The Beat's Charter Member
Ann Charters, the woman who has almost single-handedly kept Jack Kerouac's literary flame alive, can't remember when she met the King of the Beats. A grad student at Berkeley in the mid-1950s, she thinks she recalls Kerouac being at the second Six Gallery reading in March 1956--a reenactment of the 1955 reading that launched the so-called "Poetry Renaissance of San Francisco" as well as the Beat Generation. "I was Peter Orlovsky's blind date to that second reading," said Charters, editor of Portable Jack Kerouac and Selected Letters, 1940-1956, both recently published by Viking press. "He was letting himself try women at the time. But when we got to the theater, I saw all these drawings of him and Ginsberg making love, lining the walls of the theatre. I thought he was a nice guy, but I decided I wouldn't go out with him again." She does remember, for certain, meeting someone else important to her at the time--Sam Charters, her future husband. A musician just in town from New Orleans, he was promoting concerts in the Bay Area (he later produced Country Joe and the Fish albums, and is now a full-time novelist). Still, Charter's connection to the Beats--which has since defined her professional life--was not an immediate one. It was, she now realizes, "totally by chance." She became more immersed in Beatdom when she began dating Sam Charters. "He was more involved with the scene, and he was a writer," said Charters, who has lived and taught in Connecticut since 1974. "He took me to City Lights. It all seemed exotic to me at the time, but I just wanted to finish my masters at Berkeley." It wasn't until 1958, in fact, that Charters began rallying around the Beat flag, and by then she was in New York, pursuing a Ph.D. at Columbia University. The Siren call that led her there was the publication of Kerouac's Dharma Bums. "He described the Berkeley scene that I knew and loved so accurately in that book," she said, "That I trusted him instantly." She began collecting Kerouac's first edition, which eventually led to the one meeting with Kerouac, one that she does remember for certain. This was in August 1966, when Charters--fresh from completing her Ph.D. at Columbia University--was preparing a bibliography of Kerouac's works. By then, all roads for the great Beat novelist had turned into dead ends. The 45-year-old Kerouac was living with his mother in Hyannis, drinking around the clock and being regularly thrashed by strangers in local bar fights. He was also writing little and what he was churning out was a pale imitation of his once prodigious talent. Most tellingly, perhaps, he was wallowing in despair and bitterness over his place in the American canon. In short, the former athlete and strikingly handsome hip icon cut a ghastly figure for the earnest young scholar, making it quite clear to Charters that he was not long for this world. "As a Catholic, he could not commit suicide, so he was determined to do it with alcohol," said Charters, who now teaches at the University of Connecticut, "He was ashamed of his drinking but couldn't control it." Recovering from her shock--even having to fend off a pathetic drunken attempt at seduction--Charters spent two days with Kerouac going through his files and editions. She was struck by the contrast between the pristine, almost monk-like order of his personal effects--including all of his letters--and the utter dissipation of his person, a clear sign to her of his lifelong dream to be taken seriously as a writer, no matter the toll. "He was a sweet man," said Charters, "But he was so unhappy. He wanted to be the American Balzac or Proust, creating a whole shelf full of interconnected novels, but instead..." Instead, Kerouac was embraced by the disaffiliated and dissolute counterculture, not by the academy. He was not only not embraced by them but ridiculed, parodied and slighted at every turn (the nadir of this process was the oft-quoted put-down by Truman Capote, another helpless drunk: "That's not writing, that's typing.") By the time Charters found him, he was the embodiment of Langston Hughes' question: "What happens to a dream deferred?" (The answer: It dies of a stomach hemorrhage while staring mutely at a typewriter in October 1969). After Kerouac died, Charter took over and began performing academia's equivalent of a rescue mission. In the ensuing years, in fact, she has almost single-handedly resuscitated his literary reputation, keeping the flame alive for the entire "Duluoz Legend" (Kerouac's name for his 15-novel autobiographical saga). The revival got a jump-start in 1974 from Charters' wide-selling biography, still considered by Kerouac's family to be the best of the myriad books about him. She also stayed in close contact with Kerouac's Beat circle and began compiling and publishing Beat ephemera, as well as helping with documentary films on the era. In more recent times, she edited the Portable Beat Reader (Viking), an exceptional