CONFLICT OVER KEROUAC: AN EXCHANGE
To the Editor:
Thank you for printing Herbert Gold’s superlative review of my biography “Subterranean Kerouac” (Book Review, Aug. 23). I was, however, dismayed to see Joyce Johnson’s biased and inaccurate attack directly behind Gold’s rave.
It is part of any good writer’s work, and any good editor’s, to remember what people say and how they say it and also, whenever possible, to keep notes. Johnson’s reading of my book could not be more careless or distorted. She claims that I based Kerouac’s statements to me on “ ‘ANEC[dote] DA [“Desolation Angels”]’ or ‘ANEC[dote] VD [“Vanity of Duluoz”],’ ” but my notes section on page 389 clearly states that “ANEC” stands not for anecdote but for “Author’s notes from editorial conferences with Jack Kerouac.”
She is also in error to suggest that I didn’t consult key members of the Beat Generation. Both in the text and in the acknowledgments, I cite my talks with Allen Ginsberg (in Joe LeSueur’s apartment) and many others. As for Johnson, I tried to establish contact with her at a Kerouac symposium in Lowell, Mass., in 1995, but she was dismissive. I find it hard to fathom that she now complains that I didn’t interview her, when she didn’t consult me for the memoir she wrote of Kerouac in 1983, “Minor Characters,” though I edited the Kerouac novel, “Desolation Angels,” in which she was portrayed. The truth of the matter is that after seeing Kerouac’s remarks about her in an unpublished letter John Sampas showed me in the Kerouac archive, I no longer regarded her affair with Kerouac as significant enough to merit an interview.
Johnson’s penchant for twisting the facts is especially troublesome when she calls me Kerouac’s “intrusive editor”; Kerouac himself referred to my “empathetic brilliance and expertise,” as anyone knows who’s read “Vanity of Duluoz.” It would never have occurred to me, despite solid archival evidence to the contrary, to call her Kerouac’s “intrusive lover.”
“Minor Characters” was a rhapsodic work of a star-struck young girl, and we are in Johnson’s debt for having recognized in 1957 what a genius Jack Kerouac was. In retrospect I have deep empathy for Joyce, who is a marvelous editor. It must be hard for her to reconcile her vision of Kerouac with what he really was--a homoerotic male who preyed on women. I can imagine what she is going through: Having held on to the fantasy of herself as the heroine of the Kerouac legend, she must now come to terms with the brutal reality of Jack Kerouac, and I hope her journey in the future will be one of gracious acceptance.
Ellis Amburn, Jackson, Miss.
To the Editor:
I enjoyed reading Joyce Johnson’s article explaining how the Kerouac industry has betrayed her lover. It also seemed to me that Morris Dickstein’s earlier unsympathetic review in the New York Times of Ellis Amburn’s “Subterranean Kerouac” as a reductive pathography got it right: Amburn is just the kind of reader Kerouac feared, someone who would use “queerness” to discredit him.
Rather than live in a perpetual state of denial, as Amburn claims, Jack was painfully aware of his sexual confusions, as I learned working with him on his bibliography in Hyannis in 1966. This is made clear in my biography of Kerouac and in the two volumes of his letters I have edited with commentary as a “life in letters.” The second one covering the period 1957-1969, contains a few letters Kerouac wrote Amburn in 1967 and 1968, which suggest that their relationship was entirely professional, not close.
Kerouac was grateful to Amburn for supporting his writing when few publishers would touch his manuscript. I’m glad Jack had the opportunity to have Amburn as a sympathetic editor near the end of his life and that Amburn has had the grace to wait 30 years to tell us what he thought about Kerouac.
Ann Charters, Storrs, Conn.
To the Editor:
In response to Ellis Amburn’s biography of Jack Kerouac, entitled “Subterranean Kerouac,” I thought Jack’s previously unpublished handwritten notes from his journal of spring 1962--especially what he said about the kinds of letters he wrote under the influence of alcohol--would be of interest to your readers. I enclose Jack’s handwritten notes from his journal of spring 1962.
John Sampas, Executor, The Estate of Jack Kerouac, Lowell, Mass.
