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by Nick Meador
At the turn of the 1960s, Jack Kerouac found himself in a profound state of limbo, the climax of an existential crisis that predated his life as a published author. He had been looking for an “answer” to his problems since his early twenties, yet for a variety of reasons his dilemma remained unresolved. Then a 35-year-old Jack became famous in an instant when On the Road was published in the fall of 1957, and this led to the total disruption of his already chaotic life. Normally the restless man would alternate between living at his mother’s East Coast home (which at the time was either in Orlando, Florida, or Northport, Long Island, New York) and a few faraway destinations, most often Mexico City or the San Francisco Bay Area. But suddenly his world became very claustrophobic, as he was pushed into the role of a counter-culture celebrity despite the fact that very few were giving him credit as a legitimate author of American literature.
In his 1962 novel Big Sur, Kerouac reflects on the period: “…I’ve been driven mad for three years by endless telegrams, phonecalls, requests, mail, visitors, reporters, snoopers…” Kerouac wrote that book in October 1961 by fictionalizing events that had happened mainly in the summer of 1960—a trip from New York to California, visiting San Francisco, Big Sur, and San Jose. It was his first lengthy trip in three years, and Big Sur was the first book he completed since writing The Dharma Bums in November 1957. Kerouac’s plan was to pass the summer in solitude so that he could recover his mental balance while checking the publisher galleys for his Book of Dreams. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, whose budding City Lights imprint would be publishing the dream book that year, told Kerouac to stay at his cabin in Bixby Canyon, on the Pacific Coast south of Monterrey (technically just north of Big Sur).
On the surface, Big Sur is a record of Kerouac’s battle with “delirium tremens,” the term Jack and the Beats used to describe the peculiar kind of madness that results from severe and prolonged alcohol abuse. Kerouac had long dealt with a drinking problem, and even by age 26 it occurred to him that he should cut back. On March 22, 1948, he wrote in his journal, “I started drinking at eighteen but that’s after eight years of occasional boozing, I can’t physically take it any more, nor mentally. It was at the age of eighteen, too, when melancholy and indecision first came over me—there’s a fair connection there.” Yet his alcoholism reached new extremes after the publication of On the Road. In addition to losing his treasured privacy, Jack was also shocked by Neal Cassady’s arrest for possession of marijuana in 1958, for which Neal served two years in a California prison. After this, despite the fact that Kerouac had purchased their house with royalty money from On the Road, Jack’s mother Gabrielle (also known as “mémêre,” Québécois for “grandma”) banished from their home both Allen Ginsberg (because of his Judaism, homosexuality, and radical poetry) and the drugs Jack commonly used like Benzedrine and marijuana.
But Kerouac didn’t refrain from drug use altogether. In the period surrounding both the events depicted in Big Sur and the writing and editing of the book, Jack actively experimented with certain psychedelic substances that hadn’t yet made a large impression on the American culture: mescaline, ayahuasca, and psilocybin mushrooms. At the start of Big Sur, he mentions some of these substances in a slightly negative manner, as if to suggest that they had worsened his overall mental condition: “. . . ‘One fast move or I’m gone,’ I realize, gone the way of the last three years of drunken hopelessness which is a physical and spiritual and metaphysical hopelessness you cant learn in school no matter how many books on existentialism or pessimism you read, or how many jugs of vision-producing Ayahuasca you drink, or Mescaline take, or Peyote goop up with–––That feeling when you wake up with the delirium tremens with the fear of eerie death dripping from your ears…”
However, this can’t be the whole story, since Kerouac’s letters offer an entirely different view on his psychonautic exploration during this time. Jack first tried mescaline—the psychoactive compound also found naturally in the peyote cactus—in October 1959, and he was apparently most open about it with Ginsberg, to whom he wrote the following on June 20, 1960: “When on mescaline [last fall] I was so bloody high I saw that all our ideas about a ‘beatific’ new gang of worldpeople, and about instantaneous truth being the last truth. etc. etc. I saw them as all perfectly correct and prophesied, as never on drinking or sober I saw it—Like an Angel looking back on life sees that every moment fell right into place and each had flowery meaning…” This kind of clarity must have been cherished by a guy who saw his life as a long chain of rambling misadventures. Kerouac was even moved to create a 5,000-word “Mescaline Report” in order to document his hallucinations and revelations. He said he intended to take mescaline monthly, and he couldn’t wait to test out LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide). In the same letter Kerouac mentioned his intention to flee New York, shortly before Ferlinghetti suggested that Jack use his cabin as an escape. The actual trip did last about two months, from mid-July to mid-September 1960.
After returning from California, Kerouac had the opportunity to try ayahuasca on October 7, 1960. Ginsberg had just visited South America and brought back some of the liquid preparation, also known as “yagé” (pronounced “yah-hey,” but they usually misspelled it as “yage”). William S. Burroughs had done the same in the early 1950s, as documented in his fictionalized letters titled “In Search of Yage” (written in ’53 but not published until ’63). Those are presented along with correspondence and journals by Burroughs and Ginsberg in the 2006 book The Yage Letters Redux, originally published in slimmer form as The Yage Letters in 1963. While it wasn’t published in Burroughs’ work, he actually identified the genus of ayahuasca’s key ingredients in June 1953, before anyone from Western civilization had done so publicly.
Kerouac seems to have tasted the real thing, since, according to Ginsberg (writing during the event), Jack remarked, “This is one of the most sublime or tender or lovely moments of all our lives together . . .” That’s not to say the experience was only positive. In June 1963 Jack reflected to Allen that, when he would wander into Manhattan for drinking binges, “I come back [to Long Island] with visions of horror as bad as Ayahuasca vision on the neanderthal million years in caves, the gruesomeness of life!”
In January 1961, a few months after Kerouac’s ayahuasca trip, he ingested capsules containing the extract of what he called “Sacred Mushrooms,” a nickname for psilocybin. Ginsberg had recently visited Timothy Leary at Harvard to participate in Leary’s soon-to-be-controversial psychedelic studies. According to Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain’s book Acid Dreams, when Ginsberg called Kerouac during his psilocybin trial to announce that he was God and demand that Jack come try the mushrooms immediately, Jack replied, “I can’t leave my mother.” Ginsberg brought the capsules back to New York to distribute to various people, and Kerouac went to Allen’s Manhattan apartment to try them for himself.
Kerouac’s reaction to this experience is recorded in a letter he sent to Timothy Leary later that month (which, for unknown reasons, was omitted from Kerouac’s Selected Letters, 1957-1969, the second volume of correspondence edited by Ann Charters). Jack wrote, “Mainly I felt like a floating [Genghis] Kahn on a magic carpet with my interesting lieutenants and gods… some ancient feeling about old geheuls [sic] in the grass, and temples, exactly also like the sensation I got drunk on pulque floating in the Xochimilco gardens on barges laden with flowers and singers… some old Golden Age dream of man, very nice.”
Kerouac’s final experiment of this period came in December 1961 (as least, according to the published literature). It’s fairly evident that on this occasion Kerouac ingested actual dried psilocybin mushrooms instead of capsules. He wrote to Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky (Ginsberg’s lover) that he had just finished transferring the Big Sur manuscript from the teletype roll to standard pages, “all done in ecstasy, in fact (with bennies [Benzedrine])—Also ate 12 SMushrooms in one afternoon and wanted to send telegram to Winston Churchill something about an old Baron crying for his hounds in his ‘weird weild weir,’ thinking, on psilocybin, one baron to another he’d understand—”
During the writing of Big Sur, some of these psychedelic experiences crept into the book despite Kerouac’s initial statement about “metaphysical hopelessness.” Upon awaking from a bizarre dream sequence, “Jack Duluoz” (Kerouac’s fictional projection of himself) reflects on the “millionpieced mental explosions that I remember I thought were so wonderful when I’d first seen them on Peotl and Mescaline…broken in pieces some of them big orchestral and then rainbow explosions of sound and sight mixed.” The “peotl” (or “peyotl,” the indigenous spellings of “peyote”) cactus has long been consumed by tribes in northern Mexico and the American southwest for the mescaline it contains. Kerouac first encountered peyote eight years before his trip to Bixby Canyon, while living with Burroughs in Mexico City in 1952. The two embarked on a fruitful series of peyote trials that Kerouac described in his letters to friends back in the United States.
On March 12 of that year, Jack wrote to John Clellon Holmes about what was possibly his first full-on psychedelic experience, conveying “the wild visions of musical pure truth I got on peotl (talk about your Technicolor visions!)…” Shortly thereafter, on June 5, Kerouac wrote again to Holmes, telling of the time when a few “young American hipsters” gave him and Burroughs some peyote, after which the duo walked around Mexico City at night. In a park Jack found himself “wanting to sit in the grass and stay near the ground all night by moonlight, with the lights of the show and the houses all flashing, flashing in my eyeballs…”
This letter is important for another reason; in it Jack explains the thrill of writing with his new “sketching” style, an early conception of what he would later call “spontaneous prose.” Late in October 1951, Kerouac’s friend Ed White had suggested that Jack try to write as though he was painting a scene. Kerouac told Holmes he was “beginning to discover…something beyond the novel and beyond the arbitrary confines of the story . . . into the realms of revealed Picture . . . revealed whatever . . . revealed prose . . . wild form, man, wild form. Wild form’s the only form holds what I have to say—my mind is exploding to say something about every image and every memory in—I have now an irrational lust to set down everything I know—in narrowing circles…”
The strong parallel between the “rainbow explosions” Kerouac saw on mescaline and peyote, and the feeling that he was “exploding” to describe his thoughts about reality, suggests that Jack’s psychedelic exploration in 1952 had a decisive influence on what would become his trademark prose style.
