I am prepared to say here today, to state unequivocally, that I have evidence that Viking Penguin Publishers is deliberately removing my name from books on the Beat Generation and Jack Kerouac—deliberately keeping out references to me, my Kerouac biography Memory Babe, and my Beat scholarship in any place and any literary text that they can get away with doing so.
Now this is clearly a strong charge, and I will gladly provide evidence to back it up. But this situation, grave as it is, did not come to be overnight. There is a long back-story, and you need to hear it to properly assess what is going on now. I will do my best to summarize it as succinctly as possible—but it covers more than 20 years, so please bear with me.
When I began research on my biography of Jack Kerouac, Memory Babe, in 1977, there were no colleges in the United States teaching his work—that I knew of—and very few American literary critics who even took Kerouac seriously as a writer. But my work as a biographer was made even more difficult because Kerouac’s widow Stella Sampas, who had all his papers, refused to cooperate with me or any biographer. So I made use of whatever archival paper I could find that was already in libraries, and I traveled around the country interviewing about 300 people who knew Kerouac, tape-recording their intimate memories of the Beat writer. Most of those people I interviewed, parenthetically, are now dead.
In Lowell, Massachusetts, I was fortunate to be aided by Tony Sampas, Stella’s brother and the bartender at their other brother Nick Sampas’s bar. Tony showed me Kerouac manuscripts stored in drawers above the bar, where he lived, and played rare Kerouac tapes for me after-hours at Nicky’s. I singled Tony Sampas out for thanks in the “Acknowledgments” to Memory Babe, though I did not mention the manuscripts and the tapes, because, he said, “Stella would kill me if she ever knew I showed you those things.”
During the course of my research, I learned some things that were not flattering to the Sampas family. I learned that, not long before he died, Jack Kerouac went to his lawyer Fred Bryson to disinherit Stella, his third wife, and to see about filing divorce proceedings against her. He did not live long enough for the divorce to be filed. I also learned that the father of Tony, Stella, and Nick Sampas had killed a man in a Greek dice game in a Lowell coffeehouse, and that he had done years of hard prison time for it.
I wondered about including this information—Jack divorcing Stella, and the Sampas father committing a murder—in Memory Babe. Tony Sampas, Nick Sampas, and other members of the Sampas family, including Mary Sampas, widow of Stella’s brother Charlie, had helped me a great deal during the research for my book. But in the end I felt the information was too important not to include. My allegiance was to the truth, and it was only the truth that was going to help further generations in understanding this great writer, Jack Kerouac.
I suppose I knew the Sampas family would get mad over the things I wrote about their family. Indeed, a lot of other people got mad about facts that were included in Memory Babe. It is the price of writing an honest book, as I think most biographers would agree. But I didn’t know how mad the Sampases would get.
When the Kerouac Memorial was to be dedicated in Lowell, Massachusetts, in June, 1988, I was not invited to attend. But a man named Brad Parker, President of an independent cultural group called the Lowell Corporation for the Humanities, invited me to speak in Lowell during the dedication. The Sampases swung their weight to try to keep him from getting a space to have me speak in. Eventually, after an all-out war threatened to erupt in Lowell, the “official” Kerouac committee agreed to let him have a space if I were one of four biographers who would speak. And even then, John Sampas—not yet the executor of the Kerouac Estate—did his best to keep me out of the reception after the memorial’s dedication.
In the mid 1980’s Memory Babe had gone out of print at Grove, and I had taken the book to Viking Penguin. At first the book had done well as a Penguin paperback. But then a strange thing happened. By 1991, the sales of the paperback had fallen to 50 books a year, at the same time that Penguin was issuing brand-new editions of Kerouac books, and a massive Kerouac revival was underway. Even more disconcerting, in the back of these new Kerouac editions, where they listed “other books you might like to read,” there was no mention of Memory Babe, still universally recognized as the definitive biography of Kerouac. I asked Penguin’s new Beat editor David Stanford what was going on.
Stanford assured me that Memory Babe just needed to be “repackaged.” In late 1992, he told me that he had gotten permission to go ahead with a new edition of my book in a more desirable format with lots of photos and so forth. I provided him with new Kerouac photos and offered to assist in putting together the new edition. Things were looking up, but I was puzzled by other things. For one thing, I had not been considered as a candidate to edit and introduce any of Penguin’s new Kerouac and Beat titles—jobs that were going exclusively to Kerouac’s first biographer, Ann Charters, who was not a Penguin author. When I raised that issue, however, Stanford’s response was to accuse me of a “ridiculous” and “weird” paranoia.
In February, 1993, awaiting word on the progress of the new edition of Memory Babe, I received a phone call from Mr. Stanford informing me that my book had been “cancelled” and would no longer be published by Penguin. I asked why this widely-regarded “definitive” biography would be dropped just when Penguin was becoming the primary publisher of Kerouac’s works. I was told that my book was not saleable, that it was impossible to sell more than a few hundred copies a year.
I got important friends in the literary community to write letters to Penguin, stressing the importance of Memory Babe in Kerouac studies and pleading with them not to put the book out of print. Letters in behalf of my book were sent to Penguin from, among others, Maxine Hong Kingston, National Book Award winner Larry Heinemann, Allen Ginsberg, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. All these letters were astonishing, even to me, in their praise. In the words of Aram Saroyan: “No other book on the subject touches it [Memory Babe].” Still, Penguin went ahead and put Memory Babe out of print.
