As promised, here is Part 3 of my series regarding the Memory Babe archive in Lowell, MA. What follows is an account of our visit to the archive. Some of the following information comes directly from Memory Babe author Gerald Nicosia himself, in which case I have so indicated.
First some background. According to Nicosia, “The Memory Babe Archive is a collection of manuscripts, materials, and recordings that Gerald Nicosia, author of Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac, partially sold and partially donated to UMass Lowell in 1987.” Below is a picture of Nicosia delivering the Memory Babe Archive to UMass Lowell Special Collections, the old library in the old campus, 1 University Avenue, just across the Moody Street Bridge, before they had moved to the Patrick J. Mogan Center. Gerry told me that, with his Illinois buddy Dennis Horacek, he carried all the archives in two cars from Chicago to Lowell in California Medallion Orange boxes. You can see one of the vinyl tape cases (brown) in the lower left corner, as well as some tapes stacked on the desk. He is holding the foot-high original manuscript of Memory Babe that we saw in the archive and talk about later in this post.
|Photo courtesy of Gerald Nicosia|
Taken by Dave Moore
As long as we’re posting pictures, below is one of Gerry writing Memory Babe on his Smith Corona in the garret of his mother’s house in Lyons, Illinois, in June 1979.
|Photo courtesy of Gerald Nicosia|
Below is one of Gerry in 1980 with the manuscript three-quarters finished.
|Photo courtesy Gerald Nicosia|
Currently, the Memory Babe archive is physically housed in the UMass Center for Lowell History, which is in the Patrick J. Mogan Cultural Center at 40 French Street, within view of the Kerouac Commemorative. I asked Gerry for some information about the archive’s history. He said his intent in archiving the materials in Lowell was
to make them available for study by the public. But in 1995, the year after Jan Kerouac filed her lawsuit against the Sampas family over the forging of Gabrielle Kerouac’s will, John Sampas went to the library and demanded that the Memory Babe Archive be completely sealed. The library immediately complied and closed the archive. This meant that even I could no longer get access to my own research materials.
I offered to buy the archive back from the university, but they refused. I arranged for another archival library (the Bancroft in Berkeley) to purchase the archive from UMass Lowell, but again they refused. My main concern, aside from the fact that all this information was now inaccessible, was that the old audio cassette tapes were seriously deteriorating. I had evidence, from some tapes from the same period that I had in my possession, that the magnetic dust was already coming off certain brands of the tape. Once the magnetic dust comes off, the sound is lost. The period when I was buying these tapes, the 1970’s, was a very bad period for audio tapes. A previous binder had been outlawed (it may have had to do with some product from whales), and the tape companies were experimenting with a variety of new binding products, many of which turned out to work poorly. Since many of the people I had interviewed were already dead, I knew that a large part of these interviews could never be replaced.
I wrestled with UMass, Lowell, for 11 years, mostly with the help of attorney Neal Rosen of Bingham Dana, to try to get the archive reopened. Mr. Rosen provided UMass, Lowell, with a 30-page dossier explaining all the legal precedents and why it was not illegal for the university to allow students and scholars access to the Memory Babe materials. The university resisted all of Mr. Rosen’s arguments. Finally, in 2007, just as the case was about to go to trial, the university settled out of court with me. Although the settlement agreement is somewhat complex, the gist of it is that I paid out of my own pocket to digitize all the tapes, to preserve them from further deterioration, and the university agreed to make 99% of the archive available once again for public study. Materials relating to Mr. Sampas, and certain materials over which Mr. Sampas claims legal control, are still off-limits to the public. I feel those Sampas materials should have been returned to me, as they were never the property of Mr. Sampas, and are now unfortunately in a scholarly limbo.
Now, on to our visit. Never having been to the archive before, we called ahead to make sure it would be accessible on the day we would be in Lowell. Head librarian Martha Mayo suggested we e-mail her a list of materials we wanted to access so they could gather them in advance. I made the rookie mistake of using a catalog of the materials I accessed on-line from the Cosmic Baseball Association (click here), which turned out to be different from the Center’s catalog in content as well as coding; nevertheless, I sent an e-mail to Martha with specific materials we were interested in. I listed interviews with a number of Kerouac’s childhood friends along with various letters from Jack as well as several transcribed taped interviews.