Kerouac’s first efforts to develop his sketching method resulted in Visions of Cody, written in 1951 and ’52. He further honed the style with Doctor Sax and, in early ‘53, Maggie Cassidy. But in the fall of ‘53, Kerouac wrote The Subterraneans, which was the closest to a prequel of Big Sur that Jack composed during this period when he “discovered” spontaneous prose. It was not only a stylistic precedent, but also a thematic one—specifically the themes of self-sabotaged relationships, nervous breakdowns, and creeping insanity. In both novels Kerouac focuses largely on his own life and “internal monologue” instead of employing a “hero” like Cassady (called “Dean Moriarty” or “Cody Pomeray” in Kerouac’s novels) or Gary Snyder (“Japhy Ryder” of The Dharma Bums) to carry the story. As Kerouac writes halfway through Big Sur, “I’m beginning to go seriously crazy, just like Subterranean Irene went crazy…” This is actually a cryptic clue in which he’s evoking “Mardou Fox” of Subterraneans, the love interest of protagonist “Leo Percepied” (another name for “Jack Duluoz”). “Mardou’s” real name was Alene Lee, but Jack referred to her as “Irene May” in Book of Dreams.
Once again, Big Sur generally depicts Kerouac’s brush with “insanity” as stemming from his alcoholism. There’s hardly a time in the book when “Duluoz” is not holding a bottle of whiskey or wine. But as the story progresses, some of the descriptions seem to fall way outside the scope of what alcohol can do to a person’s mind and one’s perception of reality. For instance, when Jack’s friends try to get him to eat some food, he can’t take more than a bite. He’s too paranoid that they’re trying to poison him, and he’s too distracted by his mental aberrations. “Masks explode before my eyes when I close them, when I look at the moon it waves, moves, when I look at my hands and feet they creep–––Everything is moving, the porch is moving like ooze and mud, the chair trembles under me.” Notice again the mention of “explosions.” Or examine the aforementioned dream sequence, in which Jack sees numerous “Vulture People” copulating in a trash dump. “Their faces are leprous thick with soft yeast but painted with makeup…yellow pizza puke faces, disgusting us…we’ll be taken to the Underground Slimes to walk neck deep in steaming mucks pulling huge groaning wheels (among small forked snakes) so the devil with the long ears can mine his Purple Magenta Square Stone that is the secret of all this Kingdom–––“
Even a glance at Book of Dreams makes it obvious that Kerouac frequently had extraordinary night-visions. But such passages really bring to mind a few specific things: the psychedelic experience, existentialist literature, and the rare cases in which the two are combined. Though Kerouac more often talked of his fondness for Dostoevsky than for later existentialists, Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1938 novel Nausea (not published in English until 1949) is an indubitable precursor to Big Sur. Nausea contains a first-person journal-style account by a French man named Roquentin, who unexpectedly becomes overtaken by mortal horror and bodily uneasiness. As Roquentin says early in the novel, “Then the Nausea seized me, I dropped to a seat, I no longer knew where I was; I saw the colours spin slowly around me, I wanted to vomit. And since that time, the Nausea has not left me, it holds me.”
There’s a deeper connection between the two novels as well. In his 2002 book Breaking Open the Head, Daniel Pinchbeck reports that Sartre tried mescaline in 1935 as a research subject in Paris. Pinchbeck writes that “long after the physical effect of the drug had worn off, Sartre found himself plunged into a lingering nightmare of psychotic dread and paranoia; shoes threatened to turn into insects, stone walls seethed with monsters.” Pinchbeck infers that this influenced the writing of Nausea—but he thought Sartre’s affliction lasted about a week. Actually Sartre experienced hallucinations of shellfish (usually lobsters, but he also called them crabs) for years, according to a 2009 book of conversations between Jean-Paul and John Gerassi, whose parents were close friends with Sartre. Gerassi quotes Sartre saying, “Yeah, after I took mescaline I started seeing crabs around me all the time. They followed me in the streets, into class… I would wake up in the morning and say, ‘Good morning, my little ones, how did you sleep?’” 
In 1954, thanks to Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, the Western world became much more aware of the potential promise of mescaline as a visionary aid. But interspersed with descriptions of his wondrous hallucinations, Huxley cautioned not to place too much expectation on mescaline for spiritual enlightenment. Still, the book was extremely influential in the literary world, and it paved the way for the psychedelic uprising that Leary and others would lead in the 1960s.
So it’s a bit surprising that someone in Kerouac’s position, writing a book like Big Sur in 1961, wouldn’t emphasize psychedelics more or even try to work them into the plot, if only through a flashback or some similar device. Not only did he largely leave them out of the book, but he even downplayed the way they had guided his own “mysticism”—something that, in retrospect, is clearly evident in books like On the Road (published in 1957), The Dharma Bums (1958), and Visions of Gerard (1963). Kerouac even amended the line about “the mad ones” early in Road that would become his most famous quote, and—perhaps not unexpectedly—the final wording seems influenced by his 1952 peyote experiments. In the 1951 “scroll” version (not published until 2007) it read “burn, burn, burn like roman candles across the night.” But in the 1957 version, the line went “burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop…”
It all seems even more suspicious after learning that mescaline actually renewed Jack’s faith in his unique prose style in 1959, just as peyote seems to have inspired the style initially in 1952. Soon after taking mescaline, Kerouac told Ginsberg that during the trip he’d had “the sensational revelation that I’ve been on the right track with spontaneous never-touch-up poetry of immediate report…” Kerouac’s “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose” held that writing should be “confessional,” “always honest,” and—the part most tied up with myths about Kerouac—have “no revisions.” We’ve already seen one case where Kerouac revised a work that he claimed to be an entirely spontaneous composition. So one can’t help but wonder—was Kerouac being as honest as he claimed in his prose theory? To begin to understand that, we must descend into Jack’s past.
In the spring of 1943, Kerouac enlisted in the Navy with the intention of serving the U.S. as a pilot in the growing European conflict. However, he failed the pilot exam and ended up in boot camp in Rhode Island. When he refused to participate in the drills one day, he was taken to the Navy’s psychiatric hospital for observation and was soon diagnosed with “dementia praecox,” which today would be called “schizophrenia.” But Jack’s symptoms are more important than the term applied to them, and in his letters to friends he didn’t seem too worried about what he called the “irregularity” of his mind. Writing to childhood friend G.J. Apostolos, Kerouac explained that he had a “normal” side (embodied in G.J.) that loved sports, drinking, and sex—and a “schizoid” side (embodied in another Lowell friend, Sebastian Sampas) marked by introversion, alienation, and eccentricity. But there are hints that this “schizoid” side was actually closer to the core of Jack’s true self, whereas the “normal” side may have been a show he put on to survive with schoolmates, family, and society. “It is the price I pay for having a malleable personality,” Jack wrote from the Navy hospital. “It assumes the necessary shape when in contact with any other personality.”
Had Jack grown up in the second half of the 20th century, he probably would have been diagnosed with “schizoid personality disorder” or “schizotypal personality disorder”—which are both considered “schizophrenia spectrum” conditions. The “schizoid” label corresponds to a preference for solitude, a lack of close relationships outside one’s immediate family, and an inability to express emotions. “Schizotypal” refers to these characteristics, but the person must also exhibit delusions, peculiar beliefs and superstitions, paranoia, and other similar traits.
This was a different time, and Kerouac’s condition was never fully understood by the people in his life. Yet if we’re going to comprehend what happened to him, we have to keep in mind that he undoubtedly fit the “schizotypal” diagnostic criteria. A series of letters that Kerouac wrote to Cassady around New Year’s 1951 help explain why.
When Kerouac was only four years old, a tragedy occurred that would affect him for the rest of his life. His older brother Gerard died of rheumatic fever in 1926 at the age of nine, and throughout life Jack harbored two “peculiar beliefs” that stemmed from Gerard’s passing. One was that he believed his brother Gerard was a saint, an angel, and even Jesus; the other was that he felt responsible—and, therefore, guilty—for Gerard’s death. In the letters, Kerouac claims to remember the events of 1926, despite his young age at the time. Not only that, but he says he remembers his own birth in March 1922. But Kerouac also seems conflicted. He admits to Cassady that some of his “memories” are based on family pictures, and says that he “wouldn’t be able to tell you this now, if everyone [in my family] hadn’t told me a thousand times, and each time I don’t believe it, because I don’t remember a thing…”
More importantly, Kerouac says that he considered dreams and memories to be equivalent. He thought a person’s dreams came “from that part of his brain which has stored up a subconscious vision of an actual experience.” This is basically a Freudian theory of dream analysis, which holds that the elements of conscious experience are repressed into the subconscious mind and then become dream content, sometimes expressing hidden (unconscious) wishes or desires. So when Jack had a dream of himself as a one-year-old baby, he regarded it as a playback of his own memory—though he had no conscious recollection of that time apart from the dream.
In addition to equating dream and memory, Kerouac also believed that “dream and vision are intertwinable with reality and prophecy.” In other words, when the young Jack became aware of Gerard’s inevitable death, that in his mind (even his adult mind) seemed to have been a prophecy of Gerard’s death—which implied that young Jack had actually caused Gerard’s death. It wasn’t just Jack’s awareness of Gerard’s condition that created the guilt, but actually an incident that happened shortly before Gerard passed. Kerouac thought he remembered carelessly knocking down Gerard’s erector set, which inspired Gerard to slap his face and yell harsh words. Burroughs helped Kerouac sort out these memories in 1945, figuring, as Kerouac put it in the letter to Cassady, “that I resented the slap in the face and wished Gerard would die, and he died a few days later.”
