Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, a rambling paean to the Beat Generation, is now cherished by young readers. But its publication was a long and tiresome work. In 1956 (one year before the novel’s release, six years after its initial construction), Kerouac was growing antsy—unsure of himself, but quite committed to his pièce de résistance. His editor, Malcolm Cowley, couldn’t (or wouldn’t) give Kerouac the requisite TLC.
In a February of ‘56 epistle, Kerouac writes to Cowley, “I wrote a short novel last summer…a complete book of 244 poems…I’d like to bring you the whole foot-high mass of my new works, to prove to you you’re not wastin (sic) your time on no sluggard.” And in a March letter, “The Rock n Roll craze is on, On the Road is the HIPSTER NOVEL (sic), the time is ripe…the GoGoGo (sic) situation is really ripe right now in USA.”
Cowley’s reply, penned on March 21, assumes a fatherly, near-admonishing tone: “[Allen Ginsberg] is very wrong when he keeps encouraging you to do nothing but automatic writing. Automatic writing is fine for a start, but it has to be revised and put into shape or people will quite properly refuse to read it—and what you need now is to be read, not to be exhibited as a sort of natural phenomenon like Old Faithful geyser that sends up a jet of steam and mud every hour on the hour.” (In time, Kerouac would mock this last line, sending Cowley a postcard with a picture of Yellowstone National Park on it).
Jack Kerouac’s “BOO!” postcard, pictured above, was sent on April 18. It conveys a growing frustration—with the unevenness of Cowley’s replies and the ongoing postponement of his publication. “BOO!” is Kerouac at the limit of expression, the textual equivalent of a red-faced gasp, desperately awaiting reply through the United States post. And yet, the three red letters are written with such childlike deliberation, the exclamation point marooned on the right margin as if it were not expressing anger or frustration, but a basic desire to belong.