Kerouac: The Last Quarter Century by Gerald Nicosia – Review

Kerouac: The Last Quarter Century
Gerald Nicosia
Corte Madera, CA: Noodlebrain Press, 2019

Gerald Nicosia’s Kerouac: The Last Quarter Century is an absorbing and crucial book, laying out repeatedly how commerce triumphed over art and any real literary values in Kerouac’s story. That story culminates with the scandal of auctioning off the roll manuscript of On the Road to a sports franchise owner, who obviously could not care less about the literary qualities of the text and knows it only as the work of a cult author, which may appreciate in value. It is also the story of the inheritance battle scandal which arises around will-tampering and high-priced lawyers.

Kerouac The Last Quarter Century Gerald Nicosia

Putting aside that Kerouac died nearly penniless and now others are making millions off his legacy, the real crime is the fact that the values he espoused in On the Road and other texts, the importance of spirituality, comradeship, adventuring and giving zero attention to getting a big bankroll, are being metaphorically spit on by those in control of his estate. To get his books out there, which have these deep values, and make them attractive, they consciously denigrate these values. It is a story of many ironies, but perhaps the worst irony is people saying we will cheat Jack’s daughter Jan and others of their rightful share of his estate, never realizing they are acting in a way directly opposed to the values embodied in Jack Kerouac’s books. Nicosia tells this story well, and it needs to be heard.

Kerouac: The Last Quarter Century talks of the legacy of the great author, not in terms of his continuing influence but, more materially, in relation to the fate of his manuscripts of published and unpublished work after he died. As Nicosia unearths the facts, it turns out this is a story almost too bad to be true.

The first shocker, a double one, is this: Kerouac’s mother, Gabrielle, to whom the literary remains went when he died, willed everything to her daughter-in-law Stella Sampas Kerouac, and these papers eventually went to the Sampas family. One problem. The will signed by Mémère seemed fishy. The document was contested by Jack’s daughter Jan and, when she died – she had long been ill and on dialysis – the case was taken up by Jack’s nephew, Paul Blake, Jr. The battle went through years of legal wrangling, drawn out because the Sampas family, made millionaires by the bequest, could hire the best legal talent while Jan and Paul lived in poverty. For part of this time, as Nicosia describes, Paul helped with repairs at a salvage place so the owners “let him keep his truck/shelter in their junkyard and gave him one baloney sandwich and cigarette money every day. There was a restaurant across the street where Paul relieved himself and washed up.”

Finally a decision was reached in 2009 in a case initiated in 1994. Judge Greer ruled “that the document … admitted into probate as the last will and testament of Gabrielle Kerouac is a forgery.”

That’s one. Just as outrageous is shock two. Due to its arcane statute of limitations:

under Florida laws, Jan had only two years to complain that Stella Kerouac’s bequest to her brothers and sisters contained stolen property … But Jan did not see her grandmother’s forged will until four years after Stella had died, and so she had not been able to make her complaint within the required two years.

Don’t forget, due to multiple health issues, Jan was not really on top of things. As to the ruling, Nicosia says trenchantly, “It can now be put in the history books that the Kerouac Estate, arguably the most valuable literary estate in recent history, was stolen.” He adds this codicil that as of today, “The Blake family may never see any of their rightful inheritance.”

One might think the story ends here and, if it did, it would merely reveal the corrupt practices of one family; yet it seems that in a certain sense these ill-gotten gains carry a curse in that they taint anyone who becomes associated with them. The possession of these Kerouac papers gives the Sampas family great power, but in many ways this has ended up sabotaging the Kerouac legacy.

For one, and most obviously, Kerouac scholarship would be enhanced if all his MSS were collected in one place. Maxwell Perkins, writing in 1947, makes this point in terms of the Wolfe papers of which he was executor. “Though the times were bad [when the author died in 1938], and Wolfe had not then been recognized as what he now is, I could have sold them commercially, piecemeal, through dealers for more money than they ever brought. I was determined that his literary estate should remain a unit, available to writers and students, and I tried to sell it as such.” Nicosia notes that a number of reputable libraries made offers to buy the whole set of papers, however the Sampas family wanted bigger returns, breaking up the material Jack had carefully catalogued and preserved. This culminated in auction of the roll MS of On the Road. Nicosia’s biting pen tells the story:

People showed up for the auction of the roll in their Sunday finery … people in that room … were so excited that they were on their cellphones calling friends or relatives with a blow-by-blow description of the fate of Lot Number 307 …. [bids] started at $650,000 and within a minute were swiftly climbing toward two million dollars … [eventually] The auctioneer yelled “Sold!” and the entire room burst into applause.

