A few essays on William S. Burroughs, cut-up into a Burroughsesque cut-up mess…
Archives For January 2010
“‘Disgusting,’ they said . . . ‘Pornographic’ . . . ‘Un-American trash’ . . . ‘Unpublishable’ . . . Well, it came out in 1959, and it found an audience . . . Town meetings . . . Book burnings . . . And an Inquiry by the State Supreme Court . . . That book made quite a little impression . . .” — William Burroughs
In 2006 Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” turned fifty years old. A year later, in 2007, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road hit that same milestone. Now it’s William S. Burroughs’ (the oldest of the trio) turn to see his masterpiece turn fifty.
In July of 1959 Naked Lunch was published in France by Olympia Press. American obscenity laws prohibited the publication of the book in the United States, and so it wasn’t until 1962 that Naked Lunch came to be published by Grove Press. The two editions differed greatly because the Grove Press version was based on a much earlier manuscript, given to them by Allen Ginsberg.
The title of the book is a somewhat contentious issue. According to Burroughs’ introduction, Jack Kerouac was responsible for naming the book, and that “the title means exactly what the words say: naked lunch, a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork.” Kerouac appreciated the accreditation, as he stated in a 1960 letter to Ginsberg, but pointed out that the phrase had been misread. Originally it had been “Naked Lust”.
And so from the misread “Naked Lust” we came to “Naked Lunch”, which the publisher of the book and many of fans over the years have all mistaken for The Naked Lunch. Over the years editions have varied in titling the book with or without the article “the”.
But the debate over the title of the novel is hardly the limit of its controversy. Naked Lunch caused an uproar upon publication, and has been infamous ever since. Its obscenity trial in Boston was the last significant obscenity trial in American literature.
Upon its publication in the United States it was banned in both Boston and Los Angeles. The Los Angeles ban was repealed in 1965 and the Boston ban was repealed in 1966, due to the fact that the books were deemed to have some social value.
Ginsberg – who helped Burroughs write Naked Lunch – was instrumental in orchestrating its success over the obscenity charges brought in a Boston courtroom. He was, of course, no stranger to such controversy and censorship. In 1957 the Supreme Court’s Roth v. United States decision saved all copies of “Howl” from being destroyed and freed Lawrence Ferlinghetti from criminal charges of distributing obscene material through his City Lights bookstore.
Ginsberg thus testified as an expert witness on behalf of Grove Press, who succeeded in having the book tried instead of individual retailers – as a means of protecting its constitutional rights. When he appeared in court he even went as far as to wear a shirt, tie and jacket – something that was unheard of for Ginsberg at the time. He normally fit the bill as a stereotypical Beatnik.
Ginsberg spoke about the novel in court for more than an hour, discussing its structure, themes and literary merit. Having helped Burroughs compose it appeared to have given Ginsberg a better understanding of Naked Lunch even than its author. He dissected every element of the book and demonstrated how it acted as an incredibly complex piece of social criticism, and was therefore an important piece of art.
Despite Ginsberg’s testimony – not to mention that of Norman Mailer and the other witnesses – the judge branded Naked Lunch obscene, and few people were surprised.
However, on July 7th, 1966 the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled in favour of the appeal that was launched by the defense, and a huge victory was struck for free speech and for art. Naked Lunch was no longer deemed “obscene”.
It is notoriously difficult to describe or summarize Naked Lunch, which is why it is so surprising that Ginsberg so adequately put forth its case in Boston, and why critics reacted so well to David Cronenberg’s 1991 film version.
Naked Lunch isn’t meant to make any particular sense in a conventional, linear way. The book is intended to be read in any order, in keeping with the cut-up method used to create it from Burroughs’ giant manuscript, and the chaotic volumes of writing from which various parts of his novels were drawn. He believed that by distorting the text he was revealing implicit meanings. As Ginsberg demonstrated in his courtroom defense, Naked Lunch was hardly lacking in meaning.
There are passages in the text that deal with capital punishment, with drugs, sex… The prose flits between locations from New York to Tangiers, and predicts with startling precision a future that the book continues to outgrow. It deals with themes and ideas that are still relevant today – and as such one could claim is more significant a piece of writing that either On the Road or “Howl”. One could spend years pulling Naked Lunch apart and explaining each scene or sentence or moment. In doing so, if Burroughs’ theory has any credence, we are exploring the author’s mind.
Indeed, Naked Lunch was more than social commentary – it was a highly personal book in many respects. Although Kerouac and Ginsberg helped Burroughs compile his book, it was drawn from stories and journals inspired by his own warped life. Naked Lunch unfolded sporadically over nine years and never truly settled on any finalized version. It was – like Burroughs himself – in a constant state of flux and development. Reading the “Editor’s Note” from the Restored Text edition, it is a wonder that the novel ever came to be published.
But published it was, thanks entirely to Ginsberg’s role as literary agent for the Beats. He managed to have excerpts published by Robert Creeley’s Black Mountain Review, LeRoi Jones’ Yugen, and – controversially – the Chicago Review. The book was composed throughout travels on four continents, but finally came to a “final” version only when Maurice Girodas told Burroughs that he had two weeks to make the Olympia Press deadline.
For more information on Naked Lunch and its fiftieth anniversary, please see www.nakedlunch.org or read Naked Lunch @ 50: Anniversary Essays, published by Southern Illinois University Press.
by Hannah Withrow
I begin my immersion into female Beat writers fittingly with Diane di Prima; referred to in one anthology as “Poet Priestess,” she is one of the more well-known of these women. My introduction to her large body of work was Memoirs of a Beatnik, a piece of erotica. Ridiculous orgies, almost constant sex, nude modeling to pay the bills, always high, always scandalous. Most of her other work is more classically respected as literature—poetry, editing literary journals, novels, that sort of thing. In the Afterword to Memoirs, written in 1987, she describes the writing process for that particular book,
Gobs of words would go off to New York whenever the rent was due, and come back with “MORE SEX” scrawled across the top page in Maurice’s inimitable hand, and I would dream up odd angles of bodies or weird combinations of humans and cram them in and send it off again. Sometimes I’d wander the house looking for folks to check things out with: “Lie down,” I’d say, “I want to see if this is possible.”
That’s how it was in 1969. For a disreputable Beat lady there was not to be an actual memoir; any attempt at truth-telling. Who would want to read that? That wouldn’t sell. What did such a woman have to say? Instead the book had to be one of those secret pleasures for women, if tainted by the forceful hand of commerce. A glimpse into the still forbidden world of female expression and pleasure, though its content was likely somewhat controlled by di Prima’s male editor. Perhaps a young house-bound mother read it; she hid it under the mattress by day. She did not speak of it with her well-mannered friends. But when she got a moment to herself, perhaps she snuck it into the living room inside a ladylike publication while the children played pick-up sticks, and perhaps she whispered the rolling words, poetry and adventure to herself. Hot, hot, hot! A woman liking sex, a woman grasping for sex—what a revelation—a dirty secret revelation.
Even for me, reading this in 2008 in the privacy of my own apartment I feel self-conscious, not sure that I am allowed to read such a book. I rush home from work to devour its pages; shudder with her as she kisses college girlfriends, beds the sad-green-eyed junkie, and romps in the bedroom with Allen and Jack. I gush about the book to a friend—the prose—the beautiful prose. He wants me to bring it for him to check out, I can’t do it. Would I bring him a vibrator? He can’t possibly understand. It won’t be the same for a boy, not the same at all. No, this book is one I will pass around to girl friends, recommend for a quiet night at home.
Ms. di Prima didn’t get to write her real memoir until 2001, Recollections of My Life as a Woman: the New York Years. A big fat juicy memoir, no longer a total literary prostitute, she had put in her time, waited and worked. Books and books of poetry, many self-published, very difficult to acquire these days, page after page, typing away, listening to the men read. Writing-teaching-grey-hairs-fighting-marrying-divorcing-mentoring-mothering-scrimping-saving, she had put in her time.
This memoir focuses more heavily on the scary side to sex. In those days every intimate encounter would literally put your life in danger. With limited access and few effective options for birth control, randy women were faced with illegal and dangerous abortions, the perils of childbirth, and the disgust of parents and society at large. Lesbian activities could get you institutionalized. There they might perform unethical experiments, engage patients in bullshit analysis, and electroshock was a given. Lobotomies were preformed, sterilization presumed to be a favor to society, and the prescribed levels of lithium were off the charts. But Diane di Prima did not let it stop her. She writes, “Every chance encounter was weighed: was it worth, ultimately, dying for, if it came to that? And the answer was usually yes… It was not that I held my life so cheap, but held experience, the savoring of life so dear.”
Still, she laments the “rule of Cool,” that kept her time-after-time from revealing true feelings, hurt, love, rejection, and desire, from friends and lovers. People were supposed to be free; claims should not be made on them. Lovers could love others, dear friends could leave town on a whim, and breakups were supposed to happen without comment. Sometimes di Prima wanted to say, “stay,” but felt she wasn’t allowed to. She writes, “With all my belief in freedom I was in pain, of course, was wounded again and again in the course of this love. But for me these wounds were a kind of decoration. The scars of intentional battle against deadening rules, against all sense of possession of the Other, against my unruly, starving, clamorous self.” But she used the rules for her own benefit as well, gave herself permission to love anyone anytime, had her children without consulting the fathers or asking anything of them, and living wherever she wanted to live.
This defiance and unwillingness to be controlled is part of the attitude that kept her going, what stopped her from being shoved down by misogyny and the literary glass ceiling of the times. She stood up and read her poems; she printed journals and books, her own and those of others she admired. She started theaters, had babies when she felt like it, stuck with her values and ideals. She would not be told. Scary and powerful. Diane di Prima is my fucking hero. Get me some of Those ovaries.
How I Became Hettie Jones, where has book been all my life? Fascinating stuff, white Jewish woman, secret poet, marries black activist poet, LeRoi Jones, New York in the 50s. Sexism and racism compounding to crush her and her family. Hettie sleeps with another man; LeRoi (at that time also involved with Diane di Prima) is infuriated. At home they scream at each other. He calls her a whore, she reminds him of his infidelities, he smashes plates—he wants to hit her—she dares him. He does it.
Terrible sexism, Hettie the abused wife. But Mrs. Jones reminds the reader that this is a more complicated story: “Two twenty-five-year-old kids with a kid, in the middle of a lot of commotion. Do you see race in this? Have you forgotten? It would get worse.” Gender isn’t what eventually tore them apart, race is. And Hettie Jones takes her blackwhite children with her on the subway, they get stares and yells, cruel comments, can’t rent in this buildings, threats. This is as close as a white woman can get to knowing racism. Walk a mile in his shoes, carry the children that are also his, back sweating under the double-triple burden. Hettie Jones talks about her own troubles and the troubles of others without giving in to the easy outs of comparison and minimization of the pain of others.
Hettie Jones wrote her poems in secret. She listened and praised her husband. Lugged her baby belly over to see Jack Kerouac and listen to the words bouncing off the walls with shining eyes. Hettie Jones did not read her poems out loud. She was afraid they were bad. She wrote her poems and destroyed them, began a children’s book and lost the manuscript. It took years for her to gain her footing, to trust herself. To make and give art. Hettie Jones had something to say. Lucky for me she managed to get some of it out.
