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Helen Weaver Interview

Recent history has seen the women in the life of Jack Kerouac finally bring to public attention their side of the story. Portrayed in his work in what some deem a sexist manner, they have been releasing memoirs and telling the world about Kerouac.

In 1983, Joyce Johnson wrote Minor Characters; in 1990, Carolyn Cassady published Off the Road; and in 2000 there was Joan Haverty’s Nobody’s Wife, with a foreword by Jan Kerouac.

These books have added much to the world of Kerouac scholarship, providing both an intimate portrait of Kerouac, as well as offering counter-points to many of the claims he made in his books.

Now it’s Helen Weaver’s turn.

Weaver met Kerouac and Ginsberg in 1953 and was carried away by the Beats. She soon became Kerouac’s girlfriend, and in her book, The Awakener: A Memoir of Kerouac and the Fifties, she offers a wonderful, personal picture of the Beat Generation and the 1950s Greenwich Village scene.

The Awakener is a story of spiritual and sexual awakening; a valuable insight to a special place in time that is of great interest to any reader of the Beat Generation.

David Wills: How did you feel about Kerouac’s depiction of you as Ruth Heaper in Desolation Angels?

Helen Weaver: I was and am very happy with it. I was touched by his portrait of me and honored to be a part of that book, which I think is one of his best. I was particularly moved that there was no bitterness in his portrayal of me. Jack was very hurt when I asked him to leave in January 1957 but by the time he finished writing Desolation Angels a few years later he had obviously forgiven me.

I’ve always been amused by the name he gave me. “Heaper” was a reference to a passage in The Song of Songs that he quoted to me the first time we made love: “Thy belly is like an heap of wheat set about with lilies.” I never forgot that and obviously he didn’t either.

David Wills: What do you say to the critics who claim Kerouac was a sexist?

Helen Weaver: I’d have to agree with them–up to a point. It was the fifties! And Jack was capable of saying things like “women must be guided by men.” Yuk! But he was also capable of great sensitivity and empathy.

If the most important people in his life were mostly male (the big exception was his mother, who was the love of his life) I think that was because his mission in life was writing. Not that many women were writing in the fifties, so by definition his colleagues were mostly men. As Joyce Johnson so aptly put it, we would have been “excess baggage on the road.”

David Wills: You talk about Kerouac’s backpack full of manuscripts. Do you recall what he was working on or what he was carrying when he appeared on your doorstep?

Helen Weaver: Well, he had already started Desolation Angels so he had the first part of that, plus Tristessa and Mexico City Blues. He and Allen Ginsberg had just hitchhiked from Mexico, where he’d been working on those three books. I still have a Mexican coin (cinco centavos) Jack gave me that day on my bedside table, for luck.

David Wills: The first paragraph of your book really gives the reader an intimate portrait of the lives of the two Helens. This isn’t going to be a prudish, gloss-over-the-sensitive-parts kind of book, is it?

Helen Weaver: You got that right. I have to say, I just love that first sentence where I’m sitting on the john in my pajamas when the buzzer rings. It’s like, Here I am, world–get used to it!

It took me years to come up with that beginning. For a long time I was stuck on the idea that the book should begin in Grand Central Station, on the evening when I took Jack home to Scarsdale to meet my parents. You know, disreputable raggedy boyfriend vs. conservative parents in rich snooty suburb? But it just didn’t work. As soon as I decided to begin with the morning I met Jack, I knew I had it.

David Wills: In the book you talk about Kerouac’s insistence upon the fact that it’s “all a dream.” Why was he saying this and what problems did it cause?

Helen Weaver: That was Jack’s Buddhism. The Buddha taught that the physical world around us is an illusion, as is our fixed idea that each of us is a separate self.  When I met him, Jack had recently been introduced to Buddhism by Gary Snyder and he carried a copy of Dwight Goddard’s Buddhist Bible in his rucksack. The first morning we spent together, as he was unpacking his rucksack, he read me a passage from that book:

All the mind’s arbitrary conceptions of matter, phenomena, and of all conditioning factors and all conceptions and ideas relating thereto are like a dream, a phantasm, a bubble, a shadow, the evanescent dew, the lightning’s flash. Every true disciple should thus look upon all phenomena and upon all the activities of the mind, and keep his mind empty and self-less and tranquil.