As Nicosia sums it up, “The assumption now seemed to be that you could measure the worth of a book by how much its manuscript sold for.”

The “roll,” which is the term Kerouac generally used to describe the MS while the designation “scroll” seems to have been invented as a marketing device, was not sold to a book person but to James Irsay, “multimillionaire owner of the Indianapolis Colts.” It appears Irsay, a canny businessman, didn’t want the MS simply as a display of conspicuous consumption, but as a profit center. Soon after getting it, he used it to produce “a good deal of money [obtained] from renting out the manuscript since libraries and universities often had to pay in the tens of thousands of dollars for the privilege of showing it in specially-built glass cases.”

Two other aspects of this saga also deserve mention. Slowly over the years, new Kerouac books are seeing the light, drawn from the MSS collection. Customarily, such books would be edited and prefaced by known Kerouac experts, but instead in most cases these have been handled by no-names, that is, writers who have no proven track record of Kerouac scholarship, (it seems) chosen because they are willing to cater to the Sampas family, which controls the papers.

As unfortunate, known Kerouac scholars have also had to toe the line to get access. Ann Charters, “among the more knowledgeable Kerouac scholars in the U.S.,” got the job of editing the first volume of Kerouac letters. Yet, to all appearances, she was hamstrung in her work by Sampas family control. On looking at the book, one finds

it was riddled with nearly two hundred ellipses. There was rarely an explanation for what had been taken out; and … as Rod Anstee discovered, there appeared to be an almost equal number of places where material had been removed from the letters without even the benefit of an ellipsis to show that part of the text had been removed.

But why would such a competent scholar produce such shoddy work? Since there is no explanation or excuse, Nicosia mentions a plausible rumor: “From what I had heard John Sampas wanted only the positive aspects of Kerouac’s work emphasized, because they tended to enhance its value as a marketable ‘product.’”

Let me throw in a personal reminiscence which can be taken as a sort of parable. At the second NYU Beat conference in 1995 which focused on Jack Kerouac, and which came after Jan had filed her lawsuit, she and her friend Nicosia had to pay top dollar to attend. Before things got started, Jan approached the front to ask if she could say a word about Jack’s archive. Nicosia describes what followed:

John Sampas … immediately yelled, “Get her out of here.” University police rushed to apprehend her … I stood up to object about Kerouac’s daughter being removed from the conference about her father, and Sampas yelled, “Get him out too.”

We were taken down to the floor below. I still remember seeing the shock on Jan’s face in the lobby of the building – utter disbelief at having been thrown out. A few minutes later, out on the street, she threw her conference nametag into the gutter.

Let me add a point about who happened to be standing in the gutter at just that moment.

Unaware of the lawsuit, the literary group to which I belonged, the Unbearables, who, while deeply respecting Kerouac’s work, had been disgusted by the way his name was being paraded around for blatantly commercial purposes, were staging a protest. If NYU could put on a pricey Kerouac Village tour, so attendees could see where he and his friends lived, we offered an alternative tour where, as one of our members, Sparrow, declared “We will show you where Jack Kerouac bought his kitty litter.” Member Michael Carter stole the NYU itinerary and handed to it Ron Kolm who looked at it upside down and led the march. Fate took a hand. Just as we were passing the NYU Lubin auditorium, Jan and Nicosia were being expelled. Realizing that we were also riled up by this infamous conference, Jan joined our tour, along with many NYU attendees who seemed to think we were the official march.

Now we get to the crux. After Unbearable Lorraine Schein got on a post box and read a poem about the need to wear berets, Jan decided to take part. She went up on the steps of a brownstone and talked for ten minutes about her struggle over the will and offered a few insights on her father. At about this time, the real NYU tour, proceeding along the map in the opposite direction, appeared, led by an Armani-clad professor. I guess he was scared by our unkempt, disheveled (i.e., beat) appearance, so he rushed into the street, almost getting hit by a car, and took his tour to the opposite sidewalk.