Eventually I pieced together what had happened. A sea-change was happening in the Kerouac world, much of which I did not yet know about. Stella Sampas Kerouac had died on February 10, 1990, leaving her estate (which contained all of Jack Kerouac’s materials and copyrights, left to her in a will by Gabrielle Kerouac) to her many brothers and sisters. A year later, John Sampas was installed by her family as literary executor for her estate, which in essence comprised the entire literary estate of Jack Kerouac. That same year, 1991, John Sampas had then hired Ann Charters as his personal editor and consultant for Kerouac projects.
Not long after the cancellation of Memory Babe in 1992, I read several newspaper stories about how David Stanford was engaged in intense negotiations with John Sampas, both for the reissue rights to previous Kerouac titles and for the right to begin publishing much of the extremely valuable unpublished Kerouac material from the author’s archive. Mr. Stanford had told me none of this himself—and when asked about it point-blank, declared that Mr. Sampas’s wishes had had nothing to do with the cancellation of Memory Babe at Penguin.
In early 1993, I took Memory Babe to a publisher closer to home, University of California Press. Shortly thereafter, I got a call from University of California Press’s publisher, James Clark. Clark said he had just received a call from an agent named Jacob Hoye, who worked for Mr. Sampas’s literary agent, Sterling Lord. Hoye had told Clark 1) John Sampas wanted Memory Babe to remain out of print; 2) Sampas insisted that I needed to purchase new permissions to quote from Jack Kerouac’s works (the original permissions had been paid for in 1980 and 1981); and 3) Mr. Sampas would withhold permissions at any cost to keep the book out of print.
There is a long story here in how Memory Babe finally did come back into print with University of California Press, but I can’t tell it all here today. It involved the courage of James Clark in standing up to heavy intimidation, as well as my telling John Sampas on the phone that I was prepared to sue him for interfering with my own contractual relations if he persisted in attempts to keep Memory Babe out of print. UC Press went ahead and reissued Memory Babe, and John Sampas did not sue the press, as he had threatened to do.
I am now going to have to move through a lot of history, and a lot of attempts by John Sampas to censor my Beat scholarship, very quickly.
In the fall of 1993, Brad Parker’s corporation brought me to Lowell to speak at what had now become an annual Kerouac Week in Lowell. The official Kerouac committee did its best to stop him again; and though he succeeded in arranging for me to speak at the Whistler House in Lowell, the official Kerouac committee blacked out the event in every way possible. During that event, I learned that a major Beat conference at NYU—scheduled for May, 1994—was already being organized by Ann Charters and Helen Kelly of NYU. Neither myself nor Jan Kerouac had been invited. I have left out a major swatch of history here, but during almost the entire decade of the 1980’s, Jan Kerouac had been engaged in a difficult battle with the Sampas family to receive the 50% of her father’s copyright royalties that she was entitled to by copyright law. Jan Kerouac was as much persona non grata with the Sampas family as I was.
When I called Ann Charters—with whom I had performed at many Kerouac conferences—to ask if Jan and I could be included in the big NYU Beat conference in May, 1994, she told me there “was no room” for us. This struck me as strange, especially since I had managed to get her invited to the dedication of the Kerouac Commemorative in Lowell in 1988, and since I had recently helped her find some Kerouac letters for the volume of letters she was editing for Penguin. Finally, Allen Ginsberg prevailed on Helen Kelly to get us invited to the conference.
While speaking in Lowell in the fall of 1993, I had read from Jack Kerouac’s last letter, dated October 20, 1969, and addressed to his nephew Paul Blake, Jr. In that letter, Kerouac wrote that “I just wanted to leave my ‘estate’ (which is what it really is) to someone directly connected with the last remaining drop of my direct blood line, which is, me sister Carolyn, your Mom, and not to leave a dingblasted fucking goddamn thing to my wife’s one hundred Greek relatives.” In the fall of 1993, I received a call from John Sampas’s lawyer George Tobia, who was upset that I had publicized the Blake letter. He insisted it was a forgery, and he wanted me to step forward and declare the same thing publicly. I told him I believed it was genuine, and I later showed Mr. Tobia examples of other Kerouac letters written in the same period, which appeared to match the typewriter of the Blake letter exactly. Mr. Tobia then suggested that the young Paul Blake, Jr., had perhaps surreptitiously used Jack Kerouac’s own typewriter to type the letter. This seemed preposterous to me, as everything about the letter—tone, style, vocabulary, syntax—seemed authentically to belong to Jack Kerouac. In our last conversation that fall, Mr. Tobia asked why I insisted on being so “hostile” to John Sampas, and he suggested that if I would only declare the letter a forgery, Mr. Sampas could be very “helpful” to my career.
In May, 1994, Jan Kerouac filed suit against the Sampas family in probate court in Pinellas County, Florida, alleging that her grandmother Gabrielle Kerouac’s will had been forged. I was with her when she announced that lawsuit at a press conference in New York, and I made clear from the start that I supported her lawsuit—that I felt it was just and that I was in agreement with her goal to place all of her father’s papers in a library for public study, rather than having them sold off to collectors and dealers, as John Sampas had been doing for several years already. All hell broke loose then. But even before that, John Sampas had been quietly waging his war against me and my Beat scholarship. On January 31, 1993, he had written to Thomas Staley, director of the Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas, Austin. Mr. Sampas sought a list of all Kerouac materials I had viewed there; he also demanded to know how I had gotten permission to use this material. Mr. Staley refused to provide Mr. Sampas with the information about my usage of the Kerouac collection, which he claimed was privileged under Texas law. Then Mr. Sampas sought to bring a complaint against Mr. Staley with the regents of the University of Texas—a complaint that came to nothing.
