- Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters 1940-56 edited by Ann Charters
Viking, 629 pp, £25.00, August 1995, ISBN 0 670 84952 9
New York in August, and inside is the only place to be. The people around me, each at his own console, were watching their chosen moments in the history of American airtime. Elvis Presley’s top half on the Ed Sullivan Show; John F. Kennedy’s live debate with a melting Richard Nixon; an early episode of I Love Lucy; a dinner-table scene from The Waltons; Neil Armstrong’s One Small Step; the shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald; the pilot show of Roseanne. Each viewer wore headphones; all you could hear was the giggles and gasps. On my little TV, where the picture was jumpy at first, was Jack Kerouac. He was sitting up at a white piano, and Steve Allen tinkled away at the keys. Kerouac is very clean, very neat, but he looks nervous. Allen is smug. He’s a polyester-clad uncle sitting at the piano.
‘You nervous?’ says Allen.
‘Naaah,’ blows Kerouac, and in answer to the next question, he says he wrote On the Road in three weeks.
‘And how long were you on the road?’
‘I was on the road once for three days and it took me seven years to write about it,’ says Allen, to a little symphony of canned laughter and applause. Kerouac looks depressed, bored, and he lifts his finger, as if he sees the next question coming.
‘Can you define Beat?’ says Allen.
‘Sympathetic,’ huffs little Jack, as if ready to embrace death. A minute or so more of this, then Kerouac begins to read from his novel, while the host licks away at the keys. As he reads from the very end of his book he seems to see the corny world lift: ‘and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Mor-i-ar-ty.’ He looks upwards. And that’s it: the light dims, and he disappears.
I left the Museum of Television and Radio and started walking uptown. I was thinking about Jack Kerouac, about the way he’d looked on that show. By 1959, he was famous, and somehow ruined; he would be dead in ten years at the age of 47. He was already in retreat on the Steve Allen Show. The publication of On the Road marked the start of the end of this writer. A few years later, he’d lounge on those chat shows willing to have him on, drunk and hopeless; he’d bum money off kids in bars, grab at girls, shout ‘I’m Jack Kerouac, the world-famous author!’ He may now be the sort of writer whose life is just as well known as his writing.
When I reached the area near Columbia University, I remembered that as a student young Kerouac had looked out of his Livingston Hall dormitory straight at a frieze on the side of the (then) new Columbia library. It said ‘Goethe ... Voltaire ... Shakespeare ... Molière ... Dante ...’ And sure enough, just as you’d feared, Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac, that little football scholarship guy from Lowell, Massachusetts, had wanted his name on the wall too. Yes he did. A few years after his appearance on the Steve Allen Show, Kerouac’s name turned up on the bathroom wall of the White Horse Tavern in Hudson Street. I thought about it as I went down that way later the same day. It had said: ‘Kerouac Go Home.’
If the publication of his best book, and his appearance on the Steve Allen Show, marked the end of something for Kerouac, then perhaps the letters, written between 1940 and 1956, the year before On the Road’s publication, would give ideas and clues to much that had run up to that sort of end. Kerouac’s road was always one that led back to the beginning, an open road that forever led back to his mother, and to Lowell, to his dead brother Gerard, and his childhood friend Sebastian Sampas, who died on the beach at Anzio. Jack Kerouac never really left home; all his roads went through him, and brought him back again and again to the home of his mother – Mémère – a home he was never certain of.
I zipped up my bags, and headed off to Baltimore. My American friends were there when I arrived, sitting outside the station in a white mini-caravan. She is a clinical psychologist, and is just winding up her graduate training at the University of Maryland; he is a poet – one of those who care a great deal for the writers of Eastern Europe, and the experiments of William Carlos Williams and the Beats. I’d first met him when I was a student myself, in the Eighties, when travelling across America by car seemed like the right sort of thing to be doing. There was a gang of us then, and we got jobs working in pizza places or in all-night bakeries, turning the bread. We’d driven together to Alabama in the middle of Hurricane Charlie, in 1988, and crashed a Drive-Away car in New Orleans. (Drive-Away cars, like the white van we were setting off in, are vehicles you deliver to an agreed destination for a removal company, at no cost to yourself. You lay down a deposit, then get it back when you deliver the car.)