I, too, have thrown out poetry. Have thought I was no good. Me, what am I, what have I to say? I close my eyes and lean back, I imagine Hettie Jones pushing the heavy stroller, doing all the grunt work for LeRoi Jones’ projects. Putting together their literary magazine Yugen, a magazine he got all the credit for, typing his poems and plays, cleaning and doing his editing, raising babies, and earning the money to feed them. Hettie Jones became an abomination to her family for her rebellion yet remained tied to the kitchen. She got to be near greatness and people thought that was supposed to be enough for a woman.
By the time I get to Joyce Johnson’s Minor Characters I am in love with these ladies. I go online and order myself a black beret. If it wasn’t so hot out I would get black tights too; maybe I will this fall. Friends start calling me Annie Hall and making countless other beret references. I clarify that I am going for a Beat aesthetic; I started reading female Beat memoirs and poetry in hopes of uncovering the female art inspired by the movement and how it was limited by the pervasive sexism and racism of the male leaders. I want to know how and why they made art in such a mean and dirty world. I am so glad I have looked; I have found a new bundle of beautiful writers and artistic mothers. Women I can declare as influences.
Joyce Johnson is sweet. I think we would have been friends if we had met in her teens or early twenties. At thirteen she began making treks to Greenwich Village lingering hopefully around the oh-so-cool Trotskyites, hoping to be noticed by one of the attractively disheveled older men and adopted into the scene. Hanging out in skeezy coffee shops singing songs of the proletariat and learning to smoke, she unknowingly hung out in proximity to such artists as e e cummings, W.H. Auden, and Jackson Pollock. I want to drink ten-cent coffee and overhear Franz Kline discussing abstract expressionism. I want to copy the garb of the bohemian and brilliant, slipping into my affect with dangling earrings and a sinewy belt as I head to the Village on a subway towards hip.
While I certainly spent my share of time as a teen riding around in cars with disheveled older males and hanging around scenes I was not yet old enough or cool enough to actually be part of, I wasn’t exactly chilling with some of the greatest artists of the 20th century. So while I’d like to think I would have been friends with Joyce Johnson, it seems quite likely that she was much smarter, hipper, and luckier than I ever will be.
I suppose I should just take a number in my envy of her. I mean, she was Jack Kerouac’s lover during the time in his life when his fame was just beginning. There has to have been scores of young women and men thinking how romantic and wonderful it would be. Except that it sounds awful to me. I really like his writing and all, but from what I can tell he was totally neurotic and obsessed with his mother, not to mention a raging alcoholic. Don’t get me wrong, when I first read The Dharma Bums my toes fell off at “Avalokitesvara’s ten-wondered universe of dark and diamonds,” but all this Memere stuff is creepy and sad to me.
What I am most envious of is her ability to be a part of such a wild scene and survive it. The drugs and music, the many lovers, the late nights, the drunken poetry readings, the press jangling her phone at all hours looking for Jack, looking for a quote, the manic friends in and out of institutions, bumming money and a begging for a place to crash. And here she is managing to become successful, functional, and not dead in the midst of craziness and creation. How wonderful to be best friends with the sad, possibly insane and hidden poet Elise Cowen, to have another best friend in Hettie Jones, to publish a fantastic novel by the age of twenty-six, and to have fucked some seriously hot men—also exceptional poets.
Joyce Johnson allowed herself to be an accessory. As a female, choosing such an unconventional life meant losing her family and that whole support system. And boy Beats weren’t exactly the types to bring home the bacon. No, they were hustlers and moochers, at the expense of the disempowered ladies around them, ladies inspired by their art and a lifestyle that couldn’t quite be theirs. Joyce Johnson was one of those women. I imagine she worked twice as hard as any of the male Beats, full-time at a real job, writing her novel by night, but always prepared to drop everything if her Jack showed up. He came and went, she stayed and toiled, took care of herself and others. Had to keep it together for no one else seemed able. She writes,
The great accomplishment was to avoid actual employment for as long as possible and by whatever means. But it was all right for women to go out and earn wages, since they had no important creative endeavors to be distracted from. The women didn’t mind, or if they did, they never said—not until years later.
I can’t be mad at her for living this way. What models did she have for independent female life? And who would have supported her in such an endeavor? I forget how impossible it all was, how much disgust and disapproval she faced for all her actions. Johnson writes of John Clellon Holmes’s portrayal of the Beats in his novel Go,
And whereas he scrupulously matches each of the male characters in his roman à clef to their originals, the ‘girls’ are variously ‘amalgams of several people’; ‘accurate to the young women of the time’; ‘a type rather than an individual.’ He can’t quite remember them—there were anonymous passengers on the big Greyhound bus of experience. Lacking centers, how could they burn with the fever that infected his young men?
It must have been hard to think of herself of an equal to these men with them constantly brushing her thoughts or comments to the side, not ever really seeing her.
Not everyone has the confidence of di Prima, who called the males on their shit continually, refused to internalize their misogyny. In Sam Kashner’s book, When I was Cool, a memoir of his experiences at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poets studying under aging Ginsberg, Corso, and Burroughs in the mid seventies he writes about his experience meeting Diane di Prima whom he mistakenly credits with having been married to LeRoi Jones (probably having been misinformed by Ginsberg). Allen Ginsberg introduces di Prima “as a poet from Hunter High School in New York and a lover of LeRoi Jones.” She immediately calls him out in front of everyone, “You do that to all the girls. You need to know who they’ve slept with to figure out why they’re important to you. It’s annoying.” Kashner is impressed at her ability to stand up to Ginsberg and takes careful notes during her lecture.
Where would Joyce Johnson have received the support she needed to carry on independently? Twenty-one and in love with poetry and a poet. How could I judge her for it? I know what I was like at twenty-one; lacking the strength of identity to ground myself, I floated from one idea to the next, felt no real truths applied to my existence. At twenty-one, I too discovered Kerouac and spent long evenings in coffee shops staring at his handsome face on the cover of my copy of The Subterraneans (an uncomfortably racist novel where Kerouac appropriates the painful story of a female lover’s descent into madness). I bought a book of Buddhist scriptures and didn’t edit my poetry that year. I quit going to church and drank too much. I thought salvation came from art, often forgetting that art comes from artists, and artists are people, just people, people with problems and flaws. And if a Jack Kerouac had come along and asked, I too would have stopped the clock to make him grilled cheese with tomato and run my fingers over his desperate head.
Just today, I turned on the documentary, What Happened to Kerouac? There is a clip from 1959 (the year after Kerouac and Johnson broke up) of him on the Steve Allen Show, he reads from On the Road his lips pouting, his pauses perfect. Isn’t that what makes a good writer, someone who creates wells in your eyes and makes you fall a bit in love sans reason? Yeah, I get it, Joyce Johnson. I think I get it.
I have to try to like Carolyn Cassady. She isn’t as charming as the others but she matters. I think about her struggles of time, place, poverty and womanhood, contextualize her as trapped in a cycle of abuse with the stunning deadbeat Dean Moriarty incarnate—the inspiring “N” of “Howl.” She is the loyal housewife on steroids, raising the children and supporting the family on almost nothing while Neal Cassady rode around America in stolen vehicles, sleeping with every crazy chick he met. She stayed; she gave him what he needed to survive in his own restless way, almost always with someone to come back to. Sure, she kicked him out, split with him from time to time, eventually for good. But she continued to care for him, if from a distance. Her book, Off the Road: My Years with Cassady, Kerouac, and Ginsberg, involves seemingly endless yelling, screaming and crying at his outrageous behavior. Then she goes into ecstasy at every attempt for change and improvement, but, no matter what he has done this time, she is always there for Neal Cassady to come back to penitent and needy.
Carolyn Cassady had her moments when she refused to be a doormat. When Jack Kerouac brings a black woman into her house and takes her up to his room, Carolyn Cassady will not stand for such behavior in front of her children and demands that Jack and her husband get her out. Her description of the woman is jarring:
She lunged at me flashing her black eyes, narrowing them into slits, then opening them wide with hate, the yellow eyeballs around the black center like the eyes of toy animals. Slowly she coiled words around her tongue, and they slithered out between her teeth, smashing against my ears like a string of firecrackers gone wild.
Mrs. Cassady can’t believe it when neither Jack nor Neal defends her against this woman she so despises, and feels herself a sad victim, blubbering and blaming their actions on the fact that she looked unattractive that day in her robe with half her face swollen with a case of Bell’s palsy. She tries to assure the woman that she “has nothing against her personally,” and is shocked that her statement only makes the woman angrier. This is the moment where she chooses to take a stand.
When the family takes a trip to visit her family in Tennessee, she mentions being amused at Neal’s “failure to get the right slant (for a white guy) on how to treat black people.” His friendliness to Southern blacks causes them to freeze up in suspicion as they were accustomed to only ugly hostility from white people. “I explained to him how I’d had to learn the techniques and attitudes of Southern whites, although I’d hated it and it had been a major cause of my leaving the South.” Her attitude is, oh well “It’s all emotional and ingrained.” She seems to think it is cute that Neal doesn’t get it.
Many of the other female Beat writers seemed to be trying so much harder to understand the people around them and fight against the reigning principles of the day. It’s easy for me to judge her and feel angry about her ignorance and ugly behavior. However, Carolyn Cassady was much more isolated than the other women I read, few female friends to work and struggle with. No one to challenge her in this way. Perhaps she would have been different if she were able to hang in New York with the aforementioned women.
The back of her own book identifies her as “Neal’s wife,” not Carolyn Cassady, not Carolyn, not Cassady an artist in her own right (actually more prolific than her husband ever was). Neal Cassady, Jack Kerouac, and Allen Ginsberg all get their full names printed in the blurb, from reading the back you would think the book was all about them, not an autobiography by the woman who spent years of her life picking up their pieces and putting them back together so they could go out and be famous. That is probably a somewhat accurate description of Carolyn Cassady’s own self-identification. She lived so long in his shadow, everyone always praising admiring and loving him while she made pizza and cleaned up after the manic parties. I have moments when I feel really bad for her. Her attempts at asserting herself always seem to fall flat, just mirroring Neal’s choices, he sleeps around so she begins to sleep with Jack Kerouac. Finally, by maintaining a tenuous ménage à trois, she gets enough of the attention and love she craves. Yet it all unravels when Neal gets jealous, and once again she puts his needs and desires first. More sacrifices to make Neal happy. So many lost chances, chances to do better and get away, she never makes the leap. Carolyn Cassady was the stone on which an icon was built.
In Bonnie Bremser’s Troia: Mexican Memoirs the Beat lady lifestyle gets distilled to its scary core. Ray Bremser becomes a fugitive of the law, escapes with his wife and baby to Mexico. Here they descend into a cavity of addiction and hopelessness. Again, this is a case of the lady Beat supporting her artist man. Bonnie Bremser (also known as Branda Frazer) becomes a prostitute for her husband. He sits in the hotel room writing tortured poems and gets mad, hits her if she doesn’t come back with cash. She has many lovers and revels in their attention and affection, but she hates it when they begin to play a role in her domestic life. She does not want her choices and self-esteem to be questioned. In her head it all makes sense. A trick turned lover begins to ask uncomfortable questions and she tries her best to deflect,
He told me that he couldn’t see how I had stayed with Ray so long when I received the treatment that I did, and he didn’t understand when I told him that I loved Ray, so I resorted to excuses about his being a poet and a beautiful soul, et cetera, to defend my love which Pedrito made me ashamed of.