In the early 1990’s, Jan Kerouac, who had successfully established her right to 50% ownership of all renewed Kerouac copyrights, asked both Penguin and Sterling Lord, again and again, to allow me to edit and/or write the introduction to the steady stream of Kerouac titles they were now publishing. She was turned down again and again. When she complained to Sterling Lord, who by terms of her agreement with the Sampases had also become her agent, Mr. Lord wrote to her that “John Sampas will not accept Gerald Nicosia as editor.” (Sterling Lord to Jan Kerouac, August 25, 1994)
In 1987, I had placed my entire archive of research materials for Memory Babe—including all 300 taped interviews I had conducted—at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell’s Special Collections—half by sale and half by donation. In mid-June, 1995, I received a post card from professor James Jones (of Southwest Missouri State College), informing me that my Memory Babe collection at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, had been closed: “I just tried to look at the papers you donated to the University of Lowell, and the librarian in the Mogan Center told me your collection is closed to the public until the lawsuit [against the Sampases] is resolved.” In a subsequent call to the librarian, Martha Mayo, I learned that the closing [which I considered illegal and a breach of my contract with the university] had resulted from complaints by John Sampas. It took 11 years—much of it involving actual litigation—for me to get the Memory Babe archive open to the public again, and for me to regain access to my own research materials, which happened in March of last year. During that litigation, the attorneys for the State of Massachusetts made clear that John Sampas was lobbying the university very hard to keep the Memory Babe Archive closed, and to limit what material could be seen and listened to, even if it should ever be reopened.
Again, to move ahead quickly. In June, 1995, NYU held a Jack Kerouac conference, with John Sampas’s permission. Myself and Jan Kerouac were deliberately excluded, though most of the participants were the same as for the Beat conference the year before. Jan actually had to pay $120 to get in the door. On June 5, 1995, 12 years ago today, Jan Kerouac and I were removed by police from the opening session of that conference—Jan for asking for 5 minutes at the microphone to talk about major libraries that wanted to house her father’s literary papers, and me for supporting Jan’s right to speak, though some 120 other members of the conference, including Gregory Corso and Ed Sanders, later signed a petition for Jan’s right to speak there—which was ignored.
In February, 1996, John Sampas made yet another effort to have my book Memory Babe put out of print. I received a letter from his agent, Sterling Lord, claiming that I had never properly obtained permission to quote from Kerouac’s poetry in Memory Babe. I reminded Mr. Lord that we had corresponded in 1983, shortly after my book was published, and I asked why he had waited 13 years to bring up this oversight. Mr. Lord backed off.
Jan Kerouac died on June 5, 1996. She had made me her literary executor in her will, and she had instructed me to carry on her lawsuit against the Sampas family, to recover and see that her father’s papers were safely preserved in a library. For three years, from 1996 through 1999, I was engaged in a fierce legal battle with her heirs, her ex-husband John Lash and her half-brother David Bowers, who sought to remove me as literary executor and to keep me from taking Jan’s case to trial. Unable to sustain the huge financial burdens of this fight, I eventually resigned as Jan’s literary executor in 1999. It eventually came out in the probate-court proceedings in Albuquerque, where Jan died, that Lash and Bowers had concluded a “confidential” financial deal with Mr. Sampas prior to their attempts to have me removed.
There is a whole lot more here that I am forced to leave out, but let me move on to the first blatant attempt to censor my work by Viking Penguin. In September, 1997, Viking Penguin issued a special 40th anniversary edition of On the Road. The press release mentioned a dozen other Kerouac biographers and critics, but not Gerald Nicosia or Memory Babe. However, the press release from Viking Penguin lifted nearly 100 words word-for-word from my biography without any kind of credit whatsoever. This plagiarism was brought to the attention of Viking Penguin by my then attorney, but no correction or apology was ever made. A pattern was set for how to deal with me and my work.
Before I move up to the present, I need to mention a man, a Kerouac biographer, Paul Maher, Jr., who by all accounts—including that of historian Douglas Brinkley—is “very close to Mr. Sampas.” Mr. Maher has been very close to Mr. Sampas since at least 1999—I have a photo of them together at that time—and perhaps earlier. In 1990, Mr. Maher was charged with, and pled guilty to, stealing thousands of dollars in rare books from the University of Massachusetts, Lowell’s Mogan Center—the same place where 60 precious letters from Beat notables like Ginsberg and Burroughs were stolen from my Memory Babe collection around the same time. In the late 1990’s, Mr. Maher made himself prominent on the internet for vicious attacks on both my book Memory Babe and on myself—and he sent me some threats (a cartoon of myself next to a tombstone, for example, with reference to the recent murder of a teacher in Arkansas) so menacing that I took them to the FBI.
In 2004, Mr. Maher published a book called Kerouac: The Definitive Biography. What I found in his “Notes” were citations, close to 100, of material that was in my Memory Babe archive at Lowell. A subsequent call to the university informed me that Mr. Maher, despite having robbed the University of Massachusetts, was allowed back in to use the Memory Babe collection for his book on Kerouac. But despite his manifold use of my own research material, he gives no indication of borrowing from me. Instead, his citations read merely “University of Massachusetts, Lowell.” In a word, he pillaged my research. Mr. Maher’s book thus becomes a handy tool for anyone wanting to quote from Memory Babe or my own research on Kerouac without having to cite me.
Why would anyone want to do that? There has been intense pressure from John Sampas to keep me out of anything to do with Kerouac—conferences, books, films, you name it. Mr. Sampas, controlling all those valuable Kerouac copyrights and trademarks, has a powerful hammer. I am sure I have not been aware of a half or even a fourth of his attempts to censor me out of Kerouac studies, since most people do not want to talk about such interactions, especially when they bow in a cowardly fashion to his pressure.
