John Clellon Holmes to Jack Kerouac (December 27, 1950)

And now, about your predicament, which I hope I am not wrong in mentioning. In T&C the form was implicit in the material. Perhaps you did not worry overmuch about it. Perhaps you let the great flood of material simply take you and find and form itself. You told me, one of the first times I met you, “You know, John, I haven’t got form really. But I think my book has deep form.” That stuck in my craw, and I think it is true of you, and true of many American writers. Those that have plagued their minds with form have produced but stunted garden flowers that have no magnificence, none of that exultant always-blooming burst and power of really great American writing. But, now, in “On the Road”, you are struggling with the difficulties of form and mould. Where to put all this vast heap of material? How shape the mountain to a hill the eye can contain? …. I have seen you attack all your great lump of clay with eager, desperate, and facile hands. But always, though it may have satisfied me or someone else, it did not settle in your mind. Something had been stripped away, or you had not gotten the perspective right. You began again. No one could say you have not been tireless, patient, persevering. But it has resisted your head.

…. You have started so many times, tried so hard, and yet found it still not right…. I know that it takes little view of the hug technical hang-ups that writing entails, the endless taking of pains and blows that getting a book out of mind demands. But nevertheless I think you should get your vision straight. Do not forget what it is you are trying to give to the people. Do not despair.

I have tacked upon my working heart one of things you told me after reading some of my poor, twisted scenes toward the beginning of this book. You had read them sympathetically, at length, considering, and you turned to me and said: “The daily heap! The daily heap is everything!” And that I pinned upon my laboring heart, because I knew for a certainty that it was right. There were other things you told me: about simply saying what I had to say, and saying simply what I had to say. About the “angel-author”…. And about “the sincere tone”. I have never forgotten these things, and much that I have done in this book is the result of a painstaking scrutiny of these maxims. Now I say that you must take heart as well. Fill with that sure compassion and sadness out of which I know your best work has come.

Remember all the madness, the Fellaheen people on the dark roads, those strange apocalyptic moments with Neal, and all the other crazy things you know better than anyone else. Go back to the moment (if this can be done) when “On the Road” came to you out of nowhere. Go back to that instant, and remember it in all the naked excitement it possessed then. Do not think about the ulcers that twitter and scribble in the Rockefeller Centers of the world, or the long-nosed and petulant editors who brouse and yawn over the terrible children writers of the past have brought forth in pain and faith. Think only of your own feelings and believe in them. ……

The world will neither bow to you as a result of “On the Road”, nor will it necessarily send a posse out after you. You would have come closer to what you intend if it does the latter, but no matter. Amaze and astound yourself, and that is the most that you can expect. …. But write. Labor in your vineyard simply and with faith.

Remember the children that roam your roads, perfect yourself against the skies only insofar as your heart is not wounded. Do not cogitate the effect of your work, do not plumb the undecipherable and incalculable mysteries of the world which will choose or reject you. ….Often I tend to flatter myself that I know it better than most others. I know that you are like that iceberg…., and that what there is on the surface is only a bare shadow. …. I know that there is much inside you, and I worry, fret and feel a strange personal misery when you have trouble with it. …. There are few enough writers today who would be worth saving even if one could do so, and I count you on the first team of those that deserve preservation from the vantage-point of the future. You know, the years pass all too quickly, and I am reminded of another thing you said to me… You said: “Writers don’t work enough today. They turn out a few little, tidy books and that’s all!”… It stuck with me, because that night, later, after I had left you, another part of my life collapsed, and I knew that what you had said was true of more things than writing. But we have such short time and so much to do.”

 

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