continue to write letters much anymore, we continue to communicate, which is reflected in the fact universities and libraries worldwide are collecting electronic correspondence as they once collected letters. The form may differ, but the creativity behind it is, if anything, becoming more varied and incredible as the years go by.

I do believe it might just be worth the wait to read the curated email correspondence of say, Margaret Atwood, or Neil Gaiman and, perhaps even of the notoriously reclusive Thomas Pynchon.

Just sayin’ or, more accurately, just readin’.

What follows is a letter from Mick Jagger to Andy Warhol in Letters of Note, at once charming, practical, and endearing, if sprinkled with casual obscenity, in a manner only Brits seem to be able to pull off with aplomb.

~ Don

jagger to warhol

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Songsters, Writers, Rovers

In California last week a friend taught me a hobo song. The tune flew back to Pittsburgh with me and followed me to work at the library. I still wake in the night with the melody teasing my sleepy brain. “Hobo’s Lullaby” is a beautiful song.

“Hobo’s Lullaby” was written by Goebel Reeves (born 1899). Teen-aged Reeves adored vaudeville and hobos. He traded a middle-class life for the adventure of roaming the U.S., singing, yodeling, and recording under pseudonyms, including “The Texas Drifter.” He wrote and performed autobiographical songs, and limited his chances for a lucrative career by refusing to settle in one place for more than a few months—a dedicated hobo.

Other musicians who hoboed are Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Utah Philips. Writers who hoboed include James Michener, George Orwell, Jack Kerouac (fictionalized in The Dharma Bums), and Jack London.

Hotel de Gink (hobo hotel) — preparing Muligan stew, photo Library of Congress, between ca. 1910 and ca. 1915

In its depression-era heyday, hobodom implied an itinerant lifestyle, usually lived by riding the rails (no ticket required).

Hobo, tramp, and drifter, often used interchangeably, are slang terms, lacking definitive etymologies. However, hobos defined themselves like this—hobos worked, tramps worked only when made to, bums did not work at all.

Jack London wrote in The Road (1907) of his adventures riding the rails.

It began to look as if I should be compelled to go to the very poor for my
food. The very poor constitute the last sure recourse of the hungry tramp.
The very poor can always be depended upon. They never turn away the
hungry. Time and again, all over the United States, have I been refused
food by the big house on the hill; and always have I received food from
the little shack down by the creek or marsh, with its broken windows
stuffed with rags and its tired-faced mother broken with labor. Oh, you
charity-mongers! Go to the poor and learn, for the poor alone are the
charitable. They neither give nor withhold from their excess. They have no
excess. They give, and they withhold never, from what they need for
themselves, and very often from what they cruelly need for themselves. A
bone to the dog is not charity. Charity is the bone shared with the dog
when you are just as hungry as the dog.

Also last week in California, I listened to “West London,” a song by Charles Ives, that musically illustrates and elevates a poem by Matthew Arnold.

Crouched on the pavement close by Belgrave Square,
A tramp I saw, ill, moody, and tongue-tied;
A babe was in her arms, and at her side
A girl; their clothes were rags, their feet were bare.

Some laboring men, whose work lay somewhere there,
Passed opposite; she touched her girl, who hied
Across, and begged, and came back satisfied.
The rich she had let pass with frozen stare.

Thought I: Above her state this spirit towers;
She will not ask of aliens, but of friends,
Of sharers in a common human fate.

She turns from that cold succor which attends
The unknown little from the unknowing great,
And points us to a better time than ours.

—Julie

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