Haiku Season What Is an Epigram? Thomas Wolfe's Western Journeys Jack Kerouac's Nephew
It's haiku season here in haiku country. The deadline for entering the annual Ukiah Haiku contest has passed, the judging will take place soon, winners will be announced and the Ukiah Haiku Festival (ukiahaiku.org) will take place on April 18.
Friday night I went out and heard some good music at the Ukiah Brewing Company (ukiahbrewingco.com/). The band was The Blushin' Roulettes (blushinroulettes.com/), a folksy group from the Mendocino coast. They played and sang lots of good tunes. The lead singer, Angie Rose, a petite brunette who has a nice way with a song, was into talking about haiku. She asked how many people had entered the Ukiah Haiku contest. A few folks raised their hands, so she asked for some samples of haiku. A couple of girls came up to the stage. One recited hers. It was about Montgomery Woods and wasn't bad, but ended with something too editorial and sweet. It went something like:
the majestic redwood trees
I feel wonderful
I would drop the article, and change the last line to something else about what is really going on, more like:
majestic redwood trees
banana slug slime
The other girl chickened out. An impromptu haiku occurred to me, so I came up to the stage and said:
tuning their guitars--
Johnny Cash's birthday
Not great, I admit, but not too bad in the spirit of the moment. It was generally well received. Angie commented approvingly on the association of Blushin' Roulettes and Johnny Cash, but the bass player pointed out that the syllable count was not 5-7-5, which is true. There was a bit of discussion and the consensus seemed to be that it was an acceptable haiku. I had returned to my seat by this time, and shouted something toward the stage about the difference between Japanese sound units and English syllables, but this was pretty much lost in the general barroom cacophony, and probably too academic for the time and place anyway.
Later in the evening, after much good music, good cheer and cold beer, there was more haiku discussion from the stage. An effort was being made to think and talk in 5-7-5 format. Again I tried to point out that 5-7-5 does not a haiku make. Some of my fellow inebriates agreed. Others demurred.
So what about it, haiku lovers? Does a haiku have to be 5-7-5? It's certainly a widely held perception. But I'm here to tell you that the leading edge of the modern haiku world leans more and more toward discounting the importance of 5-7-5--even in Japan!
The thing is . . . you receive these cute e-mails, right? Computer techie "haiku," a bunch of somewhat funny doggerel written in 5-7-5 format. Is this haiku? For the most part, no. Your Twitter correspondent only tweets in 5-7-5 format. Haiku? Afraid not.
So what is a haiku? I'm glad you asked.
The old Beat poet Michael McClure says, "A haiku isn't a haiku if it doesn't have wabi. (Wabi being old-fashioned gnarly countrifiedness.)"
I tend to agree. If Johnny Cash doesn't have wabi, I don't know who does.
Other sources talk about sabi, which translates more as an awareness of the happy sad nature of life, aware (ah-wah-ray), a feeling for the impermanence of all phenomena, and wabi sabi, an attentiveness to the beauty and power of the natural world. (For more on these and other Japanese terms, check Still In The Stream.
Different authorities offer varying rules or guidelines, but basically:
* A haiku should at least have some reference to nature. Human nature is included.
* A haiku should be in the moment, about something that is happening right now. Use verbs in the present tense.
* It most often should be three lines in two "parts," one of the lines offering a contrast to the other two. For instance:
of late night sleet--
dog licking its paws
--Leonard D. Moore
Almost all the "rules" get broken by accomplished haiku writers, but it's good to have an idea of what they are.
So stop counting syllables, kids. It's haiku season. And you live in haiku country. Go forth and find them in their natural habitat. May wabi sabi be with you.
For more good information and samples of haiku, check Jane Reichold's Aha Poetry (ahapoetry.com/) and The North Carolina Haiku Society (nc-haiku.org/).
Dan Barth is an organizer and judge for the Ukiah Haiku Festival, and is the author of Ukiah Haiku: Journal of a Year, Coyote Haiku and Fast Women Beautiful: Zen Beat Baseball Poems.
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What Is an Epigram?
I was talking with my sister Karen on the phone the other night and she said, "I have this new little short poem, but it's not exactly a haiku."
I said, "Oh yeah? Let's hear it."
Our Lady of Fatima Retreat Center--
The fattest squirrels you've ever seen.
They chase each other slowly through the snow.
"That sounds more like an epigram," I said.
"What is an epigram?" she said
I recited Coleridge's poem, "What Is an Epigram?"
What is an epigram? A dwarfish whole,
Its body brevity, and wit its soul.
She said, "Oh, okay, I think I have a couple more of those."
The next day she sent them to me.
