Sunday, June 17, 2007

JACK KEROUAC’S LEGACY—50 YEARS LATER

It happens all the time. An artist passes away and their work falls into the hands of people they thought they could trust, or not, and the work is distorted or altered or in some way changed from what the creator intended.

It happened to Emily Dickinson’s poems and letters, as I understand it, when pronouns were changed from “she” to “he.” It happened to Sylvia Plath’s poetry in the hands of her widower, Ted Hughes, who altered lines or edited out poems that reflected badly on him. It happened to David Smith’s sculptures, when the executors of his estate had his last works altered to fit their idea of what his legacy should look like.

A lot of these cases pissed me off when I learned about them, and still do, but there was one I got involved in. I took sides against the Sampas family in its handling of the estate of Jack Kerouac.

The short version of events is that Kerouac was an alcoholic, drinking himself to death in the 1960s, when he realized his mother might outlive him. He decided to marry the spinster sister of Sammy Sampas, his first and closest friend from Lowell, where they grew up together and where Sammy turned Kerouac on to a lot of literature and philosophy when they were kids.

Sammy came from a large Greek family, which included his sister Stella, a “shy, homely woman,” as she has been described, who had a crush on the handsome Kerouac but never acted on it. Sammy ended up dying in World War two, and Kerouac never forgot him, or how much Sammy believed in him.

Kerouac’s big success, with the publication of his second novel, ON THE ROAD in 1957, made him not just a literary but a media star. The James Dean of novelists. Only Kerouac didn’t die young, like Sammy Sampas or Dean, he just drank more.

Kerouac’s mother at times encouraged his drinking, as long as it was at home with her. He was tied to his mother in ways that he attributed to a promise he made as his father lay dying, to care for his mother no matter what. In reality, until Kerouac finally began making money on his books, she cared for him, and at least some of his commitment to her was fueled by the guilt that seeps into his writing over the sacrifices she made, working in shoe factories, to support his writing before it could support him, and her, and their drinking.

By 1967, ten years after the great success of ON THE ROAD, Kerouac was a mostly stay-at-home drunk, calling old friends in the middle-of-the-night, who became less and less willing to put up with his drunken calls. But Stella was always willing to listen to him. Even after he had burned most of his bridges, she was still there, listening. So, when he suspected his own demise was not far away, he married her, with the caveat that she would care for his mother after his death.

Anyone who visited Kerouac during his last years was amazed that despite his drinking, he maintained impeccable archives. He kept everything from boyhood on—notebooks and letters, manuscripts of his published and unpublished books—in well marked files.

Even though his reputation had suffered, and his books weren’t selling much, and his support of the Viet Nam war effort, or so it seemed in drunken interviews, began to overshadow his earlier fame as “King of the Beats”—a title he abhorred—right up until the end he believed that someday his books would all be in print again and studied by future scholars, unlike the scholars that attacked and dismissed his work in his lifetime.

So he wanted his archives kept intact and given to a university or library with access for scholars and fans of his work. He was worried though. He wanted to leave his estate to his mother but was afraid that when she died it might fall into the hands of his in-laws, the large Sampas family, who were involved in various pursuits, one of them a bar in Lowell where Kerouac often drank on sojourns to his hometown, or during the times when he tried to relocate there.

As his drinking worsened, so did his worries about his archives. Just days before he died, he sent a letter to his nephew Paul, his sister’s son, saying something like: Whatever happens don’t let my thousand Greek relatives get hold of my papers after I’m gone!

But when his mother died, her will left it all to Stella—a will that was contested by some who believe Kerouac’s mother’s signature on the will is a forgery, a not unreasonable claim since it seems highly unlikely she would not have left it to her grandson Paul. Nonetheless, when Stella died, Kerouac’s archives went to Stella’s siblings.

During all this time, Kerouac’s reputation was slowly recovering, and interest in his life and work reviving. Poet Gerald Nicosia’ s scholarly biography of Kerouac, MEMORY BABE, contributed to that, as well as other tomes on Kerouac or the “Beat scene” and writers.

So, rather than place the archives intact in a public institution where scholars and students and fans could have access to them, the Sampas family began to separate out items to sell piecemeal—letters, notebook and manuscript pages and other things of Kerouac’s (like his raincoat, which went to Johnny Depp for a small fortune, as I heard it).