After the New Orleans crash, we had made our way through Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Nevada and California in a couple of other cars, one of which we bought off a tearful Christian for $300. Every teenager who read those Kerouac novels, and reread them, wanted to drive over America. It was a fantasy of recklessness and irresponsibility and independence – just as it had been for Kerouac and his pal Neal Cassady – and that sort of trip, that sensibility, had become very fixed in images of American life. When not comparing himself to Shakespeare and Goethe, Kerouac would admit that On the Road was ‘the original daddy of the rock ’n’ roll novels’. Kerouac was a romantic excessive – not only that, but certainly that – and teenagers usually are too. His writing speaks directly to a sort of yearning in your average romantic teenreader, the sort of reader who might like the sound of chaos as well. My friends went on talking in the front seats as we drove out of Baltimore, on Route 70 West, and I sank down in the back, sinking a little into my own past readings and drivings, and into the past being revealed by Kerouac’s book of early letters.
Vol. 17 No. 20 · 19 October 1995
I would not be surprised if Jack Kerouac’s only child, Janet Michelle Kerouac, saw the publication of her father’s Selected Letters (LRB, 5 October) as a source of bitterness. I have known Jan since 1978, when I began researching Memory Babe, my biography of her father. Since then, I have followed her fortunes, especially in regard to the Kerouac estate, with interest. It is a sad story and has added to her share of hardship.
Jan was born in 1952 in Albany, New York. Jack and her mother, Joan Haverty, were already separated. Jan saw her father for the first time in the early Sixties, when her mother brought him to court for non-payment of child support, and once more in 1967, when she turned up on his doorstep in Lowell, Massachusetts. Jack was embarrassed but asked her in. She was only 15 but she’d been abused by men for the previous three years and had done every sort of drug available on the Lower East Side, including methadrine, LSD and heroin. She’d been in and out of youth houses and detention facilities. She was pregnant and about to leave the country. Jack showed her some of his paintings, including one of Pope Paul VI in his Papal regalia – a ‘vision’ he’d had while ‘Paul’ was still Cardinal Giovanni Montini. Before long, Jack’s third wife, Stella Sampas Kerouac, asked Jan to leave: her presence was disturbing his invalid mother, Gabrielle. Jack told Jan: ‘Sure, go to Mexico. You can use my name. Write a book.’
She went to Mexico and wrote a novel, which was never published. In 1969, back in the US, she heard on the radio that her father had died. She had separated from her first husband and was living in a commune in northern California. She was too poor to think of travelling to Massachusetts for Jack’s funeral. He had not provided for her at all, but had left everything to Gabrielle, who was paralysed and bed-ridden. In 1971, a man who claimed to be Jan’s court-appointed guardian found her in Santa Fe and, in the name of protecting her interests, persuaded her to sign away any eventual entitlement to her father’s house in St Petersburg, Florida in return for $500. Jan’s relinquishment of her share in the house gave Stella Sampas Kerouac a clear title to half of the property, which she might otherwise have had to fight for in court. In 1973 Jan’s grandmother, Gabrielle, died and her father’s entire estate passed on to Stella Sampas Kerouac. In other ways, too, the Seventies were bad for Jan. She was always on the move and sometimes in trouble. She worked briefly in a massage parlour and drifted into petty crime. She had a long string of love affairs, usually with disastrous partners (‘I need to be ignored,’ she wrote, ‘because it reminds me of my father’).
When Jan began to put that behind her, she had no reason to expect any help in the form of income from the sudden steep increase in her father’s literary stock. In 1981, she published a novel, Baby Driver, and she was scraping by. But in Boulder, in 1982, John Steinbeck’s son told her that under federal copyright law she should already have begun receiving half of the royalties from the 28-year copyright renewal on her father’s books. During the early Eighties, a succession of lawyers wrestled with Stella Sampas Kerouac’s attorneys and her agent, Sterling Lord, for the royalty money that was Jan’s legal due. In December 1985 the Sampas attorneys conceded her claim on 50 per cent of the renewal royalties; but before they would pay, they required her to accept Sterling Lord as her own agent. She agreed and received $4,870 in back royalties.
In the early Nineties, I got in touch with Jan after an interval of three years to learn that she had suffered complete kidney failure and would have to live the rest of her life on self-dialysis. Her medical bills were soaring. She no longer used drugs or alcohol. She was by now a published novelist. She was hoping for a kidney transplant that would enable her to lead a semi-normal life. She also wanted to straighten out what had become an extraordinarily tangled legal relationship with the Kerouac estate. Royalty cheques were not always coming on time, major book deals were being made without her knowledge and troubling rumours had reached her about pieces of her father’s literary archive being sold off to collectors and dealers for large sums of cash. Her interest in her father’s estate did not appear to be purely personal. Since 1962, he had written to friends saying that his papers should be available for scholarly study after his death and Jan believed they should go into a safe repository for that purpose.