One Night at Tewligan's Tavern
Bleached blonde baby
With your bright white smile
Reality will have to wait a while
One Night Outside of Tewligan's Tavern
Unarmed forces seem to me
To have more varied possibilities.
Yes, those are definitely epigrams.
Basically, an epigram is any very short poem, titled or untitled, rhymed or unrhymed, that is witty, clever or funny. The form goes back quite a ways, taking its name from a Greek word meaning "inscription." It's most famous early practitioner was the Roman poet, Martial (AD 40-104). Here are a couple of his, translated by Rolfe Humphries.
You say, to start with, you have laryngitis;
Stop right there, Maximus, and you'll delight us.
Why don't I send my books to you
When you've asked me so many times?
Good enough reason, Ted; you might
Reciprocate with your own rhymes.
Good old, Martial, hanging out at the Forum in the old days with Maximus and Ted.
As the Coleridge epigram cited above attests, the form became popular with British poets of the 17th through 19th centuries. Here's another by Coleridge.
On a Volunteer Singer
Swans sing before they die--'twere no bad thing
Should certain people die before they sing!
Subject matter of epigrams is not limited or proscribed, but they are often ribald, satirical or cutting. Here's one by Matthew Prior.
A True Maid
No, no, for my virginity,
When I lose that, says Rose, I'll die:
Behind the elms, last night, cried Dick,
Rose, were you not extremely sick?
The term epigram is also used for any witty or cutting remark, the kind Oscar Wilde and Dorothy Parker were famous for, e. g., the latter's "I'd rather have a free bottle in front of me than a prefrontal lobotomy." If you make a witty comment, feel free to call it an epigram, but my purpose here is to consider the epigram as a poetic form, something that involves at least a minimum of care and craft.
My friend Clyde Klingenberg is a visual artist, a painter. He's also dyslexic, and so not especially a word man. A short form like epigram appeals to him, and every once in a while he comes up with a good one, like:
Welcome to lizard heaven,
where the sun is hot,
the rocks are flat,
and the flies move real slow.
Dog heaven where
Every time a human takes a bite
My writer friend Rob Zoschke says, "Haiku shmaiku. Epigram shmepigram. Just call 'em all short poems." He has a point, but we literary types like to carp and cavil. Helps keep the university English departments in business. Here's one of Rob's short poems. Looks like an epigram to me.
she asked for
cell phone minutes
and cherry Rolaids
and that is just what
her mother bought her
Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes, and Robert Frost all wrote a lot of short poems. Some of these I think of as epigrams, others not. It's a matter of the spirit of the poem. Here's one by Hughes.
As the wind
On the Lincoln
As a bottle of likker
On a table
All by itself.
To me that's a little too wistful to be thought of as an epigram, but others might disagree.
Here's another by Hughes.
Cool face of the river
Asked me for a kiss.
That one could almost be a haiku, but I'd call it an epigram. For one thing it has a title, which is often half the fun of an epigram, and is considered all but taboo for haiku.
One more by Hughes:
A wonderful time-the War:
when money rolled in
and blood rolled out
was far away
Money was near.
Yes, that one is definitely an epigram.
Ogden Nash and Hillaire Belloc are two more poets who wrote lots of humorous verse, including epigrams. Here's one by Nash.
A Word to Husbands
To keep your marriage brimming,
With love in the loving cup,
Whenever you're wrong, admit it;
Whenever you're right, shut up.
Dorothy Parker also wrote some of the poetic type. Here's one of hers I like.
Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren't lawful;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.
What about length? Martial, and Ben Jonson, who also wrote many, inclined to rather lengthy ones at times-twenty lines or more. Nowadays, with our media shortened attention spans, anything over eight seems a bit too long for an epigram. But readers and poets can decide for themselves.
Okay, Karen. Now do you know what an epigram is?
For more information, have a look at http://www.english.emory.edu/classes/Handbook/epigram.html and http://www.tnellen.com/cybereng/epigram.html.
For some of mine, check http://www.jackmagazine.com/issue4/danbarth.html.
In closing, here's one more by Dorothy Parker:
A Pig's-Eye View of Literature: Oscar Wilde
If with the literate I am
Impelled to try an epigram,
I never seek to take the credit;
We all assume that Oscar said it.
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Thomas Wolfe's Western Journeys
The real life of Thomas Clayton Wolfe is very much shrouded in legend. Most often associated with his native North Carolina, Wolfe last lived there in 1920, the year he was graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After that he lived primarily in New York City, but also travelled a great deal, living for periods of time in England, France and Germany, among other places. But essential to Wolfe's writing was his vision of America. His avowed goal was "to get the whole wilderness of the American continent into my work" (Kennedy 6). As he matured as an artist, and toward the realization of that goal, it was to the western U. S. that he turned , seeking inspiration and understanding. "Almost every American, no matter where born, is a Westerner at heart," he said late in his life. "The West is the American horizon" (The Notebooks of Thomas Wolfe 963).