But Kerouac still seems confused, because a part of him remembered not really understanding what it meant when he found out Gerard was dead. He says he never cried, probably because he thought (in accordance with Catholic doctrine) that Gerard was at peace in Heaven. As Kerouac put it in 1951, “I knew, as I have never known since, that death does no harm…” One paradox inherent in Catholicism is that the Church instills adherents with a severe horror of death, while simultaneously asking them to believe in a Biblical afterlife. Jack apparently felt fearless again after trying mescaline, which is a common reaction to the psychedelic experience. As he wrote to Ginsberg in October 1959, “I now no longer sad about sadness of birth-and-death scene because all that I had divined about the truth…was SEEN not just divined or known—”
There’s a reason for Kerouac’s confusion: it seems that most of his “memories” from before the age of six are based on stories told to him by his parents, largely his mother. In the letters, Kerouac carefully points out which details are from his own vague memory (e.g., not knowing why his family cried about Gerard), and which are details that his mother vehemently defended as true despite Jack’s inability to remember them. In 1945 Kerouac even told his sister that, in his words, “…I feel as though I don’t have a mind or will of my own.” Therefore, Burroughs was helping Jack decipher mostly Gabrielle’s memories—memories that Jack assumed to be true because, according to his worldview, memories were equivalent to reality. Actually memory is very fallible, partly because every individual perceives the world in a slightly different manner.
Gabrielle’s version of reality was that Gerard had always acted kind and saintly toward Jack—but Jack became jealous of all the attention given to the sickly Gerard, and resented Gerard’s vengeful slap. But Kerouac notes that his mother suffered a “nervous breakdown” when Gerard died, during which all her teeth fell out. He writes to Cassady, “The sight of this holy child slowly dying might have affected her mind at the time, and her stories about him may today be exaggerated…” Yet he considered similar stories from his father and other relatives to be “verification” of Gabrielle’s version. Kerouac was even informed that a priest, neighbors, and business associates “spoke in the same way about Gerard: to the effect that he was the strangest, most angelic gentle child they had ever known.” But Pauline Coffey, a former neighbor of the Kerouac family, had a different impression of Gerard: “There was nothing exceptional about him. He was like any other kid—it was the mother—if you’ve ever lost a child, you would understand.”
When Kerouac reflected on these memories five years after his “confession” to Cassady, while writing Visions of Gerard in January 1956, he omitted all his own personal doubts and stuck to his family’s Myth of Gerard. Charters’ biography offers a perceptive analysis of that novel: “Mémêre’s stories about Gerard were the framework for Jack’s narrative… The world of his experience and the world of his imagination came together in Visions of Gerard as in no other book in the Duluoz Legend.” One of Gabrielle’s stories was key in establishing Gerard as a “saint.” As Kerouac tells it in the novel, Gerard fell asleep in class at their Catholic school and dreamt that the Virgin Mary took him away to Heaven in a “snow-white cart drawn by two lambs, and as he sits in it two white pigeons settle on each of his shoulders…” When Gerard’s teacher woke him, he announced that he had seen the Virgin, and “we’re all in Heaven–––but we dont know it!” Since this was in December 1925, about seven months before Gerard died, it’s implied that the dream was premonition of Gerard’s imminent passing, as well as his Heavenly designation as a saint.
Kerouac didn’t doubt that such a thing happened, which in his mind would have meant that Gerard literally met the Virgin Mary. That’s partly because Kerouac himself remembers experiencing holy visions as a child. He tells Cassady that his life “is filled with superstitions,” and in the Catholic Church “much mysticism is sown broadspread from its ritual mysteries…” Jack then tells of “the statue of St. Therese, whose head is often seen turning by madtranced watchers; whose head I myself saw turning, head-of-stone.” But biographer Paul Maher Jr. explains that Catholic school classes of that time viewed a motion picture in which the statue’s head was made to turn with trick photography. Whether or not the kids were told that it was an illusion, the point—just as with other religious indoctrination—was to convince them that it was actually possible. In that sort of fundamentalist Catholic environment—made even more severe by the delusions of his grieving and mentally unstable mother, who built up the Myth of Gerard to keep Jack in a state of constant inferiority and thereby manipulate him like a marionette—it appears that Kerouac felt extreme pressure to have mystical beliefs, superstitions, visions, and fears.
All of this must be taken into account when reading Big Sur, especially the segment towards the end when “Jack Duluoz” experiences visions of a cross. Kerouac writes, “For a moment I see blue Heaven and the Virgin’s white veil…by God I am being taken away my body starts dying and swooning out to the Cross standing in a luminous area of the darkness…” Of course, this is reported during the peak of Jack’s nervous breakdown, when he also allegedly hears voices speaking an indistinguishable language in his ear, senses a flying saucer searching for him in the trees, and mistakes a sleeping young boy for an evil warlock.
Just before then Jack had become increasingly disoriented, repeatedly saying or thinking, “I can’t understand what’s going on–––“ He says he wishes that Cassady were around to explain everything in a way that made sense. Actually this is the role that Gabrielle played in Jack’s life more often than anyone else. Just as Jack trusted mémêre’s version of the past, he also trusted her to interpret current events. And during Jack’s three-year imprisonment with his mother from late 1957 to early 1960, their “reality” consisted largely of fear over a supposedly imminent “Communist” uprising—a fear fueled by government officials and compliant mass media during the height of the Cold War. When “Duluoz’s” friends try to feed him in Big Sur, he thinks, “…this secret poisoning society, I know, it’s because I’m a Catholic, it’s a big anti-Catholic scheme, it’s Communists destroying everybody…in the morning you no longer have the same mind–––the drug is invented by Airapatianz, it’s the brainwash drug…”
In reality Kerouac was recalling his experience with Leary’s psilocybin mushroom capsules, which he describes—along with a reference to the “Dear Coach” letter—in his 12/28/1961 missive to Ginsberg: “I incidentally wrote Timothy Leary…that I think this is the Siberian sacred mushroom used by Brainwash-inventor Airapantianz to empty American soldier prisoners in Korean brainwash program—Because if you become so emptied you don’t even care if you’re Kerouac or Ginsberg or Orlovsky, and what that meant to you before, then you’re ready to become anything at all, for any reason, even perhaps an assasin [sic]?”
Unfortunately Kerouac projected any suspicion and anger he felt towards his mother onto other people, whether it was his late brother Gerard or father Leo, living individuals like Ginsberg or Kerouac’s first two wives (Edie Parker and Joan Haverty), or more hypothetical groups (in Kerouac’s immediate experience, that is) like “the Communists.” After mentioning the apparent brainwash potential in the letter to Leary after his January 1961 psilocybin trial, Kerouac wrote that he spent “3 days and 3 nights” talking with his mother while, it seemed to him, the mushrooms were still affecting his mind. The result, in his words: “I learned I loved her more than I thought.” Somehow Kerouac didn’t connect his concerns about brainwash potential with the effect that Mémêre was having on him. One can find examples of these mental slips involving his mother scattered throughout the “Duluoz Legend.”
Later in the letter, Jack included a statement that helps to answer the question of why he would downplay psychedelics in his fiction and public statements. As he told Leary, “It was a definite Satori. Full of psychic clairvoyance (but you must remember that this is not half as good as the peaceful ecstacy [sic] of simple Samadhi trance as I described that in Dharma Bums).” Kerouac intended for The Dharma Bums to be read as a resolution to the existential conflict so visible in earlier books like On the Road and The Subterraneans. He also hoped for it to be a life manual for anyone in a similar situation, because in the mid- to late-1950s he viewed Buddhism as “the answer.” In other words, Kerouac perceived the potential rise of psychedelic drugs in the 1960s as a threat to the usefulness of his own body of work. In turn, his disparagement of psychedelics—and his silence (outside of private letters) about their potential advantages—was propaganda for the Duluoz Legend.
In fact, Kerouac found little use for Buddhism in his personal life by the start of the Big Sur period. His devout Catholic family had been fighting him about it for years. And as he told Carolyn Cassady after writing Big Sur—specifically referring to the end of the book, which describes his mental breakdown—“I realized all my Buddhism had been words—comforting words, indeed—“ Despite that, he still made Desolation Angels a sort of sequel to Dharma Bums a few years later, keeping much of the Buddhist terminology in place.
But there was a more personal element to Jack’s spurning of psychedelics. As his own descriptions of chemical experiments attest, psychedelic substances can provide the very sort of “visions” (i.e., hallucinations) that were so cherished in the fundamentalist Catholic worldview. According to the “mysticism” that Jack knew as a child, visionary ability was even a primary criterion for becoming a “saint” (like Kerouac’s beloved St. Therese) or an “angel.” Therefore, if it became public knowledge—or if his mother found out—that his visions didn’t always happen spontaneously, then it would harm his attempts to live up to the Myth of Gerard, the larger-than-life standards that Jack’s mother had held for him since before he could remember. This is likely the reason why, after giving Ginsberg his “Mescaline Report” in early 1960, Jack wrote to Allen from Chicago (en route to San Francisco and Bixby Canyon), “Hold the Mescaline Notes till I get back in Fall—Don’t give em to my mother.” It’s probably also the reason why that “Mescaline Report” has apparently vanished from existence (though it might be in his archives in Lowell, MA, or at the Berg Collection in the New York City Public Library).