I thought this was very eloquent but at age 25 the idea that the physical world is an illusion didn’t appeal to me. It was a world I was just beginning to make my peace with.

I soon discovered that Jack was very unreliable about time: he’d show up three hours late for dinner, or sometimes not at all until the next day. When I tried to discuss our “problems” with him his eyes would just glaze over and he’d tell me “Everything is fine, don’t worry. Nothing is real–it’s all a dream.” So early on, I got the impression that his Buddhism was just a big philosophical rationalization for doing whatever he wanted.

But as I got older the idea that the physical world is an illusion began to sound less strange, especially in the light of quantum physics. Jack’s mantra that “nothing is real, it’s all a dream” began to make perfect sense to me. In fact, it sounded like a pretty accurate description of the universe. Ultimately, I was drawn to Buddhism myself. But that was many years later, long after Jack died.

David Wills: How did you go about writing The Awakener? I mean, after half a century it must have been difficult to recall many relevant details.

Helen Weaver: The day I met him was etched into my mind in vivid detail. From almost the moment I laid eyes on him, I knew that one day I would have to write about him. Then when things started going south between us–his drinking was really bugging me, and the chaotic schedule–I began writing as a form of therapy. So I have the Jack Kerouac Journal.

When he went to Orlando for Christmas with his mother, his sister, and his nephew, we exchanged letters. I’m an obsessive archivist, and I kept everything–every letter and postcard he wrote me, every tiny little note he left on my door, every review, every newspaper or magazine clipping that had to do with him or Allen. I knew I would need all these things some day. It was just a matter of finding the right time to gather it all up and weave it together.

There were many false starts over the years. In the end, what I had to deal with was not so much a scarcity of material as an embarrassment of riches.

David Wills: How did you go about trying to publish the book? One would imagine that the story sells itself.

Helen Weaver: If only! It doesn’t work that way, I’m afraid.

I always knew that my book about Jack would be published, even if it wasn’t any good, just because of his status as an American icon. In a way that slowed me down, because I wanted it to be as good as possible. I couldn’t just dash it off. And a good thing I didn’t, because my feelings about Jack changed over the years. He died in 1969; I didn’t appreciate him fully as a writer until almost twenty years later.

I don’t have an agent, but I had a lot of help from my friends: Dan Wakefield, author of New York in the Fifties; Michael Korda, for whom I did a lot of translating work when he was editor in chief at Simon & Schuster; and Bob Gottlieb, who was editor in chief of Knopf and later of The New Yorker. They all went out of their way to open doors for me in the rather insular world of New York publishing.

I submitted the book seven or eight times and acquired some very enthusiastic rejection letters: You’re a good writer, you paint a vivid picture of the times, but it’s not quite right for our list, etc.

Through a writer and free lance editor named Deborah Straw (who had reviewed my 2001 book The Daisy Sutra for Publishers Weekly) I got a reading at Inner Traditions, a New Age publisher up in Vermont. The acquisitions editor there loved the book, but the contract they offered me was unacceptable, so it was back to the drawing board.

My friend (and former rival for Jack’s affections) Joyce Johnson kept telling me to try City Lights. I had actually written a letter to Lawrence Ferlinghetti in 2007, but never got an answer (he was 88 and semi-retired). But Joyce urged me to contact her friend Nancy Phillips at City Lights. It turned out she was semi-retired too, but she put in a good word with senior editor Robert Sharrard. I took a chance and emailed him the first chapter. He asked to see the rest, and pretty soon he called me up and offered me a contract.

It was a good contract, and it got even better thanks to the free contract service at the National Writers Union, of which I am a member. I’m actually grateful to that recalcitrant contract person at Inner Traditions, because City Lights is the ideal publisher for this book. I mean, Ferlinghetti and City Lights are mentioned in the very first chapter, when Allen excitedly tells Helen and me about the forthcoming publication of Howl. For a book about Kerouac, City Lights is a no brainer.

David Wills: What did you learn from Kerouac when you knew him, and what of his wisdom have you come to appreciate with time?

Helen Weaver: Oh boy! I’m afraid when I knew him I didn’t learn much. I was a stubborn little intellectual. Well, I did learn – or maybe knowing him made me more conscious of–my own ambition to be a writer.

