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.