This differs substantially from the idea espoused by many of Kerouac’s biographers, who took a line of recorded conversation in the “Dear Coach” letter (“walking on water wasn’t built in a day”) as a sign that Jack saw very limited value in psychedelics. As it turns out, Kerouac’s literary treatment of psychedelics is one of many routes to a rude awakening about the Duluoz Legend, showing that it’s far less “objectively” true than commonly thought. In Big Sur, Kerouac wanted the cause of his mental breakdown to be alcoholism fueled by fame and “mortal existence,” not a spiritual awakening (or re-awakening) inspired by psychedelics, and definitely not his “tyrannical…mother’s sway over me” (as he referred to it once in The Subterraneans ). Furthermore, he wanted the cure to be “Christ,” “God,” the “Cross,” and his mother. As Kerouac writes on the last page, “My mother’ll be waiting for me glad–––“
We can deduce all of this by looking at Kerouac’s October 1961 letter to Ferlinghetti, whom Jack actually visited again in San Francisco before returning to the East Coast in September 1960. As Kerouac writes, “…I was going to have lots more at the ‘end’ when I come to your house 706 but suddenly saw the novel should end at the cabin…” So Big Sur ends the way it does because of a literary decision that Kerouac made, not necessarily because it depicts the way the events “objectively” happened.
Kerouac wasn’t only deceiving his readership; he was deceiving himself. His unwillingness—or, since it’s time we start taking his “dementia praecox” diagnosis more seriously, his inability to revise his view of reality and existence according to his own subjective life experience led to his early death in 1969. Just as a butterfly transforms from a caterpillar, he could have emerged from his chrysalis a twice-born being. The story behind Big Sur shows that Kerouac had the opportunity to progress through his existential crisis and live an entirely new life of liberation and prosperity. But his loss need not be our own.
 Kerouac, Jack. Windblown World. Ed. by Douglas Brinkley. New York: Penguin Books, 2004. pp. 61-66.
 Kerouac, Jack. Big Sur. 1962. New York: Penguin Books, 1992. p. 4.
 Kerouac, Jack. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. Ed. by Ann Charters. 1999. New York: Penguin Books, 2000. pp. 296-297.
 Kerouac, J. Windblown World. p. 62.
 Charters, Ann. Kerouac: A Biography. 1973. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987. pp. 303-304.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. From footnote #1 by Ann Charters. p. 164.
 Kerouac, J. Big Sur. pp. 7-8. Long ellipsis was in original; short ellipsis is mine.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. pp. 252-253.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 292.
 Maher Jr., Paul. Kerouac: His Life and Work. 2004. Lanham, MD: Taylor Trade Publishing, 2007. p. 414.
 Burroughs, William S. and Allen Ginsberg. The Yage Letters Redux. 1963. San Francisco: City Lights, 2006. From the introduction by Oliver Harris. pp. xx-xxii.
 Maher Jr., P. Ibid. p. 415. Ellipsis was in original.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 419.
 In both the second volume of Selected Letters and Kerouac: A Biography, Charters writes erroneously that Kerouac took LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) in January 1961. In the biography she also mistakenly states that Kerouac went to Cambridge, Mass., to see Leary.
 “Psilocybin Mushrooms.” Erowid. Accessed on 6/4/2011. http://www.erowid.org/plants/mushrooms/mushrooms.shtml
 Lee, Martin A. and Bruce Shlain. Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD: the CIA, the Sixties, and Beyond. 1985. New York: Grove Press, 1992. pp. 78-82. Note: they mistook Northport as being in Massachusetts, instead of Long Island, New York.
 An alcoholic Mexican drink made of fermented agave. See: “The Spirits of Maguey” by Fire Erowid. Erowid. Nov 2004. Accessed on 6/14/2011. http://www.erowid.org/chemicals/alcohol/alcohol_article1.shtml#pulque
 Kerouac, Jack. “Dear Coach: Jack Kerouac to Timothy Leary.” Acid Dreams Document Gallery. Website for the book Acid Dreams by Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain. Ellipses were in original. Accessed on 3/3/2011. http://www.levity.com/aciddreams/docs/dearcoach.html
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 363. I added “Benzedrine” in brackets.
 Kerouac, J. Big Sur. p. 211.
 “Peyote.” Erowid. Accessed on 6/6/2011. http://www.erowid.org/plants/peyote/peyote.shtml
 Kerouac, Jack. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. Ed. by Ann Charters. 1995. New York: Penguin Books, 1996. p. 336.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. pp. 368-369.
 Charters, A. Ibid. pp. 139-140.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 371. Long ellipses were in book; short ellipsis is mine.
 Kerouac, J. Big Sur. p. 156.
 Kerouac, J. Big Sur. p. 200.
 Kerouac, J. Big Sur. pp. 208-210.
 “Nausea.” Wikipedia. Accessed on 6/6/2011. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nausea_%28novel%29
 Sartre, Jean-Paul. Nausea. 1938. New York: New Directions, 1964. p. 18-19.
 Pinchbeck, Daniel. Breaking Open the Head. New York: Broadway Books, 2002. p. 122.
 Allen-Mills, Tony. “Mescaline left Jean-Paul Sartre in the grip of lobster madness.” The Sunday Times of London. 11/22/2009. Ellipsis was in original. Accessed on 10/31/2010. http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/europe/article6926971.ece
 Huxley, Aldous. The Doors of Perception & Heaven and Hell. New York: Perennial, 2004. p. 41.
 Kerouac, Jack. On the Road: The Original Scroll. New York: Viking, 2007. p. 113.
 Kerouac, Jack. On the Road. 1957. New York: Penguin Books, 1991. pp. 5-6.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 363. pp. 252-253.
 Kerouac, Jack. Essentials of Spontaneous Prose.” The Portable Beat Reader. Ed. by Ann Charters. New York: Viking, 1992. pp. 57-59. Italics were in original.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. From editor’s note by Charters. p. 49.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 56. This citation also goes with “irregularity” quote below.
 Korn, Martin L. “Historical Roots of Schizophrenia.” Medscape. Undated. Accessed on 6/9/2011. http://www.medscape.org/viewarticle/418882_4
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. pp. 61-63.
 “Schizoid personality disorder.” BehaveNet. Undated. Accessed on 6/9/2011. http://www.behavenet.com/capsules/disorders/schizoidpd.htm
 “Schizotypal personality disorder.” BehaveNet. Undated. Accessed on 6/9/2011. http://www.behavenet.com/capsules/disorders/schizotypalpd.htm
 Maher Jr., P. Ibid. pp. 18-20.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. pp. 246-263, 282.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 261.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. pp. 267-268.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 269.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 259. Also, p. 87.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 272.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 252.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 249. He writes, “Six years later…I looked about for the first time and realized I was in a world and not just myself.”
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 88.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 258.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 253.
 Motier, Donald. Gerard: The Influence of Jack Kerouac’s Brother on His Life and Writing. Harrisburg, PA: Beaulieu Street Press, 1991. pp. 4-5. Quoted from Kerouac: His Life and Work by Paul Maher, Jr. p. 19.
 Charters, A. Ibid. pp. 254-255.
 Kerouac, Jack. Visions of Gerard. 1963. New York: Penguin Books, 1991. pp. 51-55.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 270
 Maher Jr., P. Ibid. pp. 22-24.
 Kerouac, J. Big Sur. pp. 204-206.
 Kerouac, J. Big Sur. pp. 155-159.
 Kerouac, J. Big Sur. p. 203.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 363.
 Kerouac, J. “Dear Coach: Jack Kerouac to Timothy Leary.”
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 353.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 299.
 Kerouac, Jack. The Subterraneans. 1958. New York: Grove Press, 1994. p. 47.
 Kerouac, J. Big Sur. p. 216.
 Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 358.
by Christina Diamente
No girl had ever moved me with a story of spiritual suffering
And so beautifully her soul showing out radiant as an angel wandering in hell
And the hell the self-same streets I’d roamed in watching, watching for someone just like her
The Subterraneans, p.50
Jack Kerouac wrote the lines above about the main character in his book The Subterraneans—Mardou Fox. Mardou Fox was Jack Kerouac’s lost love in the novel, and in Kerouac’s real life Mardou was perhaps the only woman ever to walk away from him before he was done with her. Mardou was, until recently, the only literary persona whose true identity had not been revealed by any of his major or early biographers, or by any literary historians of that period. The real Mardou had remained anonymous, and was therefore one of the few ‘best kept secrets’ Kerouac’s books. The omission of Mardou’s real identity and her subsequent role in the literary history of that time, has left gaps in that history that are both revelatory and parallel to the views of Kerouac, Ginsberg, Carr, and Corso on blacks and women. This absence of her presence is, in fact, partially a direct result of Mardou’s impact on the biographers and their books. No biographer would reveal her true identity, because, in her lifetime, she fiercely (and legally) demanded anonymity.
However, Mardou, on her deathbed, spoke these last words to me* and Maryanne Nowack (a now deceased New York City artist): “I want you to do whatever you can to help keep me alive.” These words, which one could construe as a simple wish to remain alive by any means possible, came during the predicted end-stage of a fast-growth terminal lung cancer, which Mardou had fought for the previous year and a half. The words became, for me, a directive to reinstate the speaker into the official literary history of that time.
Since Mardou knew that she was dying and had requested a Do Not Resuscitate order, it was clear that a fulfillment of this last request would have to be accomplished in a literary manner, since a literal fulfillment of that wish would have been impossible.
Nineteen years after her death, I can finally say that Mardou was my mother. Her real name was Alene Lee (ne Arlene Garris), a 5’2” African and Native American, and an American-bred beauty. She was so renowned for her beauty that men throughout New York City (particularly in the Village and in little Italy, where she was a living legend courtesy of The Subterraneans) pursued her well into her 40s. However, Alene was more than beautiful. She was, quite simply, one of the most brilliant of all the Beats that Kerouac knew in his days in the coffee shops and bars of 1950s New York City. Lucien Carr, one of Kerouac’s closest friends and a literary collaborator (whose persona he used frequently in his novels– Sam in The Subterraneans) said of Alene, “When I was given an IQ test, I scored 155, but I consider Alene to be smarter than I am. She is the most intelligent woman I know.” Allen Ginsberg, also a close friend of both Kerouac and Carr, said in a 1997 interview at the loft of Virginia Admiral, “Alene was a peer, and we [Kerouac, Burroughs, and Carr] considered her an equal.”
