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Conflict Over Kerouac: An Exchange

September 13, 1998

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 The truth of the matter is that after seeing Kerouac's remarks about her in an unpublished letter John Sampas showed me in the Kerouac archive, I no longer regarded her affair with Kerouac as significant enough to merit an interview.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

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