A thorough reading of the biographies of Wolfe, together with his letters, notebooks and published works, makes it clear that a large part of what he was after was an understanding and artistic depiction of European settlement and expansion in North America.1 In dealing with this subject matter he was inevitably led west. He made two trips to the western states, one in 1935 and another in 1938. These western trips had a greater influence on his life and writing than has generally been given credence. Wolfe's travels in the West and his associations with writers of the region came to play a significant role in the development of his art, a role that has been underappreciated in light of his southern roots and their memorable evocation in his writing.
As a child Wolfe had traveled with his mother and siblings to the St. Louis World's Fair of 1904. From that time on he dreamed of visiting the territory west of the Mississippi. For many years this dream went unrealized. But in 1934 it was given renewed impetus when he visited the Chicago World's Fair. In a letter to his mother at that time he wrote: "America is a huge tremendous country and someday I hope to see it all . . . Someday I am going to see the Far West too, and hope to explore the country thoroughly before I am done" (Donald 333).
In the summer of 1935 an opportunity to begin the exploration presented itself. That year Wolfe's second novel, Of Time And The River, was published to great acclaim and became a bestseller. Wolfe had gone to Europe to rest after the novel's completion and to distance himself from its critical reception. While in Berlin, where he was celebrated as a writer who "personified the freedom and promise of America" (Turnbull 213), he received an invitation to speak at a summer writers' conference at the University of Colorado, in Boulder. He accepted at once.
On June 30 Wolfe sailed for New York, arriving on the 4th of July. After three weeks during which he worked on his lecture and attended to correspondence and other personal matters he boarded the train for Colorado. En route he wrote: "I'm looking forward to my Western trip and intend to go the whole way to the Pacific coast" (Thomas Wolfe's Letters To His Mother 314). His first stop was Greeley, Colorado where he delivered a version of his lecture at the Colorado State Teachers College. "I have been here in Greeley just a day," he wrote, "but like the West and the people very much" (Letters To His Mother 314).
On July 31 he arrived in Boulder. The writers' conference was already in session. Wolfe immediately plunged into the attendant academic and social life. With Robert Frost, Thomas Hornsby Ferril, Robert Penn Warren, and others he participated in a round-table discussion of "Poetry and Intelligibility." Again with Warren, whose review of Of Time And The River had been less than enthusiastic, he joined a panel discussing "Social Responsibility and the Modern Author."
Away from the classroom he joined other conference participants in a Colorado Day celebration and on outings to the mountains, and kept people up half the night drinking and talking. He also found time to read student manuscripts, the best of which he recommended to his publisher. In Look Homeward, his 1987 Pulitzer Prize winning biography of Wolfe, David Herbert Donald notes: "His enthusiasm for young social historian, Dixon Wecter, led to the publication of The Hero In America by Scribners in 1941" (336).
On August 6 Wolfe delivered his lecture on "The Making of a Book." This talk, later published as The Story Of A Novel, described Wolfe's experiences after the publication of Look Homeward, Angel as he struggled to begin work on Of Time And The River and then mold it into publishable form. He held the audience spellbound for an hour and forty minutes and closed to thunderous applause. The English poet Edward Davison, who had organized the conference, hailed Wolfe's talk as "a genuine expression of the New American Art" (Donald 336).
As the conference closed Wolfe found time to get a letter off to Maxwell Perkins, his editor at Scribner's: "The Writer's Conference is over and I am leaving here today for Denver and expect to be on my way for Santa Fe and the Southwest in another day or two. This has been, and is going to be, an extraordinary trip. The West is like something that I always knew about. I feel good and have been immensely happy ever since I came here. The country is magnificent" (The Letters of Thomas Wolfe 483).
Wolfe's host in Denver was Ferril, who showed him around town and took him on another excursion to the mountains. Then it was on to Colorado Springs to see Desmond Powell, an old friend and former teaching colleague at New York University. Powell drove Wolfe on to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he met Edna Ferber who "spoke most generously of everything I had done" (Letters 487). From Santa Fe, Wolfe made a trip up to Taos for some drunken misadventures at the home of Mabel Dodge Luhan before boarding a train for Los Angeles. On the way he stopped to see the Grand Canyon. "It is stirring and incredible," he wrote. "I begin to see how inadequate all I have said and written about this country really is" (Nowell 287).
