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Update on the Kerouac Estate Fiasco, April, 2001
When I wrote that piece “Report from the Front,” I was pretty angry. Who wouldn’t be, after more than two decades of Kerouac scholarship—from which just about everybody in the field has benefited—and then to be kept from speaking at a Kerouac conference in Lowell, and followed around by armed guards as if I were a common criminal, just because I had taken a vocal position about preserving Jack Kerouac’s archive in a library? And hardly a one of those people who had benefited from my scholarship—no point in naming them all over—could speak up and say, “Hey, this is wrong—let Gerald Nicosia speak—he’s paid his dues and earned the right.”

I’d heard of all those cowardly people who hung their heads and let good people be blacklisted during the McCarthyite days of the Fifties—because they were afraid if they spoke up they’d get the black mark on their own names—but I’d never before seen that kind of mentality in action. It was pretty dismal and disheartening to behold. I still owe Michael Lally a good bottle of Irish whiskey for the guts with which he spoke up and asked why after all these decades we still couldn’t have access to the Jack Kerouac archive in a library. Mike Lally, by the way, is one of the greatest living poets in America. Check out his recent Black Sparrow book IT’S NOT NOSTALGIA. He makes Bob Creeley look sick, but Creeley will never admit it. Lally’s published over 20 books, and each one of them is a stick of dynamite. But Lally doesn’t “play the game,” as Jack Micheline used to say, and so he’s not getting the MacArthur and Guggenheim and all those other fine academic grants that those who do play the game routinely get. A.D. Winans isn’t getting any grants either, and he’s another powerful poet who calls ‘em as he sees ‘em.

Well there’s an “emperor’s new clothes” game in poetry—pretending only the good grey poets like Creeley and Ferlinghetti and Ashbery matter, when those of us who know (as Pound said) realize that there are easily 50 or 60 other American poets out there who are as good or better—Lally, Neeli Cherkovski, Charlie Plymell, Aram Saroyan, Jack Hirschman, Harold Norse, Judy Grahn, Gillian Conoley, Janine Pommy-Vega, maybe even Andy Clausen, who’s come up fast the last ten years like a Bukowski longshot from stuff I thought was run-of-the-mill imitation Beat to really hard-hitting epiphanies of human pathos and mortality. But the same old stuff keeps getting touted and celebrated. Those of us in our fifties, plus or minus ten years, are indeed the forgotten generation of American writers. “Don’t expect Bullet Bob Creeley to yield an inch before he’s in the ground,” Aram Saroyan once told me. You could probably say the same for any in that group, except perhaps Phil Whalen, who is as generous a man and great writer as I’ve ever met—and who is now blind and dying, and nearly forgotten. To be fair, I need to except Michael McClure too, who’s always made a point of helping up the writers younger than himself.

But this piece was about the Kerouac Estate, and my point was that the biggest “emperor’s new clothes” game around has been the Sampas family’s repeated claim over the past decade that they’re not selling off any of Jack Kerouac’s papers—“maybe only a raincoat or a pair of shoes,” their lawyer once said. Yet hundreds of rare-book dealer catalogues have been printed over the past decade listing Kerouac manuscript items that could only have come from the estate. How are these materials continually coming on the market? Is someone stealing them out of John Sampas’s bedroom? Most recently I received a catalogue from Lame Duck Books in Boston, listing four Kerouac letters (written to Cassady and evidently returned to Kerouac) for $115,000. Significantly, those are the most expensive items in the catalogue. In the same catalogue, you can buy a signed first edition by Kierkegaard for only $20,000 and a signed first edition of LEAVES OF GRASS for $17,500. I’ve asked book collectors how Kerouac can cost more than Kierkegaard and Walt Whitman, and they reply in five words: “The greed of the Sampases.”

