Friday, April 01, 2022


With "Tuffy." (L.A. Downtown News)
Here is an interview I conducted with Ann Charters, after a second volume of Kerouac letters she’d edited was published back in 1999. Fresh from two years working as a lowly book reader at Creative Artists Agency, I snatched the free copy that showed up at the “L.A. Downtown News” and read it over the weekend with an eye to impressing her. But Charters would not do an interview until I had also read volume one, which she overnighted to me. And so, with a deadline two days away and fresh from two years working as a lowly book reader…

Charters was right, the two volumes are of a piece and must-read for Kerouac scholars and fans. I was managing editor with 17 years as a journalist behind me and, rather than ask questions, I prompted Charters into conversations that fit around quotes from Kerouac's letters I had added to both arrange for Jack's presence and to shape the piece. 

Her talk at the L.A. Central Library was packed; a clear demonstration of the writer’s enduring popularity, the academic drubbing he had been taking, notwithstanding. The audience was hip to every Beat anecdote. There were plenty of people there who knew "Bill," "Al," "Jack," "Larry," and Charters was at the top of her game running things.

Charters, who met Kerouac, is still around, having participated in a big Centennial event a few weeks ago.


Ann Charters to Remember Kerouac at Central Library.

By Stephen Siciliano

He was the original American original. A hitchhiking, booze-guzzling roustabout who lived fast and died relatively young. But before doing that, Jack Kerouac would produce a Proustian remembrance of his own things past in a series of novels that would map out mid-century marginal America for all-time and a legend for himself. His On the Road is part of our cultural canon, a classic about a new breed of American youth “out for kicks,” a how-to for living life intensely and for the moment. 

Ann Charters has been a student of Kerouac and his Beat Generation cohorts for years now, has written a book about them, edited the Viking Press Kerouac Reader as well as two volumes of letters. The second has just been released by Viking. She will be discussing Selected Letters 1957-1969 at the Central Library on December 9, 7 p.m. Charters met Kerouac while compiling the first bibliography of his work. 

“I like it, I like it, I tell you I like it literature. What a hell of a better way to do it than apply paint squares and oblongs and pop out designs and worry about color or design. Have you ever noticed how the letters of famous painters and great painters were never so cherished as the letters of authors?” (Letter to John Clellon Holmes, Dec. 8, 1964) 

Downtown News: Selected Letters II is very much a book about writing. All this business about Viking or Grove Press putting commas and dashes in the wrong places; each grammatical mark was a pitched battle. He didn’t seem to care for the rules of writing so much as for the music of it. 

Charters: Looking at the vast body of correspondence, I thought it would make things interesting to focus on his development as a writer, starting from his time at Columbia [University] up until the day he died. I chose those that had to do with writing and it wasn’t difficult to find two volumes of his letters to different people that traced his concerns. Central to it was his discovery of what he called “spontaneous prose.” Volume Two entails the extraordinary attacks he suffered and the way he ultimately caved into them. 

Very few people understood what he was trying to do. He had [Allen] Ginsberg, Holmes, [Gary] Snyder who he could write to and really unload. 

He was delighted to hear that Malcolm Cowley at Viking was to be his editor. Cowley had a reputation for working well with experimental writers, but his experimentalism didn’t go beyond the ‘20s. Hemingway and Gertrude Stein were people of similar standing. With Kerouac we have a working class writer who is belligerent and makes things difficult by not making concessions. Cowley edited On the Road without involving Jack in the process - a terrible thing to do to a writer.

Ann Charters (about 30 years ago).
Within a very few years after getting New York publication, something he’d dreamt of for a decade, the mainstream acceptance, he’s embroiled in all of these editorial fights, which he wins, but at the cost of being labeled an eccentric. 

“Dean and I embarked on a tremendous journey through post-Whitman American to FIND that American and FIND the inherent goodness in American man. American man and Child.” (to Carol Brown, May 9, 1969)

Downtown News: The selection spins a lesson about personal freedom and how the demands of a literary career launch one onto a permanent quest for it. Kerouac hurt people, abandoned a daughter and did somersaults to stay unattached.

Charters: It demonstrates how difficult it is to be a professional writer, to make it your only business. It’s an unrelenting demand for you to produce, produce, produce. For a decade of his life he was writing as prolifically as John Updike and Joyce Carol Oates - two who have been doing it for decades. Kerouac inadvertently realized that his autobiographical style demanded a lifetime of excitement. The adventures are few and far between because he spends his life at a typewriter. That’s one reason why he felt so much pressure to keep time for writing. He never came to terms with the fact he had to keep up with the pace for years and years of his life. Sadly enough, when On the Road was not made into a movie, and without good paperback advances, Kerouac never managed to stay atop his financial world, If [Marlon] Brando, who was very hot at the time, had played Dean Moriarity, he could have been financially free. 

“By God WILL end up 2 old bums in the alley! It’s coming closer all the time! Silverplated garbage cans! Tuxedo bums! with velvet hoods and a moat!” (to Neal Cassady, September 1960.)

Downtown News: These letters chronicle a man’s downfall. It begins with On the Road and success and then he starts the dive. 

Charters: That’s true. Volume One is a very happy book. He’s best friends with his most extraordinary character, Neal Cassady and he’s Kerouac’s inspiration. He writes letters to Neal that are most astonishing. Letters from just before the three weeks it took him to write On the Road. He never had a friendship with anyone like he did with Neal. None of his later friends gave him the perfect audience Cassady gave him. 

