A “Lost” Letter Found . . . and “lost” again.

In the U.K. edition of Jack Kerouac’s 1945 novel, The Sea Is My Brother (Penguin 2011), there is an addendum of material meant to represent Jack Kerouac’s formative writing experience during the early to mid-1940s. The thrust of this formative experience, according to this added text, hinged on Kerouac’s sporadic friendship with Sebastian Sampas. Never mind the willful distortion committed by the estate and passed down to an editor-for-hire (art professor Dawn M. Ward) in order to give the book some gist of academic legitimacy, it remains an editorial blunder committed with career-determining blinders on and without an inkling of scholarly integrity.

 

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Jack Kerouac was at full throttle writing at all times, whether in New York City, in Lowell, Massachusetts, in Hartford, Connecticut or out at sea on a merchant marine vessel. He constantly  honed his craft and did so, mostly, without Sampas’s involvement. Kerouac’s relations with Sampas were equally matched by his written communication with other Lowell chums, like George Apostolos and Ian Macdonald, both in absentia from the added material found in The Sea Is My Brother.

However, this isn’t about Kerouac and Sampas’s questionable place in history. Rather, it is about the book itself. If one were to rewrite history with misplaced emphasis on a peripheral figure, they then should be at the total behest of all the primary material one can muster to make their case. That is, it was the Kerouac Estate’s responsibility to avail its editor-for-hire with all of the correspondence available. By hiring an unqualified art professor, we are thrust once again into the slipshod approach to publishing a posthumous work by Jack Kerouac, a writer in dire need to be treated as a serious artist to give him his rightful place in the pantheon of 20th century American writers.

Shortly after reading The Sea Is My Brother, I noted on the editorial matter on page 340 the following:

“There are references in the next letter that indicate that Jack had written but unfortunately his letter does not survive.”

I knew this letter well having run across it during my research of Kerouac’s writing of the 1940s. It is far from lost; it sits in a box of correspondence between Kerouac and Sampas at the Berg Collection in the New York Public Library. It’s even catalogued online:

 

          Kerouac, Jack to Sampas, Sebastian

          February 16, 1943

          1 typed letter (fragment) 1 leaf With autograph letter, signed March 21, 1945. 1 leaf

 

I e-mailed the Kerouac Estate and Dr. Ward on October 10, 2012:

 

                    Dear John & Dawn,

 
                   The letter that is referenced as lost on p. 340 of U.K. The Sea is My Brother exists as a 2/16/43 letter and can be found at the Berg. 
 
                   I can forward with permission.
 
                    Paul
Within the hour, the literary executor of the Kerouac Estate, John Sampas, responded. Puzzlingly, it was not with a thank-you, or even an “oh really?” but with mere suspicion. He asked how I would have a copy of this lost letter.

Dr. Ward didn’t bother responding at all. So much for scholarly integrity or its lack.

There the matter was dropped, and I left it figuring that the letter would then be restored in any trade editions to follow.

In 2013, DaCapo Press, a U.S. publisher, reprinted The Sea Is My Brother, this time expanding their slim volume of the novel proper into a “Deluxe Paperback Edition.” Merely they expanded the original edition of the novel by utilizing Penguin’s typesetting, editorial content, and page design  . . . exactly.

The “lost” letter, despite this new information concerning the whereabouts of  lost letter remained “lost.”

The “lost” moniker is a Kerouac Estate mainstay: so far we’ve had a volume of “lost paintings,” a “lost play” and, with the publication of The Sea Is My Brother, a “lost novel.” This is a deliberate smear on Jack Kerouac, who was meticulous and conscientious about his literary legacy by organizing his archive for posterity. Apart from various archival items sold off by the Estate in the early 1990s (therefore, remaining to this day legitimately lost in the hands of private collectors), the whole of the archive rests at the climate-controlled vault of the Berg.

So, what is in this lost letter? The final irony would be that if I were to share this letter with you, here, on this page, in order to fill the carefully-maintained hole that now exists in no less than three editions of The Sea Is My Brother (not counting various translations), I would be promptly served with papers by the attorneys of the Kerouac Estate.

Only then, dear readers, will this lost letter suddenly be found.

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About Paul Maher Jr.

Paul Maher Jr. is the author of Kerouac: His Life and Work (2007), Jack Kerouac's American Journey (2007), and, with Stephanie Nikopoulos, Burning Furiously Beautiful: The True Story of Jack Kerouac's On the Road. He is editor of Empty Phantoms: Interviews and Encounters with Jack Kerouac (2005). Paul is currently researching a new project for Southern Illinois University Press. You can connect with Paul via his website, Facebook, and Twitter.

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