Monday, May 4, 2009
JAN KEROUAC A Life in Memory, edited by Gerald Nicosia, has just been published by Noodlebrain Press (an imprint obviously created for this project since “noodlebrain” is a term Jan used about herself and her famous father Jack).
It’s a compilation of memories from some people who knew Jan (like one of Neal Cassady’s kids) or took an interest in her life and struggles, including Nicosia, who was one of Jan’s closest friends and advisors and champions, with an interview Gerry did with Jan back in the early 1970s also included.
But it’s not just a book for Jan Kerouac fans, or anyone interested in anything having to do with her father Jack, although if you are one of those it’s well worth your time, but it’s also worth reading for anyone interested in the dynamics of parent/child relationships, and not just those involving a famous parent, but those effected by the parents’ problems and the impact on children of the problems that caused them to separate and the children to be raised without one or the other around.
But even if none of that interests you, it’s still a fascinating read for anyone interested in the story of a uniquely charismatic young woman whose life was both tragic and inspiring.
Like any compilation, especially one as forthright and sometimes raw as this one, there are highlights and not so high. I suspect they might vary for each reader, and since I was interested in every word (I only recently received it and read it straight through, a few chapters each night, unable to stop) I won’t bother to try and predict aspects of it anyone might find engaging or not.
As I’ve said and I’m sure is obvious to anyone who reads this blog or my writing elsewhere, I’m a big fan of Jack Kerouac’s writing. But I was never a big fan of some of the more important decisions he made in his life, including choosing to first deny he was Jan’s father and avoiding any responsibility for her and then when he finally admitted she was his daughter still not including her in his life.
I always assumed the main reason, and I still feel there’s a lot of truth to this, is that he didn’t want to be burdened with the normal obligations and responsibilities of family life, especially as practiced back in the 1950s, because he feared, and probably rightfully so, that it would interfere with what he believed was his higher calling and purpose, to create a body of work that would change “American” if not world literature for the good forever.
To my mind he achieved that, although I’m sure there’d be plenty of disagreement from some critics and especially academics and others, maybe you reading this. But is artistic genius and it’s expression more important than a child’s security and happiness?
I personally opted for the latter in my life. Most of the decisions I’ve made since my first child was born back in my twenties, and to this day, are based more on what I think is best for my kids than on what I think is best for me and my “art”—and whether warranted or not I certainly felt the same way Kerouac did since I was a kid, that I was put here to write (and practice other arts) and in so doing change the course of literary history and free others to write more honestly and individually about the truth of their lives, especially the secrets that seemed to have been hidden from common expression throughout history until our own time.
Keroauc beat me to the punch in many ways, as did others (though I think I made my contributions, especially early on, in ways that were new and had some influence) since they were older and there before me. And before Jan.
Jan became a writer like her father, known for two autobiographical novels BABY DRIVER and TRAINSONG. I remember first reading her with a jaundiced eye, thinking she and her publisher were just taking advantage of her father’s name.
But I also was sympathetic to the reality that she had grown up without any help from her dad or even his presence in her life. So why not use her last name to get some recognition and hopefully money for herself.
Her mother, Joan Haverty, wrote a book about her time with Jack called NOBODY’S WIFE which I reviewed on this blog relatively negatively because I felt she was judging Jack’s behavior in the 1940s and ‘50s by the post-feminist standards of the 1970s. And because it is clear to me from his writing and hers, as well as from some others (including some in JAN KEROUAC A Life in Memory, though too little for my taste) that Joan had her own problems which contributed as much or more to Jan’s problems as the absence of her famous father.
I knew Jan only through our correspondence after poet and friend, and editor of this book, Gerry Nicosia put us in touch. She seemed like an amiable, honest, good hearted woman, if a little insecure, and I dug hearing from her and was saddened by her death not long after we became friends through the mail (before the instant and more immediate satisfaction of e mail had become common, at least for people like Jan and me).
Maybe that colors my gratitude to Gerry for putting this book together and getting it out. As I’ve written before, I was involved to some extent in Gerry's and Jan’s attempts to get her rightful inheritance of her father’s archives, not just for the financial support it might afford her (and she was fighting grave health issue for the last several years of her life or more so was in need of all the financial help she could get) but more importantly to her, to Gerry, and to me and others who are fans of Jack Kerouac’s writing, to keep those archives intact and accessible to scholars and fans and anyone interested in exploring them, as Jack had intended and made very clear.
