Thursday, June 11, 2015

Planning on becoming a famous writer??
Best keep track of your letters

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Six of Harper Lee’s letters, written to a friend between 1956 and 1961, are being auctioned by Christie’s on Friday, June 12, apparently without objection from the famously private elderly writer. They are expected to be sold for at least $250,000.

All such auctions do not proceed without objection. One of the more interesting legal tussles of the day concerns the “lost” letter Neal Cassady wrote to Jack Kerouac back in 1950. It was scheduled to be auctioned in
December and was expected to bring between $300,000 and $500,000.

The letter is 18 pages and 16,000 words long and is called the “Joan Anderson letter” because one of Cassady’s girlfriends by that name is mentioned in it. Kerouac described it as “the greatest piece of writing I ever saw, better’n anybody in America, or at least enough to make Melville, Twain, Dreiser, Wolfe, I dunno who, spin their graves.”

Jack Kerouac (left) and Neil Cassady
After receiving it, Kerouac promptly discarded early drafts of On the Road and, inspired by Cassady’s letter, re-wrote it in stream-of-consciousness style.

The location of the original letter has been unknown for decades. A retyped version of about one-third of it is all that was extant, as far as anyone knew.

Kerouac apparently gave the letter to Allen Ginsburg. Kerouac believed that Ginsburg had lent it to a friend living on a houseboat who dropped it overboard, or so he told The Paris Review in 1968.

But, in fact, Ginsburg mailed it to the owner of the Golden Goose Press in San Francisco to see whether it might be published. The envelope was never opened. The publisher went out of business and had planned to throw unopened submissions in the trash. However, the owner of a small music label who shared office space with the Press, took the files home. After he died, his daughter found the letter and put it up for auction.

The central legal questions are: who owns the letter? The person who wrote it? The person who received it? The person who found it after sixty years? Are letters protected under copyright law?

The December auction was abruptly halted after both the Cassady and the Kerouac estates claimed ownership of the letter.

John Sampas, the brother of Kerouac’s third wife and literary executor of his estate, has demanded its return. His lawyer said they were seeking an arrangement whereby the letter could still be sold and the proceeds somehow split. “This is Brooklyn Bridge stuff,” he said. “You are selling something that you don’t own.” (Sam Whiting, San Francisco Gate, 12/4/14)

The Cassady estate, however, is asserting a right to the letter under copyright law. Jami Cassady, one of Neal’s children, said, “We never call it a ‘letter.’ It is a ‘manuscript’ always meant for publication. To call it a letter is like calling ‘Naked Lunch’ a lunch.”

Jerry Cimino, the owner of the Beat Museum in North Beach, San Francisco, is raising money through crowdfunding in hopes of purchasing the letter for the museum – if and when it comes to auction.

So far, no public word on how negotiations are going.

1 comment:

  1. I've saved many letters that were written to me, mostly by my family, but I do have three or four from published authors. My favorite is the one from Alice McDermott telling me that I could share her title, Child of My Heart. Her book was published a few months before mine and even though I probably "owned" the title for longer than she did I didn't want to step on any toes. It's a sweet, handwritten note that I cherish.