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Letters

Vol. 17 No. 20 · 19 October 1995

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Bebop

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.

Gerald Nicosia
Corte Madera, California

Flung into Chaos

Jane Eldridge Miller leaves her rather patronising review of Windows on Modernism, a collection of Dorothy Richardson’s letters (LRB, 21 September), unilluminated by any quotation from them or from Pilgrimage, which might have given readers unfamiliar with her work a whiff of what she is about. The lack of a sense of an ending may be due to the fact that she thought of consciousness not as a stream but a pool – ‘a sea, an ocean. It has depths and greater depths and when you think you have reached its current you are suddenly possessed by another.’ Her writing is as much for the ear as for the eye. ‘The reader finds himself listening, reading through the ear as well as through the eye,’ she says in her essay ‘About Punctuation’. For her, commas, full stops and so on were pacemakers of ‘the reader’s creative consciousness’. Her fine ear for the exact cadence and nuance of stress and pronunciation is in evidence throughout Pilgrimage.

Though Dorothy Richardson survived her father’s bankruptcy – ‘a stain impossible to expunge’ in the Victorian canon – and her mother’s suicide, she never recovered from the resulting social disorientation. Perhaps it is difficult in 1995 to gauge the courage of a girl of 17 in 1890, brought up to the good life, who takes off alone to teach in Germany. Her independence, her feminism, were thrust on her when she ceased to be eligible wife material. The lifelong friendship with H.G. Wells was also an affair which ended in a miscarriage from which it look her months to recover in a Sussex Quaker household. Her first published volume was in fact a history of the Society of Friends. By the time she married Alan Odle her confidence in men had been eroded: it was easier to be leant upon than lean.

She called herself a Tory anarchist who wanted to preserve old decencies while wiping out social injustices. In other words, someone who was ‘attached for ever to the spacious gentle surroundings’ in which she was born but whom life had flung into the chaos beyond the pale of gentleness. These difficulties of being are reflected in the leaps from the first to the third person in Pilgrimage: she was permanently divided from herself. Virginia Woolf saw her writing as reflecting ‘the damned egotistical self’, but it is much more a quest for lost wholeness. The essence of the pilgrimage is that it never ends, but that there are moments when seeker and sought are one. ‘As she watched the flower-dotted grass move by on either side of the small pathway, she felt an encroaching radiance, felt herself now, more deeply than she would on the way home from church with the others, the enchanted guest of spring and summer.’

Each lake of boredom in Pilgrimage is compensated for by a peak of iridescent light. In 1931, when most of it had been published, John Cowper Powys wrote to her: ‘I think your not being allowed by England to devote yourself to your own work is the greatest literary disgrace of our time.’ In due course some financial amends were made. But she deserves better now than to be labelled ‘Modernist’, ‘feminist’, categorised out of existence. She deserves to be read.

Eva Tucker
London NW3

Keller’s Causes

It is sometimes difficult to persuade the angry recipient (or other reader) of a bad review that one means what one says, has thought as carefully about the weight and tone of the words as about the arguments and judgments one is making; and has also pre-empted as fully as possible the inevitable objections. In short, one writes responsibly. Every criticism made by Christopher Wintle (Letters, 21 September) of my review of Hans Keller’s essays can I believe be answered by attentive perusal of what I wrote – checked if need be by reference to the book itself, if my quotations from it or descriptions of other bits do not give satisfaction. I’m sorry only that a paragraph in warm commendation of Wintle’s editorial work – for the copious end-notes are richer in range and provide better nourishment than the main text – was cut from my review (not by me) for reasons of space. But since he complains that I took too long to say not very much, he hasn’t much foot-hold here!

Robin Holloway
Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge

Sister-Sister

Claudia Johnson (Letters, 5 October) defines two strains of Austen criticism. She argues convincingly for Terry Castle’s anti-normative Austen but does less than justice to what she calls – unfairly, I think – the elegiac reading In my review of Charlotte Smith’s poems (LRB, 21 September) I suggested that Austen’s houses, emblems of England, were created in reaction to the pro-revolutionary Smith’s crumbling English architecture. Austen’s houses need improvement but not demolition or (until Persuasion) a change of ownership, and she knows that this is a point of view that needs to be argued for, not taken for granted. Surely readers can acknowledge the strongly Tory and Christian element in Austen without being pushed into the Austen Heritage Park, nostalgic for a serene past where nothing out of the ordinary happens.

J. Woolley (Letters, 5 October) does not clarify the current debate. She – or he – is lyrical on the marriage of true minds of Elinor and Marianne, ‘a single whole, true twain, concordant one’, but says that this is ‘nothing at all to do with the masked or unconscious homoeroticism that might be induced by the warmth of the sisterly shared bed of Terry Castle’s imagining’. Woolley seems not to have read Castle’s letter of 24 August, where she defines what she means by homoeroticism. The warm bed Marianne shares with Elinor and leaves to write her last miserable letter to Willoughby is of Austen’s imagining, not Castle’s. As with Shakespeare, to whom she’s best compared, there can be no definitive Austen. In all the novels there’s plenty to tug against traditional constructions of class and gender. Nevertheless, the traditional constructions are vividly there.

Loraine Fletcher
University of Reading

Claudia Johnson’s polemical-critical-rhapsodic letter made one point at least quite clear: where Jane Austen is concerned, she doesn’t like those who adhere to what she calls the ‘elegiac tradition’. These unspecified sinners, attached to ‘fantasies about the wholesome serenity of Regency England’, divorce Austen artificially from the modern world; the world of ‘industrialisation, world war, dubiety … feminism, homosexuality, masturbation’. But surely one can deplore critics who like their Austen nice and tidy without taking quite such an iron broom to the opposition. To exclude a priori any approach which doesn’t foreground one or more of the concerns listed seems a bit tidy-minded in itself. Paradoxically, Johnson’s application of contemporary analytical categories to Austen’s life and work undermines her apparent commitment to the transgressive, polyvalent and fluid: for how could the same categories apply to Austen and to ourselves if not by virtue of an unchanging, trans-historical human nature?

