Ringside Seat

Nicosia Vs. Charters at the Kerouac Conference

June 6, 1995

The Writings of Jack Kerouac conference at New York University began on June 4 as scheduled -- and that was about the last thing that went the way it was supposed to. The first sign that events were spinning out of control came when the Unbearables, an inspired and largely disorganized group of angry writers planning to protest the complacency and dullness of the NYU event, got more publicity in publications like the Village Voice (and in web sites like Literary Kicks) than the official conference got. They announced a series of alternative events, like a Jack Kerouac Impersonators Spontaneous Prose contest, to take place at the same time as the official events.

I exchanged e-mail with a few of the Unbearables, and promptly decided to cast my lot with them. I wasn't sure how much they would have to say, but whatever it was at least it was going to be new, and they weren't planning to lighten my wallet by $140 for "registration" either. Also, panel discussions bore me and I hate wearing "HELLO! My Name Is ..." tags. Easy decision.

The Unbearables' protest, though, ended up being upstaged by a much more shocking one. The fate of Jack Kerouac's estate and legacy has been a topic of controversy for some time now; the Sampas family (Kerouac's last wife was Stella Sampas) owns everything, basically, and Jack's daughter Jan has been vying for a share. Jan Kerouac was barely recognized as a daughter by Jack during his lifetime, and her attempts at being included in the "family" now have mostly been rebuked. Jan (author of a couple of books, including Baby Driver, which I heard was pretty good) has also been very sick with kidney failure lately, and this may have contributed to the intensity of feeling she has been expressing about the ownership of her fathers' estate.

That's enough background -- now I'll get to the fireworks. Gerald Nicosia, author of the most acclaimed major Kerouac biography, Memory Babe, was apparently not invited to participate in any part of the NYU conference. Ann Charters, author of the first major Kerouac biography, Kerouac (published in 1973), was invited. Because Ann Charters has been considered 'friendly' by the Sampas family while Nicosia has expressed support for Jan Kerouac, Nicosia believes that his exclusion from the conference was a conspiracy against himself and Jan.

This may very well be the case. But get this: Nicosia showed up at the conference anyway, wearing a black t-shirt that said

"Gerald Nicosia ...
A tiresome wannabe"
-- Ann Charters
on the front. On the back were pictures of Jan and some member of the Sampas family (I didn't get a good enough look), and, in rock-concert style bold colorful print, the words "KEROUAC VS. SAMPAS". He also wore his "HELLO! My Name Is ..." tag upside down, and had replaced the words "Kerouac Conference" with "Sampas Conference."

I found this very surprising. Nicosia is quite an established figure in the Kerouac 'field,' and I've heard people praise his book -- the longest and most thorough as well as the most recent of all the Kerouac biographies -- more than any other, including Charters'. He was certainly risking his reputation by airing his grievances in such a public fashion.

It is also admirable, I suppose, that he is doing this not for himself, but for Jan Kerouac. At the same time, as I watched him wander the lobby outside the auditorium where booksellers and Kerouac-interest-groups had set up tables and where people like me (who hadn't paid to get in) hung around taking in the scenery, I detected a certain psychotic intensity to the expression on his face, and it occurred to me that he was maybe taking this all a little too seriously.

This opinion was reinforced when I talked to some other people hanging out around the lobby. I heard that somebody -- either a Jan/Nicosia supporter, or Nicosia himself -- had disrupted one of the conferences in the morning. Later I was talking to someone else about the Beat figures who were hanging around the lobby (at that moment, Anne Waldman, Joyce Johnson and Ray Bremser as well as Nicosia) and this person was telling me about the conversations he'd had with them. He looked at Nicosia and advised me, "Don't talk to him unless you want to do a lot of listening."

That was Act One: Act Two took place at Biblio's bookstore in Tribeca, where the Unbearables were staging their Jack Kerouac Impersonators Contest. Ann Charters showed up with her husband Sam (a legendary Blues author, who wrote Country Blues and The Blues Makers, and who played a very important part in the late-fifties/early-sixties rediscovery of Robert Johnson, Son House and many other old bluesmen). They were sitting at a table with a very nice guy I'd recently talked to in the NYU lobby (Ralph, from Minneapolis) and since Ralph offered me a seat near him, I suddenly found myself sitting next to Ann and Sam Charters. Then in comes Gerald Nicosia, still wearing his black t-shirt with the nasty Ann Charters quotation on the front, and he heads straight for our table. Ann sees him coming and looks away. "Excuse me, Ann," Gerald Nicosia says. "I just had to ask you ... do you think it's right that I was forcibly removed from the conference this morning under threat of police intervention?"

Or something like that. Ann tries to play it cool. "I know nothing about it, Gerald. I had a cold today, and wasn't even at the conference."