We arrived at the Center and were greeted by Janine Whitcomb, the archive manager, and we also said hello to Martha. Janine had put out several boxes of materials for us. There was no one else in the center and we were alone the entire time we were there. The materials are physically housed in traditional museum storage boxes like the ones below. These are not actual pictures from the Center because we were not allowed to take pictures of the materials.
|Similar to Box 2 (see catalog at end of post)|
|Similar to Boxes 21 & 22 holding the Memory Babe first draft|
Janine provided us with a 14-page catalog of the archive at the outset of our visit (see pictures of the catalog at the end of this post). It did not align with the one I had used from the Cosmic Baseball Association (again, rookie mistake). A few times we asked for materials we hadn’t requested beforehand and Janine had to go upstairs and carry them down for us. She was very accommodating and wouldn’t accept our help. I got the sense that they keep this particular archive especially guarded because we were sitting next to stacks of similar materials. The one artifact I asked for and was denied access to was a transcription of an interview with John Sampas. Janine informed me that I needed his permission to access that artifact. Gerry confirmed after-the-fact that this was part of the settlement agreement.
We ended up getting engrossed in written artifacts to start, and spent almost the entire 3+ hours with those instead of listening to recordings. Despite the length of Memory Babe, Nicosia says he only used a small fraction of what was on those tapes in his biography. By the way, the recordings were originally made on cassettes as noted above (remember, this was in the 1970s), but now have been transferred to CDs which you can listen to using the Center’s computers and headphones. Interestingly, the interviews are available but not listed in the catalog provided to us by the Center. I didn’t tumble to this until I got home and started writing this blog post. Janine did go through my list of interviews (accessed from the Cosmic Baseball Association) and confirmed how they were coded at the Center or listed the correct coding. This could come in handy in a future visit.
Since our visit I have been privy to Gerry’s original 46-page catalog, and it is considerably more extensive than the Center’s. I don’t know why. I can state with confidence that the coding I provided from the Cosmic Baseball Association catalog mentioned above does align with the coding in Gerry’s original, yet Janine was confused by that coding (as if she’d never seen or was unaware of the Nicosia catalog).
The one recording we did listen to was an interview by Nicosia with G.J. Apostolos, Kerouac’s childhood friend (“Fouch” in Atop an Underwood, “Mouse” in Maggie Cassidy). G.J. told stories about Jack, who he often referred to as “Zagg,” including one about the time they hitchhiked to Boston to an upscale gentlemen’s club, The Fox and Hound, and asked at the door for Lamont Cranston (one of the Shadow’s identities). The volume faded away during this story and I couldn’t hear the whole thing. When Nicosia asked G.J. how Jack got the name Zagg, G.J. said he didn’t know. According to Nicosia,
G.J. did eventually explain to me how the nickname "Zagg" came about. He said there was a town drunk whom Jack and G.J. used to ridicule, because he was always “zigzagging” down the street. They called the drunk "Zagg," and eventually G.J. used it as a kind of taunt to Jack, as if he were predicting that Jack would become the next town drunk—but at the time, G.J. did not actually believe that. It was just a joke.
There is a serious issue, however, with some of the CDs tailing off in sound. I warned the university that the magnetic dust was coming off on the heads as they played the tapes in order to digitize them, and toward the end of a tape, there would be so much magnetic dust on the heads that the sound quality became severely diminished. I kept asking that the university clean the tape recorder heads frequently during the digitization process, but from what I have perceived on some of the CDs, I am convinced that the heads were not cleaned often enough.
Back to the interview. I was struck by the following statement by G.J. (regarding Jack, of course):
“He was a real human being . . . but there was a wall between him and most people.”
This rather captures the complexity of the Kerouac I’ve read about in so many biographies.
In the archive were photocopies of four letters from Kerouac to Bernice Lemire, a French-Canadian woman from Lowell (210 W. 6th Street at the time) who was writing a paper about him for her degree at Boston College and had sent him questions. Two of these letters, June 16 and August 11, 1961, are reproduced in Jack Kerouac Selected Letters 1957-1969, edited by Ann Charters. Two are not (October 14 and December 9) and so were not familiar to me. I assume they may be in the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library but I wasn’t able to confirm that online (click here for Berg Collection).
In all four letters, Kerouac answers various biographical types of questions that Lemire must have asked. I found it humorous that at the end of his October 14 letter he wrote, "Why don’t you send me a photo of yourself, are you pretty? How old are you? I’m an old French Canadian angryman. (What else?)"
Jack being Jack, I guess.
Two statements from the December 9 letter caught my eye.
“Later on, after splash, Holiday and big magazines made requests, at good prices too ($1500 for instance for The Vanishing American Hobo, ho ho ho, some hobo) -- ….”