The publishers Viking/Penquin realized that in death Kerouac looked like a much more profitable author, so in order to have continuing access to Kerouac’s books and unpublished papers—they needed to placate the Sampas family.

As a result, when Kerouac’s diaries and letters were eventually published, there were so many ellipses—those dots indicating cuts—with no footnotes or explanations of what was cut, and other editts not even acknowledged with ellipses—in all over four hundred cuts—it wasn’t a surprise to learn that some of what was edited out were negative references to the Sampas family, as well as references to Kerouac’s sexual experiences with men, and other things that might sully the image of what was becoming a multi-million dollar franchise called JACK KEROUAC.

As if that wasn’t enough of an insult to Kerouac’s memory and legacy, the Sampas family tried to squelch any objections to the way they were treating Kerouac’s work. Especially attacking Nicosia, because in articles and on the internet, he criticized the Sampas family for tampering with Kerouac’s archives, and for excluding Kerouac’s daughter, Jan, and his nephew, Paul, from any financial benefits from their father’s and uncle’s estate.

Early in Jan’s life, Kerouac denied being her father, out of fear that Jan’s mother wanted to tie him down to a regular job to pay child support that would interfere with his writing, which at the time was still to be discovered, but which he was in the middle of creating the main body of. Later he acknowledged that Jan was his daughter and gave her permission to use his name, which she did in her own books, as Jan Kerouac.

But the publisher was willing to do whatever the Sampas family wanted, as were many of the surviving Beats. At a symposium at NYU on Kerouac’s legacy, when confronted by Nicosia and Jan Kerouac asking to be included on the stage or at least their questions answered by those taking part officially, Ginsberg was one of those who acquiesced to the request for security to remove KEROUAC’S OWN DAUGHTER AND HIS BEST BIOGRAPHER FROM THE PREMISES!

Maybe Nicosia’s and Jan Kerouac’s tactics were too confrontational, maybe they weren’t so great at playing the game of influence and diplomacy and publishing-world politics. Nonetheless, they had the truth—Kerouac’s written and oft stated wishes for his estate—and certainly morality on their side (shouldn’t a neglected child, now an adult suffering grave illness, impoverished all her life at least partially as a result of her famous father’s neglect, be entitled to something?)

The reality was that many “Beat” writers, supposed warriors for truth and passion, were suddenly passionless on this issue, in order, I had to assume, not to miss opportunities for their own work to be published in a bigger way than it had, or for the so-called “scholars” involved, to include them and their work in the history of “the Beats” so they too could cash in on the label.

Ann Charters, wrote the first biography of Kerouac, which turned out to be full of errors. Nonetheless she should be credited for undertaking the task when Kerouac was all but forgotten, and the resulting book contributed to the renewed interest in his work, as her continued interest in and scholarship on the Beats contributed to rousing the interest of other scholars.

But she too aligned herself with the Sampas family, which she needed, to have access to Kerouac’s papers, and seemed to this observer to be rewarded with the position of main academic liason between the publishing world and the university world and the Sampas family.

Others also garnered various rewards for taking sides with the Sampases. But those who sided with Jan Kerouac and Nicosia, who brought the suit against the Sampas family and lost, were treated like pariahs. Including me.

I had a book of poetry accepted for publication by Penguin in a new contemporary poets series they started in the 1990s. They were enthusiastic about my manuscript and said they looked forward to getting it out there. But after months of pre-publishing activity, they abruptly changed their mind, with no real explanation.

I couldn’t help but think some kind of pressure was put on them. I had been an arrogant young man, and I stepped on a lot of toes in the literary and publishing world back in the 1970s and early ‘80s, when I often attracted standing-room only crowds to my readings, and my ego led me to burn a lot of bridges and hurt a lot of sensitive egos in the poetry world.

So if indeed any pressure had been applied, it well could have come from someone in my past. But, also possible, I had publicly taken sides with Nicosia and Jan Kerouac. And the editor of the series I was to be published as part of, I believe was David Stanford, who was also in charge of the Kerouac estate for Viking/Penguin.

Later in the 1990s, after Jan had died, who I had corresponded with a little, I attended another symposium on Kerouac, this time in Lowell, at which the usual suspects were present, including the patriarch of the Sampas family in the audience, and the Sampas family member who was the face of their connection to Kerouac and his writings, John Sampas, on stage with Ann Charters and others, including David Stanford.