Her book reads like a Greek epic; Bonnie Bremser and Ray search and search for peace, for a break from the watchful eye of the law, for a good time, a good high. Sometimes they find these things, but it never lasts. Troia is painful to read. The book was drawn from a series of letters to Ray, written immediately after the events detailed in the book had transpired while he was, again, incarcerated. Bremser, the narrator, is not much healed, is still trapped in the arms and mind of her abuser. The control he has over her and the sickness of their relationship is chilling. She writes:
Ray threatens to leave me, and I threaten to leave him if the violence continues. He maintains it is good for a chick to get pounded on once in a while for it increases the circulation and makes her pretty. I am brought back to our meeting in Washington, D.C.; we fucked a lot the first time, all night and all day. Ray also says that fucking is good for chicks: the more they fuck the better they look and are, and later when he went to jail I figured I should uphold his views and fucked everyone in sight, from the first night to the last.
I just want to cry, I’ve heard this talk before, the girls who become parrots for the men they love. He says, he says, he says, and it isn’t just the words coming out of their mouths it’s the things they do. I remember a teenage client I once had squirming away; telling me it was none of my business if I asked too many questions about her relationship. If I said anything remotely critical about her boyfriend/pimp she was out the door and into his arms, telling him to whisper again all his rules, the truths she knew she were all she had to live by to be safe in his love. The only things she had to know and do to keep being his and not have to think anymore.
In the end the couple finds their way separately back in New York after a lengthy separation resulting from the fraying of nerves and her refusal to continue living under his palm. They meet fatefully on the street and come together again, ready to forget all and be swept back into their sicksad love. Bonnie Bremser and her man inject amphetamine and achieve the “perfect fuck.” The book stops there. The book doesn’t say that once reunited they are torn apart again, Ray Bremser goes back to prison and Bonnie Bremser gets the space she needs to write her memoir. She smokes pot like it’s the seventies and spews forth a stream-of-consciousness, Kerouac-style, which is often illogical and random. The book is packed to the brim with emotion and honesty. Reading it, I can pretend to feel myself in her ratty costume walking the streets to the disdain of many, not being street wise, getting ripped off, getting scared, getting treated like a whore. And I can pretend to feel her love of husband and baby in its crushing weight, taking away all logic and pushing her through sticky drunk nights, just one more lay and then I can go home.
Elise Cowen jumped out the window. She’s a ghost now, a ghost with burned papers. Few of her poems survive, her parents having destroyed them upon her untimely death. They burned them due to the scandalous life they told of—drugs depression homosexuality fornication. Just eighty-three remaining poems, eighty-three poems and countless memories told mostly by Joyce Johnson and Leo Skir. I read accounts, I read poems, and she eludes me. Is Elise Cowen a fairy story? Was she ever anything but a ghost? I can’t find a single account of her where she seems anything other than a doomed woman at all times.
She loved Ginsberg, sad silly girl, she loved him and he slept with her for a while during his dabbles in heterosexuality due mainly to advice given to him in analysis. Analysis. Elise Cowen understood analysis; she spent plenty of time in Bellevue herself. It didn’t seem to do much good; Elise Cowen’s life story is a spiral of bad choices. Reading about it, I say, don’t don’t don’t! Don’t sleep with your Barnard professor, don’t keep house for him while he walks all over you. Don’t live alone. Don’t drink so much. Don’t take a female lover only because Allen has met Peter Orlovsky. No no no no, don’t move in with them it will only hurt worse. Don’t run away to San Francisco all alone. Don’t jump out the window, the closed window. Don’t die. Write more poems. Please, more poems.
It’s painful to read about Cowen’s love for Ginsberg, for he doesn’t care. It means nothing to him. She barely exists as a person in his mind. She loses her identity to him. Her friend Leo Skir writes of her,
From then on until the time she died, her world was Allen. When he was interested in Zen, so was she. When he became interested in Chassidism, so did she. Did he drink mocha coffee? So drank she. When he went down to Peru there was Peter [Orlovsky], left behind downstairs, still there to be with. Peter loved a girl from New Jersey. Elise loved the New Jersey girl. When Allen came back, the New Jersey girl moved in with Elise.
It makes me a little angry to think of this wonderful poet’s personality disintegrating into a replica of her imperfect hero. Elise Cowen does not write the poetry of a follower. She has her own voice, though certainly hints of Ginsberg peek through. These are the poems of a lost and miserable woman; she had much to say that was just her. She had a beautiful mind but couldn’t see it. Couldn’t bear to be Elise, just Elise. She brings to life the morbid realization of what happens to someone who believes it when she hears that to be a woman is not to be a whole human. To be a woman is not good enough.
Every line of poetry by this woman rattles about it my head for hours after reading it. “Emily white witch of Amherst/ The shy white witch of Amherst/ Killed her teachers/ With her love.” Elise Cowen feels like my Emily Dickinson, a white witch but in black, a spirit trailing along touching everything. Always vaguely mourning something, she is the kind of woman who makes unrequited love, oppression, and melancholy look exquisite, romantic. She makes me want to slip back into depression and self-destructive thoughts, life is so bad and Cowen makes it so pretty when it’s ugly. What does she mean? What does she say about poet womanhood? Are all sad lady poets doomed as she was?
Death I’m coming
Wait for me
I know you’ll be
At the subway station
Loaded with galoshes, raincoat, umbrella, babushka
And your single simple answer
To every meaning
I want to believe that it shouldn’t be fatal for a woman to love art; I want to have faith in the world and humanity. Poetry is something good and private; there are many who don’t seem to want women to have anything good or private. It is easy to think that maybe women like Elise Cowen are the ones who love poetry most and best. There is something romantic about the idea that poetry can kill you if you love it too much. Loving something that might be pure in this fucked up place is hazardous to one’s health.
But there is more to the story, the truth is, poetry didn’t kill her, sexism did. Elise Cowen could never be Allen Ginsberg because she was a woman, and that knowledge ultimately killed her. She could not see that being Elise Cowen was just as good because there was no evidence that it was. Elise Cowen makes me hope for reincarnation. I hope she gets second chance, and no one better burn her fucking poems next time around.
These Beat ladies they make me feel things. Some sort of double X memory within me, memory of pain and punishment, memory of how I got to this place, this lucky place. And it is a lucky place I realize, for while some might drop hints that I should be looking to get married now and that they don’t think this or that is the right decision, they will not shove me in an institution and they will not have the final say. Nor will any man kick me around.
Freedom is not something you have or don’t have, it comes in steps, degrees, small doses. I believe the lady Beats helped bump up my dosage; they helped create a climate for the radical politics and revolutionary beliefs of the sixties and seventies. They made art, they wrote, even if it was hidden or burned, these writings told their secret knowledge, their tired anger. It told of all that was wrong. Elise Cowen writes, “I borrowed the heads of corpses/ To do my reading by/ I found my name on every page/ And every word a lie.” Now, with these women I can find my name on a page and isn’t always a lie; for they know what it is to be a lady who writes.
Bremser, Bonnie. Troia: Mexican Memoirs. New York: Croton Press, 1969.
Cassady, Carolyn. Off the Road: My Years with Cassady, Kerouac, and Ginsberg. New
York: Viking Penguin, 1990.
di Prima, Diane. Memoirs of a Beatnik. 2nd ed. San Francisco: Last Gasp of San
—. Recollections of My Life as a Woman: The New York Years. New York: Viking
Johnson, Joyce. Minor Characters: A Young Woman’s Coming-of-Age in the Beat Orbit
of Jack Kerouac. New York: Doubleday, 1983.
Johnson, Ronna C., and Nancy M. Grace, eds. Girls Who Wore Black: Women Writing
the Beat Generation. Piscataway: Rutgers, The State University, 2002.
Jones, Hettie. How I Became Hettie Jones. New York: Grove Press, 1990.
Kashner, Sam. When I Was Cool: My Life at the Jack Kerouac School. New York:
HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2004.
Kerouac, Jack. The Dharma Bums. New York: Signet, 1959.
Knight, Brenda, ed. Women of the Beat Generation: The Writers, Artists and Muses at the
Heart of a Revolution. New York: MJF Books, 1996.
Peabody, Richard, ed. A Different Beat: Writings by Women of the Beat Generation.
New York: Serpent’s Tail, 1997.
by Steven O’Sullivan
It’s like a compass. A compass operates on magnetics. People always seem to be in such a rush to articulate themselves. But maybe we just can’t articulate certain emotions. Maybe there’s just those things we’re inexplicably drawn to. Maybe. A kind of primordial magnet inside us that knows better than we do. Something like love; if love stepped on broken glass and stumbled around a little and had a couple more drinks and… well, I don’t know.
Here we go.
Burroughs. We’ve read his books, we’re well aware of his literary impact (if you don’t, then go home and read Junky immediately and cry yourself to sleep for about a week or so); especially regarding a writer’s right to obscenity. Burroughs’ pioneering success at getting Naked Lunch published in lieu of obscenity charges is right up there alongside Ginsberg and Howl.
That’s all well and good. But. . .
Libertarian triumph is not really what concerns me regarding Burroughs. Visions, rather, pique my interest in him.
In Kerouac’s On the Road we find Burroughs, alias Old Bull Lee, gracefully slumming it in a mansion shack outside of New Orleans with his beloved, pre-William Tell Joan Vollmer. In between front-yard soda can shoot-outs and absolute drug-induced space-outs, he is a man concerned with direction. Visions, Burroughs seems to believe, will guide us thru life. A fleeting, subliminal influence; holding out just long enough to give us a turn. After Jack gets an inexplicable feeling about a horse at the racetrack that ends up winning, Burroughs refuses to dismiss it as coincidence. A brief dissertation on visions follows:
“How do you know your father, who was an old horseplayer, just didn’t momentarily communicate to you that Big Pop was going to win the race? The name brought the feeling up in you. . . Mankind will someday realize that we are actually in contact with the dead. . . if we only exerted enough mental will, we could predict what is going to happen within the next hundred years and be able to take steps to avoid catastrophe.”
Granted, this kind of belief can be construed as perhaps a bit too mystical for truly practical application. Or maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s just mystical enough. It doesn’t seem to me that the Beats ever particularly shunned the concepts of mysticism. If anything Ginsberg and Snyder rather embraced them. Burroughs exudes a unique concern for humanity on the whole, unlike many of the Beats who seemed more interested in forming a microcosmic society that adhered to their ideology.
What concerns me is that interest in minutiae. The thought that maybe visions grasp those feelings our tongues can’t seem to articulate.
The weight of the inarticulate can be overwhelming at times. The vicious frustration that seems to shut you off from the world. They’re staring at you, your lips moving, forming shoddy attempts at cohesion. . . yet all that’s coming is drivel. After enough time, your frustrated attempts don’t clear anything up, they just seem to build a wall between you and the rest of the world. But you know that it’s important. Whatever it is, you know that it matters. It’s eating you up inside, keeping you up at night and it just won’t come. But it’s the reason you had that one more drink, it’s the reason you quit that job and up and relocated without so much as a word to those that seemed closest to you. Tearing your roots out thru your head just seemed to make sense, but any time someone demands an explanation you can’t do it justice. You can’t really do anything for that matter except stare at them awkwardly with your mouth open and crooked, your nose just as crooked as your thoughts.