Our very first conversation was about writing. When he took a dogeared copy of The Town and the City out of his rucksack, he told me, “It’s like Thomas Wolfe.” I had read Look HomewardAngel in high school and fallen in love with it, but in college I discovered Henry James, and decided I had outgrown Wolfe.

I told Jack that Wolfe lacked discipline, and was lucky he had Maxwell Perkins for an editor. Well, that was like waving a red flag in front of a bull, and the battle was joined. We debated the merits of Wolfe vs. James like two old friends.

I certainly learned what it was like to live with a genius. Frieda Lawrence wrote her friend Mabel Dodge, “Try it then yourself, living with a genius, see what it is like and how easy it is.” Not that this stopped me from being attracted to some very extreme types. But living with Jack was an education. I learned that I needed a more peaceful, organized existence. Perhaps that was when I learned that I am a solitary, that I love and need vast amounts of solitude, which goes very well with writing.

And with time I’ve come to embrace the very Buddhist philosophy that I originally dismissed.

Most of all, I’ve come to appreciate Kerouac as a writer.

When I read The Town and the City in 1956 I was in love with him, and I admired it very much. By the time On the Road came out in 1957 I had moved on, and I read that book through the eyes of the disappointed lover. The sexism blinded me to the poetry, and I didn’t understand or appreciate that book–again, until long after Jack had died.

I tell the story of how this came about in The Awakener:

“I was visiting my niece Annie and her boyfriend Nate up in Vermont, and we were talking about Kerouac. I had recently started reading all of his books in preparation for writing about him. I kept coming upon words I didn’t know, like prognathic (jutting-jawed) and hincty:that last one wasn’t in Webster’s Unabridged, and I wondered if he made it up.

“So Nate got out his Oxford English Dictionary. It said “hincty” was American slang and meant conceited, snobbish, stuck up, and it quoted On the Road: “Wetting their eyebrows with hincty fingertip.” The OED said it was on page 86 but we looked in Nate’s paperback copy of On the Road and we couldn’t find it.

“Just in case we missed it I read page 86 out loud. That page fell in the middle of the story about the little Mexican girl, with a great description of the streets of Hollywood.

“And that was when it happened. For the first time in my life, I heard the music of Kerouac’s words. For the first time in my life, I got it. And I remembered hearing somewhere that people who don’t think Kerouac is a great writer should try reading him aloud.

“That’s the secret, that’s the test of poetry. And that’s the reason On the Road has sold over three million copies. On the Road is a poem.”

Back in 1970 when I was working as an editor at Chelsea House Publishers, I rejected Visions of Cody. Right now, I’m rereading that book and discovering all the things I missed. So I’m still learning to appreciate Jack’s wisdom.

Too bad it took so many years; but in this I am like many of my contemporaries. It took America a long time to give Jack Kerouac the respect he deserves.

So writing this book has been, at least in part, an act of atonement.

Women of the Beat Generation

History has not been kind to the women of the Beat Generation. Their presence is largely unknown to most casual readers, and considered largely unimportant to those who would delve a little further. Perhaps it is because the feminists that followed in the decades to come would deem women to be a valuable part of society, whereas the Beats, male and female, had little interest in playing any active role in society. The female Beats were interested in drinking, fucking and taking drugs, too, and that’s not an aspect of a gender worth highlighting when seeking inclusion in society.

Certainly that might be one reason, but there are many others. Some are hardly worth mentioning at all: that fact that sexism exists in all facets of life, including historical and literary studies. Some are just hard and tragic facts, like the fact that whereas the males of the Beat Generation were looked down upon, arrested, and mocked for years to come, the females got fucked over far worse. The 1940s and 50s were times when women belonged to their parents first, and their husbands second. Their independence was either limited or non-existent. If they acted up, got out of line, or embarrassed their parents, they were punished brutally. For men, such humiliation resulted in being cut lose, thrown out of the family, forced to take the Beatnik kick on the road. But for the women it meant mental hospitals, electro-shock treatment and being locked up at home and force fed conservative values.