Alene, however, because of her determination to remain unnamed as the real-life Mardou and perhaps as a result of her sometimes-hostile relations with the Kerouac biographers, came to be depicted by those same biographers as a somewhat peripheral character in Kerouac’s life and in the BeatGeneration. In one photographic history of the era Alene is insultingly described as a “groupie” admirer of Kerouac’s. Nothing could have been further from the truth, nor a more devastating description to Alene, for she was a fiercely independent woman, who had never even been a Beat fan, much less an ardent fan. Another writer, who contributed to the concept of Alene as “less than” the men of the time, was Anne Charters, who referred to Alene throughout her biography of Kerouac as simply “the black girl.” This description had infuriated Alene, since she considered it to be a racist devaluation of herself as a person, and a reduction of herself as a human being to a sex and race. Alene said years later that she felt it was Charters’ way of paying her back for her having demanded anonymity in her Kerouac biography.
As the first biographer Alene worked with, or to be more accurate the first that she refused to cooperate with, Charters suffered the wrath of a woman who was trying to both conceal her identity (because of painful experiences she had as a result of Kerouac’s book about her) and who was also trying to protect the great love of her life—Lucien Carr (who had many memories he was unwilling to reveal or discuss like his conviction for murdering a homosexual friend). Alene had never worked with a biographer before and to her it seemed inappropriate to discuss her love and sex life with a stranger—particularly since the biography subject—Kerouac—was dead. She didn’t feel it was honorable to reveal ‘truths’ about the dead Kerouac or about the then alive Lucien.Exposing her own and others’ private lives and subjecting them to pain, was not something she was willing to do. Unfortunately, Alene would pay a steep price for her reluctance to speak in her interviews with Kerouac biographer Ann Charters. She had to endure years of pain from being portrayed erroneously as a black girl groupie who hung out with junkies.
While subsequent biographers Barry Gifford, Lawrence Lee, and Gerald Nicosia were able to find a compromise pathway for Alene to express her views and experiences on Kerouac and the time of the Beats, Charters virtually eliminated her as a persona and as a figure of that time, potentially as a response to Alene’s demand for anonymity. Alene viewed Charters’ characterizations as deliberate attempts to dehumanize and humiliate her–creating an unsympathetic portrayal of her in the process. Biographers Gifford and Lee, who gave Alene the pseudonym “Irene May,” fared somewhat better, in Alene’s estimation, since they did not interpret or ‘spin’ her words in keeping with the aural tradition of direct quotes that they used in the book. Author Gerald Nicosia, in his biography Memory Babe, referred to her simply as “’Mardou,’ and he printed his interviews with her almost verbatim, to Alene’s satisfaction.
It was Alene’s negative experience with the biographer Charters that led her to demand strict confidentiality and anonymity agreements with all of the subsequent Kerouac biographers that interviewed her and Lucien Carr (with whom she was living throughout the years from 1962-1973). Both Gifford and Lee, who wrote Jack’s Book, and Gerald Nicosia, had to sign elaborate agreements which kept Alene anonymous and which protected, to the degree possible, Lucien Carr, who was understandably less than happy about the constant rehashing of his 1944 murder of David Kammarer.
Carr, in a 1992 phone interview, had actually requested that this work about Alene Lee not be written, admonishing me with his feeling that Alene “would not like it.” He subsequently cut off all communications with me refusing to speak to me or cooperate in any way. It was, in fact, a respectful consideration of that admonition that delayed the continuance and completion of this work for over 10 years.
Alene had loved Lucien Carr up to her death and she had insisted throughout the whole 11 years of her relationship with Carr that he was to be considered and treated by me as a ‘father figure.’ Despite the sense of an imperative to tell Alene’s story before all of the live sources disappeared, the need to respect Lucien Carr’s request weighed so heavily that only after ten years of wandering in the academic wilderness, and as many years of therapeutic purgings, and the study of African American and female writers, and a consideration of the feminist writings about women who never became writers—who were lost forever in time by history, only after the weight of considering all of these perspectives – could I decide to go forward with a history of Alene. To disobey one’s ‘father’ is not a step taken lightly, particularly when the price you will pay is the complete and total loss of that father’s consideration, if not love.
In light of such an active disapproval by Lucien Carr (who had been involved with Lee up to one month prior to her cancer diagnosis in 1989) and in view of a previous strongly stated desire for anonymity by Alene herself, the reader may wonder why then I reveal ‘Mardou’s’ identity, her thoughts, and her involvement with Kerouac, Burroughs, and Carr? Is there big money in it? Will it arouse the interest of tabloids? Is it a vendetta and attempt to cast Alene in a “Mommy Dearest” light or Carr in a classic spoiled rich boy goes bad black hat? No. It is quite simply an attempt to put Alene back into the literary history of that time and to enhance the beat history that Kerouac himself had attempted to tell—to chronicle the times, and at least one more of the lively characters that lived in those times.
Alene was a part of the beat history, who, though she never claimed to be a great writer like Kerouac, deserves at least her footnote* in the literary records, if not more. In the spirit of Joyce Glassman Johnson’s Minor Characters, this is the attempt to fill in a blank spot that others have happily allowed to remain blank.
To put it bluntly, an intellectual black and indigenous woman actually existed and was formative in the creation of at least one of the works of what some may call a great American writer. Kerouac was not well known for his collegial or intellectual relations with women and minorities and his depiction of Alene, while it honored her intelligence, mostly portrayed Alene through his lens—that of a male sexual appetite. Not only Kerouac but Carr, Ginsberg, and Burroughswere men focused in large part on their own talents and worth, not the talents of what they called their “old ladies,” or whatever women they were then ‘involved’ with. The ‘old ladies’ were generally expected to “keep their mouth[s] shut” and to exude an ornamental aesthetic of beauty with which the men/writers could clothe themselves in public. A remarkable comment that Kerouac made to Allen Ginsberg exemplifies Jack’s deepest feelings about women. Kerouac said, “I only fuck girls and I learn from men.” (Barry Miles, p 131) Largely touted as a cultural rebel, Kerouac was in fact a member of an exclusive clique with distinctively male privilege.
One of this group was author William Burroughs – the eldest of the literary trio, an heir to the Burroughs fortune,and a Harvard graduate. Another, Lucien Carr, a privileged trust fund child and Columbia University student was the first of the three to formulate the idea of a ‘new vision’ literature that inspired Kerouac. Carr was a Rockefeller relative, and both he and Burroughs were the life-long recipients of trust funds and economic security. Burroughs, from the ivy walled towers of Harvard and Carr, Kerouac, and Ginsberg from the prestigious halls of Columbia University—these three were a male literary and social clique that accepted women as bit players but not as minds to be reckoned with. Kerouac and Ginsberg, though from working and middle class white families, ultimately became powerful literary and cultural icons (often credited with or blamed for, depending on perspective, the onset of the 60s hippie rejections of middle class mores and cultural status quo). And while both helped spawn the ‘revolutionary’ cultural conversion to ‘free sex’ and drug use as norms for the theoretical seeking of alternate/creative mind states in the 1950s and 60s, neither Kerouac or Ginsberg crossed the cultural race barriers that were being torn down by black civil rights activists in meaningful ways. They listened to black poet LeRoi Jones, now Amiri Baraka, and to black jazz musicians like Elvin Jones, and they slept with the occasional black woman, but they never had serious long term involvements or friendships with them. Kerouac, in particular, never intellectually collaborated with female or black writers, though he was an avid admirer of black bebop, jive, and jazz music. His relationships with women and minorities (infrequent) were mostly sexual. Women, blacks, and Native Americans were ancillary to the ‘great myths’ about himself and his friends that Kerouac felt he was destined to write. They were as unimportant to Kerouac as they have traditionally been to the literary academy and the annals of the Great Dead White Men.
But a black and Native American woman named Alene Lee did exist during that same time and place in the 1950s and 60s. She did influence Kerouac, Carr, and Ginsberg. She did write.And, finally, it may be said, she did die still in love with at least one of these men (Carr), and in friendship with another (Ginsberg—who was with her when she died at Lenox Hill Hospital in 1991). Without her person being reinserted into the Beat Generation, what is at stake is the commodification of that history, a portrait with no black or indigenous females in the picture. Without Alene’s perspective, Kerouac and Ginsberg remain more heroically palatable and more mythic literary figures than they actually were. Ignoring her perspective and writings or leaving them buried comes at the cost of ignoring certain harms that Kerouac, Ginsberg, Carr and others inflicted on the lesser known members of their beat generation. Ignoring her also comes at the cost of deleting one of the few recorded recollections of the beats as men and artists written by a black and native American woman of that period.
This African and Native American woman lived, breathed, loved, lost, learned, interacted with, fought with, and wrote about Jack Kerouac and other ‘beats’ of that time as well. This is the beginning of an attempt to place that woman—Alene—back into the historical texts. It is the attempt to shed light on another perspective about Kerouac and his peers. It is the attempt to give voice to Alene Lee’s feelings and thoughts about having been immortalized as Mardou in Kerouac’s The Subterraneans. And finally, it is the attempt of a daughter to fulfill her promise to a dying woman to help keep her alive.