compendium of work by such well-known Beats as Ginsberg, Burroughs, and Corso, and lesser-knowns like Bob Kaufman, Lew Welch and Diana DiPrima. It has sold 50,000 copies to date, a clear sign that the cyber generation has picked up the Beats along with their coffee. The effort has come full circle to 1995, with the recent simultaneous release of the Portable Jack Kerouac and Selected Letters: 1940-1956. Both were published by Viking, both edited by Charters, and both have received widespread acclaim from those quarters who'd previously shunned Kerouac. In short, the academy has come around. Kerouac has been accepted on his terms. While the portable reader is a good jumping off point for those unfamiliar with anything other than his most famous works, the Selected Letters is a revelation, a separate literary masterpiece all its own. The letters reveal, among many other things, that Kerouac was a serious writer from the get go, not some stunted hayseed from Lowell, Mass., as he has been depicted by some. At age 18 he was already pondering ambitious writing projects and citing serious writers like Thomas Wolfe and Dostoevski (nicknaming the latter "Dosty"). The idealism of these early letters is particularly refreshing, in light of how embittered Kerouac grew in the end. Giving the book an added poignancy are the letters to and from his best friend, Sebastian Sampas, who died in the Anzio landing in 1943. They're as intense as any that Kerouac later exchanged with his famous alter-ego Neil Cassady.Though Kerouac's letters stand alongside his greatest works, they almost never saw the light of day. His widow, Stella Sampas (Sebastian's little sister), circled the literary wagons upon his death. A modest woman, Stella had little need or caring for money and/or the shark-infested publishing world. She quietly took care of Kerouac's invalid (and difficult) mother for 7 more years, and then she herself died in 1990. "Stella made a decision that no new Kerouac material would be published," said Charters. "She felt he'd been treated so badly by the critics that she didn't want to be a part of that process. So she stored the manuscripts in a bank vault, where they remained, beautifully and expensively preserved." At that point, the estate fell to the Sampas family, and the youngest son John Sampas gave Charters a call. He remembered that his sister Stella had told him she thought Charters was the best of the biographers, though she had gotten along pretty well with Gerald Nicosia, too. But then he double-crossed her. "Nicosia stole the title of his biography, Memory Babe, from a novel Kerouac had never finished," Charters said, "He didn't ask permission to use it, which was a rotten thing to do." Thus, when the time came to look at and assess the state of Jack's letters, Charters got the call. She immediately saw the literary value of these writings and quickly agreed to edit the massive holdings. When it soon became apparent that his vast correspondence would not fit in one book, the project became a two-volume deal. The current edition is the first of two volumes to be published. Though Charters receives no royalties for the two latest Kerouac projects (both were done on a work for hire basis), she is eager to promote them. "I'm not a writer. I'm an editor and a teacher. American literature has been kind to me. I want to give something back."Despite his newfound status among the intelligentsia, Kerouac still maintains his appeal to the disaffiliated young. Generation X'ers are flocking to his work in record number. This doesn't surprise Charters. "Life looks kind of bleak to them, and Kerouac is a hero because he lived on his own terms. He's the American individual who did the work he wanted, even if his life was a disaster," she said, "Most important, though, is that Kerouac writes so well about an America that's gone but we still have in our hearts." What does sort of surprise Charters is the number of UConn students [where she teaches] who've never heard of Kerouac. "This is Middle America up here, I guess. The students aren't stupid at all. They're just scared. Of sex, of drugs, of not finding a job, of starving," said Charters, whose duties as a teacher are mostly confined to the short story; only once every three years or so does she teach the Beats. She is, in fact, the author of a best-selling textbook on the short story, The Story and Its Writer, its 500,000 copies in print far and away eclipsing any Kerouac project she's worked on. Regardless, she's tirelessly fanning the Kerouac flame, working on two more projects--the second volume of his letters (from 1957 to 1969) and a volume of his writings on Buddhism. "Jack Kerouac deserves the attention he's getting. He should have a place as a major American writer," she said, "In some ways, he was a terrible man who did some inexcusable things, but his larger literary ambitions are, in hindsight, astounding, especially in this time of declining expectation."