On November 6, 2000, I met with Judy Sharples in San Francisco. Doug and Judy Sharples, a married couple from South Dakota, both filmmakers, worked 17 years on a documentary film about Jack Kerouac called Go Moan for Man. When I saw it, I felt it was the best documentary yet made on Jack Kerouac, and I still feel that way. Judy Sharples told me of the nightmare they had endured when they went to John Sampas to secure the Kerouac copyright permissions necessary to put their film into commercial distribution. The film included an interview with me that had been done in Lowell in 1988, and John Sampas demanded they remove it from the film. They had included an interview with him in the film, but he told them he would not allow them to include him in any film where I was also included. Then he told them that he would not sell them permissions at any price until they took me—the entire interview with me—out of their film.
The Sharples refused to remove me from their film. Judy Sharples says John Sampas eventually did allow them to purchase the necessary permissions, but she felt he created obstacles to the film’s distribution, especially to it being seen at Kerouac Week in Lowell. The film, in fact, has never yet been shown at the annual Lowell Celebrates Kerouac! festival in Lowell, for which John Sampas provides partial funding and whose yearly program he has veto power over.
The fact is, in 20 years of programs, I have never been invited by the official Kerouac committee to its yearly October program, though Brad Parker brought me, on his own, several times to Lowell to speak in October. Hillary Holliday, chairperson of the English Department at U Mass, Lowell, and whose annual Kerouac seminar depends largely on John Sampas (for money, permissions, who knows what), told me flatly on the phone that I would never be invited to a Kerouac seminar in Lowell. And three years in a row, when I sent a $25 check for membership in Lowell Celebrates Kerouac!, it was returned to me uncashed by Lowell Celebrates Kerouac! president Lawrence Carradini, with the information that the board had disallowed me to join—even though membership was solicited from the public in all sorts of advertisements, and I do not know of any other person so banned from joining this nonprofit organization.
I began to get used to seeing material pulled from Memory Babe appearing in other people’s works without any citation whatsoever. Bill Morgan’s The Beat Generation in San Francisco is a case in point. I found several episodes in there—like Kerouac’s meeting with David Niven in North Beach in 1959—that were told in Memory Babe and nowhere else, and yet the source, my work, was not credited at all. In the Niven episode, there was even a direct quotation from Memory Babe with no citation.
I already knew that Bill Morgan, as one of Allen Ginsberg’s 3 executors, was working with John Sampas. James Grauerholz, heir and executor of William Burroughs, had stopped by my house shortly after Burroughs’ death to tell me: “We just had a ‘summit meeting’—the executors of the three great Beat estates—Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs. We’re working together toward mutual goals—like the superpowers.” Somehow I didn’t find that comforting.
In a way, I was kind of like Dylan’s Mr. Jones. “I knew something was happening here,” but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was.
Then a revelation came with the publication of Kerouac’s journals, titled Windblown World and released by Penguin in 2004. The book was edited by historian Douglas Brinkley, who at that time had made a contractual arrangement with John Sampas to write the authorized biography of Jack Kerouac. While reading Brinkley’s “Introduction,” as well as his notes to journal entries, I saw numerous borrowings from Memory Babe. Yet in Brinkley’s “Acknowledgments” there was a mention of just about everyone in the Beat world, including Paul Maher, Jr., but not a word about me or Memory Babe. What was so galling about this slight—or one can probably say accurately, ethical breach—was that in the early ‘90’s Brinkley had written me twice to say how much he had learned from and admired my work on Kerouac.
I called Doug to ask why he had not acknowledged use of Memory Babe in Windblown World. He was clearly uncomfortable with the question, but he could not deny that material from Memory Babe had found its way into his new book. Finally he said to me, by way of explanation: “You know, Gerry, I’m not doing this book by myself. I’m working for John Sampas. I have to do what he tells me.”
I told him that work-for-hire was not an excuse for stealing someone’s work—which is what using a scholar’s or writer’s work without acknowledgment amounts to. I immediately contacted Penguin about the fact that I would not allow my work to be simply taken over like this—and Penguin agreed to add my name in the Acknowledgments. The galleys and published Windblown World exist in two distinct versions—one containing Nicosia, the other without a trace of my name in the Acknowledgments—to corroborate my account.
But a lightbulb had gone on in my head, making me recall my conversation with Judy Sharples. I suddenly realized that all these omissions of my name were not accidental things—the product of sloppiness or bad scholarship—but were mostly being done with conscious deliberation and often under direct pressure from the Kerouac Estate.
It is hardly surprising, then, that in 2006, when I learned that Bill Morgan had made some reference to my relationship with Allen Ginsberg in his forthcoming Ginsberg biography I Celebrate Myself, that I wanted to see what he had written—to check for accuracy and to see how, if at all, my own material might have been used in his work.
For several months, Beat editor Paul Slovak avoided and evaded sending me the passages I requested. I had to keep insisting—truthfully—that it is standard practice to let someone who is written about in a biography see how they have been portrayed—especially when that person had a complex relationship with the subject of the biography, as I certainly had to Allen Ginsberg. When I received the passage, however, I was quite pleased, and had no factual quibble at all with it. Here’s what Paul Slovak sent me:
In the tent each night, he [Ginsberg] had time to relax as he skimmed through
Gerry Nicosia’s new Kerouac biography, Memory Babe. “For all its crudities [it]
is a monument of Kerouac, smells and tastes like Kerouac, has a powerful impact
and a mountain of life detail I’d forgotten, great book,” he wrote. In Allen’s
opinion, of all the books about Kerouac to date, it was the one that came the
closest to capturing his true essence.