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
By Kristin McLaughlin
Without Gerard, what would have happened to Ti Jean? – Jack Kerouac
Visions of Gerard is Kerouac’s prolonged meditation on his older, saintly brother Gerard, who died at the age of nine (Jack was four at the time) of rheumatic fever. As the cornerstone of the Dulouz legend, Visions of Gerard, along with Maggie Cassidy and Dr. Sax, deals with Kerouac’s early life in Lowell, Massachusetts. Most biographers agree that though Kerouac left Lowell after high school, he never left it emotionally. That was where his heart remained. In 1963, six years before his death, he said, “I have a recurring dream of simply walking around the deserted twilight streets of Lowell, in the mist, eager to return to every known and fabled corner. A very eerie, recurrent dream, but it always makes me happy when I wake up.”
Kerouac was born in March 1922 at 9 Lupine Road in Centralville, one of Lowell’s neighborhoods on the north side of the Merrimack River. Lowell had its hay-day during the late 19th/early 20th century when the banks of the river were crowded with textile mills. By the time Jack was born, however, Lowell was already declining as the mills began to close.
He was the third child of Leo and Gabrielle Kerouac, both French-Canadian immigrants who had met and married in Nashua, New Hampshire. Leo owned a print shop in Lowell and was “a hearty, outgoing burgher” and Gabrielle, known to everyone as Mémêre, conducted the household in a Quebecois patois known as joual. For one of the most influential American writers of the 20th century, Jack didn’t learn English until he went to school.
Kerouac’s mother played an important – perhaps unhealthily important – role in his life. He told biographer Anne Charters that his mother was the only woman he ever loved. She was devoutly Catholic, and wore religious medals attached to the strap of her slip. After Gerard’s death, she became fiercely protective of Ti Jean (as Jack was known), and that continued throughout his life. While his father seemed indifferent and occasionally hostile to organized religion and its messengers, Mémêre instilled in the Kerouac children a religious sensibility that is apparent in all of Kerouac’s writings. Religion, his mother, and his background as a child of working-class immigrants profoundly affected him, his writing, and his worldview. Though he did a lot of things that could be viewed as the antithesis of those influences, it’s clear in his writing that those influences were always there.
In Visions of Gerard, Kerouac seamlessly blends dream and reality to create a “book of sorrows.” Though evidence suggests that most of the scenes in Visions of Gerard do not stem from Kerouac’s real memories, he manages to meld his few recollections, his dreams and visions, his mother’s romanticized anecdotes and his own imaginings into a tribute to a dying brother. To Jack, Gerard really was angelic.
One story related of Gerard is that he once found a mouse in a trap that was still alive. Horrified that someone would do this to one of God’s creatures, he brought the mouse home, bandaged it up and took care of it. Before long the cat found the mouse and ate it, leaving only the tail behind. Gerard scolded the cat, but not in the mean way you would expect from a child. Instead, Gerard gives the feline a lecture that it shouldn’t harm others. Leo tries to explain to the boy that that happens in life – we eat things that are smaller than us. But Gerard wants none of it. “We’ll never go to Heaven if we go on eating each other and destroying each other like that all the time! – without thinking, without knowing.”
As stated earlier, Gerard died of rheumatic fever, an inflammatory disorder affecting the heart, joints, skin, and nervous system that can develop after a Group A streptococcal infection such as strep throat or scarlet fever. Though he was in a great deal of pain, particularly towards the end of his life, Kerouac does not put the boy’s suffering in the forefront. Gerard, in his saintliness, suffers quietly, without complaint. Despite his own pain, he brings home hungry neighborhood children for Mémêre to feed. “Unceasing compassion flows from Gerard to the world even while he groans in the very middle of his extremity.”
Gerard oversees Jack, wanting him to be good. Kerouac writes of when he stabbed a picture of a murderess on the front page of the newspaper. Gerard scolds him, like he scolded the cat, and together they patched the newspaper back together, so the picture was as good as new. Though Gerard is mostly kind to Ti Jean (except when slaps him for knocking over his erector set), there is competition. Little Jack wonders why Gerard gets fed before he does, and states, “there’s no doubt in my heart that my mother loves Gerard more than she loves me.”
The Gerard that Jack knows is otherworldly. He falls asleep in class and dreams that the Virgin Mary came to him with a white wagon pulled by two lambs. He tells his little brother about the color of God. He goes to confession where he tells the priest about a little boy whom he pushed when the child accidently knocked over something he was making. The priest asks if the boy was hurt; Gerard says no, “but I hurt his heart.” Near his death Gerard tells Ti Jean, “God put these little things on earth to see if we want to hurt them – those who don’t do it who can, are for his Heaven – those who see they can hurt, and do hurt, they’re not for his Heaven – See?” When the doctor tells the Kerouacs that it is time to call for the priest, the nuns from Gerard’s school come as well, kneeling by his bedside, asking him questions and writing down the boy’s answers. The whole portrayal is of a child who is more than a child –a child who understands something about the world and about Heaven that those around him do not. He tries to explain that “we’re all in Heaven, but we don’t know it.” Kerouac puts the religious theme in the forefront here. All of his novels are religious novels at heart, but in some of them it’s hard to discern.
Then Gerard dies. Jack runs down the street towards his father on his way home, “gleefully…yelling, ‘Gerard est mort! as thou it was some great event…I thought it had something to do with some holy transformation that would make him greater and more Gerard like…so when he wearily just said, ‘I know, Ti Pousse, I know’ I had that same feeling that I have today when I would rush and tell people the good news that Nirvana, Heaven, our salvation is Here and Now, that gloomy reaction of theirs, which I can only attribute to pitiful and so-to-be loved ignorance of mortal brains.”
After his death, the neighborhood women notice that the birds that Gerard had lovingly fed from his windowsill had gone and they did not return. “’They’re gone with him!’ Or, I’d say, ‘It was himself.’”
In 1955, shortly after the famed Six Gallery reading in San Francisco, which featured Allen Ginsberg’s performance of “Howl,” Neal Cassady left Kerouac in charge of his mentally unstable girlfriend of the moment, Natalie Jackson. Jack spent the afternoon trying to calm her manic episode with Buddhist texts, but to no avail. The next day she jumped from the window to her death. Kerouac was very disturbed by this and returned to his sister’s home in Rocky Mount, North Carolina shortly before Christmas. Of course, his mother was there too. The experiences that would fill Kerouac’s future novel, The Dharma Bums, were occurring at this time.
In January 1956, Mémêre left Rocky Mount for New York to attend a funeral. It was then, in the absence of his mother, that Kerouac sat down to write what would become Visions of Gerard. “My sister and her husband weren’t interested. They went to bed and I took over the kitchen, brewed tea and took Benzedrine. It was written by hand on the kitchen table. My sister wouldn’t let me light candles, so I used the kitchen light. You got to live with your family, you know. Mémêre wasn’t there. She went to the funeral of her step-mother in Brooklyn. If she’d been there, I wouldn’t have written it. We’d have talked all night. But that funeral reminded me of funerals, my brother’s funeral…”
At the time of writing Visions of Gerard, Kerouac was in the process of synthesizing his two religions – Catholicism and Buddhism; both are clearly represented in the novel, and Kerouac successfully harmonizes them to present his Catholic sensibility from his recently adopted Buddhist perspective. To say that Kerouac was a devout Catholic is to imply that he was a practicing Catholic, which he was not. But he continued to maintain his belief in Catholicism throughout his life. He was Catholic in his heart, and was devout in his own way. His beliefs at the time of writing the novel can probably be summed in the words he says that Gerard’s “sad eyes first foretold”: “All is well, practice Kindness, Heaven is Nigh.”
It only took Kerouac approximately fifteen days to write Visions of Gerard, though John Kingsland, who read the unedited original draft of Kerouac’s The Town and the City, stated that some of the scenes that were edited out of that first published novel are included in Visions of Gerard. On January 15, 1956, Kerouac wrote to Gary Snyder that the novel was finished. In that letter, he called the work his “best most serious sad and true book yet,” and reiterated this in letters as late as 1961, still two years before its publication. By late 1956, Kerouac had submitted the book to Viking Publishers, where Malcolm Cowley objected to its Buddhist influences; Cowley didn’t see how it related to Jack’s French-Canadian upbringing. In response to requests to revise the novel, Kerouac told his agent, “Visions of Gerard suits me as it stands. As it comes, so it flows, and that’s literature at its purest.” But by 1958, Kerouac was offering to revise the novel and substitute Catholic references for the Buddhist ones if Viking would buy the book. He really wanted the book to be published, mostly to counteract his ever-growing image as an encourager of youthful rebellion. He wrote that Visions of Gerard “is by far the wisest next book for me because of present screaming about my juvenile delinquent viciousness.”
The book, along with Big Sur, was eventually bought in January 1962 by Farrar, Straus and Cudahy for a $10,000 advance. When it was sold, Kerouac’s editor promised not to make changes to it, but it’s unclear if any changes were made between its original writing, which was done in pencil, and its final, published version. In December 1962, he wrote to his friend Philip Whalen, “I’m proofreading Visions of Gerard…[it] will be published by Fall 1963 and will be ignored I guess, or called pretentious, but who cares…” Who cares? Jack certainly did. For all the coolness of that statement, Kerouac was crushed by negative reviews, which typically not only ripped his books to shreds, but Kerouac as a person.