Not a bad fee for those days!
“Without my mother’s protection I’m afraid I’d be in the madhouse now.”
This is not a surprising statement, merely adding to what we know about Jack’s relationship with Mémère.
It was interesting to see a copy of the letter from Kerouac to Paul Blake, Jr. dated October 20, 1969. It looked like Kerouac’s signature to me, but I won’t go there. There are those who say it’s not authentic.
In the archive is a copy of a letter to Granville H. Jones, dated April 13, 1961. Jones wrote a Masters Thesis on Kerouac at Columbia (according to Kerouac’s June 15, 1961 letter to Lemire). The text appears in Charters’ book above but is dated November 22, 1960. I can’t account for the discrepancy, but I didn’t have Charters’ book with me and so I can’t be sure I didn’t transcribe the wrong date in my notes. (NOTE TO SELF: For next visit to the archive bring stacks of reference books!)
In a January 10, 1949 letter (copy) to Brom Weber, his creative writing teacher at the New School, Kerouac apologizes for his and Allen Ginsberg’s behavior during a class, and says (this is mostly detailed in Memory Babe on p. 231):
Why believe? Perhaps nothing is true but everything is real. All life, and art, nothing but a big creation . . . even a big lie . . . which we make; all a myth like the Divine Comedy; and the myths we make about each other; . . . .
Gerry notes that “Burroughs uses the line ‘Nothing is true; everything is real’—sometimes slightly altered to ‘Nothing is true—everything is permitted’—in several places, and attributes it to Hassan-i Sabbāh, a Persian assassin and prophet.” For more on this, click here.
One important task I set for myself during the visit, and this was at Gerry’s request, was to verify that the original draft of Memory Babe was there. Gerry described it as 1,200 or so pages typed on corrasable bond paper and including extensive handwritten annotations sourcing almost all of the statements in the work. He had remembered the finished draft as over 1,200 pages. The first draft is actually 1,164 pages, but he says the later, retyped drafts were over 1,200 pages. We weren’t sure which of the several items in the catalog the original draft might be housed in and had Janine lug down several possibilities. It turned out to be in two boxes (##21 and 22 – see Center for Lowell History catalog at end of this post), with about 600 pages per box. I have to say that I was amazed by the extensive handwritten annotations throughout. The work that went into this biography is staggering. On the last page, written in hand, is the inscription: "retyped & finished 4:40 PM July 27, 1980 Thanks to God." I note that Gerry remembers writing “Thanks be to God,” but resolving this little mystery will have to wait until a future visit to the archive.
Now that we know more about what’s in the archive and how to access it, we can visit again in the future with a laser-like purpose. Nicosia says that he gave his 46-page catalog of materials
to librarian Martha Mayo when I delivered all my boxes of materials to the university in the fall of 1987. In 1996, I discovered that a large amount of material was missing from the Memory Babe archive, including over 60 autographed letters—many from famous people like Ginsberg, Burroughs, Snyder, Ferlinghetti and so forth, including one handwritten postcard from Kerouac to John Montgomery. The university refused to file a police report, so I filed a report myself, using my own 46-page catalogue to record what was lost (though I did not have the time to do a full assessment of what was missing). In 2007, some of these stolen materials showed up on eBay, being sold by a rare books dealer in Nashua, who pinpointed the thief. Because the theft was now over the 6-year statute of limitations in Massachusetts, Lowell police declared that they were unable to bring charges. About 30 of the stolen letters were recovered and returned to the library.
Below is a February 17, 1997 Lowell Sun article about the theft.
From our visit there is no way to tell how much and what is missing from the archive. That would require hours and hours of comparing what is actually there (i.e., not depending on the Center’s catalog) to the Nicosia 46-page catalog. In any event, when I visit the archive in the future I will definitely bring the Nicosia catalog with me since I now have a copy.
In summary, this was an exploratory visit. We didn’t know what we’d find, and had no particular agenda beyond becoming familiar with the archive, especially the logistics of accessing it. We ended up getting lost in various written materials such as letters and marriage certificates and baptismal certificates and drawings and poems and, well, it’s a treasure trove any Kerouacian would get lost in. It’s definitely worth a visit if you’re in Lowell, but call ahead to make sure someone will be there who can retrieve materials for you.
Click here for the Center for Lowell History website. Their phone number is 978-934-4998.
Memory Babe Archive Catalog
as provided by UMass Center for Lowell History