I admit I felt some anger, but it was only in this regard: both Ginsberg executors, Bill Morgan and Bob Rosenthal, had known I was under attack from John Sampas for more than ten years, and that, specifically, Memory Babe had been savaged again and again as a “fraudulent” book. Paul Maher, Jr., had even made claims that I had simply invented portions of the book. I wondered why Morgan and Rosenthal had sat on this passage for so many years, when it would have laid to rest the charges of Memory Babe being “invented.” I was obviously delighted that the quotation was finally seeing the light of day, since it would provide an irrefutable answer to Sampas and those who did his speaking for him.
I never saw galleys on Morgan’s biography—a strange fact in itself, considering that I am a major book reviewer for papers such as the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times, and have given rave reviews to close to a dozen Penguin Beat books over the last 15 years or so. When I finally saw the published book, I was shocked to find that the entire passage on Ginsberg and Memory Babe had been stricken from the book. Instead, the whole episode has been reduced to one anonymous sentence: “In the tent each night, he [Ginsberg] had time to relax as he skimmed through a new Kerouac biography.” [I Celebrate Myself, p. 566]
The handprint of John Sampas could not have been clearer, especially since I knew that he and Morgan were currently assembling a book that will probably become a best-seller, the collected letters of Ginsberg and Kerouac. I wrote twice to Paul Slovak about why I hadn’t seen galleys, and why my name had been erased from the book. I finally got an answer from him almost three weeks later. He claimed that Morgan had removed me and Memory Babe because he was “so disturbed by all the questions you started asking” and his perception that I wanted “to be more in the book.” Well, I had kept asking to see the passage or passages because for months Paul Slovak had refused to send them. And I had never asked “to be more in the book.” At one point I had offered to let Morgan see the many letters I had from Ginsberg, especially during the writing of Memory Babe, so that Morgan could get a better idea of the complex interaction between Ginsberg and myself as we perfected the text of my biography.
I did not accept this explanation, and I made it clear to Slovak that I felt the passage about Ginsberg’s reactions to Memory Babe should be restored in the paperback edition of I Celebrate Myself. This request, by the way, has been made several times to Slovak and to higher-ups at Viking Penguin, including the editorial director of nonfiction Wendy Wolf and to Kathryn Court, the President and Publisher of Penguin Books. No response has been made to it—just a stonewall of silence. I did get a remarkable email from Slovak, however—remarkable because it was more revealing than I would have expected. He wrote me on October 6, 2006:
Listen, I myself value how knowledgeable you are about the beats and how thoughtful your reviews of some of our recent Viking penguin beat titles have
been and your good connections with book review editors, and I think I have
been trying to be pretty good about getting the galleys to you, and I will continue
to do so, even though all of the authors and/or their respective agents and
representatives involved don’t seem to want me to send anything to you, whether
galley or finished book.
What I had assumed was the monomania of one man, John Sampas, in wanting to erase me from Kerouac scholarship now sounded like a conspiracy of several, perhaps many people, including Sterling Lord. Add to all that the power of a publisher with assets in the billions of dollars, Viking Penguin, and the attempt to nullify my existence as a biographer and literary critic could no longer be viewed as an eccentric prank or a futile act of spite. There was clearly a major campaign going on, and, most troubling, it was clearly succeeding in its goals.
True to form, I heard nothing from Penguin, “official biographers” like Douglas Brinkley and Ann Charters, the Lowell Kerouac committee, agents, editors, or anyone else connected with the Kerouac Estate about the major plans to celebrate the coming 50th anniversary of On the Road on September 5, 2007. Only through backchannels, organizations I have worked with on past Kerouac events, friendly book review editors, media people who rely on me for Kerouac information, and so forth did I learn that Viking Penguin is coming out with at least four new Kerouac-related books to celebrate the anniversary: a book-length essay by John Leland called Why Kerouac Matters; a new Portable Kerouac; a special 50th anniversary edition of On the Road; and the so-called “scroll” edition, or complete text, of On the Road.
I got a review assignment to review these books and wrote to several people in Penguin’s publicity department for galleys. I never got them. I wrote dozens of emails to a handful of different publicists requesting specific information, including how to reach John Leland as well as the four editors of the complete On the Road, none of whom I had heard of before. I had other Kerouac projects going, including a Kerouac symposium I am organizing, for which this information would have been useful. Again, I got none of the information I asked for. For the past couple of months, I have gotten no response to any phone calls, emails, or actual letters sent to anyone at Viking Penguin—until, finally, a brief call back from Paul Slovak on May 22, 2007.
In the meantime, I was able to reach John Leland on March 7, 2007, through contacts I have at the New York Times. I asked to interview him for the piece I was writing, and he consented. During that interview, I was simply shocked by what came out while we were on the record. I will read to you a brief excerpt from the interview:
GN: Besides getting me the name of the editor [of the ON THE ROAD ms.], if you could, give me a heads-up when galleys are available, just in case I don’t get them—things do slip through the cracks over there at Penguin….
JL: That’s because they hate you! What can you do? You know.
GN: No, it’s not they hate me, it’s John Sampas who hates me….
JL: No, no, it’s Sampas that hates you, yeah ….
GN: And that is not a fair situation, as I think you know. … whenever is a blacklist a fair situation? So what did you hear about that?
JL: Oh, very little. I think that Slovak is protecting me from Sampas … you know, I’m sure that Sampas is weighing in on my book … and every so often there’ll be something in the book and it’ll be cited to you, and he’ll say, “Well, you know, can we cite this to anything else?” ‘cause I’m sure he’s just anticipating Sampas’s … having to deal with Sampas. Because they have an extremely extremely lucrative relationship with Sampas, and I think they need little from me, other than this … a manuscript to throw into the Kerouac maw, which needs to be done every so often.
GN: This kind of thing has been done for a long time, and I don’t know what you think about it, but it really is a travesty of scholarship to try to take somebody’s name out.