Maybe we’re being cynical here. Perhaps there really weren’t that many great female poets in the movement. Look at the more famous faces, like Carolyn Cassady. Read her Heart Beat and tell me she’s a good writer… (See review)

But maybe it’s a little more complicated. The men that were part of the Beat Generation, whether they liked it or not, were talented and brilliant poets and novelists. They were geniuses unwanted by conventional academia. The women that were part of the Beats were fewer in number and less successful in quality of literary output. Of course, there were some outstanding poems produced by women, and some fantastic ideas espoused, but perhaps their exclusion from this portion of the literary canon has less to do with the sexism of today and more of a reflection of reality.

Arguments for focus of the role of women tend to centre on appreciation of their role as muses to the men that wrote the famous books. But that seems to be flattering to the women. Kerouac began the Beatnik revolution and his muse was all man. Ginsberg was constantly encouraging and being encouraged by his male friends and lovers, and although heavily influenced by his mother, seemed to draw inspiration from the incredible masculine figures around him. Burroughs only began to write serious after killing his wife, but seemed to take help from the men in his life, particularly in developing his cut-up novels.

Like all bitter debates, the fight over the role of women in the Beat Generation seems lost in bullshit and rhetoric. History tells us they stood on the sidelines and cheered their men on, and then presumably settled down into conformity. The feminists and advocates of female writers will tell us that the women were the inspiration behind the men’s work, and wrote the best works themselves.

As usual, the truth lies somewhere in between, and perhaps nowhere at all. One could not, for example, claim that the men were all brilliant writers and equally appreciated by the popular literary community. Not at all. To seek truth, we must look at a few of the female writers, their lives and works, and analyse them as individuals, before considering judging their collective output and worth.

Carolyn Cassady

Let’s first look at one of the more famous of the female Beats, though perhaps famous wrong reasons. Or maybe not… Cassady is known for her close involvement with Kerouac, Ginsberg and Neal Cassady. This would suggest that she was not respected by later generations for her own creative output, but instead simply because of who she knew. It looks as though Cassady was the 50s equivalent of the rich & famous trophy wives of today’s sports stars and musicians. But let’s not forget that the famous Beat trio respected Cassady for more than just her staggering looks. She was a brilliant individual and played a role in the literary movement and in the society the movement would document.

Although she was raised by a strict and overbearing family that envisioned her as the typical domesticated housewife, they also valued education and Cassady was allowed to learn, unlike many less fortunate women. However, her interests lay more in the arts and creativity than any of which her parents would approve. They were an English teacher and a biochemist, while she was taking theatre lessons at nine, winning costume design awards at twelve, selling paintings at age fourteen, and head of a make-up department at sixteen.

She continued developing her impressive talents in the arts world, before moving to study at the University of Denver in 1946. In 1947, she met Kerouac, Ginsberg and Neal Cassady. Here she began her relationship with Neal Cassady, who was already married to Luanne Henderson, and Carolyn found the two of them in bed with Allen Ginsberg one night, prompting her to end the relationship and leave Denver.

Cassady headed for Los Angeles and a career in Hollywood costume design, but found herself briefly in San Francisco. Neal appeared, having divorced Luanne, and on 31st March 1948, they were married. Together they had three children, and Carolyn rode out the manic life of a wife to The Holy Goof, who spent their savings on cars and drove back and forth across America with his friends and his ex-wife.

Kerouac came to live with the couple for a few months in 1952, when writing Visions of Neal. Carolyn and Kerouac began an affair together that lasted until 1960, and the Cassadys named a child after their constant houseguest. The story of their living together is best told in Cassady’s Off the Road.

Throughout her turbulent life with the frequently absent Neal, Cassady continued her painting and work in theatre and the arts. But her commitment to her husband and children, and her appreciation of traditional values, prevented her from being totally ostracised from and punished by society.

She never wrote any great Beat Generation texts, but neither did Neal Cassady. Together they earned their place in Beat legend by their participation in the lives of the authors and poets, as members of an elite circle of literary significance, and as muses to the greats.

Joyce Johnson

Both Cassady and Johnson were famous for their presence in Beat social history, for dating Beat writers, and for writing popular memoirs of their time with Kerouac & co. But whereas Cassady was no great writer, but remembered in popular memory for her memoirs (part of which became a terrible Hollywood movie), Johnson was a talented and respected writer in her own right.