Visions of Gerard wasn’t exactly ignored, but the reviews were very bad indeed. The New York Herald Tribune stated that it was, “a text very much like everything else [Kerouac] has published in the past five years: slapdash, grossly sentimental, often pridefully ‘sincere’ that you can’t help question the value of sincerity itself…In someone else’s hands, it could have been moving. Even in Kerouac’s own hands, it could have been good, if only he had made writerly demands of himself. As it stands, though, it just amounts to 152 more pages of self-indulgence.” The review in the New York Times wasn’t any better: “…the clangor we hear far too often is the narrator’s jaunty, garrulous hipster yawping, and before its implacable onslaught all feeling disintegrates. It is not enough to say that the style does not evoke or intensify the emotion. It betrays and debases it. The dead boy deserved better of his eulogist.” Biographer Gerard Nicosia states that “critics seemed to be stirring for new lefthanded and underhanded ways of putting [Kerouac] down.” This further fueled Kerouac’s downward spiral – now he was not only the cause of juvenile delinquency, but he was desecrating his brother’s memory and exploiting his death.
In an October 1963 letter to friend and fellow writer John Clellon Holmes, Kerouac states, “everybody’s become so mean, so sinister, so hypocritical I can’t believe it. So I turn to drink like a lost maniac…They make me feel like never writing another word again.” So much for not caring. Kerouac’s entire identity was as a writer, and all he desired professionally was to be taken seriously. Since the publication of On the Road, he had been physically declining largely due to the notoriety it brought him. He was so self-conscious, and the press had turned him into everything he wasn’t, and didn’t want to be.
Visions of Gerard is almost a prolonged religious homily to his brother, who in his mind – and the mind of his mother – was a saint. But while this novel does have an overarching religious sensibility to it, it is a very sad tale. Jack was absolutely devoted to his brother – he worshipped him and emulated him in a way probably most boys would look up to an older brother. “For the first four years of my life, while he lived, I was not Ti Jean Dulouz, I was Gerard, the world was his face, the flower of his face, the pale stooped disposition, the heartbreakingness and the holiness.” He was extremely jealous of Gerard’s friends, and when they would come to visit the bed-ridden boy, Jack would complain to Mémêre and she would send the boys away, saying that Gerard belonged to Jack. Losing his brother appears to have been very traumatic for Kerouac – he grew frightened of the dark and often wondered how he could get into heaven to be reunited with his beloved brother. For a short time after his brother’s death, Jack even thought Gerard would return in some resurrected form, “huge and all-powerful and renewed.”
Neighborhood playmates of Gerard remember him as a normal, but sickly, kid and suggest that Kerouac largely embellished the story of his brother’s holiness. In fact, in a letter to his sister, Caroline in 1945, Kerouac admitted all he remembered of Gerard was the slap over the erector set. The myth of Gerard was most likely encouraged and reinforced by Mémêre and greatly merged with the French tradition of child-saints. It is legitimate to wonder how much Gerard’s death – and his doting mother’s reaction to it – influenced Kerouac later in life. In the same letter to Caroline, he admits feeling guilty about Gerard and that he may have been responsible for the death. But imagine Jack’s position: as a child he believed his brother was favored over him, his parents view the boy as a saint. Gerard’s piety was used as a standard against which Kerouac often measured his own life, and he failed miserably against that standard. Gerard’s death has come to be seen by researchers as a potential source of Kerouac’s torments and turmoil, and Visions of Gerard has been described as being “told from the standpoint of a man looking from the dark torrents of a raging river at an unattainable peaceful shore.” But though the boy’s death was clearly a tragedy, and served as a source of terrible guilt and anguish for Kerouac – and perhaps even was the original catalyst that eventually led to his alcoholism and death, we are also faced with the question of whether, had Gerard lived instead, Kerouac would have ever become a writer in the first place. As Kerouac asks in the novel, what would have happened to Jack without Gerard?
“The whole reason why I ever wrote at all and drew breath to bite in vain with pen and ink…because of Gerard, the idealism, Gerard the religious hero – Écrivez pour l’amour de son mort.”
 Kerouac, Jack. Visions of Gerard. New York: Penguin Group, 1991. 5.
 “Book News from Farrar, Straus, & Cudahy, Inc.” Empty Phatoms: Interviews and Encounters with Jack Kerouac. Ed. Paul Maher, Jr. New York: Thurder’s Mouth Press, 2005. 223
 Gifford, Barry and Lawrence Lee. Jack’s Book: An Oral Biography of Jack Kerouac. NY: St. Martin’s Press. 1978. 4.
 Kerouac, Jack. Letter to Gary Snyder. 15 January 1956. Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters 1940-1956. Ed. Anne Charters. New York: Penguin Group, 1995. 358-359.
 Kerouac, Jack. Visions of Gerard. New York: Penguin Group, 1991. 11.
 Ibid., 70.
 Ibid., 71.
 Kerouac, Jack. Visions of Gerard. New York: Penguin Group, 1991. 36.
 Ibid., 104.
 Ibid., 54.
 Ibid., 109-110.
 Ibid., 117
 Charters, Anne. Kerouac: A Biography. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1973. 252.
 Kerouac, Jack. Visions of Gerard. New York: Penguin Group, 1991. 6.
 Nicosia, Gerard. Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac. Berkley: University of California Press, 1983. 500
 Kerouac, Jack. Letter to Gary Snyder. 15 January 1956. Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters 1940-1956. Ed. Anne Charters. New York: Penguin Group, 1995. 358-359.
 Kerouac, Jack. Letter to Sterling Lord. 7 October 1956. Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters 1940-1956. Ed. Anne Charters. New York: Penguin Group, 1995. 589.
 Kerouac, Jack. Letter to Sterling Lord. 29 November 1958. Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters 1957-1969. Ed. Anne Charters. New York: Viking Press, 1999. 169.
 Kerouac, Jack. Letter to Philip Whalen. 13 December 1962. Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters 1957-1969. Ed. Anne Charters. New York: Viking Press, 1999. 353.
 Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters 1957-1969. Ed. Anne Charters. New York: Viking Press, 1999. 370.
 Maloff, Saul. “A Yawping at the Grave.” New York Times. 8 September 1963.
 Nicosia, Gerard. Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac. Berkley: University of California Press, 1983. 648
 Kerouac, Jack. Letter to John Clellon Holmes. 5 October 1963. Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters 1957-1969. Ed. Anne Charters. New York: Viking Press, 1999. 370.
 Kerouac, Jack. Visions of Gerard. New York: Penguin Group, 1991. 2.
 Kerouac, Jack. Visions of Gerard. New York: Penguin Group, 1991. 109.
 Kerouac, Jack. Letter to Caroline Kerouac Blake. 14 March 1945. Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters 1940-1956. Ed. Anne Charters. New York: Penguin Group, 1995. 87.
 Simpson, Emily Patricia. “Religious Turmoil: The Conflict Between Buddhism and Catholicism in Jack Kerouac’s Life and Writing.” MA Thesis. North Carolina State University, 2003. 28.
 Kerouac, Jack. Visions of Gerard. New York: Penguin Group, 1991. 112.
by Dave Moore
It was Horst who started it. Horst Spandler has been translating the 1971 Kerouac anthology Scattered Poems into German. Along the way he’s been asking others their advice on the meaning of parts of Jack’s poems. One such query I received, a few months ago, concerned Kerouac’s rather fine “Sept. 16, 1961, Poem” (on page 29). Horst wanted to know whether the line which reads “sad today glad tomorrow: somber today drunk tomorrow” should really have “sober today” as that seemed to fit better.
As Ann Charters, the compiler of the anthology, notes at the back of the book, this poem was gathered from The Outsider magazine, 1962. A friend of mine had a copy of the relevant issue, #2, and provided me with a photocopy of the poem from page 68. Looking at this I could see that Horst’s intuition was right – the words should indeed be “sober tomorrow.”
I decided to check the remainder of the poem for possible typographical errors in the Scattered Poems version. I was surprised to find a major difference near the end. The line which in Scattered Poems reads:
“This is an attempt at the easy lightness of Ciardian poetry”
appeared in my xerox from The Outsider as:
“This is an attempt at the easy lightness of drawing room poetry”
This seemed too major a difference to be a mere typo. I asked others their thoughts, and whether they knew which was the correct version. A letter from a friend astounded me. He enclosed a photocopy from his copy of The Outsider #2, and in this one the line finished with “… of Beatnik poetry.” He also enclosed a xerox of the next page in the magazine, which was a drawing of two vultures observing a ship approaching some rocks. One bird is saying to the other: “So what if Kerouac is on board? You can’t believe everything Ciardi says.” This ties in with the mention of Ciardi in the Scattered Poems version, John Ciardi being a poet much opposed to the work of Kerouac and the other Beats.
But what was going on here? Three different versions of the poem from three different sources. I decided to cast the net wider, and contacted everyone I knew who might have a copy of The Outsider #2 and ask how their version read.
Over the following couple of weeks I was able to monitor the poem in over twenty different copies of The Outsider #2. Five more variant lines were discovered in the process, and the occurrence of each was as follows:
“… of Ciardian poetry” 4
“… of civilized poetry” 4
“… of chamber poetry” 4
“… of Beatnik poetry” 4
“… of drawing room poetry” 2
“… of Ciardi poetry” 1
“… of Chinese poetry” 1
“… of wellbred poetry” 2
The Outsider was a small literary magazine that ran to just five issues in the period 1961-69. It was edited by Jon Edgar Webb and produced by the Loujon Press, the enterprise of Jon and his wife Louise (Lou) in New Orleans. Jon Webb died in 1971, and the Loujon papers are now held by the Northwestern University Library in Evanston, Illinois. I wrote there for advice and guidance with this puzzle, and although the very helpful librarian was unaware of the multiple versions of the poem, he was able to send me a copy of Kerouac’s original typescript of his poem to the Loujon Press, together with Jack’s accompanying note.