In Los Angeles, Wolfe looked up Joel Sayre, an old friend, who arranged for a VIP tour of MGM studios. There he met Clark Gable and Jean Harlow, among others. He was even offered a job as a scriptwriter, but turned it down, saying he had his own work to attend to. Later he was invited to Dorothy Parker's Beverly Hills home for drinks before a late dinner. And finally "departed with Gertrude Sayre and Joel Sayre in their car along shore road above Santa Monica -- singing" (Notebooks 765). A letter from there continues in the expansive mood of Boulder: ". . . as for this trip to the West, I have no words here to tell you of the beauty power and magnificence of this country. Thank God, I have seen it at last! -- and I know that I did not lie about it; I know I have not yet begun to put it down on paper; my store of wonderful subject matter has been enormously enriched" (Letters 488).
From Los Angeles Wolfe headed north to San Francisco, a city that had held a place in his imagination since 1908 when his father made a trip there. His host was Dr. Russell Lee of Palo Alto, whom he had met aboard ship on his return from Europe in July. From this base in Palo Alto, Wolfe made several trips into San Francisco where he roamed the streets till all hours, revelling in the vitality and variety of the city. Another highlight of this visit was a trip to Big Basin, a nature preserve in the Santa Cruz Mountains, where he saw his first giant redwood trees, and was stunned into silence.
Although he had hoped to continue to the Pacific Northwest, Wolfe at this point acceded to Perkins' wish that he return to New York to deal with pressing literary and legal matters. His train trip east took him through Reno, where he took in the gambling and sporting houses, and Salt Lake City, where he obtained a permit to buy liquor in Utah. He rode the train back across Colorado, Kansas and Missouri to St. Louis, where he stopped to see the house where his family had stayed in 1904 and where his brother Grover had died. This event is movingly depicted in his story "The Lost Boy" in The Hills Beyond.
Back in New York he rented an apartment on First Avenue overlooking the East River and got back to work. The previous year, when Of Time And The River was published, Wolfe and Scribner's had announced: "This novel is the second in a series of six of which the first four have now been written and the first two published. . . The titles of the six books, in the order of their appearance, together with the time plan which each follows, are:
Look Homeward, Angel (1884-1920)
Of Time And The River (1920-1925)
The October Fair (1925-1928)
The Hills Beyond Pentland (1836-1926)
The Death Of The Enemy (1928-1933)
Pacific End (1791-1884)" (Notebooks 673).
Thus it would seem that Wolfe's plans were pretty well laid out. But after six months of travel his conception of his work had changed somewhat and he now began to work in a somewhat different vein. In particular the western trip had inspired him to write a "book of the night -- about the chemistry of darkness, the strange and magic things it does to our lives, about America at night" (Letters 490). This book never achieved fruition although parts of it were later incorporated in The Web And The Rock and You Can't Go Home Again, and in a Vogue magazine piece called "A Prologue To America." This work is also significant for its influence on subsequent writers, particularly Jack Kerouac and Tom Waits.
Eventually Wolfe settled down to work on his next "tremendously long book" (Letters 526). His outline now included chapters called "TheWind From The West" and "The Great West." The western trip, he felt, had helped him clarify his vision. "It was a wonderfully valuable and informing experience," he wrote, "that seemed to crystallize things I have been feeling and thinking about America and Europe for years now" (Letters 518). To Perkins he wrote, "I have at last discovered my own America. I believe I have found my language, I think I know my way" (Letters xviii).
In the summer of 1936 Wolfe made another trip to Germany, to attend the Olympic games and to collect royalties which had been blocked from leaving the country. During this trip it became obvious to Wolfe what Hitler and Nazism were doing to Germany, a country he loved. On his return he wrote a story called "I Have A Thing To Tell You," an indictment of Nazi Germany, which effectively made it impossible for him to visit there again as long as the Nazis were in power. In a letter to a friend he wrote about: ". . . the feeling that those tragic and apparently incurable hatreds of Europe were going to explode at any minute--it is good to be here where, whatever we lack, we still have space to move in, freedom to expand" (Letters 546).
During the next two years Wolfe continued work on his manuscript but also used considerable energies dealing with the vicissitudes of success, which included lawsuits and a break with his publisher. Later Wolfe would say of this time: "Everything happened to me except homicide, and I'm knocking on wood" (Letters 532). He continued his restless travels with three trips to his native South. Coupled with his break from Germany, it was these trips that convinced Wolfe "you can't go home again -- back home to one's family, back home to one's childhood, back home to the father one has lost, back home to romantic love, to a young man's dreams of glory and fame, back home to exile, to escape to 'Europe' and some foreign land . . ." (Letters 711).