"Well, do you think it was right? And do you think it's right that so-and-so Jan Kerouac-this and Sampas-family that and so-on and so-forth ..." all in a strident, nearly-threatening tone of voice. He did not seem far from physical violence, although this would not have been much of a problem, as Sam Charters was about a foot taller and a hundred pounds heavier than Nicosia. Ann kept trying to put off his questions. "I'm very sorry that happened, Gerald" "I really don't know what it is you want me to do about that" and so on. Nicosia walked away, simmered for a few minutes, then came back even angrier and started in again.

All the time I'm sitting there thinking: Wow. I'm sitting here watching the two major Kerouac biographers duke it out, and I got a ringside seat.

I'm now going to do something I've never done before in Literary Kicks. I've never expressed my opinion on the Jan vs. Sampas Family hijinks, and that's mainly because I think the whole thing is kind of dumb. I also don't think it's very interesting to serious Kerouac readers -- although from my seat at Biblio's I have to admit it was starting to get pretty damn interesting.

Anywhere, here's how I call it, for what it's worth:

1. Every family has problems, and there is nothing surprising about the fact that Jan Kerouac (Jack's daughter from his second marriage, and a daughter that he refused to recognize and almost never met) is not friendly with the family of Jack's last wife. I'm not saying the Sampas family is right to snub her, or that she should not feel free to express how she feels about being snubbed. But like I said, every family has problems, and I don't see why this particular problem (which is all about money, really, and has nothing to do with incest or rape or death or drugs or anything like that) should be blown up into such a major public issue.

2. Jan Kerouac and Gerald Nicosia are saying that the Sampas family is getting rich by selling off the Kerouac papers little by little, and that they should instead donate or sell the entire Kerouac archive to a library. Well ... okay, whatever. My problem with this argument is: who really cares? Maybe it's better for a single library to own the whole thing, but is this really a critical issue?

You all know how much I care about Kerouac's life and work. But let's admit it ... the guy published enough stuff even during his lifetime to keep his readers busy for years, even decades. And that's not to mention his voluminous letters and journals and art notebooks, and the reminiscences of his many friends and lovers and compatriots. If you put me in a room with the entire Kerouac archive right now, I don't honestly know how interested I'd be. Shit, I haven't even gotten around to reading Vanity of Duluoz yet!

I always find it ridiculous when people make too big a deal over a writer's personal archive. No writer is that good. Kerouac was a man, not a holy savior. Just chill out, everybody, all right?

3. By the end of the night I had spoken to Ann Charters, and I liked her. I'm aware that many serious students of Beat literature consider her to be a little too chummy with some of the major living Beat figures (mainly, Ginsberg). She's been accused of prettying up the truth in some sections of her book, and she's even been dissed here in Literary Kicks by Tim Bowden in his Carolyn Cassady memoir (he accuses her of bringing a friend to Carolyn's house to engage Carolyn in a vapid discussion while she -- Ann, that is -- furiously scribbles notes from Carolyn's personal papers.) So I feel she's already been raked over the coals, and I would just like to say a word in her defense.

This woman wrote about Jack Kerouac in 1973, back when nobody took him seriously as a writer. I mean, NOBODY. Her book wasn't even published by an established firm: Straight Arrow Books was a division of Rolling Stone magazine. That was what the mainstream literary world thought of Jack Kerouac back in '73, four years after his death. It took courage, vision and selfless dedication to devote her career to a a writer whose literary reputation had never been good, and was now in a state of utter ruin.

Now everybody from Viking Penguin to New York University kisses Kerouac's ass, and it's an all-new world for Beat scholarship. But let's have a little respect for the person who put her reputation on the line back when it meant something. Yeah, Nicosia is sticking up for Jan Kerouac. But Charters once stuck up for Jack Kerouac, and that means something more.

Okay, I'm done talking about this. I'd like to conclude this report with a big "YEEE-HAHHH!" for the Unbearables, who put on a fun, truly spontaneous show at Biblio's. It started off with some jokes that were pretty dumb, focusing mainly on a burly guy in a moustache running around in a wig and housedress pretending to be Kerouac's mother. Kinda cute, kinda reminiscent of The Diggers, but also much too long. Some of the audience left during this part, but then the night started to get going, and a session of Kerouac-inspired spontaneous rants and readings began to really generate some steam. Some of it was even good writing, and almost all of it was good ranting. The Unbearables are a cool bunch; I've heard they've previously protested the bad poetry in the New Yorker, to which I can only say: what about the shitty fiction?

At one point during the Sip A Beer With Mrs. Kerouac Contest I leaned over to Ann Charters and said "You know, it just occurred to me that you're the only person in this room who actually did sip a beer with Mrs. Kerouac."

She replied, "It was actually champagne. She only drank champagne."

"Oh really?" I said. "Expensive stuff, or cheap?"

"Cheap stuff," Ann Charters said.

That's the end of my report. You'll notice I didn't say anything about the conferences themselves. They're still going on today, as I sit at home writing this up. I have a feeling I'm not missing much. As for what's going on in the lobby ... I think I've seen enough already.

Literary Kicks
by Levi Asher