“We had an interesting banquet, a Pekingese banquet (Imperial Cooking) with the Chinese Teacher who later brought a lovely 15 year old Japanese high school girl to interview me and I said, ‘Okay, but only if you ask me something interesting,’ and she said, ‘How are you?’” (to Gary Snyder, December 5, 1959).

Downtown New: Critics of the time said he couldn’t grow up. He was 40 years old and out drinking and getting into fights. He behaved like a hooligan. 

Charters: Kerouac was a hooligan. A working class writer. I was astonished when I met him. He was 44 years old and living like no one I had ever met. He and his mother were really from the old country, uninhibited, scatological, getting drunk in public, throwing knives… they felt free in allowing themselves behavior most of us are not willing to. He wasn’t a violent man in that he picked fights, but he got into them because he did dumb things and his judgment was often impaired. He hung out with people in bars with very little understanding of what he did. Gravitated down rather than up, if you will. 

“Yes, me and Memere are most comfortably moved into our new home, which is really such a great pad I can’t believe it and just sit in a more or less drunk stupor staring at it - fireplace, etc. It just goes to show that when you get what you always wanted, it’s maybe too late.” (to Philip Whalen, Jan. 14, 1963). 

Downtown News: Here’s this prototypical rebel, a man capable of setting the publishing world on its ear with his writing and gruff habits, living with his mother. 

Charters: A lot of writers lived with their moms. Flaubert and Whitman did. Today we’re living in such independent enclaves that anyone who stays with his or her mom their whole life seems like an eccentric. It was much closer to the norm up until the ‘70s. Kerouac describes very openly the fact he lives with his mom. In Desolation Angels he has chapters about riding the bus with his mom. What’s getting you there is the sense of excitement of being with your mom. He has an extraordinary joy and muscularity of description so that he makes being with his mother a great adventure. 

"Try to rent a house near or in Sanlando Springs so you’ll be near the construction projects (and remember a quiet place so that cat won’t get run over.)” (to Caroline Kerouac Blake, June 18, 1959). 

Downtown News: She was on the road in her own way, dragging him to over 20 different dwellings from the time of his birth in 1922. 

Charters: She wanted to stay in Florida to be with his sister Caroline and her grandchild. He liked it, but only for short periods of time. They would bounce back and forth on these horrible moves (to New York and back) which meant, not only that his writing would be interrupted, but it was expensive. It was terribly inappropriate for a writer not making a lot of money to be living that way. He was faithful to his pledge to take care of her. 

“I am hopeless paralyzed drunken mess and I don’t know how long I’m going to live, if I keep on like this. It’s not my liver or anything like that, it’s my brain getting soft and paralyzed. Yet I have such a good time when I’m drunk. I feel such ecstasy, for people, for books, for animals for everything. It’s a shame there’s a string tied to everything, huh?” (to Robert Giroux, March 31, 1962). 

Downtown News: In the book you quote Timothy Leary characterizing Kerouac as “an old-style Bohemian without a hippy bone is his body.” What separated the old-style from the new Bohemianism? 

Charters: Kerouac really does come out of the ‘20s ‘30s older style. Simply put, it’s an alcohol versus marijuana versus LSD question. Kerouac wants the joy, not so much the altered perception. Kerouac is also Catholic and feels as an older-style bohemian that you have to work to get there whereas the new style gives it to you in pill form, right away. 

“There is a dream of cold mountain ranges on a gray day with clouds that I always get when I’ve been home 2 days sleeping with an open window. Cities and poets are repetitious. It’s time for the world to change. Nobody believes in enlightenment, i.e. kind tranquility, kind silence.” (to Allen Ginsberg, Nov. 2, 1959). 

Downtown News: He manifested a genuine disdain for modern conceptual thinkers and comes across as a roll-up-your-sleeves, common sense kind of guy. 

Because he lived with his mother, this aspect of himself never left him. This is what William Burroughs also protested against. He said it kept Kerouac socially retarded. He never had to seek out any friends who were anything but wild since his mother provided him safe harbor at the end of a wild night. She’s an old-fashioned, conservative housewife. She is also very intelligent and has him whipped into line. I didn’t spend but two days with her, but in her letters she’s a troublemaker and full of malice. A real piece of work. 

I recently had horrible visions of the too-muchness of the world which requires really too much of our attention, our mind essence is completely blasted by music, people, books, papers, movies, games, sex, talk, business, taxes, cars, asses, gasses, yack ack et….and let us hope that the great calm hearts of Melville, Whiteman and Thoreau do sustain us in the coming hectic years of overcommunicating Americas and Telstars and other Galaxies.” (to Allen Ginsberg, June 29, 1963). 

Downtown News: When reading Kerouac’s Zen wordy passages, it is easy to conclude he’s choosing them more for sound than meaning, but he really was serious about religion.

Charters: He was a very religious person. He was on a religious quest to find spiritual meaning in the horror of everyday life. He had seen his father die and there is an underlying sadness to his chasing joy all the time. He was living his life very intensely. He never finds release, the center. To me the saddest letter is the final one which he writes to his nephew, Little Paul, saying he’s leaving his estate to him so that his wife’s “Greek family” doesn’t get it. At the end of Kerouac’s life he seems to finally understand that family is central, that you can’t be a family of one. He had chances to be a father to his daughter and with his wives and he blew it. 

“Love to Yam Shirley

And Marshmallows

And Nunnery Stew 

And Ecstacy Pie.” 

(to John Clellon Holmes, June 8, 1962.