By the spring of 1938 he was again looking west. A letter to his sister in May of 1938 is very revealing of his state of mind: "I think you are wise in wanting to get out of Asheville. I have known what happened to it for years, but I had a good chance to sum it all up when I went back last summer. It is a ruined and defeated town, and it is full of ruined and defeated people. If you think that I am happy about this you do me an injustice. After all, it was my town, I was born there, and some of the people I care for most on earth still live there. But I found out last summer that you can't go home again, and now I know why. . ." (Letters 761).
Although he never got around to explaining why, Wolfe went on to say: "I'm dog-tired, got no rest last summer, and have had none since. But I feel good. Did you ever read a story of mine that came out about a year ago called "I Have A Thing To Tell You"? Well, I have a thing to tell you now: that is you can't go home again, but there are other places you can go. So why not try to find them? . . . I am going West in a few days on a speaking engagement, and after that, I'm going to hit for the wide open spaces" (Letters 763).
Increasingly disenchanted with New York, Wolfe had been casting about for someplace away from the city to spend the summer. When an invitation arrived to speak at a literary banquet at Purdue University, he accepted and, as he had with the Boulder conference, decided to use it as a springboard for a trip west. On May 17 he boarded the Southwestern Limited for Indianapolis. Prior to leaving he had been feverishly at work on his now huge manuscript, which he was calling "The Web And The Rock," and which he considered to be "completed" but about a year away from being in its final, publishable form. This manuscript had been left in the care of Edward C. Aswell, Wolfe's editor at his new publisher, Harpers. On board the train Wolfe wrote to a friend: "I put through a big job and completed it -- and feel completed. I'm going a few thousand miles further and raise hell" ( Nowell 418).
Wolfe's Purdue speech was an off-the-cuff account of his struggles to grow and mature as an artist. The focus was on his growing sense of social responsibility, his feeling that ". . . my circle had widened, the range of my interest had increased immeasurably . . . had taken me out of the more narrow provinces of myself and my work" (The Autobiography Of An American Novelist 137). The speech was well-received by an audience of about 300. Afterwards Wolfe convinced some of his newfound friends to accompany him to Chicago for the weekend.
On Monday he boarded the Zephyr, his first streamlined train, and headed for Denver. He had planned to stay there a day, but after looking up Ferril, Davison, and other friends from his previous trip he ended up staying a week. Then it was north to Cheyenne and west across Wyoming to Boise, Idaho where he tried to get in touch with Vardis Fisher, another ex-colleague from NYU. Of Idaho he wrote: "What I saw of it today is the abomination of desolation: an enormous desert bounded by infinitely-far-away mountains that you never get to, and little pitiful blistered towns huddled down in the most abject loneliness underneath the huge light and scale and weather and the astounding brightness and dimensions of everything -- all given a kind of tremendousness and terror and majesty by the dimension" (Letters 768). He failed to find Fisher but felt that "what I've seen today explains a lot about him" (Letters 768).2
On the seventh of June, Wolfe arrived in Portland, Oregon. From there he traveled to Seattle where he looked up relatives and made new friends, including James Stevens and his wife, Theresa. From the first the big country of the Pacific Northwest struck a responsive chord in Wolfe. "This is a country fit for Gods," he wrote. "You've never seen anything like it for scale and magnificence and abundance. . . you feel there's no limit, no end to anything. The East seems small and starved and meagre by comparison" (Letters 774). Physically, at 6'6" and 230 pounds, Wolfe was built somewhat on the Paul Bunyan scale. His own huge appetites, his wildness and prodigality, resonated perfectly in this setting. In rustic Puget Sound communities like Port Townsend he seemed to find something of what he was after. "What a place to write a novel!" he exclaimed (Donald 454).
In Portland, Wolfe had met Edward Miller, a newpaperman who, with Ray Conway of the Oregon State Automobile Association, was planning a two-week trip to promote the accessability of the western National Parks. They invited Wolfe to join them, and after some reflection he accepted, writing to his agent: ". . . leaving again Sunday morning on what promises to be one of the most remarkable trips of my life. It means I'll be away about two weeks longer than I intended, but it is the chance of a lifetime and after long battlings with my conscience, I have decided I'd be foolish not to take it" (Letters 769).
This "remarkable trip" was nothing less than a tour of all the western National Parks, in two weeks' time. Aware of the "gigantic unconscious humor of the situation -- 'making every national park' without seeing any of them" (A Western Journal 8), Wolfe was nonetheless very excited about seeing huge chunks of the country and accumulating "a whole wad of glorious material" (Letters 769).