JL: I would never do that. ..it’s very easy for me to say, when we at the Times write for other places we are expected to maintain the same ethical standards that we do when we’re writing for the Times, and I would never do that in the Times because somebody wanted me to take somebody’s name out, and I wouldn’t do it in my outside writing either.
So now I was face to face with the truth. John Sampas and Paul Slovak worked together to delete my name from texts wherever they could get away with it—and I would probably never know all the places where my name or the title of my book had been removed—or for how long this had been going on. Still, I was shocked again when I finally saw the galleys of Leland’s book and of the roll edition of On the Road.
In our interview, Leland had referred to several citations to Memory Babe in his manuscript, but I found only one in the galleys of his book, on p. 13, a reference to Neal Cassady having crab lice, which I had learned from my interview with Tom Livornese. Even more surprising, I found three direct quotations from Memory Babe without any citation whatsoever. These occurred on page 21—Tom Livornese’s view of Cassady’s rap as “an astronomic con of the worst sort.” That is from Memory Babe, page 174. On page 56 [of Leland’s galleys]: Kerouac’s views on sex, as recalled by Ted Berrigan, “Blow jobs, yes! Assholes, no!” That is from Memory Babe, page 685. And on page 192 [of Leland’s galleys]: Kerouac’s complaint that “I’m the only major writer in America today who was never won a prize. Never.” That is from Memory Babe, page 649.
I was even more surprised to find that, although Memory Babe was included in Leland’s “Notes on Sources,” it was described as a book chiefly about Kerouac’s “decline.” I did not get to mid 1959 in Memory Babe—about the time Kerouac’s real decline begins—until page 598 of a 698-page book. I.e., 6/7 of the book is not about Kerouac’s decline. Even stranger, in a way, was an earlier remark of Leland’s that “Most scholarship on Kerouac has been about how he lived or how he wrote, not what he wrote.” That would have seemed the perfect place to mention Memory Babe, thus far the only book to devote extensive space to a critical analysis of all of Kerouac’s major books.
First off, let me make clear that Viking Penguin did not send me galleys of any of these new books. Several publicists at Penguin had been contacted by email and phone several times. One of them Carolyn Coleburn, had even promised me in an email on March 9 that she would send me galleys of both Leland and the “scroll” edition “when they arrive.” But then, for several months, I couldn’t even get an answer out of Viking Penguin—from anyone. I got galleys through my own literary connections—not all of which John Sampas has managed to shut down.
On May 18 I left a phone message for Mr. Leland that I had important matters to discuss with him about his book. On the same day, I sent him a lengthy email. Besides mentioning the three direct quotations from Memory Babe that had received no attribution, I mentioned the misrepresentation in his “Notes” that “the bulk of the book,” my book, was “about Kerouac’s decline.” I also wondered why, when he wrote about the lack of critical attention to Kerouac’s works, he did not mention that at least one book, Memory Babe, was filled with literary criticism of Kerouac’s books. In addition, I pointed out an inaccuracy that I had mentioned to him on the phone—that William F. Buckley, Jr., was not a friend of Kerouac’s; and I also pointed out that his remark that Jan Kerouac “lived a more self-destructive life than her father” was quite inaccurate.
I did not hear from Mr. Leland until he sent me an email on May 23, 2007. In that terse 4-sentence email, he told me he had removed the reference to Buckley from his book and also deleted the characterization of Memory Babe “as largely about Kerouac’s decline.” But he did not refer at all to any of the other issues, including his use of unattributed quotations from Memory Babe in his book. I wrote him back immediately to ask what he planned to do about attributing those three quotations. Mr. Leland then wrote me back that “I acknowledge all sources at the end, with a descriptive phrase or sentence where I felt it appropriate … In a non-academic book, I feel this serves readers better than pages of academic citations or footnotes.” I then wrote Mr. Leland back that, non-academic or not, it is unethical to quote directly from someone else’s book without attribution. I suggested, if he did not want to break the flow of his essay, he could simply add a sentence in the “Notes” which read: “Direct quotations of Tom Livornese and Kerouac on his sexual parameters and desire for an award were taken with permission from Gerald Nicosia’s Memory Babe.”
I felt, in a way, that I was being the generous one, since I was offering him permission to use quotations from my work that he had never bothered to ask me permission for. Mr. Leland did not respond. Apparently he still felt that to make my words his words was all right, as long as he was writing a “non-academic book.”
But again, let me interject, that I am forced to play a guessing game here. I am not privy to any of the discussions between Slovak, Sampas, and/or John Leland—and I would bet there have been several on the issue of me, Memory Babe, and how I am to be cited—if at all. In fact, it is clear there have been discussions at least between Mr. Leland and Mr. Slovak—which I will get to in a minute.
There are stark facts staring me in the face, however—in white and black. Howard Cunnell, one of the four editors of the roll manuscript of On the Road, has also refused to answer the queries I sent him. When I got galleys (no thanks to Penguin) of the roll manuscript of On the Road, I read Mr. Cunnell’s introduction. There is clear use of material from Memory Babe in Mr. Cunnell’s introduction, yet nowhere in the book—not even in the bibliography or acknowledgments—am I or Memory Babe mentioned. As if this ethical violation weren’t enough, insult is added to injury by listing Paul Maher, Jr.’s Kerouac: The Definitive Biography in the bibliography—a book, as previously mentioned, which made widespread use of my own research. Several other books listed in the bibliography came after Memory Babe and made undisputed use of my own book and work on Kerouac and the Beats.
