At the Trident Bookstore/Café in Boston (highly recommended for books or breakfast) I recently picked up a copy of Beatific Soul: Jack Kerouac On the Road by Isaac Gewirtz. The 2007 publication was the companion volume to a wonderful New York Public Library exhibit of Kerouac’s papers, which included the legendary “scroll” on which he banged out the typed draft of On the Road. On a visit to New York, I’d just lucked into seeing that show, and the memory has stayed with me.
Reading the book has stirred memories of that show and also of a favorite of the many UVM alumni I’ve met and worked with through the years. George Rood ’56 joined The New York Times as a staff editor in 1962 and would spend the next 38 years of his life working there. He was a newsman of another era; it isn’t difficult to imagine him at his desk in a buzzing newsroom, ripping a sheet from a typewriter, thrusting it in the air, and yelling, “Copy!”
George was also a jazz musician, a trombone player sure to take out his “axe” at the party when he came up for an alumni reunion. It was on a visit for one of those reunions that I had a fascinating hour or two talking with George at a frowsy little summer camp that his family had long-owned on Coates Island in Malletts Bay. George passed away in October 2000, taken by cancer at age 65.
Among George’s many interesting life tales was his encounter with Jack Kerouac, a story that he shared with readers in the spring 1998 edition of Vermont Quarterly. Given that VQ was not yet on the web in those days, I wanted to use the vehicle of the magazine’s blog to again give voice to this unlikely meeting.
On the Road, Albeit Briefly, With Kerouac
By George Rood, UVM Class of 1956
Nostalgically looking back to my student days at UVM in the mid-1950’s, I recall being a bit of a rebel in quest of a cause who liked to read offbeat authors, for whom I seldom got credit as an English major.
These ranged from Truman Capote, whose Other Voices, Other Rooms had come out a few years before to Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer private-eye paperbacks, which were the talk of the gym locker room, to William Golding’s disturbing Lord of the Flies, with its marooned schoolboys’ tribal society.
Jack Kerouac, a founder of the Beat Generation who years later came to disdain the distinction, didn’t come along with his rebellious On the Road until my part-time graduate-school days. But the impact was lasting, and a few years later, though it was hardly in the world of literature, I had the highly unlikely chance to spend a jazz-laden weekend with him in New York.
UVM’s English Department, then in the converted war-surplus barracks that became East Hall, did, however, give credit for some other sources of inspiration, including Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again, Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, and Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye.
Despite East Hall’s omnipresent chill, the department’s faculty was warm and impressive, from Jack Trevithick and Sam Bogorad, UVM’s Boswell and Johnson, to the scholarly Willard Pope and the tennis-trim Fred Marston, to Leon Dean, the Vermont historical novelist, and the impeccable Littleton Long. Creative-writing teachers included John Aldridge, co-editor with Vance Bourjaily of Discovery, a national literary magazine in paperback, followed by Dorothy Van Ghent, a fervent advocate of the New Criticism. And the university program series (later the Lane Series) brought in such luminaries as Robert Frost, New England’s pride and joy; Charles Laughton, whom series committee members, it was said, had a tough task sobering up by stage time, and Dylan Thomas, who in Greenwich Village was a habitué, as Kerouac later was, of the White Horse Tavern.
When a Vermont Quarterly editor who knew about my Kerouac encounter suggested that I write an Alumni Voice column about it, I wondered at first whether it would be much ado about a snippet of life, even self-serving. Turns out it was great fun recounting the details.
The 1950’s, as the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin sees it, were a “deceptively tranquil” decade. And though my generation’s college days were supposed to be in Eisenhower’s “silent generation,” we were far from docile or even bovine.
Just as opponents of the school newspaper, The Vermont Cynic, who were riled over some of its policies, came out with an alternative paper, The Skeptic, I was part of a core of dissidents vexed by the college literary magazine, Windfall, which seemed to be publishing mostly the efforts of its entrenched “in” crowd. So we mounted a mini-assault and ended up toppling Windfall and starting Centaur magazine.
For a year or so, a handful of upstarts including myself at my semi-upstart fraternity, the Owls, where the clandestine LP was Tom Lehrer’s 1953 satirical album, sporadically put out a campus humor magazine, but ultimately we hung it up under pressure.
After college, I ended up at The Burlington Daily News and Vermont Sunday News, now defunct. Eventually, the publisher, William Loeb, who was known to his critics as approximately right of Attila the Hun, gave me a shot at being managing editor, but, alas, after a couple more years, the paper went from daily to weekly (“very weakly,” I used to day), and in 1961 I set out, wide-eyed, for New York City.