On June 20 Wolfe, Miller, and Conway left Portland and traveled south to Crater Lake National Park in southern Oregon. In the following 13 days, as "the car rushed on like magic and no sense of speed at 60 miles an hour" (A Western Journal 7), they hit Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks in California, then drove across the Mojave Desert and up to the Grand Canyon in Arizona, Zion and Bryce Canyon in Utah, Yellowstone in Wyoming, Glacier in Montana, and back west, finishing at Mt. Rainier. Wolfe's notes from this trip, later published as A Western Journal, reveal him as a bemused back- seat passenger, taking in as much as possible and jotting down reminders during their nightly stopovers, "the whole thing smacked down with the blinding speed and the variety of the trip" (Letters 773).
At the end of the trip, after a farewell dinner with Miller and Conway in Olympia, Washington, Wolfe returned to Seattle. "The trip was wonderful and terrific," he wrote. "In the last two weeks I have travelled five thousand miles, gone the whole length of the coast from Seattle almost to the Mexican border, inland a thousand miles and northward to the Canadian border. The national parks, of course, are stupendous, but what was to me far more valuable were the towns, the things, the people I saw -- the whole West and all its history unrolling at kaleidoscopic speed. . . I'd like to loaf and rest for a few days, and then get it typed, revising as much as I can but not taking too much time, and putting it down from the beginning like a spool unwinding at great speed" (Letters 774,775).
On July 5 Wolfe decided to do a little more sightseeing and took a ferry to Vancouver, British Columbia. By the time he got there he was suffering from a bad cold. He spent a day touring Vancouver, then caught a train back to Seattle. His cold had gotten worse and by the time he consulted a doctor it was diagnosed as pneumonia. After three weeks in a private sanitarium and a month in Seattle's Providence Hospital, Wolfe's condition was worse rather than better. He was suffering from severe headaches and disorientation. Members of his family decided to take him back east to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. There it was determined that he was suffering from inoperable tubercular lesions of the brain. On Thursday, September 15, three weeks short of his 38th birthday, Wolfe died.
Wolfe's untimely death left matters very much unresolved with regard to his huge, unpublished manuscript. Eventually it was edited by Aswell and published by Harpers as three books: The Web And The Rock, You Can't Go Home Again, and The Hills Beyond, thus completing the works on which Wolfe's critical reputation rests. Over the years that reputation has been buffeted by a variety of views, ranging from the belief that Wolfe belongs to the very first rank of American writers, to the opinion that all his writing amounts to nothing more than the sometimes lyrical scribblings of an eternal adolescent. While it is beyond my present scope to explore the full range of these views, what does seem clear is that, had Wolfe lived, the three posthumous books would have been very different. "A tremendous labor of writing and revision is before me," wrote Wolfe in May of 1938 (Letters 765). Undoubtedly his second western trip would have played some part in this writing and revising. Wolfe's goals and projects were constantly being revised to accommodate his most recent experiences. His encounters with his West Coast relatives had him thinking again about "Pacific End," the concluding volume of his "Of Time And The River cycle," the story of the "Joyners" who went west.
It is also true that the volume eventually published as A Western Journal is nothing more than a compilation of notes, the skeleton of a book which, before his illness, Wolfe had intended to type up and revise for future use. Exactly what he had in mind for these notes is not clear. They could have been made into a travel memoir or were perhaps intended as more material for "the big book."
It's tempting to conclude that Wolfe's life was taking the direction of American settlement. Had he lived perhaps scholars would still be debating the merits of his Port Townsend novels. But Wolfe was always more seeker than settler. As C. Hugh Holman has observed, "the pattern of his life was a pattern of ever widening circles" (Holman 5). With the eastern arc of his circle cut off by the political situation in Europe, Wolfe went seeking west, and found much of what he was looking for. His view "that we are lost here in America, but I believe we shall be found" (You Can't Go Home Again 741), was affirmed by what he found there -- "And when he sees the West for the first time he knows all about it. It is like a country which he has never visited but which he has known all about because he has had it in him all the time. All the space, the light, the distance, the grand dimension, the solar energy of the West, its tremendous strength and quietness go home to his heart at once" (Notebooks 926).
1. For insight into this aspect of Wolfe's work see "Frederick Jackson Turner And Thomas Wolfe: The Frontier As History And As Literature" by Thomas E. Boyle, Western American Literature, Volume IV, No. 4, Winter 1970.
2. The question of mutual influence in the works of Fisher and Wolfe has been raised by Louis W. Attebery in his essay, "Vardis Fisher," in A Literary History of the American West, Ed. J. Golden Taylor, et. al., Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1987. Also of interest is Fisher's Thomas Wolfe As I Knew Him and Other Essays, Denver: Alan Swallow, 1963.