Nicosia was in the audience, as I remember it with a collaborator who was videotaping the proceedings. Nicosia had his hand up throughout the questioning period, but was ignored. However, they didn’t recognize me and so called on me. When I addressed my question about Kerouac’s archives specifically to David Stanford, he actually seemed to blush, and admitted, now that he was retired from that editing job, that it was wrong to not have honored Kerouac’s wishes to keep his archives intact and make his papers available to scholars and interested readers, not just to a hand picked cadre of insiders.

He went on to try and tactfully defend the Sampas family, saying they intended to rectify earlier mistakes and that Kerouac’s unpublished manuscripts, as well as his letters and diaries, would be published soon, and that the bulk of his archives was still together and would be kept intact from this point on, and would find a home somewhere scholars and fans could have access to.

He seemed a bit ashamed to have been called out for his part in the Kerouac archives fiasco. I can’t remember if anyone else said anything, but if they did, it was more defense of the Sampas family and their good intentions. Then the subject was changed and, to my mind, the generally missing-the-mark interpretations of Kerouac and his work continued.

Meanwhile, Tony Sampas had someone contact security to have Nicosia and his video cameraman ejected from the proceedings—and maybe me too. But I was staying at the house of a friend, a Lowell local, a big, good-looking Irish-American guy who loved Kerouac and could recite whole passages from his books from memory, in the same accent as Kerouac. Like I said my friend was big, big enough to have taken on the security guards by himself. But he happened to know the cops that were called, who when they learned the situation refused to throw anybody out.

Last week, Gerald Nicosia was in New York to hold a news conference to denounce the latest attempt to distort the record as part of the upcoming 50th anniversary of the publication of ON THE ROAD. In all the books and republications being done by Viking/Penguin to mark the half century since that novel was first published, Nicosia says that any mention of MEMORY BABE has been edited out, even as part of the bibliographies in books that have direct quotes from MEMORY BABE, according to him.

Some have said that Nicosia is beating a dead horse. After all, the archives, what's still left intact, are now in, I think, the New York 42nd St. Library, or somewhere like that, though parts are still scattered here and there, in private hands or other institutions. And a lot of the unpublished manuscripts, including early stories and a novel and a selection of his letters and diaries have been published, though if other publishers had had access they may have published the letters and journals without the cuts, or a different selection that may have been more honest, more what Kerouac left behind, obviously with the desire to see his entire archive availabhle to the public with no censorship.

Nonetheless, Nicosia's relentlessness is beginning to seem petty to some writers I know, and in the end who really cares? I guess I do, because there is so much lying and distortion in the public record, and I always found one of the antidotes to that in Kerouac, in whose writing a deeper truth resonates with my own need to cut through the bullshit. So to have Kerouac’s writing distorted and twisted to fit some business plan, and some of his greatest fans and biographers silenced or edited out of the record, is a serious offense to me. How much more can we take from the greed heads that seem to run so much of our world?

3 comments:

AlamedaTom said...

Hey bro...

Thanks for taking the time to write this. Fascinating! I've always had very ambivalent feelings about heirs of artists controlling and cashing in on their works, likeness, and legend. Part of me says it's OK, but a larger part of me says it all belongs to the public and that there should be an official "Trustee of Art & Letters" who, by law gets control of the hold shebang. Of course with us as the beneficiaries of the trust.

Thanks again for this post.

~Tom

Lally said...

I'm sorry that some of you have trouble leaving comments on my posts. Some of you have e mailed me about the problem, but I have no techno skills to figure out how to correct it (though for some it works to just make the comments "anonymous"). At any rate, here's another comment that couldn't get through for this Kerouac post, from Bob B.

Thanks for the post on Kerouac. In 1958 and 59 and 1960, he and Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti showed a 40s-born kid like me what could be done, that poetry didn't have to be that boring shit they stuffed us with at school, that it can come out of everyday life, and that it can be made from the language we use every day.

tore's tour said...

Thanks. A very interesting story.
I love reading bios. Trying to figure out what made these famous and influental people tick. And what made them so big they become fodder for bios.
However. With much of their life stories edited it's not easy to understand anything of value. So I guess I simpy read these books out of curiosity. Almost like some people can't turn their eyes away from a gossip column.
tore