The Awakener:

A Memoir of Kerouac and the Fifties

by Helen Weaver
illustrated with photographs

I’ve known I was going to write this book ever since that day in November 1956 when Jack Kerouac and his friends landed on my doorstep and he entered my living room, my bedroom, and my life. For the story of how I met Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, and how Jack and I fell in love at first sight, go to Prologue.

But why did it take me over fifty years?

Joyce Johnson, my former rival for Jack’s affections, published Minor Characters in 1983. Carolyn Cassady, Neal Cassady’s wife and Jack’s lover, had given us Off the Road by 1990 and Nobody’s Wife, by Jack’s first wife Joan Haverty Kerouac, came out that same year.

I’ve always felt I had a responsibility to present my little slice of history to the world; and given the Kerouac charisma, I knew it would be published, even if it wasn’t any good.

But I wanted it to be good! And I was intimidated by the books of these women who had managed to stay with Jack a little longer than me. Like a lot of geniuses, he wasn’t that easy to live with. I had a hard time with the drinking and the late hours, and after a couple of months I asked him to leave.

Helen and Jack in a Village restaurant 1957

(Helen and Jack in a Village restaurant 1963)

In 1990, I finally got serious about the book. The catalyst was going to Lowell.

Some of Jack’s biographers write as if it was some kind of a miracle that a great writer could come out of such an awful place, so I was not prepared to discover that Lowell is beautiful. The industrial revolution started in Lowell, and those red brick factories are the oldest ones in America.

At the Kerouac Commemorative in Eastern Canal Park passages from ten of Jack’s books are inscribed on eight columns of polished granite that are arranged in a kind of Christian-Buddhist mandala that forms a cross within a circle.

Standing in front of the granite slab on which the opening lines of On the Road are engraved, I was moved by Lowell’s recognition of its native son.

I remembered all the contempt that had been poured on Jack’s writing, how Truman Capote had sneered, “It’s not writing–it’s typing!” And I thought, Nobody has engraved his words on stone.

As I began rereading Jack’s books–and reading some I had never bothered to read–I realized that like most of mainstream America, I had seriously underestimated Kerouac as a writer. I felt that we all owed him an apology. I began to see the writing of my book as an act of atonement.

Still, I struggled for years to get it right. Was I writing an autobiography or a memoir? Was I barking up the wrong genre?

My confusion was reflected by my inability to come up with a title. It’s pretty hard to name something when you don’t know what it is.

At last, with a lot of help from my friends, I stumbled onto the right shape. And one day, like a bolt out of the blue, the title came.

Why “The Awakener”?

For at least four reasons.

First, a silly one: because when Jack lived with me, I couldn’t get enough sleep.

But on another level, his books–especially On the Road–woke up an entire generation, from the long dream of the fifties.

And through books like The Dharma Bums, Jack played an important role in introducing Buddhism to America. That was a major wake-up call, for the very word Buddha is Sanskrit for “awakened one.”

Finally, there’s an astrological reason which is way too technical to go into here, but it has to do with the prominence in the charts of the whole Beat generation of the planet Uranus, which rules revolution and art, and is known to astrologers as “the Awakener.”

So I guess you could say the title–and maybe the whole book–was written in the stars.

For a meditation on Jack’s voice, go to Epilogue.

For the whole story, including my adventures with Allen Ginsberg and Lenny Bruce (yes, I snuck in a little about the sixties), you’ll have to read the book!


Reviews

Firsthand witness to the beat literary movement, Weaver (Antonin Artaud: Selected Writings) pays homage to the man and the writer Jack Kerouac, whom she met and fell in love with in 1956. Befriending Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and comic Lenny Bruce, she makes these iconic counterculture figures tangible and captures New York’s Greenwich Village of the ’50s and ’60s. The memoir reveals the author’s own awakening—from discovering rock and roll through her personal sexual revolution to Buddhism. A lover of words and language, Weaver—immortalized in Kerouac’s Desolation Angels as Ruth Heaper—writes this book “as an act of atonement” to Kerouac: “I rejected him for the same reason America rejected him: he woke us up in the middle of the night in the long dream of the fifties. He interfered with our sleep.” She moves from translator to writer, but states she is “uncertain whether it was the story of my own life or the story of the remarkable people I had known.” Ultimately, it’s both. Photos.

—Publishers Weekly

In the latest in a long line of kiss-and-tell memoirs about Jack Kerouac, Weaver, translator of over fifty books from the French, chronicles her brief love affair with the author against the backdrop of the 1950s in Greenwich Village. She works in publishing, undergoes psychoanalysis, and becomes part of a literary circle that includes Allen Ginsberg, Richard Howard, and Dan Wakefield. Unlike Kerouac, she is swept into the cultural revolution of the 1960s, embracing New Age ideas like Native American spirituality, goddess worship, witchcraft, and astrology. Weaver writes in a clear, straightforward style, candidly discussing her feelings about Kerouac and others, including her roommate Helen Elliott and her rival for Kerouac’s affection, Joyce Johnson. Her analysis of Kerouac’s life, work, and reputation is intelligent and on target. In the end, Weaver regrets that her own rejection of Kerouac paralleled that of a literary establishment that only came to appreciate him after his death. Verdict: Readers interested in the role of women in the Beat Generation will enjoy this book alongside earlier works like Joyce Johnson’s Minor Characters and Carolyn Cassady’s Off the Road.

—Library Journal

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