In January 1994 Jan saw for the first time a copy of the will in which her grandmother supposedly left nothing to her and her cousin, Paul Blake Jr. The strange handwriting and an ambiguity in the spelling of ‘Kerouac’ led her to doubt its authenticity. In April, a hand-writing expert at New England Legal Investigations declared that the will was ‘not written or signed by Gabrielle Kerouac’. Clifford Larkin, the one surviving witness to the will, testified that he had not actually seen Gabrielle sign the document. Jan filed a lawsuit with the Circuit Court of Pinellas Co., Florida last May, alleging that the will was a forgery. If that were so, one-third of the estate would belong to Jan, one-third to cousin Paul and one-third to the survivors of Stella Sampas, who died in 1990. On two occasions when the Sampas family, the only beneficiaries at present, moved to have the suit dismissed, they were unsuccessful, and the case is expected to come to trial early next year.
The day before he died, Jack Kerouac wrote to his nephew Paul that he wanted ‘someone directly connected with the last remaining drop of my direct blood line’ to care for his estate. He said he planned to divorce Stella and that he did not want ‘to leave a dingblasted fucking goddamn thing to my wife’s hundred Greek relatives’. In fact, since 1990, the estate has been managed by the brothers and sisters of Stella Sampas Kerouac, with the youngest of them, John Sampas, acting as their literary representative. Since Jan contested her grandmother’s will, Sampas’s lawyer has instructed Sterling Lord to stop paying her 50 per cent of the foreign royalties on her father’s books – a voluntary arrangement that Stella Sampas Kerouac had made with her in 1985. Until the threat of a lawsuit caused him to back off, Sampas also hoped to keep Lord from paying Jan full royalties on books that have renewed completely in her own name since Stella Sampas Kerouac’s death – books which are registered in the Library of Congress copyright office as Jan’s sole property. These include Visions of Gerard, Desolation Angels and Satori in Paris.
Over the past 17 or 18 years, I have seen Jan intermittently. I have not always found her easy or pleasant, but then her life has not been easy or pleasant. In the world associated with Kerouac, she has few allies. She has antagonised some – there is her homophobic ‘Nobel prize for buggery’ haiku aimed at Allen Ginsberg – while others regard her as an inconvenience or worse. Of all Jack’s old pals attending last summer’s New York University Kerouac conference, to which Jan was not invited, Gregory Corso was the only one who signed her petition for the right to speak, after she and I were escorted out by police at the behest of the Sampas family. At the end of the conference, Anne Waldman, Ginsberg’s protégée, told me that Jan and I had failed to adhere to the Buddhist principle of ‘right action’.
The bad blood between Sampas and Jan does not bode well for the integrity of the archive. At NYU this year, Jan wanted to announce that she had been speaking with two major libraries, the Bancroft at UC Berkeley and the New York Public, and that both had offered up to a million dollars for the entire Kerouac archive. Sampas’s lawyers told the Lowell Sun that the family would never ‘join in any negotiations with Jan Kerouac’. Meanwhile, significant parts of the archive have been up for sale. Letters, notebooks and manuscripts have been sold piecemeal. Not so long ago, a catalogue issued by the proprietor of Walter Row Books, Jeffrey Weinberg, who acted from 1991 to 1993 as John Sampas’s chief agent in the sale of Kerouac items, was offering pieces from Jack’s library, including a copy of The Air-Conditioned Nightmare with two Kerouac haiku scribbled on the back page and a copy of Lolita with annotations, price $950 and $3000 respectively, payable by cheque, money order. Visa or Master Card.
Corte Madera, California
Vol. 18 No. 2 · 25 January 1996
In a narrative passage about driving through the Appalachians, Andrew O’Hagan, in his review of Kerouac’s letters (LRB, 5 October 1995), describes what he calls ‘an Amish family’: ‘Three children with stem expressions on their faces. They wore very long, dark green dresses and plain white caps that tied under the chin … The father came along behind them; his beard was the kind that just spikes out from the jawline, the front of his face was clean. He wore a round hat and sombre trousers.’ This is an accurate description of a Mennonite family. Amish women (and girls) wear only black dresses and never plain white caps. The father’s ‘round hat’ is accurate, too. Had the man been Amish, O’Hagan surely would have noted his broad-brimmed headgear, seen only on Amish men.