Isn’t this a sort of parable? We can assume that tour participants were lovers of Jack Kerouac and had taken the walk to somehow make an authentic connection to their idol, yet when they could have met Jack’s daughter and heard personal reminiscences, they headed for the hills. And yet, on further reflection, could it be that this would have been their choice, to avoid Jan, if they grasped who she was? Perhaps they didn’t want (to use a metaphor) the “nude study” of the author offered, for one, in Nicosia’s Memory Babe where he appeared with both his defects and glories on display, rather they preferred what Sampas (as witness the Charters’ edition) would provide: Kerouac with a fig leaf.

However, to return to the book, I must admit my characterization has been lacking in an important aspect. By focusing on an indictment of those who control Kerouac’s papers, the review risks missing a more positive note in the book. There is another music here.

Perhaps I can best get to it by recalling how Nicosia outlines the design of one of Kerouac’s novels in Memory Babe. As he sees it, in this book Kerouac presents a life of punctuated fire. “On the Road is a tightly unified novel. The recurrence of cosmic moments … is a chief organizing factor.” These moments are special times of grace and full awareness.

When, in Quarter Century, Nicosia turns away from the corridors of power to depict those people on the other end, far from wealth and position, not necessarily those reduced to living in trucks, but those who fight and survive going against the grain, the reader finds, again and again, acts of empathy and charity.

When Jan has her first meeting (at Nicosia’s home) with Tom Brill, who would represent her in the case concerning her father’s estate, there is a happy coincidence and flow of sympathy. Nicosia narrates,

When Tom Brill came to my house … he brought along his Hispanic girlfriend Marta Salinas … Having travelled extensively in Mexico, Central and South America, Jan spoke fluent Spanish and loved all things Hispanic. Although she was cool at first toward Tom Brill, the perfect tall blond WASP lawyer, she instantly fell in non-sexual love with Salinas [greatly facilitating everyone’s work on the case].

Another example of selfless compassion is that displayed by the Wagners, father-and-son lawyers who fought the legal case, once Jan had passed away, for Paul Blake, Jr. Nicosia mentions,

“Alan Wagner, explaining why his dad stayed on a case that ended up costing him tens of thousands of dollars, told me: ‘My dad doesn’t like to see people getting taken advantage of. He wanted to be a lawyer so he could help people who were getting a bad deal in life.’”

Then there’s the author himself, who comes to Jan’s aid when she needs it most. As she got wind of the shenanigans surrounding her father’s estate and wanted to do something about it, Nicosia lends a hand. “Jan felt copyright issues were the best place for her to begin with the Sampases and so … I connected her with a young literary attorney in Los Angeles,” and, as we saw, he hosted a meeting between Jan and Brill. We also saw he accompanied her to NYU; and, overall, as a battler, he stands always in her corner.

Anyone who knew Jack Kerouac knew he could be difficult, but he, too, like the last-mentioned people, often showed incredible compassion and empathy. Drawing from Memory Babe again, recall Kerouac’s sympathy for the famous confessional Joan Anderson letter sent to him by Neal Cassady. Summarizing Kerouac’s replying letter, Nicosia notes, he told Neal

“No writer before had made him know so completely the thoughts of a young homeless man in jail, or made him feel so deeply a motherless man’s vast need for women, or a jailbird’s haunting fear of arrest.”

Or take Kerouac’s conversations with Gary Snyder, who reported Jack’s opinion “that Buddhism was greater than Catholicism insofar as its compassion reached everywhere, far beyond just a certain parish or mission. In Snyder’s view, the vast scope of Mahayana matched Jack’s own big-heartedness.”

All in all, while Kerouac: The Last Quarter Century provides a detailed, serious recounting of the disservice to the author’s closest family members and to scholarship done by the inheritors (purloiners) of the Kerouac papers, the darkness of this book is balanced by the moments of what might be called, borrowing a phrase from Kerouac, an “electrical fury” of compassion and soul empathy that various players exhibit and which, indeed, Nicosia reveals in practice by writing this book.

–Jim Feast


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