This review appeared in Woodstock Times on Thanksgiving Day, 2009.
Helen Weaver’s memoir about Jack Kerouac is an insider’s look at the inner circle of the Beats.
If you drop a rose in the Hudson River at its mysterious source in the Adirondacks, think of all the places it journeys by as it goes out to sea forever–think of that wonderful Hudson Valley.
—Jack Kerouac, On the Road
As many area residents are dealing with the immediacy of the holiday season at Woodstock’s “Open House” on Friday, December 4 in the business district, longtime Woodstock resident Helen Weaver will transport some back in time to the Greenwich Village of the fifties and the inner realm of the “Beat” literary circle at a book signing at the Golden Notebook from 5:30 p.m. to 7 p.m.
A literary movement unto itself during that indelible era, this group included novelist Jack Kerouac; poets Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and Richard Howard; novelist/journalist/screenwriter Dan Wakefield; and, yes, Weaver, an author and scholarly translator, whose memoir of those times, The Awakener (City Lights, $15.95), has just been released after 19 years in the writing.
The book recounts her affair with Kerouac during the period when he signed his literary contract for On the Road, but The Awakener is much more than a kiss-and-tell. It is at once a collection of remarkable and first-hand anecdotes about the Beats, an authoritative account of the times from one who was on the front lines, and a coming-of-age story by the writer, who was immortalized in Kerouac’s Desolation Angels as Ruth Heaper.
When her buzzer rang at 7 a.m. on a Sunday morning in 1956 and she looked out of her window to see Kerouac and Ginsberg standing below, waiting for her roommate to throw down a sock with the key, it presaged the beginning of a relationship between Weaver and Kerouac during one of the most important periods in both of their lives. It was an intense but doomed affair from the beginning because of Kerouac’s drinking and his apparent inability to sustain a long-term relationship with any woman during his brief life. (Kerouac died in 1969 at the age of 47 from an internal hemorrhage caused by cirrhosis, the result of a lifetime of heavy drinking.)
But Kerouac did for Weaver what she believes he did for the rest of America. “…He woke us up in the middle of the night in the long dream of the fifties,” she writes in the memoir. “He interfered with our sleep.” This was also the very reason she says she broke up with him.
“The fifties were a sleepy time; they were so conformist,” says Weaver, 78, in the office of her Woodstock home, as photos of Kerouac, Ginsberg and Lenny Bruce–all old friends and all now gone–peak out from the bulletin board behind her. She calls her book–and Kerouac–The Awakener because she says he influenced a new wave of writers and artists and introduced America to Buddhism through books like The Dharma Bums. (In the Sanskrit, Buddha means awakened one.) The title has other associations for her as well. Weaver couldn’t get a decent night’s sleep during the time Kerouac lived with her, mostly due to his drinking and carousing. A longtime astrologer, she also says the planet Uranus, which rules revolution and art, played a prominent role in the charts of all of the Beat icons.
“He [Kerouac] was an extraordinary person; I knew that the moment I met him, Allen, too,” says Weaver. “There was an aura about them.”
One of the most endearing anecdotes in the book involves Weaver’s description of how Kerouac typed an early version of On the Road on a continuous, 120-foot scroll of paper that several potential publishers rejected due to the format. (In 2001, the scroll was auctioned at Christie’s in New York City for $2.4 million, a world record for a literary manuscript, according to Weaver.)
It took the world, and Weaver, some time to recognize Kerouac’s genius that Truman Capote had once demeaned as merely “typing.” Says Weaver, “It is interesting how his reputation has changed over time.” She recorded their time together, as well as the years that followed, in a journal and concedes she has also kept “obsessive files” of clippings about Kerouac, who is widely regarded as the father of the Beats even though he disdained such titles. And just as the world came to appreciate Kerouac’s transformative literary technique over the years, she, too, grew to respect him in a new way.
