On the evening of October 21, 1969, Allen Ginsberg received a telephone call from the journalist Al Aronowitz: Jack Kerouac had died, earlier that day, in a Florida hospital. For Ginsberg, it was the second such call in just over a year and a half. On February 10, 1968, he had learned that Neal Cassady, the inspiration for “On the Road” and, aside from Kerouac, Ginsberg’s closest friend, had died, in Mexico.
The Kerouac news deeply saddened Ginsberg but did not surprise him. Kerouac’s heavy drinking over the previous decade had increased to such an extent that his closest friends wondered if he had a death wish. Ginsberg and Kerouac had grown distant—largely because Kerouac had become less and less available to Ginsberg, but also because Ginsberg no longer wished to be around his old friend, who, on any given night, could be a belligerent, unhappy, argumentative, and nasty drunk. Kerouac had remarried, bought a house for his wife and his invalid mother, and moved to Florida, where he lived a semi-reclusive life.
Immediately after hearing the news of Kerouac’s death, this was not the man Ginsberg remembered. He recalled the joyful, enthusiastic, ambitious, prodigious writer whose work influenced his own. Kerouac had basked in the heat of spontaneity; he had put Ginsberg on the path to Buddhism; the two had shared their innermost thoughts. His intelligence had been a beacon.
Ginsberg recorded fragments of his thoughts and memories of Kerouac in his journals, as he had done when he learned of Cassady’s death. He also wrote a long poem, “Memory Gardens,” which was composed over several sittings and was eventually included in his National Book Award-winning volume, “The Fall of America,” which was published in 1973.
Those initial journal entries are presented here on the fiftieth anniversary of Jack Kerouac’s death.
— Michael Schumacher
Two watches ticking in the dark, fly buzz at the black window, telephone calls all day to Florida and Old Saybrook,1 Lucien, Creeley, Louis,2 —“drinking heavily” and “your letter made him feel bad,” said Stella.3
All last nite (as talking on farm4 w/ Creeley day before) in bed brooding re Kerouac’s “After Me, the Deluge”5 at middle of morning watch I woke realizing he was right, that the meat suffering in the middle of existence was a sensitive pain greater than any political anger or hope, as I also lay in bed dying
Walking with Gregory6 in bare treed October ash woods—winds blowing brown sere leafs at feet—talking of dead Jack—the sky an old familiar place with fragrant eyebrow clouds passing overhead in Fall Current—
He saw them stand on the moon7 too.
At dusk I went out to the pasture & saw thru Kerouac’s eyes the sun set on October universe, the first sun set on the first dusk after his death.
Didn’t live much longer than beloved Neal8—another year & half—
Gregory woke at midnite to cry—he didn’t really want to go so soon—from the attick—
His mind my mind many ways—“The days of my youth rise fresh in my mind”9—
Our talk 25 years ago about saying farewell to the tender mortal steps of Union Theological Seminary10 7th floor where I first met Lucien—
Tonite on phone Lucien said, having quit drinking in [Indecipherable] several weeks ago, he’d had convulsions split his nose & broke out all his false front teeth, chewed his tongue almost in half—unconscious taken to hospital11—
Jack had vomited blood this last weekend would not take doctor care, hemorrhaged, & with many dozen transfusions lay in hospital a day before dying operated under knife in stomach—
Memory GardensCovered with yellow leavesin morning rain
He threw up his hands& wrote the universe dont exist& died to prove it.[Indecipherable stanza]Full Moon over Ozone Park12Bus rushing thru dusk toManhattan,Jack the Wizard in hisgrave at Lowell13for the first nite—that Jack thru whose eyes Isawsmog glory lightgold over Manhattan’s spireswill never see thesechimneys smokinganymore over statues of Maryin the graveyardTruck beds packedunder bridge viaducts,Crash jabber ofColumbia Free—Black Misted Canyonsrising over the bleakriverBright doll-like adsFor Esso Bread—Replicas multiplying beards—Farewell to the cross—Under the river lights shaftshelfing on Ceramic tunnelEternal fixity, the bigheaded wax Buddha dollpale resting incoffined—Empty skulled NewYork streetsStarveling phantomsfilling city—Wax dolls walking parkAve.,Light gleam in eye glass—Voice echoing thru MicrophonesGrand Central Sailor’sarrival 2 decades laterfeeling melancholy—Nostalgia for Innocent WorldWar II—A million Corpses runningacross 42’d Street,The glass building rising higher& lighted, transparentaluminumartificial trees,robot sofas,Ignorant cars—One Way Street to Heaven.[Indecipherable two lines]