How else explain that the Sampas family is now auctioning one of the most precious literary artifacts in America, the roll manuscript of ON THE ROAD, for a million and a half dollars at Christie’s? The explanation the family gives is that they have to pay taxes on Tony Sampas’s estate. But Tony Sampas was a frugal man, who wore old clothes and ate in Dunkin’ Donuts, and he surely didn’t leave a million-and-a- half-dollar tax debt. Besides, that excuse can easily be disproved, since the roll manuscript was privately being offered for a million dollars seven years ago—which I learned through rare book dealer Tommy Goldwasser and collector Norman Davis, and subsequently confirmed by two of the librarians at the New York Public Library. Tony Sampas was still alive in those days, so there obviously was no tax debt from his estate at that time. But they couldn’t find any takers by such secret offerings, so now they are going to put it up for auction at Christie’s, where it can be bid upon by the wealthiest collectors in the world. The only problem for them is it’s a bit hard to have a million-and-a-half-dollar item sitting on the block at Christie’s and still maintain the pose that they’re not selling any of Jack’s papers.

Hearing the news, Sixties scholar Morris Dickstein wrote to the NEW YORK TIMES: “Although the executors of Jack Kerouac’s estate have long denied that they are disposing of his papers piece by piece, one of his distant heirs is now auctioning off the most significant item in the archive, the famous 1951 scroll of “On the Road.” … Kerouac’s manuscripts, which he carefully organized and preserved, should be kept together and made available to scholars, not sold off piecemeal for the profit of those to whom he had barely any connection.”

John Sampas claims he’s still planning to put the whole Kerouac archive in the New York Public Library. However, he’s been saying that since May of 1994, seven years ago, when Jan Kerouac filed her lawsuit against him and his family. It really doesn’t take seven years to get an archive into a library, especially when several libraries are prepared to pay good money for it. World War II was fought in less time than that. As a matter of fact, New York Public Librarian Rodney Phillips told Jan and me in 1995 that he would gladly pay a million dollars for the whole Kerouac archive, but the reason John Sampas snubbed him, and continues to snub other libraries with similar offers (like Texas and Berkeley), is that he and his family want a million (and now a million-and-a-half) for individual pieces of that archive—something no library in America can afford.

So when is historian Douglas Brinkley, whose blurb is on every history book I pick up lately, going to stand up for the preservation of the papers of Jack Kerouac, whom he claims to love? Is his book contract as “authorized biographer” worth that much to him? When is Ann Charters going to stand up for it? Is she too enamored of her lifelong job as editor of Kerouac’s papers? Those contracts are worth lots of money, but isn’t the integrity of the archive of one of our greatest writers worth something too? How much do we owe Jack Kerouac, for the writings and the spiritual legacy he gave to a dying America in the 1950’s?

For standing up for the integrity of the Kerouac archive, I was subjected to every form of harassment (including death threats), blacklisting (I couldn’t speak at the 1995 Jack Kerouac conference at NYU, and was removed by police), censorship (the MEMORY BABE archive that I placed at U Mass Lowell was in large part closed and now almost every taped interview in that collection remains off-limits even to me, the person who created them), and public and media vilification, including a putative biography of myself written by a hack writer and friend of Sampas’s, Diane DeRooy, which said I had committed a whole assortment of felonies, robbed Jan Kerouac’s estate, and that I was masquerading as the author of a non-existent book on Vietnam veterans. That “non-existent” 700-page book, HOME TO WAR, is about to be published by Random House, and has already received great acclaim in places like PUBLISHERS WEEKLY, LIBRARY JOURNAL, and BOOKLIST. So much for the accuracy of Ms. DeRooy’s reporting. So much for all my former friends on the Kerouac circuit, who never stepped forward to say a good word in my behalf. My favorite was the kind description Ann Charters gave about me to the LONDON SUNDAY TELEGRAPH: “a tiresome wannabe.” Written any definitive 700-page historical works yourself lately, Ann?

Ah, but I’m getting bitter again. Time to quit. Time to say the censorship has got to end. Time to say to John Sampas and his family, in one loud collective voice, it’s time to stop treating Jack Kerouac as the goose who laid the golden egg in your backyard Time to be responsible to Kerouac’s legacy, time to be responsible to posterity and to American literature. Put the whole archive in a library now. Sell it for the going rate, for whatever a good library can pay, and call it quits. You’ll still be collecting the royalties for 70 more years anyway.

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