It’s like in Hunter S. Thompson’s Rum Diary when Thompson’s alter ego, Kemp, imagines himself being interviewed and questioned as to why it was that he up and left New York City. Thompson blamed it on the ‘sack’. The inevitable sack that comes down over your head and snuffs out your life right before you.
So what the hell are you going to do about it? I guess we need some kind of a compass to steer us away from that looming goddamn sack.
Maybe it is visions that serve as that compass. Visions so fleeting that you can’t even pinpoint them when they flash across your mind. But at the same time, they’re so vibrant and painful that you’re forced into action. After it passes you can’t determine the why or the how. The push came nonetheless. The push out of the way of the sack. One more step in the right direction. One more intelligently placed bet on the right horse. That’s how it worked for Kerouac at least. That’s what sparked Burroughs’ diatribe on the visions in the first place. Something steering us in the right direction.
I suppose, in a technical sense, you could label Burroughs a writer. Novelist. Whatever. Seems like that’d be kind of missing the reality though. After all, the man didn’t start writing for quite a long time, and even after he started, he was constantly being pushed by others to keep on. In the 50s he had settled in at Tangiers to focus more seriously on his writing, yet it was not until Ginsberg and Kerouac arrived in ’57 and pushed him to utilize the “cut-up” technique, that Naked Lunch became the literary phenomenon that it is known as today.
Despite finishing what many see as his magnum opus, it would be several more years before Naked Lunch was even published. When controversial publisher Maurice Girodias decided to take on Naked Lunch it was not at Burroughs insistence. Rather, Girodias had been following the controversies that had sprung up in resistance to the content of the book. Burroughs was simply along for the ride; completely unconcerned with any kind of literary gain or notoriety. And additionally, the paycheck that would hopefully come. Burroughs was at a tough point in his life financially and any kind of monetary break would be a much-welcomed one. After the sale of the international rights to Naked Lunch, a $3,000 advance went to Burroughs from Grove Press. He immediately used it to purchase drugs.
With this brief history of the creation of Naked Lunch, we see Burroughs writing as a means to ends, not as a focus. Ends of travel, drugs, young boys. . . not press parties, exposure, renown. Searching after visions and inspiration. That innate, primordial compass guiding him bit by bit.
If the act of writing itself was simply an aesthetic devotion. . . it follows that something equally as honest would serve as a catalyst. Joan Vollmer’s accidental death, served from his own hands in a drunken game of William Tell gone tragically wrong, proved to be that catalyst. He is quoted as crediting the incident for pushing his life into a different direction:
“I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan’s death, and to a realization of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing. I live with the constant threat of possession, and a constant need to escape from possession, from control. So the death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a life long struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out.”
Ugly Spirits are vague and vengeful demons. No choice except to write one’s way out? Out of what? That possessive entrapment that looms constantly over one’s head? And what, exactly, might that be? The sack. A vision. We can see how desperately Vollmer’s death affected him. Not simply affected him, but sparked him. And where did it drive him? To exotic locales, drug-induced run-ins with degenerates. . . it drove him to ends of one kind or another. The best way he could possibly hope to articulate that haunting vision that drove him was to credit it as a vague and vengeful Ugly Spirit that refused to abandon his heels.
Vollmer’s death, manifest in the act of writing, magnetized itself to Burroughs. So he kept moving, kept running; occasionally throwing out slips of paper that attempted to make sense of it all. Of course, he barely had the time to even consider them. He just spat them out and left them behind for others to judge.
Magnetized. Like a compass. Maybe after fourteen hundred words you are able to work it out for someone else. Not for yourself, though.
Maybe that’s the juxtaposition of the two. A compass to show you the way and a vision to get you started. Not that you’ll understand either of them. And maybe you don’t need to. After all, it doesn’t really matter where you find it.
Perhaps the most exciting movie of 2010 for Beatdom readers is ‘Howl’, a 1950s era feature film about Allen Ginsberg’s obscenity trial for his epic, generation-defining poem of the same name.
The movie will star James Franco as a young Ginsberg, with Alan Alda as Judge Clayton Horn, Jeff Daniels as prosecution witness Prof. David Kirk, Mary-Louise Park as prosecution witness Gail Potter, David Strathairn as prosecution attorney Ralph MacIntosh and Paul Rudd as defense witness Luther Nichols.
Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman are both Academy Award winners as documentarians, and the Allen Ginsberg Trust asked them to director the movie to celebrate the 50th anniversary of ‘Howl’. Gus Van Sant is the producer.
‘Howl’ is appearing at an important moment in time. When Ginsberg wrote his masterpiece in 1955, America was in a difficult place. His poem changed literature by tackling this weird world with an autobiographical, highly personal eulogy for his friends.
Now we are once again in an intimidating world. America’s military mistakes are costing the people, while freedom is speech is being assaulted. Now more than ever the world needs to remember Allen Ginsberg.
Just as ‘Howl’ was a groundbreaking poem, the movie is certain to defy expectations. Trying to pin down just what it will look like is no walk in the park. Eric Drooker has animated long tracts of the movie, which is partly based on the poem itself, and partly based on the obscenity trial. There is documentary footage spliced with the acting of some of Hollywood’s finest contemporary talent.
To learn more about this exciting project, Beatdom sat down with the Oscar winning directors…
I read that the Allen Ginsberg Trust actually contacted the two of you with the idea of creating a film to commemorate the 50th anniversary of ‘Howl’… That’s a huge compliment on your work. Did they explain why they believed you were the right directors for the project?
No, but we were honored to take on the challenge.
In Beatdom, we try and tie the Beats to the modern world as much as possible… So, how relevant do you think the themes of the poem, as well as the results of the trial, are in today’s society?
The poem is a cri de coeur against an increasingly militarized, consumeristic, dehumanized society that was born out of World War II. Those trends are still very much a part of the fabric of our lives today. We’re still at war, our economy is still based on more and more consumption and devastation of the environment. It could have been written today—and it would still be shocking.
The world of contemporary art and entertainment owes more to the Beats than most people would admit. How significant do you think the ‘Howl’ obscenity trial was to subsequent artists?
That’s hard to assess. Just knowing that it was judged “not obscene” and that it continues to be published, widely read and taught in high schools and colleges, has got to have had an impact. Allen described the poem as promoting “frankness,” and set an example for subsequent generations of artists.
Now, let’s talk about the movie… Allen Ginsberg is a one-off, ridiculously unique character. How did you go about trying to capture him and present him on film?
Through his own words and ideas, as best we could. As documentarians, it was natural for us to start with existing documents. We learned about an interview that he gave to a Time Magazine reporter while the obscenity trial was happening, but that Time never published. That inspired us to reconstruct this “missing interview” using transcripts of existing interviews with Allen that he had given over the years. To illustrate the important relationships in his life—with Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, and Peter Orlovsky—we worked with our cinematographer Ed Lachman to adapt the black-and-white style of photographs and 16mm movies of the period to evoke the mood of the time. And we worked extensively with James Franco to bring texture and substance to the role—he’s an amazing actor.
What exactly will the movie focus on? It’s called ‘Howl’, and said to revolve around the trial, but how much of Ginsberg’s life, the influence of the Beat Generation, and the actually poem itself, have you managed to capture in the movie?
Our goal was to try to convey the personal and artistic transformation that Allen had to go through in order for him to get to the point where he could create this totally unprecedented masterpiece. We use the central relationships in his life at the time—the guys he loved—as the focus of his journey. The immediate effects, and the most virulent, was the arrest of the publisher on obscenity charges. The trial itself is an absurd exercise in defining socially acceptable art and sexuality; at the same time, it helps elucidate aspects of the poetry.
What made you cast James Franco as Ginsberg? What do you think he will bring to such a challenging role?
James didn’t seem like an obvious choice at first, but Gus Van Sant, our executive producer, encouraged us to consider James. Then, as we learned about his serious commitment to art and literature—the guy is in three masters programs!—and after meeting with him and seeing some of his work, we realized he could bring something really interesting to the role. The film is about the poet as a young man—Allen was 29 when he wrote “Howl.” We had been looking at photos of young Allen, who was quite adorable, so the casting seemed less outlandish than it might appear. James is even half-Jewish!
James worked really hard to make Allen’s words his own, and to embody his vocal and physical mannerisms. Rob and I worked with him several times over the course of the year it took us to raise the financing—so this was totally speculative on James’s part, and demonstrated a real commitment to the project. By the time we went into production, we felt he was truly channeling Allen.
I heard that Ginsberg collaborator Eric Drooker will be involved in the movie… What exactly is his role in ‘Howl’?
We struggled for several years trying to come up with a cinematic form that would be formally groundbreaking in a way that would do justice to “Howl”—a work that broke rules, developed and helped create new forms of artistic expression, and changed the way we think about poetry and literature. It was daunting. The first glimmer of an idea came when we discovered “Illuminated Poems,” the book of Allen’s poetry that Eric illustrated. We met with Eric to talk about his collaboration with Allen, and gradually came up with the idea of creating an animated interpretation of the poem. That mushroomed into a bigger collaboration with John Hays, a very talented animation director, and eventually with Juck Somsaman and his crew in Bangkok, where the images are coming to life.
by David S. Wills
“Money is the root of all evil”
For I will
In my will
“I regret that I was not able
To love money more.”
Jack Kerouac, 238th Chorus, Mexico City Blues
Jack Kerouac died on October 21st, 1969, of cirrhosis of the liver. By the time he died he had become a shell of the man he once was. He lived with his mother, drank himself beyond recognition, and was flat broke.
But as we all know, Kerouac’s fame only grew after his death, and in death came the respect he craved in life. His unpublished works were published, and his out of print books were brought back into print. People began caring about Kerouac again.
Many of the greatest writers, musicians and artists of the latter half of the twentieth century claim that Kerouac was a huge inspiration in their life. On the Road is now required reading in high schools and universities, and instead of Kerouac being loved only by literate fratboys, his work is considered by scholars and published by Penguin Classics. His influence upon Western society has been immeasurable.
In the past few years there has been a flurry of activity surrounding Kerouac’s old work. The fiftieth anniversary of the publication of On the Road came and brought the release of the original scroll version. And the Hippos were Boiled in their Tanks, co-written with William S. Burroughs, Wake Up: The Life of the Buddha, and The Sea is my Brother, have all been recently published.
So it is no surprise that Kerouac’s estate is worth a little more than the ninety-one dollars he owned when he died. After fifty years of fame and forty years of posthumous analysis, Kerouac’s estate is now valued at up to forty million dollars.
However, there has been somewhat of a furore over the ownership of that estate, and recently a long battle was ended with the shocking verdict of the American legal system, which deemed the will of Kerouac’s mother to have been a fake.
When Kerouac died, his will ignored many of the people who were expecting to be included. Instead, he left everything to his mother – a woman who had been an ogre-like figure throughout Kerouac’s life. When she died in 1973, Gabriel Kerouac allegedly passed control of Kerouac’s estate to his third wife, Stella Sampas.
Kerouac’s will deliberately overlooked Sampas, against whom Kerouac had allegedly planned upon entering divorce proceedings. In a letter posted to his nephew, Paul Blake Jnr, on October 20th, 1969 (the day before his death), Kerouac said,
I’ve turned over my entire estate to Memere, and if she dies before me, it is then turned to you, and if I die thereafter, it all goes to you…
I just wanted to leave my “estate” (which is what it really is) to someone directly connected to the last remaining drop of my direct blood line, which is, me, sister Carolyn, your mom, and not to leave a dingblasted fucking goddam thing to my wife’s one hundred Greek relatives. I also plan to divorce, or have her marriage to me, annulled. Just telling you the facts of how it is…
I want you to know that if you’re a crazy nut you can do anything you want with my property if I kick the bucket because we’re of the same blood.