One of the many unfortunate decisions Jack made that created problems for him later was to take gravely seriously his promise to his father at the elder Kerouac’s deathbed that he would care for his mother. Because Jack spent most of his time writing, daydreaming (about his writing and what it would bring him), and going on alcoholic binges (the source of much of the stories in his writing) with only occasional success for many years, and then dwindling success toward the end of his life (shortened by that alcoholism), Jack didn’t do a very great job of caring for his mother, other than spending most of his time with her and letting her basically care for him.
As part of that, when his second wife, Joan Haverty, gave birth to Jan after they had separated, according to accounts in this book including Jan’s, her father didn’t want to upset his mother so he assured her that the baby wasn’t his. Then, even when he realized the lie, he was afraid to go back on it and possibly upsetting his mother and his comfortable arrangement of having her as his domestic help (and in many ways partner) without the responsibilities and distractions of a child and having to get an actual job to support Jan or give her part of his earnings as a writer once he became successful, which could have also gotten in the way of his finally being able to care for his mother at least financially as well as cut into his ability to continue writing without having to worry about any other kind of work for pay, etc.
Jack married his last wife, Stella, the spinster sister of his earliest and most important soulmate, Sammy Sampas, when he knew he was drinking himself to death and that his mother might outlive him. He wanted someone there to care for her, and Stella did. But according to Jan and her lawyers and others, including experts in a court case still to be decided, when Jack’s mother died before Stella, her signature was forged on a will leaving Jack’s archives to her, which wasn’t so bad until Stella died and they fell into the hands of her brothers, who began selling bits and pieces of them off piecemeal (Jack’s star as a writer was almost extinguished when he passed but had grown much brighter than even previously around the time the Sampas brothers got hold of his archives) including a famous raincoat to Johnny Depp, as well as letters Jack wrote that were sold to Depp and other Hollywood stars (so that instead of them being intact and accessible in a library setting, along with the rest of Jack’s archives, they can only be viewed in a frame on a wall in a Hollywood mansion).
Thankfully, Gerry and Jan and others, including me to a small degree, made such a fuss over the first several years the Sampases were doing this, they were forced to reconsider and in recent years have given most of the archives, or what’s left, to the New York Library (Jan wanted them to go there or to Berkeley branch of the U. of California), though they sold the original “roll” (as Jack called it, though the Sampases and others, including the owner and now the publisher of the book version call it a “scroll”) of ON THE ROAD for millions.
Jan’s life was definitely tragic—her childhood poverty and rebellion leading to incarceration and more rebellion and bad choices harming her health and happiness and her too early death from kidney failure that made the last years of her life so difficult.
But as I said, it was also inspiring. For instance, she rarely, if ever, blamed her father for his absence, believing he had a higher purpose with his writing (that has had an impact on millions) and feeling, as she makes clear in the interview with her in this book, more like a parent to her childish father than an abandoned daughter.
She also made something of the tragic circumstances and choices of her early life by writing about them in BABY DRIVER and TRAINSONG successfully, gaining some stature and sense of accomplishment from this beyond the tortured confusion of her childhood and adolescence and early adulthood. As well as adding something to the important literature of our times.
And when she died she was still working on her incomplete last novel, PARROT FEVER, (pages of which she sent me toward the end for my opinion, which I found touching and humbling), still a committed, working writer and artist, giving her an identity that both joined her to her father, and freed her from his overwhelming absence in her life.
I want to again publicly thank Gerald Nicosia for all he did to help Jan in her life and writing, but also for what he has done, especially with this book, to keep Jan’s life and accomplishments in the public eye as much as possible so that she and they are not forgotten or dismissed (and all he continues to do to see that Jack’s work is some day accessible and published as Jack wanted it to be, and not with the editing and censorship imposed on it by the Sampases for their own purposes, whether financial or personal (all negative comments about the them, for instance, edited out of any posthumously published books of Jack’s etc.)
[ordering informatio: PO Box 130 Corte Madera, CA 94976-0130 ($25 postpaid—checks should be made out to Gerald Nicosia)]