Phil Edwards
Manchester

Leophilia

I was interested to read Anthony Appiah’s digression on the subject of the sexual proclivities of the colonial psychiatrist Dr James Cobb (LRB, 7 September). Given the temperament of lions, however, a man who sodomises them should surely not be described as homosexual, but as suicidal. Even if leophilia, the love that dare not roar its name, was not fraught with different dangers from most other kinds of sexual relationship, describing it as homosexuality would still be highly inappropriate, unless the man has such an extreme identification with lions that for him it is a case of homogeneity.

K.A. Berg
Oslo

On a Moonless Night

Laura Riding was never as popular a poet as her partner, Robert Graves; she does not figure in the anthologies or books of quotations; and one can see why. Reading her essays (LRB, 7 September) was like hacking one’s way on a moonless night through an almost impenetrable forest. The first essay – worse when read aloud – almost defeated me. But gradually pathways became apparent, even a gleam of light though the branches above; and by the time I reached – at the sixth or seventh reading – the last little essay, on Wordsworth, Coleridge and Eliot, I began with some delight to discern the trees in the wood. Almost unwillingly, and probably in a way Riding herself would have disapproved, I began to admire her perceptiveness, honesty, and originality of mind. And then the poem: difficult ideas clothed in clear language, reminiscent of Kathleen Raine. Again this required several careful readings, but more and more it emerged as a moving statement of her life’s aims as a poet.

Joan Anholt
Lyme Regis

Wa-Wa-Wa

It is kind of Alan Gabbey (Letters, 5 October) to suggest that the editors of the LRB rather than I should be held responsible for my having, in a moment of étourderie, unsexed la note. I checked inégal in Petit Robert, missed the only feminine plural example, panicked, and made them inégaux in spite of knowing quite well that they are, of course, always known as notes inégales. I am making arrangements to be horse-whipped on the steps of his club, perhaps with a nerf de boeuf. (But I make no apology for giving them in French: Baroque musicians would mean something quite different if they spoke of ‘unequal’ or ‘uneven’ notes.)

I had better also confess to a more serious mistake. I’ve discovered since my previous letter was published (Letters, 24 August) that Adolf Scherbaum’s magical recording of Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto was probably not made on a natural trumpet at all, but on a small piston trumpet of his own design – in which case he goes down the drain as an example of instrumental authenticity. In his place I offer Fritz Neumeyer’s 1952 recording of the alla Turca of Mozart’s A major Piano Sonata on a late 18th-century Viennese ‘hammerfluegel’ by J.G. Fichtl equipped with a ‘bassoon lever’, which allows one to hear the point of the joke in piece that is merely irritating played on a modern piano.

James Fletcher
London E2

I took Mona Morstein’s complaint (Letters, 24 August) to be not so much about the use of foreign languages in the LRB as about the lack of any footnoted translation. I have no objection to quotations and passages of text appearing in another language, but I would like to know what it means in my own, in this case English. Then those readers like Magnifico (Letters, 21 September) could hopalong in ignorance until they fell into the next arroyo and the rest of us could pick up a little learning along the way. Also, Sie verstehen was ich meine, oder brauchen Sie doch eine Übersetzung?

Sameera Hartsough
Munich

Like Rabbits

Paul Keegan and Shirrell Larsen (Letters, 24 August) disagree about whether the number of people now living exceeds the number of people who have ever lived and died, a subject presumably of more interest to the former group than the latter. This is a comparison that becomes more interesting when specific groups of people are considered. For example, science policy analysts have observed that ‘over 80 per cent of all the scientists who ever lived are alive today.’ In his book Little Science,Big Science, Derek Price quotes the chairman of a meeting of research physicists: ‘Today we are privileged to sit side by side with the giants on whose shoulders we stand.’

On the occasion of his 75th birthday, Casey Stengel was employed as manager of the New York Mets. When reporters mercilessly kidded him about his age, Stengel replied: ‘After all, you’ve got to realise that most people my age are dead.’

David Drew
Claremont, California

Enlightened

Anne Enright seems overwhelmed by the social tyranny of Ireland, with its apparent production line of children (LRB, 21 September). She must come to Los Angeles – it is so on considerate of women and so enlightened. We have four seasons – fires, floods, riots and earthquakes – but abortions continue through them all. Better still, China would be a good choice: one baby only – not by choice, but by command. The trials of our present-day women and their reproductive rights: how did Queen Victoria manage with all those babies, and an empire as well?

Francis Macaulay
La Habra Heights, California

Bibliography

Terry Eagleton (LRB, 21 September) is nearly right. Frederick Karl’s biography of George Eliot offers nothing fresh in the way of primary materials. Karl, however, does not, as Eagleton suggests, discover ‘some new material, chiefly an exchange of letters between Eliot and Herbert Spencer’. Richard Schoenwald published these in the New York Public Library Bulletin, 79, No 3 (Spring 1976), and the letters are also found in the supplementary Volume VIII of Gordon Haight’s monumental The George Eliot Letters (1978).

William Baker
Northern Illinois University

Linda Colley (LRB, 21 September) says Boswell’s London Journal ‘is no longer in print’. It is in fact available as a paperback from the Edinburgh and Yale University Presses, and selling steadily.

Claude Rawson
Yale University

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