Paul Blake Jnr has spent much of his life in poverty and consequently sold the famous letter from his uncle to art dealer Alan Horowitz, who sold it to the New York Public Library. At present it remains in the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature. The Sampas family, however, claims that the letter is a forgery.
When an attempt was made to make the note public, the Sampas family threatened a lawsuit, claiming that it was part of the Kerouac archive, but that it was also a forgery… One must wonder why they were so protective over something that they so strongly disputed.
In 1990, Stella Sampas died and left control of the estate to her family. Her brother, John Sampas, assumed control of the estate and became Kerouac’s literary executor. With the continuing fame of Kerouac and his work, the family profited by selling the scroll manuscript of On the Road for more than two million dollars to Jim Irsay, and even a raincoat, hat and suitcase to Johnny Depp for around forty thousand dollars.
Whilst the constant passing of ownership seems strange and confusing, the person who was most confused was Jan Kerouac, Jack Kerouac’s daughter by Joan Haverty. Having been denied any part in the control of her father’s estate, she called into question the validity of Gabriel Kerouac’s will. Her suspicions had been raised when she noticed, in 1994, that her grandmother had evidently spelled her name wrong on her own will.
Therefore, Jan Kerouac’s charge was that the signature on Gabriel Kerouac’s will had to have been forged, and that neither she nor her son had wanted control of the estate to rest outside the immediate family. The Sampas family’s ownership was thus illegal, in Jan Kerouac’s eyes.
In 1994, Jan Kerouac went to court to prove her argument. She cited the 1969 letter from Kerouac to his nephew that stated he wished his estate to be controlled by his blood family after his death. In the letter ee also discussed the idea of divorcing his wife, Stella, to whom Gabriel Kerouac’s will left the estate. Furthermore, the man who’d allegedly witnessed the signing of the will – Clifford Larkin – admitted to having witnessed no such thing. It was even suggested that Gabriel Kerouac was medically incapable of signing anything. After all, she was a frail old woman with few physical abilities, and the signature was strong and defined – that of someone with significant strength in their arm.
Jan Kerouac died in 1996, naming Kerouac biographer Gregory Nicosia (who wrote Memory Babe) as her literary executor, and her husband – John Lash – as overall executor. Lash, however, disagreed with her charge against the Sampas family and in 1999 Nicosia resigned from his post. The case was dismissed soon after.
Kerouac’s nephew, Paul Blake Jnr, has always kept fighting the same battle as Jan Kerouac, and recently he carried the litigation to court again, and won. It is argued, however, that Blake never particularly cared, and that he only took it this far on the advice of Nicosia, who brought him food when he was homeless, and dragged him along in his fight against the Sampas family.
Citing medical evidence and the testimony of a handwriting expert, Judge George W. Greer of Pinellas County, Florida, declared Gabriel Kerouac’s will a forgery. It seems, then, that the ownership of Kerouac’s estate by the Sampas family – aside from the one-third dowers entitlement to Stella Sampas – was illegal, and came to pass only through an act of criminal fraud.
Now, fourteen years after Jan Kerouac’s death, it seems she has succeeded in liberating Kerouac’s estate from its wrongful owners.
The question now, however, is what will happen if Paul Blake Jnr comes to control the estate. Jan Kerouac always said she wanted her father’s work given to a library, but it is argued that the Sampas family rejected numerous offers from libraries. No one even knows what exactly they owned, or the precise value of Kerouac’s estate. Fans of Kerouac tend to gather in opposition to John Sampas because of the sale of so many artefacts, but he argues that he has done Kerouac’s work a great service.
The problem now is that there is no evidence to suggest that any member of the Sampas family committed the act of fraud. They were not even involved in the 2009 court case. Kerouac’s estate passed from Jack to Memere to Stella and then to John Sampas. Mr. Sampas can therefore hardly be considered the crook he is portrayed by Nicosia and so many irate Kerouac fans.
Furthermore, it would be impossible to reclaim the sold items and return them to Blake – Kerouac’s only living blood relative. It would be unreasonable, too, to expect Sampas to repay Blake for the items he has already sold, considering he probably acted without knowledge of the forged will.
If Sampas is to hand over the remaining items to Blake, that might only account for a few pieces of writing, as Isaac Gewirtz, curator of the Berg Collection in New York, says “98% of what survives of his writing, not including correspondence, is here and are available for study.” Nicosia claims that thousands of pieces of Kerouac’s writing to collectors, although the Sampas claims that it was only fifty or sixty, and that they were sold to generate the required operation capital for the estate. These documents were copied and are presently available to view at the Berg.
Critics, however, posit that there are some major gaps in the collection. While Sampas sold around 2,000 items to the Berg Collection for an undisclosed sum in 2001, there are no complete drafts of The Dharma Bums or Vanity of Duluoz, absolutely nothing on Big Sur, and of course, the most famous piece – the original scroll manuscript of On the Road, one of the most famous documents in literary history – has itself been on the road since being sold to Jim Irsay, owner of the Indianapolis Colts and close friend of Hunter S. Thompson.
Jeffrey Weinberg – John Sampas’ consultant from 1991 to 1993 – claimed to have negotiated the sale of a hand-illuminated manuscript of Book of Dreams to a Rhode Island lawyer for more than $25,000, as well as many other letters and rarities.
However, the scroll of Big Sur belongs to Helen Suprenant, heir of Stella Sampas. Nicosia eludes to it having been sold to a random collector, but it seems to have been given to Suprenant as an inheritance. The scroll for The Dharma Bums was purchased by the Kerouac House in Orlando, Florida, in cooperation with a university. The Kerouac House, for those who don’t know, is a former residence of Kerouac that John Sampas helped Bob Kealing find and preserve turn into a literary monument.
As for the On the Road scroll, the fee it commanded and the fact that it is not readily available for study are offset by the fact that it tours the world, allowing people to view Kerouac’s work up close. Furthermore, the Berg Collection has a digitised version available for study, as well as a scanned replica.
Bob Rosenthal of the Allen Ginsberg Trust claims that it doesn’t matter whether or not the Sampas family sold pieces of the Kerouac archive, because many buyers apparently bought only with the intention of donating to the Berg Collection.
In terms of royalties, On the Road alone sells around 60,000 copies per year. Blake’s lawyers are looking into his claim to some of that money, although Blake claims he is only interested in looking after his uncle’s work. Experts say that Blake may be entitled to a third of the Kerouac estate, but no one really knows what comprises that collection, or what its value may be. Jan Kerouac was added to the list of copyright owners in 1985, when the copyright was up for renewal, after being told in 1982, at a Kerouac conference in Boulder, Colorado, by John Steinbeck’s son, that she needn’t have prostituted herself and lived in poverty for so long – she was entitled to a share of the royalties.
Only the Sampas family know for sure what remains of the Kerouac estate. Douglas Brinkley has been allowed to view the collection for what he planned on being the first official Kerouac biography, but when he failed to deliver the manuscript in time for the 50th anniversary of the publication of On the Road, the project appeared to be cancelled. Sampas himself claimed that there are no decent biographies of Kerouac in existence – something that Beatdom would vehemently deny. One only has to look at Paul Maher Jnr’s Kerouac: The Definitive Biography, Ann Charters’ Kerouac: A Biography or Barry Gifford’s Jack’s Book: An Oral Biography of Jack Kerouac to see that Sampas’ claim is absurd. They may not be perfect, but perhaps Sampas is guilty of a little hyperbole.
One might well wonder what Kerouac’s contemporaries thought of the situation… After all, it seems unusual that for so long the battle raged between Jan Kerouac, Paul Blake Jnr and the Sampas family. Why didn’t Kerouac’s friends enter into the debate?
Well, the case was never exactly obvious. There was no way of knowing what Gabrielle Kerouac wanted, and so the words of Kerouac’s own friends are hardly worth much. Jan Kerouac was never a part of any circle of Beat Generation writers. She barely knew her father, and whilst Paul Blake Jnr and his uncle shared a close relationship, Blake was never as driven as Jan Kerouac in pursuit of the settlement of the estate.
Jan Kerouac’s godfather, Allen Ginsberg, waded briefly into the argument, examining the debate in the early ‘90s. He apparently studied the case for a few days before deciding the Jan Kerouac had no particularly strong claim to the estate. By all accounts, he was never particularly fond of his goddaughter, whom many consider coldly ignored by the otherwise loveable Ginsberg.
According to Aram Saroyan,
Nicosia had… been organizing a fund raiser to help Jan with her medical bills and told me Allen had called friends like Gary Snyder and Michael McClure and discouraged their participation and later about the Kerouac conference in Manhattan: With some of the participants having a claim to be there far less valid than Jan Kerouac’s, she along with Gerry Nicosia were thrown out of the conference by campus police when she attempted to get on the podium and speak about her father’s archives.
Gregory Corso, however, disagreed, and signed a petition to allow Jan Kerouac to speak at the conference in New York in 1995 that was held in honour of her father. But as Nicosia later claimed, “John Sampas was calling for the university police to arrest her, and Allen said, ‘Yes, take her out, she’s irrelevant.’ I stood up from the audience and started yelling at Allen: ‘Allen, you’ve got to let her speak! She’s Jack’s daughter!’ Sampas said, ‘Get rid of him, too!’”
William S. Burroughs seems to have sympathised somewhat with Jan Kerouac’s claim, and gave her several of his paintings to sell. One of those paintings was sold sight-unseen to a bidder for $3000. The money went to pay for her dialysis, which she required four times a day.
Brenda Knight, the author of the fantastic book Women of the Beat Generation, said that Kerouac’s friends “were worried about getting ‘blacklisted’ in an unofficial way.” Such was the power of the Sampas family that other writers were afraid of speaking against them. Gerald Nicosia speculated that perhaps they were afraid of aligning themselves with Jan Kerouac, who only met her father twice. He claimed that the Sampas family had spread rumours about her that had damaged her reputation, and that scared away members of the Beat Generation.
Nicosia himself claims to have been stopped in numerous endeavours by the apparently wicked Sampas clan. For one thing he claims that John Sampas forced his Kerouac biography out of print.
Michael Lally – a writer and friend of Nicosia –claims that a book he wrote that was in preproduction with Penguin books, was scuppered after he aligned himself against the Sampas family.
John Sampas, however, replied by saying: ““I’m a nobody. They make me out to be some powerful Mafia character. I’m just Jack Kerouac’s brother-in-law… Nicosia is a well known ‘nut case’ who has been stalking the Kerouac estate for years.”
Recently, a debate has been raging between two Kerouac scholars that may lend credit to Sampas’ remark about Nicosia’s integrity. Although it has no real consequence for the estate of Jack Kerouac, the argument throws a shadow of doubt over Nicosia, who supported Jan Kerouac and Paul Blake Jnr. It also casts a dark shadow over the past forty years of Kerouac studies.
At Litkicks (a fantastic website devoted to all things literary) Gerald Nicosia and Paul Maher Jnr took their personal and professional differences and exposed them to the world on the discussion board of a page titled “Kerouac Estate Battle Again”.