In Kerouac’s original, the line in question reads “… of Chinese poetry” and Jack gave precise instructions to the editor:
Dear John —
Be sure everything is linotyped the way I wrote it — There are no typos in my typewriter script — I mean, the punctuation, fucktuation, capitalization and NON CAPITALIZATION & spacing, etc. – I re-typed the poem twice to make every last spacing unsmudged as William the Conquerer’s Record — Yr. first issue of OUTSIDER was very valuable — Fuck Colin Wilson & all anti Christ poets
Despite this, on Kerouac’s typescript the word “Chinese” has been circled in blue and a question mark placed near by. In pencil a line has been drawn towards the circled word “Chinese” and at the end of this drawn line the words “use alternate words” have been written, in a hand other than Kerouac’s and probably Jon Webb’s.
And alternate words were indeed used, as I had discovered. The Outsider #2 was published in the summer of 1962, but Kerouac was unaware of the alterations to his poem for at least two and a half years.
During 1964 the Italian translator Fernanda Pivano had been compiling an anthology of new American poetry and had been in touch with Kerouac for contributions of his own, and of his friends. The collection, Poesia degli ultimi americani finally appeared in November 1964 and included Kerouac’s “Sept. 16, 1961, Poem” as well as several choruses from Mexico City Blues and Some Western Haikus. Fernanda sent Kerouac a copy of her book, and received the following letter:
January 11, 1965
Dear Fernanda — Thanks for the Christmas card and the anthology in the
mail — There’s a great mystery in it. I really am tremendously curious to find out and I wish you would tell me: on page 246 is the end of my poem
(“Sept.16, 1961 Poem”), the second line from the top reads: “This is an
attempt at the easy lightness of civilized/poetry.” But I had written
“Chinese” poetry and I go on to say that I shd. really “use my own way,”
ie., western instead of eastern. WHO CHANGED THE WORD CHINESE TO
“CIVILIZED”? And why? How did you get that poem? Was it that printed page from The Outsider? And if so, was it already marked like that? This is a case of altering my poetry without my knowledge, and I’m sure it wasnt you, but somebody did it. Now you’re going to think I’m mad at you again but I’m not: I only want to know, out of great curiosity, how this unauthorized change came about, and who did it, and why. As you see, it gives the suggestion that I dont consider myself civilized! Just think how James Joyce would have hit the roof! So long, Cara Nanda
It appears that Fernanda had used a version of the poem from a copy of The Outsider with “civilized poetry” (just as Ann Charters later used one from a copy with “Ciardian poetry”). Kerouac was naturally annoyed to learn that his poem had been altered by someone else without his knowledge or permission. I can’t help imagining how further incensed he would have been if he had known that multiple changes had been made and were in circulation in different copies of The Outsider #2.
I have so far traced eight different variant lines in twenty-two different copies of the magazine. It is known that 3000 copies of the magazine were printed by the Webbs, on a hand press, in an operation which took almost a year. Being hand-printed, it would have been relatively easy to change a word or two of type at any time, but why would anyone want to?
Maybe Jon Webb was just having some fun at Kerouac’s expense. Being of an older bohemian generation, he may have looked down on Kerouac and his buddies whom he possibly considered to be “the new kids on the block.” Or maybe he was attempting to stir up further trouble between Kerouac and John Ciardi? It’s maybe significant that no more work of Kerouac’s appeared in other issues of The Outsider.
Why did Kerouac not learn of a change to his poem until 1965 – did the Webbs not send him a copy of The Outsider #2? It’s probable that they did, and at least one copy has been found which contains Kerouac’s intended word “Chinese”, so maybe that was the version they sent him in 1962.
In 2003 Jeff Weddle published his PhD thesis for the University of Tennessee: “The Loujon Press: An Historical Analysis.” I contacted Jeff to ask if, during his research, he’d encountered anything about these unauthorized changes. Jeff replied that he had noticed a difference between Kerouac’s typescript of the poem and its appearance in his copy of the magazine, where the word appears as “civilized,” (and this is mentioned in his thesis) but he was unaware of the multiple variants.
In his thesis Jeff Weddle also notes that Jon Webb heavily edited and re-titled the piece by William Burroughs which appears in The Outsider #2 as “wilt caught in time.” According to Weddle, the published version “bears little resemblance to the author’s original submission.”
Again, since Weddle has apparently seen only one copy of The Outsider #2, it is possible that different variants of the Burroughs piece were published. Jeff told me that, while he was investigating the Loujon Press for his thesis, he had come across other examples of Webb changing texts. This is evidently an area which requires further research.
Does anyone out there have access to copies of The Outsider #2 with yet different versions of that line in Kerouac’s poem? Perhaps we can sample more than 22 of the 3000 copies known to have been printed.
And how about the William Burroughs piece? Maybe variant versions exist of that, too.
Let’s compare notes.
Wills, D., ‘Beat Books’ in Wills, D., (ed.) Beatdom Vol. 1 (City of Recovery Press: Dundee, 2007)
By David S. Wills
Some good books written about the Beat Generation, Beat literature and counterculture life.
– – – –
Caveney, G., Screaming With Joy: The Life of Allen Ginsberg (Bloomsbury: Verona, 1999)
Screaming With Joy is epitomised by a photo of Ginsberg carefully watching Bob Dylan sit playing guitar. There are so many photos of Ginsberg and his legendary contemporaries interspersed with the sort of stories that make Ginsberg such a loveable figure.
Consequently, the text flies along at some speed, moving from story to story to story with seamless endeavour. Little is really elaborated on in great depth, but such fleeting references and brilliant statements evoke greater feeling, although they may lack the facts and ideologies of other Ginsberg biographies. It also creates a matter-of-fact narrative of Ginsberg’s life, which makes the book read more like fiction, and recalls the autobiographical nature of the poet’s work.
Screaming With Joy is one of Beatdom’s in-house reference manuals. It is essential reading, as far as we are concerned, although there may be more thorough sources available. But as with Dylan’s music, the genius is that the words reflect more than they say, and that you never doubt their significance. Ginsberg knew it, and Caveney knows it.
– – – –
Caveney, G., The Priest They Called Him: The Life and Legacy of William S. Burroughs (
Another book by Graham Caveney, this Burroughs biography is as great a piece of art as a study of his life. Beautifully laid out and illustrated, with images and words blending together like the writing and the stories that were, in fact, Burroughs’ true legacy after his death, The Priest They Called Him is not a book for squares. No, friend, this book is as stylish as the subject and almost as entertaining. Scholarly, it may not be, but interesting and wild, it certainly is.
– – – –
Maher Jr., P., Kerouac: His Life and Work (Revised and Updated) (Taylor Trade Publishing: Maryland, 2004)
Shortly after Beatdom’s creation, following the completion of my book, Who Is Rodney Munch?, and the return to a life lacking creativity and productivity, I decided that one way to motivate myself to write about the Beats was to purchase an informative and substantial book about the subject… An investment in my writing and in the magazine… Something to inspire me to write, to study, to get my act together.
A trip around Borders bookshop, out by the Reading Rooms on the edge of town, resulted in my purchasing of Paul Maher Jr.’s Kerouac: His Life and Work. I needed something about a specific Beat figure that could be used as research for a variety of articles and features, and there was a lack of anything about Burroughs or Ginsberg or anyone else.
And Kerouac has served its purpose. The book details the Father of the Beat Generation’s life beautifully and in frightening depth. There’s not much worth knowing about Jack Kerouac that isn’t in there somewhere, backed up by meticulously sought references and loving analysis.
But had I known more about Paul Maher Jr., I wouldn’t have been so pleasantly surprised. Firstly, he has the same degree as I do: in American Studies and English; the sort of blend of study that inevitably leads one to modern and controversial, as well as politically and culturally significant, American literature. Secondly, he is the author of three additional Kerouacian studies: Empty Phantoms: Interviews and Encounters with Jack Kerouac (2004), Home I’ll Never Be: Jack Kerouac and On the Road (2007) and The New Vision: Jack Kerouac in the 1940s (2009); as well as of Miles on Miles: Collected Interviews with Miles Davies (2007) and a forthcoming book scheduled for 2009 about the life of Henry David Thoreau.
Maher can therefore be considered as a bit of a Kerouac expert, with an appreciation of related musical and literary influences.
Originally entitled Kerouac: A Definitive Biography, this book certainly lives up to both of its names. ‘Definitive’ is right, although concerning his works in addition to his life.
– – – –
Barry Gifford and Lawrence Lee, Jack’s Book: An Oral Biography (St. Martin’s Griffin: New York, 1978)
Now a bone-fide Kerouacian classic, Jack’s Book takes oral interviews with friends and associates of Jack Kerouac and combines them to draw a distinctive biography of the Beat legend. Gifford and Lee interviewed numerous figures in Kerouac’s life, from Ginsberg, Burroughs and Hunke, to old schoolfriends and relatives.
The result is a superb addition to the volume of Kerouac biographies, and certainly a unique addition at that. It reads more like something Kerouac would have put together himself than some of the heavy-going scholarly books of facts and dates.
Barry Gifford’s work was brought to my attention by an e-mail from a friend, who directed me to the author’s website, where I found his e-mail address and entered into correspondence with him, resulting in the interview later in this magazine.
– – – –
Ann Charters (ed.), The Portable Beat Reader (Penguin: 1992)
Anne Charters edits together a collection of Beat texts to offer a literary-historical study of the Beat Generation. Included in this collection are excerpts from On the Road, Howl! and The Naked Lunch, as well as writings by Diane di Prima, Bob Dylan, Herbert Hunke and Gregory Corso.
The Portable Beat Reader is a nice starting point in an exploration of Beat literature, though perhaps a little pointless to well-read Beat enthusiasts. Nevertheless, it’s one of those ‘nice-to-have’ books that you’d happily read again and again if you couldn’t find your own full copies of the included texts.