In the summer of ’62, Kerouac came to the Big Apple from his native Massachusetts to take care of business and unwind a bit. As a jazz lover, he ended up on Saturday night, July 28, at the fabled Half Note at the cobblestoned corner of Hudson and Spring streets. Al and Zoot (Cohn and Sims), ex-Woody Hermanites, were topping the bill, and Jack was a big fan of their from-the-hip jazz.
Those days, I was editing copy a couple blocks away at The Journal of Commerce and was just a few months away from moving up to The New York Times. Kerouac and I were sitting separately at a fairly long table abutting the stage, and Jack, who already had a good amber buzz, was really getting into the swing of things, punctuating the high points with an occasional fist whomp against the side of the wooden stage. Zoot and Al, who once backed Kerouac on a poetry record, didn’t seem to mind the enthusiasm.
After the set ended, I got to talk with Kerouac and told him that I dug his stuff. Kerouac, then 40, was still swarthy and fairly fit with straight-cut dark hair and no beard, a curious mixture of his Columbia and Merchant Marine days, along with his parents’ French-Canadian heritage. At night’s end, he decided to join me at my apartment in the vintage Madison Square Hotel, at 26th Street and Madison Avenue, since I had plenty of Dewar’s scotch and beaucop be-bop LP’s.
Besides my bed in the somewhat down-at-the-heels hotel, where Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda had lived when they were aspiring Broadway actors, I had a studio couch, so Jack decided to stay over for what turned into two or three nights. Since I too had been drinking heavily, I don’t recall any particularly insightful comments by Kerouac. Mostly, it was a series of “yeahs” and “mans” as the recorded riffs bounced off the peeling walls.
It was under the sagging couch that months later I found Kerouac’s diary-like notebook, smaller than a steno pad, bigger than a pocket address book, with his handwritten thoughts on the latest weeks in his erratic life. Because of the autobiographical bent of much of Kerouac’s work, I knew it was important, but I had no address for him and didn’t know if he even had a publisher then. So I set aside the diary.
Later, I shared it with my ex-wife, Janna Goddard, a Kerouac fan, in Vermont. After that, when I’d visit my daughters Amy and Sabrina, in my hometown of Essex Junction, I’d ask the ex for the notebook. But the subject seemed to get changed and we’d never get back to it. This went on for years. At some point, Brina took the diary with her on the bus to Rochester, N.Y., where she was studying music at Eastman. And she lost it (seems she had put it lovingly in her knapsack, and it somehow fell out of the overhead rack).
Luckily, Brina, who had recently been studying typing, had typed a meticulous copy of the diary, reproducing even the scattered misspellings and abbreviations, plus some phone numbers from the back. Still more years later, Brina, who said she loved the Kerouac diary so much as a young girl that she often slept with it under her pillow, dug up a copy of the typescript for me.
Fast forward to 1994, when a Times colleague put me in touch with an editor at Viking Penguin, David Stanford, a devotee of Kerouac (Jack had died in 1969, an alcoholic alienated from family and friends). In the interim, I had found A.A. in 1978 and given up alcohol. After I shared the diary with the Viking editor, along with how I ended up with it, he wrote:
“Thanks very much for sending me the typescript of the long-lost Kerouac notebook, and the supporting materials, which seem to identify it precisely. The whole story is fascinating, from the way you met Kerouac and found the notebook to how it was ultimately lost on a bus.”
So now the typescript has been turned over to the Kerouac estate via Viking, which has already begun putting out some previously unpublished Kerouac correspondence. As for the dedication of Stanford the editor, Sterling Lord, an agent for the Kerouac estate, once observed, “I think if I came up with a napkin that Jack scribbled on, David would publish it.”
So, though it may take time, the typescript is in good hands.
As I remember it, when Kerouac’s liquid 1962 weekend at the Madison Square Hotel (long-since torn down) was winding down, I had to work the night shift at the paper, so I left him to his own devices. When I got home in the wee hours, I found that he had abandoned the couch to curl up on the bay-window shelf-seat. He woke up, and it was John Dewar & Sons and jazz time again.
The next afternoon, as I put on a then-requisite white shirt and rep tie for work, he mumbled, “You’re a god-damn Babbitt.”
To which I shot back, “If I wasn’t, we wouldn’t have enough Dewar’s!”