Weaver was 25 to Kerouac’s 34 when they first met in 1956. “I was very young,” she says. And for many years after their relationship, she was also still “angry at him.” She had recognized his talent when she read The Town and the City for the first time but she was in love with him at the time and, by the time she read On the Road, she concedes she was bitter and unable to hear its poetry. It wasn’t until she began researching her own memoir and could listen to Kerouac’s voice without “ambivalence” that she was actually able to hear it for the first time. And she recalls the very moment it penetrated through earlier preconceptions.
Weaver was visiting a niece in Vermont in the late 1980s and was discussing how Kerouac often used words she didn’t know, sometimes making them up to suit himself. As an example, she cited the word “hincty” that wasn’t to be found in Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary. They looked it up in the Oxford English Dictionary, only to find a reference to a page in On the Road. Still unable to find it on the designated page, Weaver read the page aloud as jazz legend John Coltrane blew his saxophone on a record in the background.
“If you don’t know what a great writer he was, read him aloud, particularly On the Road,” advises Weaver. “He was a poet. He was a musician. It was the sound of his words; that was the point with Jack. He was primarily a poet and I didn’t realize that immediately.”
Writes Weaver in The Awakener, “Kerouac’s writing is about taking in everything that’s happening even when nothing seems to be happening. It’s not about plot or action; with a few exceptions, it’s not even about character. It’s about perception. It’s about consciousness, and mortality, and compassion. It’s a meditation on life.”
Weaver says she always knew she had a book about Kerouac inside of her and that anything she would write would be published if for no other reason than because it was about Kerouac. “But I wanted it to be a good book and I’m glad I tackled it when I did,” she says. “…I was too young [before that]. The reason it took me 55 years to write this book is I didn’t understand my subject yet.”
There were numerous interruptions once she finally did begin in 1990. The primary caregiver to her ailing mother for 14 years, Weaver spent that time living in Connecticut. She returned to Woodstock after her mother died in 1995 but was distracted again when her elderly dog Daisy became ill and she was confronted with the dilemma of whether or not to put her beloved animal to sleep. Weaver took a detour to write The Daisy Sutra about the experience, a book she self-published with the proceeds she got from selling her letters from Kerouac.
“When I write, I write full time,” says Weaver. “I can’t just write an hour a day. It takes over my life. I needed peaceful, uninterrupted time.” She returned to the book in 2005. “He was such an extraordinary person I felt it was my responsibility to share my story with the world because he was who he was,” she says.
In addition to its insights and invaluable minutiae on Kerouac, The Awakener includes an irresistible chapter on the late comedian Lenny Bruce, on whose behalf Weaver drafted an anti-censorship petition during his trial on obscenity charges. She solicited signatures from literary greats, including Lillian Hellman, James Baldwin, Jules Feiffer, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Nat Hentoff, Norman Mailer, Henry Miller, Arthur Miller, Frank O’Ohara, Norman Podhoretz, Susan Sontag, William Styron, Louis Untermeyer, John Updike, and Gore Vidal among others. During the episode, Bruce got her number from Ginsberg and dropped by for a visit.
“It was every fan’s fantasy. I’d call it a one-night stand, but it was actually a two-afternoon stand,” says Weaver.
Over her career, Weaver has translated close to 50 books from French, including Antonin Artaud: Selected Writings, which was published by Farrar, Straus in 1976 with an introduction by Susan Sontag and which was nominated for the National Book Award in translation. She is also the co-author and general editor of the Larousse Encyclopedia of Astrology, which is generally regarded by astrologers as an out-of-print classic. But The Awakener is Weaver’s first book that is both entirely hers and also published by “a real publisher,” Ferlinghetti’s San Francisco-based City Lights, which she calls a “no-brainer.”
The memoir reads like a gripping piece of fiction but, in the end, it is her story and a priceless contribution to the enduring memory of the fifties.
“Well, Jack said it best ‘Nothing is real, it’s all a dream,’” Weaver told a British publication called Beat Scene in a recent interview. “In the end, the dream is more powerful than the reality. I call Jack The Awakener, but irony is that the reality he woke us all up to is the reality (which the Buddhists understand) that all is illusion, that life is a dream.”
—Andrea Barrist Stern, Woodstock Times