[From Kerouac’s Journal]:
Friday June 8 1962
Early AM, ate curried pork with rice & feel great--As happy as if I was roaring drunk, like afterdinner peps of Big Sur solitude--
I’m disturbed to realize what a sinister difference between my concerns, habits, acts, thoughts when I’m drunk & when I’m straight
When I’m drunk I dont exercise, I sit feeble in my wheelchair, I dont read my encyclopedia, I dont clean my room, or my things, I dont sleep more than 5 paralyzed hours, I dont keep quiet and glad, I dont attend to business on desk, I dont even take one deep breath for days. I dont wash my teeth before going to bed, I dont write anything but fat short outcries by hand, I dont write anything but insulting letters, i dont make little improvements around my abode--
Then I’m so sick I feel I cant leave the house 2 blocks let alone travel to Cornwall--I cant think of the right word (Aphasia) nor remember what I did when I was drunk (Amnesia), just a horrifying guiltiness that I’ve destroyed & befouled everything, again!
When I’m drunk I dont digest before I sleep, I dont delight in the thought that existence is the worst thing that ever happened in paradise, I dont laugh at the word “emptiness,” I dont eat delightful little desserts & tidbits, I dont chew the little sweet berry of childish fun, I am simply not STRAIGHT
To the Editor:
I agreed with a good deal in Joyce Johnson’s “How the Kerouac Industry Betrayed My Lover,” especially her expose of the way Ellis Amburn has manipulated and selected Kerouac’s own writing to make him appear homosexual--a “fact” which none of Kerouac’s many women lovers ever suggested to me while I was researching my own biography of Kerouac, “Memory Babe.”
I would like to correct one point, however. Johnson implies that I “repeated almost word for word” biographer Dennis McNally’s alleged error concerning Kerouac’s use of her manuscript as stationery. The source of this story in my biography was Denver architect Ed White, a lifelong friend of Kerouac’s. In fact, White showed me pages of letters from Kerouac that had been written on the back of Ms. Johnson’s manuscript pages--which, incidentally, did not look as though they had been “tossed into the wastebasket.” In fact, White said Kerouac had joked with him about thus appropriating his girlfriend’s manuscript.
Although Johnson impugns my apparently flawed research, she herself never asked me the source of this story during the several Kerouac / Beat conferences we attended together.
Gerald Nicosia, Corte Madera, Calif.
To the Editor:
Joyce Johnson in her piece apropos a book called “Subterranean Kerouac” writes that the author quotes me as saying, “ ‘Kerouac’s father was a pansy. . . .’ But Vidal never met Kerouac’s father.” This is a sensible observation. No, I never did nor did I have the slightest interest in the sex lives of anyone involved in sad Jack’s life and times. Why should I? Jack himself wrote about our brief encounter in “The Subterraneans”; years later I responded in “Palimpsest.” Incidentally, “pansy” is not a word I use. There is now a tendency for writers of pop-bios to fictionalize not only their subjects but everyone who comes their way. What the author wants said he says someone else said. Any name will do. My favorite example of this kind of fictioneering occurs in a book called “Jackie After Jack” where, among other mendacities, I supposedly confided to the author Jackie Onassis’ view of one of her son’s girlfriends. This was some 30 years after Jackie and I had ceased to know each other. So it goes.
Gore Vidal, Ravello, Italy
Joyce Johnson replies:
Ellis Amburn’s letter could be a page taken from his book: misleading allusions to his supposedly deep access to the Kerouac archive, extreme hostility combined with the hypocritical pretense of “deep empathy"--the very technique he used in writing about Kerouac.
While I got ANEC wrong, I remain deeply skeptical about the authenticity of the sexual confessions Kerouac allegedly made to Amburn. If they were indeed taken from Amburn’s editorial notes, it seems all the stranger that Amburn would have gratuitously recorded them word for word, since they had no real relevance to editorial matters. (Linda Tripp anticipated?)
Moreover, evidence suggests that Amburn’s relationship with Kerouac was by no means as intimate as he would like his readers to believe. Sterling Lord, Kerouac’s literary agent and close friend, tells me he is quite sure that the two never actually met and that their editorial sessions were conducted entirely by phone and by letter. Amburn, in fact, gives himself away when he writes in “Subterranean Kerouac” that for a long time he had no idea that Kerouac had a drinking problem! In the 1960s, Kerouac’s alcoholism was very widely known and impossible to miss.
I also found many a red herring in Amburn’s long list of acknowledgments. There is no way of telling whom he actually interviewed. Hordes of people are indiscriminately thanked, including some, such as Frank O’Hara, Seymour Krim, Phyllis Jackson and Truman Capote, who have been dead too long to have contributed personally to “Subterranean Kerouac.” Amburn misleadingly expresses his gratitude to Sterling Lord, who was helpful during his editorial career but who declined to be interviewed by him for the biography. Helen Weaver, whose relationship with Kerouac preceded mine, is also among the thanked. She can vaguely recall meeting Amburn in the distant past but was never contacted for research purposes, although Amburn viewed her relationship with Jack with far more favor than he did mine. Even in his letter, Amburn fudges the question of exactly what kinds of talks he had with Allen Ginsberg in the apartment of their mutual friend, Joe LeSueur.