On May 21, 2007, I wrote to Mr. Cunnell to ask why he had made use of Memory Babe in his introduction but had not listed it in his bibliography. I also pointed out that he had listed Paul Maher, Jr.’s book in his bibliography, when Mr. Maher had made extensive use of my own research. I felt omission of Memory Babe from the bibliography, considering all those circumstances, was an “ethical violation of a rather high order.” Mr. Cunnell has made no response to my complaint about his having used my work without crediting it.
I had left a phone message for Paul Slovak on May 22 telling him that there were important matters I needed to discuss with him. I finally received an email from Mr. Slovak on Friday May 25, just before the start of the Memorial Day weekend. It was a long email, talking down to me almost as if I were a child, instructing me that I must not contact Mr. Cunnell, any of the other editors of the roll manuscript, the Penguin publicists, or anyone else at Penguin except him ever again. He also volunteered that he has been having phone conversations with people that I work for, such as Elizabeth Taylor, Book Editor of the Chicago Tribune, and that he gave permission to Ms. Taylor for me to write a piece on On the Road for the Chicago Tribune. Exactly why he should have to give any of my employers permission for work assignments is beyond me. There was also a veiled threat that a book proposal I have at Viking Penguin now, for a biography of Ntozake Shange, would be in trouble if I continued to complain about my name being taken out of books.
Finally, Mr. Slovak attempted to play a game with me that is worthy of a ten-year-old. He wrote that Mr. Cunnell “did not consult or read your book at all” but asked, “If you think he has used material from your book, can you let us know where in his introduction, and where in your book?” Which is to say, “Mr. Cunnell could not have taken material from Memory Babe because he never read it,” but “Can you show us what he took?” Or to translate even more succinctly, “Tell us what you know, before we admit what we know.”
Mr. Slovak assured me that “Sampas was allowed to read it [Mr. Leland’s book], when it was in first pass pages, as a matter of courtesy, and he had very little to say about it, other than pointing out a couple of biographical inconsistencies. It’s completely John Leland’s book—no one else from the outside has fiddled with it, or made suggestions to him about what or what should not go into it.”
Mr. Slovak then offered to add the line I had suggested for the “Notes,” acknowledging the direct quotations, but in the same sentence told me “the book is supposed to go to the printer today” and that it was probably too late to make the change. He held out the hope of adding the sentence in a “second edition.”
Finally, he told me “focus” on “celebrating the 50th anniversary” of On the Road—this from a man who did not even have the courtesy to let me know any of Viking Penguin’s plans for the celebration, including the forthcoming four new books, which I had found out about elsewhere.
I emailed John Leland on May 27 to tell him of some of the issues that were troubling me, and to ask if any citations to my work had been removed from his manuscript. A day later I received a one-word answer: “No.” While I have no reason to believe that Mr. Leland is anything but an honest and ethical man, I am still troubled by his assertion in the initial interview I did with him, that there were several citations to my work in the manuscript of his book that he delivered to Penguin. There is clearly only a single citation to my work in the galleys I saw of Why Kerouac Matters. Once again, I am faced with a situation where things do not add up.
After several more emails between myself and Mr. Slovak, I received an email from him telling me: “It’s true that Leland should not be lifting word for word quotations without putting quotes around them and citing you. I’m glad you pointed that out. We are going to be able to make that addition that you suggested [of a citation to Memory Babe in Leland’s ‘Notes’].” My other issues were still ignored, however.
After all this, I suppose it is anticlimactic to even mention the fact that I was prevented from speaking at the dedication of Kerouac Alley in San Francisco on March 31 of this year—banned from speaking there, after I was officially invited by both the Chinese Community Development Center and Vesuvio’s Bar, two cosponsors of the dedication, and after my place on the speaker’s rostrum was already announced in an article by Carl Nolte in the San Francisco Chronicle the day before, March 30, 2007. Mr. Ferlinghetti’s steward at City Lights, Peter Maravelis, had told Cathie Lam of the Chinatown group—apparently at Mr. Ferlinghetti’s instigation—that Mr. Ferlinghetti would in no way tolerate my speaking there, and Mr. Maravelis had gone on to warn her that I was a known “troublemaker” on whom they had already had to call the police at City Lights Bookstore. It was an outright lie—no one has ever “called the police” on me in my entire life—but I was banned anyway from speaking, because Mr. Ferlinghetti had threatened not to appear if I was allowed on the rostrum. Earlier, Mr. Ferlinghetti had told me, point-blank, when I confronted him on the street one day, that he intended to blacklist me indefinitely “for having sued the Sampases”—an inaccurate statement, of course, though I did support Jan Kerouac’s lawsuit. The Sampases, he said, were his friends. And the fact is, he has had several business dealings with them over the past few years.
I am speaking about this today for several reasons. One does not lightly accuse august, not to say powerful institutions such as Penguin Books and City Lights Bookstore of conducting censorship or running a blacklist. But the facts of this censorship and this blacklist are now so blatant that they are crying to be told—if only because they have been affecting myself and my family, which includes my two small children, in an extremely destructive way for several years already.
It is tempting here to defend myself, to insist on the importance of my Beat scholarship or the centrality of my book Memory Babe to Kerouac studies. I could point out that before John Sampas’s ascension to executor, I took part in every major Beat and Kerouac conference in a decade (the 1980’s)—from the Naropa Institute in Boulder to Plymouth, England, to Quebec City to the dedication of the Commemorative in Lowell, itself. I could point out that the late Bruce Cook wrote in the Washington Post in 1997 that Memory Babe was “the best of the Kerouac biographies”; that also in 1997, Robert Stone called me “a major critic of the Beat period” in the New York Times; that in 1998 British writer and biographer Barry Miles called Memory Babe “the greatest work of Kerouac scholarship there is”; or that, as recently as 2003, the London Times Literary Supplement wrote that Memory Babe was still “the best biography of Jack Kerouac” (TLS, Sept. 5, 2003). Or that Walter Salles, director of The Motorcycle Diaries, when he came to interview me a year ago for his coming documentary on Kerouac, brought me his own copy of Memory Babe to sign to him, and told me it had been an invaluable resource for him in both the documentary and the feature film of On the Road that he is currently working on.