Joyce Johnson grew up in Manhattan, and like Cassady, she was subject to the will of her controlling parents. She was an only child and stifled by her mother’s misguided protection from reality. But Johnson was freer than most because she simply rebelled. She went to university at an early age and lived around the corner from Joan Vollmer and William S Burroughs. However, it was only through Elise Cowan, who Johnson met at Barnard University, that she came to meet the Beat circle in its New York days. This was at a time when Ginsberg was experimenting with heterosexuality, and his girlfriend at the time was Cowan. Ginsberg arranged a blind date between Kerouac and Johnson, and the two began dating.

According to Johnson, “The whole Beat scene had very little to do with the participation of women as artists themselves. The real communication was going on between the men, and the women were there as onlookers… You kept you mouth shut, and if you were intelligent and interested in things you might pick up what you could. It was a very masculine aesthetic.”

She dated Kerouac for around two years, but never saw it going further. During this time On the Road was published and Kerouac became depressed, mobbed by unwanted attention, and Johnson witnessed him fall apart.

She won the National Book Circle Critics award for her Minor Characters, her memoir of her time with Kerouac between 1957 and 1958. Door Wide Open is a collection of their correspondence over the same period of time.

Outside the fame of being Kerouac’s gal, Johnson has written several novels, as well as articles for Harper’s, Harper’s Bazaar, The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and the Washington Post.

Diane di Prima

Allen Ginsberg reckoned that women with talent got their chance in the Beat Generation movement: “Where there was a strong writer who could hold her own, like Diane Di Prima, we would certainly work with her and recognize her. She was a genius.”

Diane di Prima certainly didn’t have an easy life, but what struggles she faced emerged through her gift for writing. She wrote from an early age and was soon communicating with Ezra Pound. Her friends and tutors encouraged her poetic aspirations, and her intelligence drove her to excel in education before dropping out in her second year of university.

She was born in Brooklyn and spent the 50s and 60s in Manhattan, living in Greenwich Village and participating in the Beat and other literary movements of the time. Later she moved to San Francisco and became active in the movements there. Like Allen Ginsberg, she actively participated in the shift between Beat and hippy movements, as well as between the different worlds of Eastern and Western America. Like many Beats, she took an interest in Buddhism and other Eastern philosophies.

She met Ginsberg and Kerouac in 1957 and wrote about their meeting in her Memoirs of a Beatnik. She published her first poetry collection, This Kind of Bird Flies Backward in 1958, and has since published forty-one books. She also helped Amiri Baraka edit The Floating Bear, worked for many other publications, founded The American Theatre for Poets, and teaches at Naropa and the New College of California.

Di Prima is an example of a prolific female Beat poet, who was important to the movement and flourished in the following decades. Her genius and rebellious spirit allowed her to participate as actively as many of the men of the Generation, and became a valuable contribution not just to the Beats, but to American literature.

Hettie Jones

It was Hettie Jones and Amiri Baraka’s Totem Press that published di Prima’s first volume of poetry. It was Jones’ marriage to Baraka that she most famous for, but this is unfair, and an indictment of the sexism of modern reflection on the Beats.

While the Beats were more or less defined as a generation by their relationships to one another, and certainly their styles developed on account of these relationships, it is harsh to remember a female poet simply because of her marriage to a famous male counterpart. It is even more insulting because Jones helped Baraka run Totem press, an important Beat publisher.

She is also well known for the same reason as the likes of Cassady and Johnson, for Jones has also released a memoir of her relationship with members of the Beat Generation, including Baraka, Kerouac and Ginsberg.

But Jones also wrote some twenty-three books, been published in prestigious journals, lectured across America on writing, and started the literary magazine, Yugen.

Edie Parker

Another famous wife and author of an autobiography that staked her best claim for a place in the annals of Beat history is Edie Parker.

Parker lived with Joan Vollmer on 118th Street in New Yorker, in an apartment that has a special place in Beat legend. The apartment was where many of the Beat circle of friends hung out in their New York days, and frequent visitors included Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Vollmer’s husband, Burroughs. The group of friends that spent much of the winter of 1943 in that apartment were to be immortalised in history as characters in many of Kerouac’s novels.

When Kerouac was arrested and incarcerated for his role as accessory after the fact in the murder of David Kammerer, he agreed to marry Parker in exchange for her parents paying his bail. The marriage only lasted a year, but she was Jack Kerouac’s first wife nonetheless.