The author of the brief update regarding the news announcement was Levi Asher, a member of the well known Beat-L community in the 1990s. The Beat website was a target of Nicosia’s incessant spamming for his cause, and eventually the group disbanded after the flame war became too much for members to cope with. Nicosia would respond to arguments against him with ten page point-by-point retaliations. In the end, Nicosia went as far as to file a half a million dollar defamation suit against one of his detractors, Dianne de Rooy. The group founder, Bill Gargan even attempted to ban discussion of the Kerouac estate, but in the end Nicosia threatened him with legal action and forced the group to shut down.
It should be noted that John Sampas was also a member of the Beat-L group, although he never posted. He admits to giving encouragement to Nicosia’s detractors offline, but maintains that he liked to read only because he enjoyed seeing what people thought of Kerouac’s work.
Many comments on the Litkicks board were left in admiration of Nicosia, but several alluded to or charged him with certain morally dubious actions. Asher himself pointed out that Nicosia acted on behalf of Jan Kerouac when Asher published one of her short stories. Nicosia didn’t care that Asher had Kerouac’s permission to do so.
Attila Gyenis – editor of Dharma Beat – argued that Nicosia had misrepresented certain facts, including saying that Jan Kerouac received no money from the Sampas family, when she did in fact receive a yearly payment.
It didn’t take long for Nicosia to pass comment on the topic, and on the other members of the group. He denied the accusation that he misrepresented Jan Kerouac’s royalties, explaining that she was nonetheless lied to be the Sampas family, who tried to pay her nothing, and then less than she was entitled to, and finally paid her $50,000 per year only when her medical expenses exceeded that amount. According to Jeffrey Weinberg, Sampas “did absolutely nothing to help Jan Kerouac, which I think is despicable. It was legal, but it wasn’t moral.” Sampas denies this, claiming that he offered more money, but that the offer was pointedly rejected.
Nicosia then posited that John Sampas heavily censored Kerouac’s writings, citing Rod Anstee’s study that showed 300 deletions that were never marked. If true, that would be an astonishing blow to Sampas’ credibility.
He also repeated the claim that Sampas had distributed Kerouac’s work to collectors around the globe, and that the Berg Collection was woefully lacking the scrolls, on which Kerouac wrote between eight and ten of his novels, including On the Road, The Dharma Bums, The Subterraneans, Big Sur, Desolation Angels, Satori in Paris, Vanity of Duluoz, and Mexico City Blues.
One might wonder why exactly Nicosia levels his complaint at Sampas and not at, for just one example, the Ginsberg Trust, who auctioned his personal effects at Sotheby’s. Or the countless girlfriends and Kerouac associates who sold their personal Kerouac-related effects for personal gain, rather than donating them generously to the public interest. Indeed, according to Sampas, Jan Kerouac sold furniture for years by lying to people and claiming it was used by her father to write his novels.
Finally, Nicosia claims that the Sampas family forced the closure of his Memory Babe archive at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. He says that it took him eleven years of legal action and that John Sampas kept pressuring the university to keep the archive shut.
After these arguments, Paul Maher Jnr jumped into the fray with some crude personal insults and some questioning of Nicosia’s work in comparison to his own efforts, which were apparently made with the blessing and supervision – although not too much supervision, he states – of John Sampas.
Maher also claims that the Berg Collection’s inventory refutes Nicosia’s claim that Sampas is selling off the Kerouac archive irresponsibly. He also claims that if Sampas were to auction off the estate piece by piece it would be perfectly legal, and that other authors have their work distributed across the world.
It seems as though Maher is missing the point a little, with Nicosia’s argument being that the scrolls (or rather, as he would call them, “the rolls”) are not available for study, and that it would be easier to have everything in one public collection. He does, however, make a reasonable argument by stating that it would be unreasonable to expect everything to be gathered in one place. He says that the Berg Collection is a phenomenal resource as it is.
After this, the two scholars get down to arguing matters surrounding their respective books. Nicosia asks why Maher used his work without crediting him – citing a witness from the University of Massachusetts. Maher argued back that Nicosia had profited from Xeroxing Kerouac’s unpublished writings – an act of obvious copyright infringement – and sold it to a university, therefore it was never Nicosia’s to begin with and that he need never have credited Nicosia. In fact, Maher claims, since the Sampas family was in control of the Kerouac estate, he could well have credited John Sampas.
Next, he offered the fact that Nicosia had sent threatening, paranoid e-mails to Maher’s publishers, and to Douglas Brinkley – whom the Kerouac estate had asked to write the official Kerouac biography – with insults about Maher.
Maher also claims that he doesn’t care at all about the court verdict and that it makes no difference to anything. However, in his personal blog (the arrogantly titled “You Don’t Know Jack”) he discusses the matter differently, calling it a “botched decision” and defending the Sampas family – with whom he, for posterity’s sake distanced himself from on Litkicks. He offers a portrayal of Stella as a literal saint, deserving of everything Kerouac owed, and eluding to a relationship with Gabrielle that would have resulted in her bequeathing Sampas everything in her will.
Maher also offered several documents – which have subsequently disappeared from the webhost – that show Jan Kerouac’s apparent desire to part company with Nicosia… Indeed, a little digging will show that prior to her death, she was trying desperately to get away from her literary executor. Nicosia was busy suing her relatives and guiding her literary career, and she wanted to get rid of him. But, just like when Kerouac tried to get rid of his wife, his daughter tried to ditch Nicosia and died before she could follow through. Nicosia, however, managed to convince Kerouac to sign a will that left him as her “literary representative”, in charge of all posthumous works. He has used this position to sue her beloved heirs, her brother David and her ex-husband John Nash. One of the documents she wanted to sign before her death was intended to repeal Nicosia’s position as her “literary representative”.
It is claimed that he travelled to Jan Kerouac’s apartment immediately after her death, took all of her possessions, then proceeded to destroy them, store them or hide them, depending upon their value and relation to his actions.
In life and death, Jan Kerouac’s name has been used by Nicosia to make money and to gain a reputation. He uses her sad life story to manipulate journalists and judges. Allegedly, he even managed to sell Jack Kerouac’s name to Levi-Strauss for $11,000, apparently because he copyrighted Kerouac’s name and image in the state of California.
And that’s about all I’m going to write on the subject of Gerald Nicosia and Paul Maher Jnr. Suffice it to say they continued their petty banter for some time after that. Their argument is fascinating as an example of the turbulent world of literary studies, which many would think dull and uninteresting. But people care. Sometimes they care enough to act like fools. Sometimes they care enough to lie, to insult others, and to bicker in front of bemused on lookers.
But the fact is that they care. Kerouac is still as relevant today as he ever was. His readers and scholars care so deeply about him, and think they understand him because of the intimate, personal nature of his writing, that they are willing to make grand leaps in faith to defend him and his legacy.
Whilst both Nicosia and Maher appear to be incredibly childish, I must say that I am lost in navigating this labyrinth of accusations, facts and lies. Their language is both grandiose and pathetic, with reason and logic largely lost in the midst of a flame war that is more commonly in the domain of the humble, non-professional nerd… We know for one thing that Gabrielle’s will was forged. It doesn’t take a genius to see that she was incapable of signing her name, and that control of the estate should never have gone to Stella Sampas. When it comes down to it, money ruined everything. It looks as though the Sampas family cheated Jan Kerouac out of money and profited unfairly from her father’s estate. But under John Sampas’ stewardship the name of Jack Kerouac rose from that of a famous author to that of a literary icon, studied the world over and given the respect he desired. One could try to predict what will happen next on a purely legal basis, but the only thing that is for sure is that Kerouac fans and scholars will be divided and reduced to the level of bickering children for years to come.
This isn’t an easy subject to research… For the basic facts pertaining to the court case, please consult Google News and look through old reports from reputable publications.
For more about Sampas, Nicosia and the debate that has long since raged you might want to prepare yourself. Nicosia’s confrontational information log-jam makes it hard to pick truth from fact. Likewise, Maher’s arrogant style of forcing facts at you makes it hard to take him seriously.
Be prepared to do some digging. Be a sensible reader, too. Don’t believe everything you read. Always remain sceptical. And for the love of god, don’t offend Gerald Nicosia… He might just take you to court.
Asher, Levi, ‘Not the Jack Kerouac Estate Battle Again…’ http://www.litkicks.com/KerouacEstateBattleAgain/
Maher Jnr, Paul, ‘Professors of Babylon’, http://kerouacquarterly.blogspot.com/2010/01/professors-of-babylon.html
Maughan, Stephen, ‘And the Beat Goes on’, http://www.finebooksmagazine.com/issue/201001/kerouac-1.phtml
Nicosia, Gerald, ‘Press Conference Speech, June 5 2007’, http://whollycommunion.blogspot.com/2007/09/gerald-nicosia-press-conference-speech.html
Nicosia, Gerald, ‘Report from the Kerouac Front Thirty Years After his Death’, http://www.geraldnicosia.com/html/geraldframeset2.html?kerouachtml/kerouacreport.html~content
Roadrat, ‘Fight over all things Kerouac’, http://www.roadratroberts1.bravepages.com/JACK%20KEROUAC%203.htm
Recent history has seen the women in the life of Jack Kerouac finally bring to public attention their side of the story. Portrayed in his work in what some deem a sexist manner, they have been releasing memoirs and telling the world about Kerouac.
In 1983, Joyce Johnson wrote Minor Characters; in 1990, Carolyn Cassady published Off the Road; and in 2000 there was Joan Haverty’s Nobody’s Wife, with a foreword by Jan Kerouac.
These books have added much to the world of Kerouac scholarship, providing both an intimate portrait of Kerouac, as well as offering counter-points to many of the claims he made in his books.
Now it’s Helen Weaver’s turn.
Weaver met Kerouac and Ginsberg in 1953 and was carried away by the Beats. She soon became Kerouac’s girlfriend, and in her book, The Awakener: A Memoir of Kerouac and the Fifties, she offers a wonderful, personal picture of the Beat Generation and the 1950s Greenwich Village scene.
The Awakener is a story of spiritual and sexual awakening; a valuable insight to a special place in time that is of great interest to any reader of the Beat Generation.
David Wills: How did you feel about Kerouac’s depiction of you as Ruth Heaper in Desolation Angels?
Helen Weaver: I was and am very happy with it. I was touched by his portrait of me and honored to be a part of that book, which I think is one of his best. I was particularly moved that there was no bitterness in his portrayal of me. Jack was very hurt when I asked him to leave in January 1957 but by the time he finished writing Desolation Angels a few years later he had obviously forgiven me.
I’ve always been amused by the name he gave me. “Heaper” was a reference to a passage in The Song of Songs that he quoted to me the first time we made love: “Thy belly is like an heap of wheat set about with lilies.” I never forgot that and obviously he didn’t either.
David Wills: What do you say to the critics who claim Kerouac was a sexist?
Helen Weaver: I’d have to agree with them–up to a point. It was the fifties! And Jack was capable of saying things like “women must be guided by men.” Yuk! But he was also capable of great sensitivity and empathy.
If the most important people in his life were mostly male (the big exception was his mother, who was the love of his life) I think that was because his mission in life was writing. Not that many women were writing in the fifties, so by definition his colleagues were mostly men. As Joyce Johnson so aptly put it, we would have been “excess baggage on the road.”