Donald, David Herbert. Look Homeward: A Life Of Thomas Wolfe. Boston: Little, Brown, 1987.
Holman, C. Hugh, ed. "Introduction." The Thomas Wolfe Reader. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1962.
Kennedy, Richard S. The Window Of Memory: The Literary Career Of Thomas Wolfe. Chapel Hill: University Of North Carolina Press, 1962.
Nowell, Elizabeth. Thomas Wolfe. New York: Doubleday & Co., 1960.
Turnbull, Andrew. Thomas Wolfe. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1967.
Wolfe, Thomas. The Autobiography Of An American Novelist. Ed. Leslie Field. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983.
____________ . The Letters Of Thomas Wolfe. Ed. Elizabeth Nowell, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1956.
____________ . The Notebooks Of Thomas Wolfe. Ed. Richard S. Kennedy and Paschal Reeves. Chapel Hill: University Of North Carolina Press, 1970.
____________ . Thomas Wolfe's Letters To His Mother. Ed. John Skally Terry. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1946.
____________ . A Western Journal. Pittsburgh: University Of Pittsburgh Press, 1980.
____________ . You Can't Go Home Again. New York: Harper & Row, 1940.
(This piece originally appeared in Western American Literature, Volume 26, Number 1, May 1991)
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Jack Kerouac's Nephew
Jack Kerouac's Nephew
Paul Blake, Jr. is the son of Jack Kerouac's sister, Caroline. His name was in the news in October 2004 with regard to a court case in Florida in which he is making a last ditch effort to get a share of his Uncle Jack's estate. This lawsuit may be the last act in the twisted and tangled story of the Kerouac estate.
For good information on the complicated estate wrangle I recommend Jack Shea's movie, Who Owns Jack Kerouac?, and Jim Jones's excellent book, Use My Name: Jack Kerouac's Forgotten Families. You can also find much of Jack Shea's material and some other good information online. (See for instance Andrew Lampert's Journal of the Cosmic Baseball Association)
Jones's chapter, "A Cousin in a Parallel Universe," is a brief biography of Paul Blake, Jr. He was born in 1948 in Durham, North Carolina; grew up in Rocky Mount; was a good buddy of Uncle Jack; shot hoops with him on the backyard dirt court; and learned firsthand the complicated baseball card game invented by his uncle. He's the reason Jack's mother came to be called Memere (Granny). After the family moved to Orlando, his parents divorced. Paul moved to Los Angeles and later Alaska with his dad. In the early 1970's he served in the air force, then transferred to the army and was sent to Vietnam. After his discharge he lived and worked in Alaska, fathered a child, and developed a drinking problem. Eventually, broke and homeless, he drifted to California.
In 1995 when Jones interviewed him, Blake was doing fairly well, not drinking too much, and living with his girlfriend in a mobile home in Rio Linda, California, a suburb of Sacramento. When Jack Shea filmed him in 1998 he was still in the Sacramento area, but the girlfriend and mobile home had left him behind.
In January of 2003, journalist Blair Robertson of the Sacramento Bee wrote a front page article about Blake. He was reportedly homeless, sleeping in a derelict truck in a junkyard, and earning about $100/month doing odd jobs. This thorough if somewhat sensational article--"It has been hours since he ate the baloney and mayonnaise sandwich that will sustain him for the day."--brought Blake to the attention of the Sacramento literary community, including poet Barry Kennedy, organizer of an annual "October in the Railroad Earth" reading, who subsequently organized a benefit reading which raised about $500 for Blake.
According to Kennedy, Blake left Sacramento in late 2003 under strange circumstances: "The people he was staying with more or less kidnapped him to Kansas." After this an unnamed Sacramento woman was sending monthly checks to him for a time, with Robertson as intermediary. Several months later the checks started to be returned as undeliverable. Recent articles about the lawsuit have placed Blake in Arizona and New Mexico. Blake's Tampa Florida lawyers, Bill and Alan Wagner, apparently have ways of getting in touch with him, but are unwilling to share that information. Alan Wagner told me that Blake prefers not to be contacted.
There is good evidence, the famous "last letter," that Kerouac intended for Blake to inherit his estate. Legally, the case appears to hinge on the testimony of a handwriting expert, who claims in an affidavit to the court to be "99% certain that the signature on Gabrielle Kerouac's will is a forgery." The scenario presented by the Wagners is that with Gabrielle old and feeble, Stella Sampas Kerouac-- Jack's widow and Gabrielle's caretaker--had gotten into the habit of signing her name on checks and other papers. When it came to the will she simply did the same thing she was in the habit of doing: she signed Gabrielle's name.