“Minor Characters” was hardly the work of a “star-struck young girl.” I waited to write it until I was 47, at enough remove to objectively assess the impact of the Beats upon my own life and upon others who came of age in ‘50s. My memoir makes it perfectly clear that I by no means sought to portray myself as the heroine of the Kerouac legend. There is no heroine; nor was Kerouac the love of my life.
Over the years, I have had long, warm, frank conversations with some of the other women in the Kerouac story: Edie Parker, Jack’s first wife; Caroline Cassady; and Helen Weaver. We all knew Jack was hopeless (hopeless in his alcoholism and his inability to separate from his mother) and loved him regardless in the way one can love with despair. None of us ever thought Kerouac was gay, despite the psychic intensity of his friendships with the men in the Beat circle.
Amburn alludes to “solid archival evidence” that made him feel it was not worthwhile to try to interview me. He is referring to one ugly line in an unpublished letter Jack wrote to a friend in the summer of 1958, on a day when he hated the whole world. If Amburn had used it in his book, of course, he would certainly have ignored the context. The letter, recently shown to me by John Sampas, was written in a drunken, paranoid state a day or so after Kerouac had gone into New York City and been severely beaten up in Greenwich Village.
I reject Amburn’s patronizing offer of empathy. I have my firsthand knowledge of Kerouac, my “indispensable bullshit-detector” and an archive of my own containing the dozens of letters Kerouac wrote me from 1957 and ’58. Among them, an irresistible, tenderly written invitation to join Jack on the road in Mexico City in the summer of 1957, portions of which I will now put into the record with the permission of the Kerouac Estate.
I would like to direct the reader’s attention--in particular Gerald Nicosia’s--to the fact that Kerouac is relating to me not only as his girlfriend but as a fellow writer, a rare thing in the misogynist ‘50s. Jack Kerouac would never have helped himself to pages from anyone’s working manuscript to use as stationery; in my case, he thriftily recycled my discarded drafts, to which I raised no objection (unlike Jack, I revised and retyped constantly).
[From Kerouac’s Letters]:
July 28, 1957
The giant earthquake was this morning at 3AM, I woke up with my bed heaving & I knew I wasn’t at sea, but in the dark I’d forgotten where I was except it was in the world & here was the end of the world. . . . I could hear sirens wailing & women wailing outdoors but the hush of silence was in my ears, that is, I recognized that all this living-&-dying wrath was taking place inside the Diamond Silence of Paradise--Twice this year I’ve had the vision forced on me--Well, there wont be another earthquake like this here for another 50 years so come on down, I’m waiting for you--Don’t go to Silly Frisco--First place, I have this fine earthquake-proof room for 85 for both of us, it’s an Arabic magic room with tiles on the walls & many big round whorehouse sex-orgy mirrors, solid with marble floors--we can sleep on the big clean double bed, have our private bath . . . it’s right downtown, we can enjoy city life to the hilt then when [we] get tired of our Magian inwardness Sultan’s room we can go off to the country & rent a cottage with flowerpots in the window--Your money will last you 5 times longer & in Frisco you wouldn’t be seeing anything new & foreign & strange. . . . Also, we’ll do our writing & cash our checks in big American banks & eat hot soup at market stalls & float on rafts of flowers & dance the rumba in mad joints with 10 beers--Perhaps you can go to Frisco, see Elise after Mexico & complete your educational tour--But I am lonesome for yr friendship & love, so try to come down, lots to talk about, lots of sleep & loving, eating & drinking & walking & visiting cathedrals & pyramids. . . . I’ll show you sights most Americans don’t know exist here & you can write a big book. At first I thought I wanted to be alone & stare at the wall, but now I realize, after the earthquake, no one can be alone, even one’s own body is not “alone,” it is a vast aggregate of smaller living units, it is a phantom universe in itself--And maybe I’ve come to realize this now because in this altitude (8,000 ft.) I don’t get drunk & I’m not taking drugs anymore (my connections are dead) . . . & I just stare healthily at the interesting world--Come on, we’ll be 2 young American writers on a Famous Lark that will be mentioned in our biographies--Write soon as you can, this address, I’ll be waiting for your answer--