David Wills: You talk about Kerouac’s backpack full of manuscripts. Do you recall what he was working on or what he was carrying when he appeared on your doorstep?
Helen Weaver: Well, he had already started Desolation Angels so he had the first part of that, plus Tristessa and Mexico City Blues. He and Allen Ginsberg had just hitchhiked from Mexico, where he’d been working on those three books. I still have a Mexican coin (cinco centavos) Jack gave me that day on my bedside table, for luck.
David Wills: The first paragraph of your book really gives the reader an intimate portrait of the lives of the two Helens. This isn’t going to be a prudish, gloss-over-the-sensitive-parts kind of book, is it?
Helen Weaver: You got that right. I have to say, I just love that first sentence where I’m sitting on the john in my pajamas when the buzzer rings. It’s like, Here I am, world–get used to it!
It took me years to come up with that beginning. For a long time I was stuck on the idea that the book should begin in Grand Central Station, on the evening when I took Jack home to Scarsdale to meet my parents. You know, disreputable raggedy boyfriend vs. conservative parents in rich snooty suburb? But it just didn’t work. As soon as I decided to begin with the morning I met Jack, I knew I had it.
David Wills: In the book you talk about Kerouac’s insistence upon the fact that it’s “all a dream.” Why was he saying this and what problems did it cause?
Helen Weaver: That was Jack’s Buddhism. The Buddha taught that the physical world around us is an illusion, as is our fixed idea that each of us is a separate self. When I met him, Jack had recently been introduced to Buddhism by Gary Snyder and he carried a copy of Dwight Goddard’s Buddhist Bible in his rucksack. The first morning we spent together, as he was unpacking his rucksack, he read me a passage from that book:
All the mind’s arbitrary conceptions of matter, phenomena, and of all conditioning factors and all conceptions and ideas relating thereto are like a dream, a phantasm, a bubble, a shadow, the evanescent dew, the lightning’s flash. Every true disciple should thus look upon all phenomena and upon all the activities of the mind, and keep his mind empty and self-less and tranquil.
I thought this was very eloquent but at age 25 the idea that the physical world is an illusion didn’t appeal to me. It was a world I was just beginning to make my peace with.
I soon discovered that Jack was very unreliable about time: he’d show up three hours late for dinner, or sometimes not at all until the next day. When I tried to discuss our “problems” with him his eyes would just glaze over and he’d tell me “Everything is fine, don’t worry. Nothing is real–it’s all a dream.” So early on, I got the impression that his Buddhism was just a big philosophical rationalization for doing whatever he wanted.
But as I got older the idea that the physical world is an illusion began to sound less strange, especially in the light of quantum physics. Jack’s mantra that “nothing is real, it’s all a dream” began to make perfect sense to me. In fact, it sounded like a pretty accurate description of the universe. Ultimately, I was drawn to Buddhism myself. But that was many years later, long after Jack died.
David Wills: How did you go about writing The Awakener? I mean, after half a century it must have been difficult to recall many relevant details.
Helen Weaver: The day I met him was etched into my mind in vivid detail. From almost the moment I laid eyes on him, I knew that one day I would have to write about him. Then when things started going south between us–his drinking was really bugging me, and the chaotic schedule–I began writing as a form of therapy. So I have the Jack Kerouac Journal.
When he went to Orlando for Christmas with his mother, his sister, and his nephew, we exchanged letters. I’m an obsessive archivist, and I kept everything–every letter and postcard he wrote me, every tiny little note he left on my door, every review, every newspaper or magazine clipping that had to do with him or Allen. I knew I would need all these things some day. It was just a matter of finding the right time to gather it all up and weave it together.
There were many false starts over the years. In the end, what I had to deal with was not so much a scarcity of material as an embarrassment of riches.
David Wills: How did you go about trying to publish the book? One would imagine that the story sells itself.
Helen Weaver: If only! It doesn’t work that way, I’m afraid.
I always knew that my book about Jack would be published, even if it wasn’t any good, just because of his status as an American icon. In a way that slowed me down, because I wanted it to be as good as possible. I couldn’t just dash it off. And a good thing I didn’t, because my feelings about Jack changed over the years. He died in 1969; I didn’t appreciate him fully as a writer until almost twenty years later.
I don’t have an agent, but I had a lot of help from my friends: Dan Wakefield, author of New York in the Fifties; Michael Korda, for whom I did a lot of translating work when he was editor in chief at Simon & Schuster; and Bob Gottlieb, who was editor in chief of Knopf and later of The New Yorker. They all went out of their way to open doors for me in the rather insular world of New York publishing.
I submitted the book seven or eight times and acquired some very enthusiastic rejection letters: You’re a good writer, you paint a vivid picture of the times, but it’s not quite right for our list, etc.
Through a writer and free lance editor named Deborah Straw (who had reviewed my 2001 book The Daisy Sutra for Publishers Weekly) I got a reading at Inner Traditions, a New Age publisher up in Vermont. The acquisitions editor there loved the book, but the contract they offered me was unacceptable, so it was back to the drawing board.
My friend (and former rival for Jack’s affections) Joyce Johnson kept telling me to try City Lights. I had actually written a letter to Lawrence Ferlinghetti in 2007, but never got an answer (he was 88 and semi-retired). But Joyce urged me to contact her friend Nancy Phillips at City Lights. It turned out she was semi-retired too, but she put in a good word with senior editor Robert Sharrard. I took a chance and emailed him the first chapter. He asked to see the rest, and pretty soon he called me up and offered me a contract.
It was a good contract, and it got even better thanks to the free contract service at the National Writers Union, of which I am a member. I’m actually grateful to that recalcitrant contract person at Inner Traditions, because City Lights is the ideal publisher for this book. I mean, Ferlinghetti and City Lights are mentioned in the very first chapter, when Allen excitedly tells Helen and me about the forthcoming publication of Howl. For a book about Kerouac, City Lights is a no brainer.
David Wills: What did you learn from Kerouac when you knew him, and what of his wisdom have you come to appreciate with time?
Helen Weaver: Oh boy! I’m afraid when I knew him I didn’t learn much. I was a stubborn little intellectual. Well, I did learn – or maybe knowing him made me more conscious of–my own ambition to be a writer.
Our very first conversation was about writing. When he took a dogeared copy of The Town and the City out of his rucksack, he told me, “It’s like Thomas Wolfe.” I had read Look Homeward, Angel in high school and fallen in love with it, but in college I discovered Henry James, and decided I had outgrown Wolfe.
I told Jack that Wolfe lacked discipline, and was lucky he had Maxwell Perkins for an editor. Well, that was like waving a red flag in front of a bull, and the battle was joined. We debated the merits of Wolfe vs. James like two old friends.
I certainly learned what it was like to live with a genius. Frieda Lawrence wrote her friend Mabel Dodge, “Try it then yourself, living with a genius, see what it is like and how easy it is.” Not that this stopped me from being attracted to some very extreme types. But living with Jack was an education. I learned that I needed a more peaceful, organized existence. Perhaps that was when I learned that I am a solitary, that I love and need vast amounts of solitude, which goes very well with writing.
And with time I’ve come to embrace the very Buddhist philosophy that I originally dismissed.
Most of all, I’ve come to appreciate Kerouac as a writer.
When I read The Town and the City in 1956 I was in love with him, and I admired it very much. By the time On the Road came out in 1957 I had moved on, and I read that book through the eyes of the disappointed lover. The sexism blinded me to the poetry, and I didn’t understand or appreciate that book–again, until long after Jack had died.
I tell the story of how this came about in The Awakener:
“I was visiting my niece Annie and her boyfriend Nate up in Vermont, and we were talking about Kerouac. I had recently started reading all of his books in preparation for writing about him. I kept coming upon words I didn’t know, like prognathic (jutting-jawed) and hincty:that last one wasn’t in Webster’s Unabridged, and I wondered if he made it up.
“So Nate got out his Oxford English Dictionary. It said “hincty” was American slang and meant conceited, snobbish, stuck up, and it quoted On the Road: “Wetting their eyebrows with hincty fingertip.” The OED said it was on page 86 but we looked in Nate’s paperback copy of On the Road and we couldn’t find it.
“Just in case we missed it I read page 86 out loud. That page fell in the middle of the story about the little Mexican girl, with a great description of the streets of Hollywood.
“And that was when it happened. For the first time in my life, I heard the music of Kerouac’s words. For the first time in my life, I got it. And I remembered hearing somewhere that people who don’t think Kerouac is a great writer should try reading him aloud.
“That’s the secret, that’s the test of poetry. And that’s the reason On the Road has sold over three million copies. On the Road is a poem.”
Back in 1970 when I was working as an editor at Chelsea House Publishers, I rejected Visions of Cody. Right now, I’m rereading that book and discovering all the things I missed. So I’m still learning to appreciate Jack’s wisdom.
Too bad it took so many years; but in this I am like many of my contemporaries. It took America a long time to give Jack Kerouac the respect he deserves.
So writing this book has been, at least in part, an act of atonement.
by David S. Wills
The novel does not obviously lend itself to adaptation for the screen: it has dozens of characters, few of whom are developed from their initial appearance; the action is set in cities all over the world; it is composed of many small, fragmentary, kaleidoscopic scenes; and there is no traditional story line. It is a novel with a great deal of talk, and the rule of film is that movies move, with minimal talk.
William S. Burroughs, speaking in 1991
With the publication of Naked Lunch there immediately came the cries of “obscene!” from so many conservatives and critics. Nevertheless, the book won its obscenity trial and was released to the general public in the United States, becoming a notorious classic – one of the most depraved and perverse books in modern history, and more importantly a ferocious assault on society and government.
It seemed unlikely, then, that Naked Lunch would one day become a feature film. Yet, not long after the obscenity trial that declared the book of enough social value to be unleashed upon the public, William S. Burroughs was plotting its way into cinema.
From the late sixties until the mid seventies Burroughs tried to turn his literary masterpiece into a commercially viable film. He enlisted the help of legendary British director and producer, Antony Balch, and fellow cut up master and friend, Brion Gysin.
The three men formed a production company in 1970, called Friendly Films Limited. They reviewed screenplays, treatments and ran through ideas together on how to make Naked Lunch work as a movie.
Of course, there were myriad problems. For one thing, it had been a major headache releasing the book because of laws regarding obscenity. It wouldn’t be easy to put together such a pornographic project without incurring the wrath of the censors, or, once again, the law.
Furthermore, Naked Lunch isn’t comprised of a traditional narrative that would adapt well to the screen. The story jumps around wildly through time and space, with characters rarely developing, if at all. Its fragmentary composition would surely baffle film-goers.
This all made the project increasingly unlikely, especially given the cost of making films. Whereas as book could be written with no more wasted than the time and effort of the author (and perhaps a few hundred sheets of paper) a movie cost at least a few hundred thousand dollars to make. And Naked Lunch would have been no ordinary movie: the constant shift from city to city to city would demand filming on location on several different continents.
It is hardly surprising, then, that many considered Naked Lunch “unfilmable”.
Documents still exist in the archive of Terry Wilson – a friend of Burroughs, Gysin and Balch – that let us see what the three men had in mind for filming the “unfilmable” project. Through letters, screenplays and storyboards it is possible to examine the vision they had in attempting to bring Naked Lunch to the screen.