Parker wrote You’ll Be Okay, her memoir of the Beat Generation.

Joan Vollmer

Parker’s roommate, Joan Vollmer, was perhaps the most active female in the central social circle of the Beat Generation. It was her that spent the night talking with Burroughs, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Carr, Huncke, and Chase. She was set up with Burroughs by Ginsberg, who greatly admired both of them, and later became Joan Vollmer Burroughs. William S Burroughs was her second husband.

Edie Parker thought Vollmer the most intelligent woman she’d ever met, and was impressed by the rebellious spirit that torn her away from her mother, and drove her to sleep around and treat men as men treated women.

In the Beat circle, she got heavily into Benzedrine, which she was introduced to by Kerouac. In 1946, she was put in a mental hospital after suffering amphetamine-induced psychotic episodes. Later, she and her husband travelled extensively to avoid the trouble their phenomenal drug-use caused them.

Whereas Burroughs seemed to ride out the drugs, becoming a strange epitome of gay-junky chic, Vollmer’s addiction was tragic and destructive, and it saddened her friends to see her degenerate into a shell of her former self. She developed a limp, never slept, and spent all night raking lizards off trees.

Their marriage was turbulent, largely on account of their drug-use, legal troubles, unpredictable, self-destructive behaviour, and Burroughs’ interest in young boys, for whom he travelled much of the Western hemisphere. Eventually, Burroughs shot Vollmer dead in a drunken game of William Tell.

Perhaps Brenda Knight says it best in Women of the Beat Generation:

Joan Vollmer Adams Burroughs was seminal in the creation of the Beat revolution; indeed the fires that stoked the Beat engine were started with Joan as patron and muse. Her apartment in New York was a nucleus that attracted many of the characters who played a vital role in the formation of the Beat; … Brilliant and well versed in philosophy and literature, Joan was the whetstone against which the main Beat writers — Allen, Jack, and Bill — sharpened their intellect. Widely considered one of the most perceptive people in the group, her strong mind and independent nature helped bulldoze the Beats toward a new sensibility.

Denise Levertov

Denise Levertov was born in England, well educated, impressed TS Eliot with her poetry, and moved to America in 1948. She was published in England and America, and became well respected in the late 50s, having found her American voice and been influenced by the Beat and Black Mountain poets.

Joanne Kyger

Joanne Kyger poetry exhibits the influence of the Beats, the San Francisco Renaissance, and the Black Mountain poetics. She lived in San Francisco and worked with Robert Duncan, studied Zen Buddhism, and travelled to Japan with Gary Snyder, who would later become her husband. She explored India with Snyder, Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky.

She has written more than twenty books of poetry, the first of which was published after her travels in the East. Her work contains her Buddhist principals and Beat ideas, and focuses largely on minute details of everyday life.

Kyger has also lectured at the University of Naropa, helping Ginsberg and Anne Waldman found the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics.

Anne Waldman

 

The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics has a special place in modern literary history, it came into being because of Allen Ginsberg and two female Beat poets: Waldman and Kyger.

That said, Waldman’s place in the Beat Generation is tenuous, as she was too young to be active in the social circles that are normally taken to define the movement, and instead is connected through her work and later connections.

But she is female poet who has had a significant impact upon American poetry, bringing a Beat vibe and an alternative perspective to her work, and always remaining active and outspoken in social issues.

Elise Cowan

I include in this selection of female Beats one who you will not find in many other resources, for she was not a great writer, but she helps to explain why there were not a great many female Beats. Elise Cowan’s example explains why perhaps it is not the prejudices of today that preclude the inclusion of women in the literary anthologies, but rather explains why there just weren’t that many female Beats.

Cowan was the girlfriend of Allen Ginsberg when he was trying to be straight. She helped introduce Kerouac and Johnson, and was best friends with Johnson herself.

When she tried to exert her independence, becoming part of the New York Beat society, her parents did as too many have done throughout history to wayward daughters, and had her confined to a mental institution. Trapped in a life of conformity, Cowan committed suicide.

For more info on the Beat Babes, Beatdom suggests you read Brenda Knight’s fantastic Women of the Beat Generation: The Writers, Artists and Muses at the Heart of a Revolution.