“I am the man who has best charted his inmost self.” Antonin Artaud quoted by Helen Weaver
Helen Weaver’s account of her early days in Greenwich Village is misleadingly titled. Weaver, a new age author and translator nominated for a National Book Award in 1977 for her reading of Antonin Artaud, was a member of New York’s hip set in the 1950s and ’60s. She had affairs with Jack Kerouac and Lenny Bruce, a longstanding friendship with Allen Ginsberg and worked in the heart of the publishing scene for Harold Vursell and Roger W. Straus Jr. at Farrar, Straus and Cudhay, later Farrar, Straus and Giroux. So who’s the awakener in all this?
Well, it’s the guy whose name will sell the most books, thus the subtitle A Memoir of Kerouac and the Fifties. But a large part of the book deals in Weaver’s life without Kerouac. Equally interesting sections, some maybe more so, deal in her relationship with Bruce and her own life in Greenwich Village, smoking pot, getting into jazz and generally pursuing a life of her own. If you’re thinking the book is strictly about Kerouac, you’ll be disappointed. Women also named Helen as well as guys named Tommy and Monty all help shake Weaver into consciousness.
But this is not a disappointing book. Weaver’s story is a late coming-of-age tale in an era (and among a generation) that treated women with (mostly) quaint attitudes (“Jack wouldn’t let me smoke dope; that was for the boys.”). She breaks away from a “middle-class” upbringing in Scarsdale, Pennsylvania and a dull first marriage. Weaver avidly pursues life, embracing hetro and homosexual relationships, indulging in drugs and following psychoanalysis. By the time you finish, you’ll think Weaver awakened herself.
Weaver’s sexual awakening after undergraduate studies and while she was married has more affect on her development than the undependable, often drunk, brilliant writer who gave us On the Road. “If women had suddenly been transformed from rivals to the objects of my desire,” she writes, ” then all my previous conditioning went out the window.”
This is also a story of privilege. Despite her claim to the middle-class, Weaver attended Oberlin, her father paid for her first Village apartment and much of her psychoanalysis and her career in publishing came from her connections. She could afford to be different. When things don’t go well, the family is there to bail her out. Not every struggling artist or bohemian has that advantage.
Still, Weaver’s honesty about it all makes the book sincere and rewarding. She’s refreshingly disarming about her mistakes with men and women and her own youthful preoccupations, especially when viewed from her later years. And she’s particularly descriptive when it comes to her beloved Greenwich Village. Here are the clubs and coffee shops, the quaint streets and magical social scene that made the Village of the late ’50s and early ’60s a sort of Never Land for those avoiding the conformity of that era.
Weaver ends the book with Kerouac considerations, some pulled from reading, some from observation, some from astrology. These short chapters are the ones Kerouac devotees will be most interested in. Even when seeing “Pisces-Virgo contradictions” in the writer’s life, she’ll make insightful revelations: “Kerouac’s struggle with opposites was a rich source of creativity, the shifting ground on which he was able to arrive at symmetry or balance in his art.” These same sort of contraditions, though less dramatic, make Weaver’s book fascinating.–Cabbage Rabbit