To get around the disjointed narrative the story was to be reordered around certain key points – “intersection points” – that Burroughs dictated. This would have given the plot a little more coherence. Additionally, characters would develop more than in the novel, in line with what Burroughs’ later works suggested would happen – switching quickly through a variety of possible scenarios. For example, Dr. Benway, who appears in several of Burroughs’ novels, would have developed according to his activities outwith Naked Lunch.
Of course, Naked Lunch was never an entirely fictional book. Certain elements were highly autobiographical, and it was possible to elaborate upon the text by simply looking at reality. Gysin- who was the primary screenplay writer for the project – only had to look back at people and places he and Burroughs had encountered together in Tangiers, to find inspiration for additional material. As Gysin said, “Interzone, of course, was Burroughs’ very personal vision of the Tangier scene in the 1950’s, here reinterpreted by me to include the cast of characters whom we both knew there at that time.” The result was a strange mix of fiction and reality.
It was also a challenge finding someone to play the role of William Lee, who would most likely have taken a larger role in the movie than in the book (as in fact was the case in Cronenberg’s movie, twenty years later). Burroughs wrote a confusing, frantic note to Gysin on May 6th 1971:
You see Lee in a sense is an idealized image of the writer able to do all sorts of things the writer can’t do well so maybe start would be possible writer I mean actor who could do a predistiginal you dig. You want somebody to shoot find somebody knows how to shoot just like we find somebody who knows how to hang for the hanging scenes. Just a thought. CAN WE MAKE OUR OWN LEE FROM THE C SCRIPT? It seems to me that the first essential for Lee is PHYSICAL PRESENCE BEING THERE. Love, William.
To get around the shifting and switching of time and space, Gysin proposed something called “Transvestite Airlines” – a device used to transport characters from one time/location to another in an instant.
Perhaps the least surprising element intended for use was that of wild and creative cuts to slice through the randomness of the text. One can’t help but observe that readers of Naked Lunch decades after its first publication probably perceive the book differently in part because of the developments of cinema, which have imposed upon our minds a framework of possibility – allowing present day readers to imagine such cuts as we read, applying some of the rules of experimental cinema to the text of an experimental novel.
An example of the above techniques and ideas can be seen in the following excerpt of a synopsis, one of many versions of many possible plots:
Some say that A.J. is the real controller of the world. A.J. kept Dentway alive to use his genius, hidden in his secret fortress in the heart of Africa in Interzone. Lee travels on a very strange airline to Interzone, determined to find Dentway and get his secret. However, on arrival in this strange land he finds that no one has ever heard of A.J. or his fortress . . . no one that is, except for a small boy. The Shoe Shine boy tells Lee he knows the hideout and will take him there. On arrival at the fortress they are met by Salvador O’Leary Chapultapec, A.J.’s right hand man who was expecting them. Inside the fortress, Salvador shows Lee the hospital wing where the captured Dr. Benway, who has gone mad, is perfecting his newest and even more hideous technique for A.J. A secret meeting for heads of state and visitors from space will be held to demonstrate Dentway’s latest horror. The show is so frightening that Lee, helped by the Shoe Shine boy, sets fire to the fortress and escapes. Nick’s hand extinguishes the fire which is in the ashtray on the Everhard bar and hands Lee his junk. Lee leaves the bath at dawn and buys an old typewriter . . .
One of the more interesting things to note from this excerpt is the cut that keeps the story flowing in spite of the massive jump in time and space. They intended to move as smoothly as possible from an image of a fire in a jungle fortress into a gay bar ashtray.
In 1963 Burroughs, Gysin and Balch collaborated on the short film Towers Open Fire. Directed by Balch, the film featured Moroccan music performed by Gysin, and voice-overs by the unmistakable sardonic Burroughs.
Perhaps of most interest to us are the shots of Burroughs and Gysin performing their cut-up technique, by slicing up a piece of writing and then reading the disjointed results. We also see the “Dreammachine,” Gysin’s zoetropic device that is watched through closed eyes…
In 1966 Burroughs and Gysin worked together to create the short film, The Cut Ups. Whilst filmed before they began plotting a movie of Naked Lunch, The Cut Ups nonetheless came from their collaboration in the aftermath of the publication of Naked Lunch and thus may be able to tell us a little about what we could have expected from the doomed project.
In a word, The Cut Ups is weird. It is a highly experimental film, with a soundtrack of the words “Yes” “Hello” “Look at that picture. Does it seem to be persisting?” “Good” and “Thank you!” run together over a series of seemingly disconnected images that feels very much like an odd dream sequence.
The clips that accompany the unusual soundtrack are mostly of Gysin and Burroughs. When Gysin appears we see him wearing a sweater with a calligraphic design of his own creation, walking through the street. In another scene he is working on paintings. We also see his “Dreammachine.” These scenes often begin with a roller painting a grid.
Burroughs is usually seen looking for or hiding something or things. He is going through a large collection of objects.
All of this is cut together extremely fast, with some of the action sped up. An image is barely on screen for more than a second or two, but then we return moments later and see another brief glimpse of whatever seemingly random thing it was that we were being shown.
These films can both be seen on Towers Open Fire and Other Films by Antony Balch. They also collaborated on other projects, which can be viewed freely on www.ubu.com along with a great many other Beat resources.
In 1991 Naked Lunch was finally committed to film by the director David Cronenberg, and with Burroughs’ permission. Cronenberg acknowledged the book’s label of being “unfilmable”, saying that a straight forward adaptation would “cost 100 million dollars and be banned in every country in the world.” Indeed, that’s not hard to imagine.
Instead of filming the events and characters of the book, Cronenberg merged the book with the life of Burroughs, and even with some of his other works. It is metatextual in as much as the film depiction the creation of the book.
Interestingly, Cronenberg decided to blur the lines between reality and hallucination. What transpires the in novel and what actually happened to Burroughs in life are all viewed as a hazy drug-trip. One is never entirely sure what is going on.
Many well known friends and associates of Burroughs are depicted in the movie, including Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, as well as events that formed part of the Beat consciousness, such as the shooting of Joan Vollmer.
In fact, one could view the movie less as an adaptation of the book than as a biopic with elements of Naked Lunch thrown in to represent the perpetual junk haze in which Burroughs spent most of his life.
The movie featured some of the book’s most memorable moments, including the characters William Lee and Dr. Benway, as well as the Mugumps and the talking asshole, and the locations Interzone and Annexia. All of these were used very differently in the movie than in the book.
With the release of Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch, Burroughs distanced himself somewhat from previous attempts to film the “unfilmable.” He said that “the late Brion Gysin and Antony Balch, set out to adapt it for film,” failing to mention his own input. Also, Gysin’s screenplay had been “long on burlesque . . . a series of music-hall comedy songs that he composed.” He appeared content with the result of a twenty year pursuit for a silver-screen version of his literary classic.
It should be noted, however, that Burroughs scholar Timothy S. Murphy made some very interesting points in criticising the movie. He argues that whereas Burroughs’ depiction of drug abuse and homosexuality were politically and socially charged, Cronenberg’s proved merely for show, a heartless portrait of something without any meaning. Moreover, the literary techniques Burroughs used for his devastating social and political critiques become merely the ramblings of a junky in the movie, rather than something to be respected and studied.
Indeed, fans and critics seemed generally sated by Cronenberg’s effort. Whilst many complained about a lack of faith to the original text, many realised that it had indeed been “unfilmable” in its true form. Cronenberg had certainly achieved something spectacular by coming this close.
by Harry Burrus
When Jack Kerouac died in 1969, only one of his 20+ books was in print. At the time, many critics announced the Beat Generation was irrelevant and had faded away. Others claimed the Beats were an insignificant force, addicted to sex and drugs, and therefore of little permanent influence, and only interested in the frivolity of having “kicks.” They contended the Beats’ writing would not hold up over time. However, objective evidence clearly establishes those critics were dead wrong.
The essential tenets of Beat philosophy still resonate strongly today. The Beats’ rants against excessive consumerism, government control and torture, censorship, the increasing power of the Pentagon, and the proliferation of American soldiers in foreign countries are cogent now. The Beats respected and valued the land and were advocates for a healthy world environment, all of which continue to be significant concerns. They promoted tolerance of ideological differences, which they saw as being subverted to a political sameness — the position if you aren’t in agreement with us, you’re against us. Sound familiar?
Recognizing the current impact of the Beats, William S. Burroughs scholar Oliver Harris notes,
They asked the relevant question themselves. It was one of the things that united the writers and adventurers we call Beat — and their answers looked both backwards (glancing conservatively, towards a ‘lost’ American past) and forwards, nostalgically (to face looming death, the rags of old age and the ruins of civilization) and heroically (to face the unknown, that which lies beyond the little bit of ourselves we know). So, perhaps they matter because, at their best, they inspire us to look back for what’s been lost and forward to what we need to lose.
In Naked Lunch (1959), Burroughs revealed he did not share the rose-tinted view of most Americans in the post-WWII era. With microscopic detail, he peeled away the picturesque façade of modern society, exposing it for what it really was. He predicted the late 20th century AIDS crisis and the advent of the Internet with its viruses, worms, and spam. He forecasted the war on drugs and terrorists. Underscoring the continuing literary and social significance of William S. Burroughs, Harris has edited and authored a number of Burroughs books: The Letters of WSB, 1945-1959; Yage Letters Redux; Junky: the definitive text of Junk; William Burroughs and the Secret of Fascination; and Everything Lost, the Latin American Notebook of WSB.
Similarly, in Why Kerouac Matters, John Leland extols the importance of Kerouac today. He focuses on the Jack Kerouac-based character Sal Paradise in On the Road instead of the one who usually attracts the most attention, Dean Moriarty (based on Neal Cassady), who enthusiastically pursues sex, speed, and jazz in the novel. Leland analyzes Paradise’s impressions from his journeys with Moriarty. He explains that what Paradise learns about love, having a work ethic, valuing art and education, and being spiritual are life lessons that still echo today.
Another aspect of Kerouac’s work with current ramifications is his criticism of haiku. He was a major influence in bringing haiku to the West. His interpretation of haiku was experimental and innovative. His creation of “Western haiku” materially impacts current poets’ approach to creating haiku today.
City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco sells ten copies of On the Road daily. The Kerouac estate claims that over 100,000 copies of OTR are sold each year. The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in Boulder, Colorado continues to attract students, encouraging them to link the past to the present and to apply a fresh approach to their writing. Stanford University bought Ginsberg’s archive and the New York Public Library recently purchased William S. Burroughs’ literary archive.
Time not only has substantiated the merit of the writing of the Beats, but has validated it as well. The Beat worldview embraced life and celebrated the human condition. On the Road’s raw energy encourages curiosity, the refusal to accept the status quo, and the need to investigate what lies over the horizon. It inspires self-pride and the drive to succeed, regardless of social status. The Beats’ criticism of America in the 1940s and 1950s is instructional because it applies to many of the conditions confronting the United States today. Current writers, artists, musicians, and filmmakers cite the Beats as their beacons. New bios as well as scholarly books examining their writing, lives, and values continue to come out with great frequency. Beat magazines, paper and online, are widely read and popular. Their book sales are the highest ever. Universities have Beat literature as part of their curriculum. The significance of the Beat writers on current American literature continues to evolve because new work has only recently been discovered. The unpublished work is revealed in books and magazines and reviewed by international newspapers and scholars. The Beats are alive and well in these first few years of the 21stcentury and continue to pervade our lives today.