The Secret Letter that Inspired Kerouac's 'On the Road', and 5 Other Astonishing Literary Discoveries
After languishing for years in the dusty attic of a neighbor to a music producer who shared an office with Golden Goose Publishing, a very important piece of Jack Kerouac's On The Road history has surfaced: the Joan Anderson Letter has been uncovered. If that means something to you, you're freaking out; if it doesn't let me explain, and you'll understand why this is such huge news.
When Jack Kerouac's On the Road burst onto the literary scene in 1953, contemporary American fiction was thrown into chaos. Harnessing the raw emotional power of the beat generation through a stream or consciousness style that shocked and awed his critics and contemporaries alike, Jack Kerouac forever altered the course of modern fiction. Since that fateful day, soul-searching generations of angsty teenagers (myself very much included) have turned to On the Road for empathy, for inspiration, for guidance, and for sheer literary bliss; yet, the exact provenance of the stunning new style has always been shrouded in a certain amount of mystery. In certain circles there has always been talk of a letter, "the Joan Anderson letter," that set Kerouac on the path to stream of consciousness prose and the wildly popular On the Road, but that letter was lost to myth and legend... until this very month.
A woman dug up the letter while sifting through through some of Golden Goose's archives — so, it very much exists! It will be sold at auction on December 17.
Heralded as one of the most important literary discoveries of the 21st century, the Joan Anderson Letter was a rambling, amphetamine-infused missive documenting a wild weekend Neil Cassady spent with a young woman by the name of Joan Anderson and a revelation to the young Jack Kerouac. Reportedly scrapping earlier versions of On the Road in response to the raw power of Cassady's stream of consciousness style, the Joan Anderson letter undoubtedly influenced the course of literary history — and yet, for years Kerouac blamed the loss of the letter on the generosity of Allan Gingsberg and one very careless man a houseboat... but that's another story altogether.
This the tale is one of discovery, and it is a story to inspire the pawn star in all of us to reconsider the possibilities of storage facilities, attics, and basements everywhere. As a beat poet fangirl, I'm fawning over this particular piece of history as though it had sprinkles and a cherry on top, but this is not the only lost piece of literary history to emerge in recent years. From new evidence that the bard himself was a hottie to ancient pornography, these five literary discoveries are sure to shock you.
Shakespeare as He was Meant to be Seen
William Shakespeare has long been a contested figure among literary historians, and for most of us who studied the storied playwright in school, he was simply that sweet looking bald man on the cover of the folios... until now, that is. Thanks to new research, the only portrait painted of the bard during his lifetime has emerged from anonymity after more than 300 years. In addition to painting a whole new picture of the bard (forgive the pun) as dashing, young fellow with soulful eyes and a deep stare, the portrait brings to light new questions about the bard's sexuality, and his relationship with the Earl of Southampton. Steeped in unrequited love and royal intrigue, it's a story worthy of Shakespeare himself.
Ancient Garbage, The Same Old Trash
It's hard to imagine exactly what archeologists expected to find when they went digging through an ancient trash heap in Egypt, but you can bet pornography was not on the list. And yet, when two Oxford graduate students, B. P. Grenfell and A. S. Hunt, unearthed more than 2,000 pieces of ancient parchment in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, one of the most exciting discoveries was a fragment of erotic fiction dating back thousands of years and reminding us yet again that although fashions may fade and cultural mores may shift, sex has always been a top seller.
Jesus and Mary... Married?
Of all the literary masterpieces subject to new discovery, it's hard to imagine the Bible having much to offer; after all, scholars have been parsing this seminal text for centuries in search of the slightest clue to add to our understanding of early Christianity. And yet, just this year a document believed to be "the lost gospel" was brought to light at the British Library in London. Historians and academics investigating the ancient manuscript claim that it reveals "secrets to Jesus’ family life, including his marriage to Mary Magdalene, the names of their two children, assassination attempts on both their lives and Jesus’ connection to powerful political figures in the Roman Empire." And that, my friends, is what you call a game-changer.
While researching a biography of the Nobel Prize-wining author, Professor Sally Wolff-King came across the 79-year-old Dr Edgar Wiggin Francisco III, who mentioned a plantation diary kept by his grandfather and regularly thumbed through by the eminent William Faulkner, a dear friend of his father's. After reading through the diary and comparing the text to some of Faulkner's most famous work, Wolff-King discovered that:
It was pretty clear that Faulkner drew from it, not just for Go Down, Moses, but for other works, including The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom!...We know that he drew on many sources, but this previously unrecognised source is so extensive ... [I think Faulkner] was so interested in this old farm journal because it gave him much information about what life was like [on the southern plantation] and allowed him to write authentically about the past.
All of which serves to remind me that in one person's petty struggles and successes there is great value to be gleaned... so future Nobel Prize-winners take note, my old journals are ready and waiting, all you have to do is ask.
Salinger the Socialite
Prevailing wisdom bestowed upon Salinger the unwelcome label "hermit" after the publication of his seminal tale of teen angst, The Catcher in the Rye; and yet, all those overly-self-assured academics were forced to eat their words after a trove of new letters were discovered depicting a Salinger who "enjoyed watching tennis, trips to the theater, and fast-food burgers — specifically from Burger King." After all, could a man willing to risk the trials and tribulations of the take-out window really be such a hermit? I think not! Of course, this new primary source proof that Salinger was not the man we thought him to be won't change way I read The Catcher in the Rye, but let me tell you that the next time I hit a Burger King the experience will be forever altered by the knowledge that I'm following in the footsteps of an American icon.
Image: Thomas FIsher Rare Book Library/Flickr; Getty Images; Giphy (3)