But I suspect you can find those kind of quotes, and a lot more, easily enough on your own.
It might be worth noting, however, that the people who have made such positive comments about my work are—almost to a one—outside the sphere, economic or otherwise, of John Sampas. Or that never before in history—to my knowledge—has a single scholar been the subject of such a widespread vendetta carried out for other than political reasons.
It would be still more pertinent to look—not just at the effects of this censorship on me and my family—but on Kerouac scholarship in general. There is trouble in the world of Kerouac studies, a widely-known fact that is discouraging many of the best students from doing a thesis, writing a book, making a film, or otherwise developing their own insights into Kerouac and the Beat movement. I recall, just a year or two ago, a young woman graduate student from the Communications Department at UC Berkeley, coming to me for help with a documentary film on Kerouac that was to be her graduate thesis. Soon thereafter, she told me she was giving up the project, because the agent for the Kerouac Estate, Sterling Lord, had denied her the permissions she needed, informing her that John Sampas did not approve of her project. I have heard stories like this again and again, both from students and the professors who were teaching them.
There are probably a hundred good reasons why this blacklist and censorship has to end. Professor Matthew Bruccoli, the world’s preeminent Fitzgerald scholar and a partner in the distinguished publishing company of Bruccoli Clark Layman, told me that it “violates very principle of good scholarship and good publishing.”
I’ll conclude by reading three letters of support that were sent to me, the first by Maxine Hong Kingston, one of the nation’s most distinguished writers, a professor emerita from the University of California, Berkeley, and recipient of the National Humanities Gold Medal from the President of the United States in 1997; the second letter from Beat poet David Meltzer, whose collected poems were recently published by Penguin, where he is referred to on the cover as “one of the most respected poets of the Beat and San Francisco Renaissance periods”; and the third from Michael Schumacher, whose biography of Allen Ginsberg, Dharma Lion, is still regarded by many people as the best life study yet done of Ginsberg.
The first, the letter from Maxine Hong Kingston:
May 12, 2007
To Whom It May Concern:
This year being the fiftieth anniversary of On the Road, Jack Kerouac and his masterpiece will be celebrated worldwide. At every gala occasion, we must be sure to congratulate Kerouac’s best biographer, Gerald Nicosia. Thanks to Memory Babe, readers have a true, detailed, well-documented story of Kerouac’s life and milieu, the Beat Generation. Critics unanimously praise Memory Babe for its honesty, its broad, deep research, its narrative style, and its respect for and understanding of Jack Kerouac. On the Road and Memory Babe beautifully complement each other.
Memory Babe contains a treasure trove of interviews and correspondence which Gerald Nicosia conducted with Beat Generation figures. His work has been a useful resource to almost everyone working in this field. Because of obstacles with the Kerouac Estate, there is still not open access to much of the original source material on Kerouac. Memory Babe, then, is all the more vital to scholars making literary studies of Jack Kerouac’s work. There have been attempts to obscure the importance of Gerald Nicosia’s contribution, but that kind of interference can only hurt Kerouac scholarship and the open exchange of ideas that the Beats sought to foster. It should not be tolerated.
Maxine Hong Kingston
Senior Lecturer Emerita
The second, the letter from David Meltzer.
Hear you loud & clear.
Am frankly disgusted by the so-called Establishment erasing you from
their narrative of a history that has to be multi-vocal, not one-sided
like the current Administration's explanations for horror & death.
There's no question amongst my peers who consider Kerouac to be a major
innovator & creator, whose work challenged acceptable 'norms' -- just
as now you're facing those rectors who are not dissidents but venal
opportunists, vermin on the corpse that wd transcend this horrific
erasure of the freedom Kerouac fought for &, yes, lost in the
terrifying Acceptance of his resistance, the ultimate defeat.
MEMORY BABE remains the core source of Kerouac scholarship even though
I admire Anne Charter's pioneering work & Dennis McNally's bio, they
were partial & incomplete until your MEMORY BABE was published.
Scholars ultimately "own" nothing but their distance from the actual.
Everything else remains riffing.
The third, the letter from Michael Schumacher.
Gerry--I didn't know what you wanted for a statement, but here's a brief one. Feel free to use it any way you wish:Memory Babe, Gerald Nicosia's biography of Jack Kerouac, is an invaluable work of scholarship, influential in terms of the way we understand the works of one of America's greatest post-war writers, and in the way we write about them. (I used the book as an important source for Dharma Lion, my biography of Allen Ginsberg.) Since its publication in 1983, Memory Babe has remained, without dispute, the most detailed and in-depth Kerouac biography, and any future Kerouac/Beat Generation students would be well-advised to consult this book before beginning their own work. Any formal or informal efforts to denigrate or eradicate Nicosia's name or reference to his work, or to deny Nicosia and Memory Babe their status at the pinnacle of Kerouac and Beat Generation studies, are not only grossly objectionable in the sense of pure scholarship; they violate the open, free-spirited, joyous, mystical, comical, and heartfelt jewel-centers of Beat Generation writings, reducing a compelling body of literature to mere carrion picked over by those with questionable motives and agenda. Hope that works for you. If you need more, just let me know. OK, later,Mike [Schumacher]
Thank you. I will now take questions.
(Reproduced by kind permission of Gerald Nicosia)