Whether or not this can be proven in court, and what difference it will make, remains to be seen. Since the death of Stella Kerouac in 1990, the estate has been in the control of her three surviving siblings, with John Sampas of Lowell, Massachusetts as literary executor. The result of the October hearing was that Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge George Greer, having dismissed the Sampas family as defendants, since Stella's will is not in dispute, appointed a lawyer to represent the estate of Gabrielle Kerouac. The next step is a "status hearing" which has not yet been scheduled. If Blake eventually prevails, the judge will have to sort out whether or not he deserves a share of the Kerouac estate, valued at $35,000 when Kerouac died in 1969, and currently valued at an estimated $20 million.
My belief is that morally Blake does deserve a share. (For a good explication of the legal, moral and ethical nuances of the estate controversy see Jones's book, especially the chapter, "Nobody's Wife.") John Sampas has reportedly stated that if Blake had come to him and asked, instead of continuing the lawsuit started by Jack's daughter, Jan Kerouac, he would have helped him. But talk, as they say, is cheap. With the lawsuit continued, Sampas determined that the most important thing was "to clear my sister's name."
When I started my research on Paul Blake, Jr. my goal was to locate him, find out how he was doing, and ask him what he wanted. My feeling on this goes to something Ken Kesey once wrote about Kerouac--that if we had known how rough a time he was having in his last years, maybe we could have done something to help. So, even though Paul is far from being the artist Jack was, he is a living link, the kid Jack hung out with and played the baseball card game with in Rocky Mount and Orlando. I was thinking it would be worthwhile to help make his remaining years as comfortable as possible. My hope was to rouse fellow beat aficionados to a show of support, monetary and otherwise, and to perhaps coax or shame the Sampas family into doing the right thing by giving Paul a monthly or yearly stipend. By "show of support" I was thinking of anything from sending letters and postcards, to monetary donations, and even the possibility of his residing at the Kerouac house in Orlando or the house in St. Petersburg where Jack and Stella lived, which is still owned by the Sampas family.
Sentiment aside, Blake remains a potentially valuable and largely untapped source of information about his uncle. Aside from Gerald Nicosia, no Kerouac biographer has interviewed him. One would think that Douglas Brinkley, authorized by the estate to write a definitive biography, would have an interest in Blake's intimate knowledge of the man, and therefore a stake in Blake's welfare.
At this time, after some months of thought and effort, my point of view has changed. Though there is something about Paul Blake, Jr. that makes him come across as needy, I have come to view him as an adult like the rest of us, who can and should take care of himself. I also have to respect his wish that he not be contacted, even if this is due to paranoia about the Sampas family being "out to get" him. Certainly there seem to be injustices in the disposition of the estate that should be rectified, and my hope is that they will be, with a happy ending for Li'l Paul. As Kevin Ring recently stated in Beat Scene, "We await the outcome with interest."
It has taken quite a while but the judge has finally handed down a ruling, and it favors Paul Blake, Jr. In an 11-page opinion dated July 24, Pinellas County Circuit Court Judge George W. Greer said handwriting experts and testimony from doctors during an April trial convinced him that the signature on the will was not that of Jack Kerouac's mother, Gabrielle.
"Gabrielle Kerouac was not a well woman when her purported will was signed," Greer wrote. "She could only move her hand and scribble her name. She would have lacked coordination to affix that signature."
The decision makes no judgment as to who actually did sign the will, nor does it accuse Stella Sampas Kerouac of forgery.
The legal upshot of all this remains unclear. The decisions of John Sampas and others over the past twenty years have resulted in the publication of numerous Kerouac titles, the sale of the original On the Road scroll, and the sale of the bulk of Kerouac's archive to the New York Public Library. Those bells will be impossible to unring.
Bill Wagner says that he needs to do further research before deciding his
next step on behalf of his client who may be entitled to a third of the
estate with one third presumably remaining with the Sampas family and
another third going to Jan Kerouac's heirs, her former husband John Lash
and her half-brother David Bowers. But there will no doubt be a lot more
legal wrangling before any of that happens.
In a statement issued several days after Judge Greer's ruling, John Sampas
expressed disappointment with the decision, but said that since the 2004
ruling "bars Mr. Blake from seeking any assets or items which came to us
through Stella Sampas Kerouac's estate, the practical effect of this
ruling appears to be none."
Blake is currently living in Arizona, not far from his son. He has not
commented publicly on the court decision, but has said in the past that he
does not expect to get anything from his uncle's estate.
One other note: Douglas Brinkley did not fulfill his contract to write a
biography of Jack Kerouac in time for the 50th anniversary of the
publication of On the Road in 2007. He reportedly returned his advance to
Penguin Books and has at least temporarily dropped plans to write a
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