A lingering reminder of Jack Kerouac
Nicosia helps keep beat poet’s voice alive
The young man, 20something I figured, sat on the “L,” staring not out the window or at a phone but at the pages of the book in his hands and held in front of his face. It was easy to read the title as the train slowed for the Belmont stop, easier still to recognize the face on his T-shirt.
I knew them both: The book was “The Dharma Bums,” the story of two men engaged in an enthusiastic search for Dharma, which is the Buddhist word for “universal truth.” The face was that of the novel’s author, Jack Kerouac, who published the book in 1958 and who has been dead for 50 years.
So, I asked, “Kerouac, eh?” which really wasn’t much of a question, but it did prompt an answer, which really wasn’t much of an answer: “Yep, you know this book?”
I told him that I did, and he said, “Cool.” He also said his name was Tom Koch and that he was 22 years old and worked as a waiter. He then said, “‘On the Road’ changed my life.”
He got off at Fullerton, I got off at Grand and a few minutes later was on the phone with Gerald Nicosia.
He now lives in the San Francisco area but was born and raised here and knows as much about Kerouac as anyone in the world. Nicosia has spent nearly a half-century studying Kerouac, whose most famous and influential book is the aforementioned “On the Road,” first published in 1957.
It was the lightly fictionalized story of Kerouac (Sal Paradise in the book) and some pals, principally Dean Moriarty, who was in real life Neal Cassady, who would also be a prominent player in Tom Wolfe’s nonfiction 1968 classic “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.” Sal and Dean drive across the United States on a raucous and conversation-filled journey punctuated by drugs, booze, jazz, poetry, wild characters and sex.
It was a sensation, a hit with critics and a bestseller. Beyond that, it helped define the Beat Generation and inspire the counterculture activities of generations that followed. It ranked 55th on the Modern Library’s list of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century and still sells some 60,000 copies a year.
Nicosia interviewed more than 300 people who knew the writer. He read more than 2,000 of the author’s letters. In 1983, he published what many consider the definitive Kerouac biography, “Memory Babe” (Grove Press). It was widely praised by critics and by some of Kerouac’s contemporaries and closest friends.
Poet Allen Ginsberg called it “a monument of Kerouac, smells and tastes like Kerouac, has a powerful impact and a mountain of life detail I’d forgotten, great book.”
Writer William S. Burroughs said, “It is by far the best of the many books published about Jack Kerouac’s life and work, accurately and clearly written, with a sure feeling for Jack’s own prose.”
Kerouac wrote many other books, though none was as successful as “On the Road.” He died in 1969 in Florida, where he was living with his third wife, Stella Sampas Kerouac, and his mother Gabrielle. The cause of death was an abdominal hemorrhage, the result of a lifetime of heavy drinking.
Nicosia has had a fruitful career as professor, critic and author. His latest book is “Kerouac: The Last Quarter Century” (Noodelbrain Press) is a searing, passionate and detailed indictment of, he says, “How Kerouac’s legacy has been travestied and sullied by some very bad people.”
He offers many villains, specifically members of the family of Stella Sampas, who effectively have controlled the Kerouac “franchise” for decades.
In a story of Kafkaesque twists and turns, Nicosia details machinations that include a phony will for his mother, slick agents and attorneys, greed, jealousies and all manner of what he calls “bamboozlement.” It reads with the pace of a first-rate novel.
“They have been in the business of monetizing this man,” he says. “It has been particularly damaging to scholars, for they have been selling off his papers piece by piece, selling off his archive to collectors and dealers all over the world.”
Kerouac famously wrote his books on huge rolls of teletype paper which,
Nicosia says, “are mostly gone. Of nine rolls, the only buyer we know of is (Indianapolis Colts football team owner) Jim Irsay, who purchased the roll for ‘On the Road’ for $2.43 million in 2001. The others? Who knows where they are?
“And the family sells his image everywhere.”
Now, Kerouac is not the first author to suffer indignities due to commercialization. Ernest Hemingway, for instance, is the subject of such nonsense as the Hemingway Look-Alike Contest, a highlight of Key West’s annual Hemingway Days celebration.
Other examples abound. I can recall, without fondness, Kerouac Jack’s Restaurant & Lounge on the North Side. It was a wellmeaning (perhaps) but lame attempt to recreate the feeling of the late ’50s and early ’60s Beat Generation with vintage furnishings, poetry readings and large bongos hanging above the door.
Nicosia tells of Kerouac’s image on key chains, backpacks, T-shirts and other items.
“The Sampas family allows for the marketing of Kerouac bobbleheads and Kerouac bacon cheeseburgers with Jack Daniel’s sauce, a particularly savage thing since Jack Daniel’s was one of the drinks that helped kill him,” Nicosia says.
The principal victim in all this commercialization, Nicosia feels and makes a strong case for, was Kerouac’s daughter and only child, Jan, and a nephew, Paul Blake, the son of Kerouac’s sister Caroline. Nicosia tried unsuccessfully in the 1990s to help Jan contest her father’s will, which was indeed a forgery.
She died in 1996 at 44, after a life spent doing some writing but mostly working as a waitress and in canneries. She had no children and remaining members of the Blake family, most living a trailer park existence, lack the means to pursue further legal action.
Nicosia is understandably quick to outrage, but he is a sensible man, as one might expect of a person raised, as he writes, a “poor, ethnic, Catholic family in a working class town near a big city — Lyons, Illinois, outside of Chicago — and I too had dreams of moving up in the world through my intellect and writing talent.”
He also feels that there is a “tradition of decency in Chicago writing, going to back to (Carl) Sandburg, James T. Farrell, Studs Terkel and many others. Nelson Algren articulated it very clearly when he said, ‘The writer needs to be a voice for the accused person in the docket, who has no one else to speak for him.’ That’s an approximate quote, but it’s what I’ve tried to do all my life: to speak up for, among others, Kerouac’s real blood family that got robbed and driven to early deaths by the injustices they experienced.”
Nicosia stays in touch with the Blake family and has dedicated this latest book to them.
He has heard nothing from the Sampas clan.
“No, there has not been any ‘official’ reaction to the book,” he says. “And nothing since the death of (Stella’s brother) John Sampas, in 2017, though I can remember very clearly him calling me ‘a piece of trash’ and a ‘nasty person.’ ”
All of Jack Kerouac’s books remain in print.
Author Jack Kerouac in Sheridan Square in New York’s Greenwich Village in 1958 after a publisher’s party for his book “The Dharma Bums.”
Originally from suburban Lyons, author Gerald Nicosia has spent much of his career exploring the life and times of Jack Kerouac. His book reads like a novel.