Last November, a letter from Neal Cassady to Jack Kerouac—a letter of 16,000 words across 18 single-spaced pages, a letter that was said to have inspired Kerouac's famed stream of consciousness style in On the Road—after having been lost for 60 years, was found.
It was buried among a trove of papers and documents from a defunct publishing company. The publishing company's owner entrusted those papers to a neighbor. When that neighbor later died, his daughter, rifling through the piles looking for insurance papers, found the letter.
It's called the "Joan Anderson letter."
"A guy by the name of Gerd Stern was blamed for losing it," Beat Museum founder Jerry Cimino tells the Weekly. "Can you imagine? Everyone thinking that you were responsible for losing one of the most important literary [artifacts] of the 20th century. For 60 years?"
Luckily, Stern lived to see the letter resurface. But it's a testament that the storied Beat culture from which it came was not so long ago that people who were there are still alive. The culture, itself, is still alive. Cimino is partly responsible for that.
He's one of the preeminent authorities (and, it becomes apparent, fans) of the Beat Generation. Those men of the Beat Generation (they were mostly men) who opened another course in contemporary literature (it was mostly literature) by rejecting conformity, embracing jazz and Eastern spirituality, being explicit, living carefree, doing drugs, seeking sexual gratification, drinking and smoking. And writing. It would have all been for naught if not for the incandescent, grimy, swinging writing.
They included people like Herbert Huncke and William S. Burroughs (who are credited with inspiring the whole lot of them), Lucien Carr, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady, who was considered the connective person between the Beats and the hippies. There are others. Many others.
Cimino will talk about them in two sessions at Henry Miller Library this Sunday as part of their new Under the Persimmon Tree lecture series.
He spoke to the Weekly first.
Weekly: Where did the Beat Museum begin?
Jerry Cimino: Before we built the Beat Museum, my wife and I lived in Monterey. She had a bookstore in the '90s: the Monterey Coffeehouse Bookshop, opened in 1991 on upper Alvarado, where Green's Camera was. The Beat Museum grew out of that book store. We held a lot events. I put together a Beat culture presentation and slide show and 150 people showed up. I was shocked. I realized, man this Beat stuff is more popular than you would expect.
How did the move to San Francisco happen?
We opened the Beat Museum in 2003 in Monterey, near Subway. We tried it out in a little extra space in my wife's business. I always knew that if it had a chance to be anything, it had to be in San Francisco, as close to City Lights Bookstore as possible. The next summer I bought a large RV, The Beat Museum on Wheels, and traveled the country with Neal Cassady's son, John, a friend. And we talked to high school kids about the Merry Pranksters. After our second year of doing that, I found an amazing location 100 feet away from City Lights. We've become a mainstay of North Beach since.
What is the Beat Museum like? Is it a museum or a store?
Friends of the Beat Museum is a nonprofit, 10 years old. It supports the Beat Museum, which is two stories—a museum on top and a gift shop, a store, below. It's not like the deYoung or MoMA. Most of our artifacts have been donated to us. It's a low-budget operation.
The day it opened on Franklin Street, a guy walks in the door and hands me a record album. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Kenneth Rexroth, red vinyl, first edition. I said 'This is worth $300. I don't have the cash.' He said 'I don't want cash, you gotta put it on your wall.' And that's how it plays out. Every week someone brings us something else. 'This belonged to Gregory Corso, Jack Kerouac.' The director of On the Road gave us a car that was used in the making of the film, a '49 Hudson Commodore, what Neal would have driven. The race cars of their day. He liked speed.
What's in there?
Someone donated Allen Ginsberg's typewriter. That same gentleman brought us a shirt Bob Dylan gave to Allen Ginsberg on the Rolling Thunder tour. That's neat. We've got the famous Rawling referee shirt Neal wore in 1964 when he drove the bus. People come from all over to genuflect on that shirt. The Beats were always wearing these striped shirts. Ken Babbs and Ken Kesey would have worn them. Babbs gave this to John Cassady. Mountain Girl was there. They had a ceremony. We have paintings and manuscripts, correspondence. Photographs by Fred McDarrah. He worked for The Village Voice. He knew all the Beats from New York before they came out to the Bay Area.
What's been the influence of the Beats?
Most people think it's literary phenomenon. Every time a high school kid walks into the door and they haven't heard of the Beats, I tell them Johnny Depp has Jack tattooed on his arm. His character in The Pirates of the Caribbean is named Jack Sparrow because of Jack Kerouac. The Beatles changed the spelling of their name from the Silver Beetles to The Beatles because of the Beats. Dylan wanted to be Allen Ginsberg. Beyond that, the values, mores and themes that the Beats espoused morphed into the hippie era. Racial equality, gay and lesbian rights, environmentalism. They were the outliers, the nonconformists. Their influence went wide. They came of age in the era of radio and TV. That's why their message was so far reaching.
The museum is sponsoring a big event in San Francisco. What is it?
This year, we decided it was time to branch out and start something new. My parents are in their late 80s. Beats are that age. I wanted to get as many of them exposure. So the Beatnik Shindig was born [June 26-28, Fort Mason Center and North Beach.] David Amram is a headliner. He's a musician, a friend of Jack Kerouac. He was in the 1959 movie by Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie called Pull My Daisy, starring Allen Ginsberg and Jack doing a spontaneous narration. A rap.
This will be the very first time we've done it. It's the largest Beat gathering since 1995 at NYU. I contacted many of the main Beats and asked if they would be up for this and they said yes. David Amaram, ruth weiss was a Beat Generation poet, around in the '50s. Herb Caen called her the "goddess of the Beat Generation." David Meltzer was a Beat poet. The Cassady family will be there. Another speaker will be Al Hinkle. He was Big Ed Dunkle in On the Road. He was best friends with Neal. I've known Al for 25 years. One of the neat speakers, Dr. Philip Hicks, was the psychiatrist working with Allen Ginsberg in 1955 when Allen said "I'm making a lot of money in advertising and dating lots of women. I think I'd rather write poetry and date men." Hicks said it's ok to be an authentic person, be real. Allen wrote "Howl" that same month. There will be dozens and dozens of poets, jazz musicians, record producers.
What are you going to talk about and read at Henry Miller Library?
I'll definitley be reading. I'm sure from Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg and Kerouac. I can't tell you which specific poems. Bits of "Howl" and "Coney Island" and On the Road. I take feedback from the audience. I love reading "Footnote to Howl," an amazing adjunct: "The world is holy! The soul is holy! The skin is holy! The nose is holy! The tongue and cock and hand and asshole holy!" There was an obscenity trial where the judge said, "All he's saying is everything in the world is holy, including the human body, and he names it by parts: He's not trying to get a rise out of you. He's trying to get your attention."
Did Henry Miller figure into the Beat scene?
Henry Miller wrote a letter to Viking Publishing and said "I really like this new book you put out by this new guy, called Dharma Bums." They asked him to write the introduction to the next book, The Subterraneans. There's the Big Sur connection. Kerouac wrote a tragic book called Big Sur. The two never met. Ferlinghetti arranged for Jack to have dinner with Henry Miller. Jack got drunk in Vesuvio instead, next door to City Lights. All the Beats used to drink there.
Jerry Cimino will present "The Beat Generation in America" 4pm Sunday and "This is the Beat Generation" multimedia presentation 7:3pm Sunday at Henry Miller Library, 25 miles south of Carmel and 1/4 mile south of Nepenthe, Big Sur. Donation appreciated. 667-2574 to reserve.