The Awakener by Helen WeaverBook Review by Dan Barth

The Awakener: A Memoir of Kerouac and the Fifties
by Helen Weaver. City Lights, 2009, 260 pages, $16.95.

In Jack Kerouac’s Desolation Angels the narrator tells about a young woman with whom he has a love affair after returning to New York from Mexico: “I was about to come across a belly of wheat myself which would make me forget about death for a few months—her name was Ruth Heaper.”

The “belly of wheat” is a Biblical reference, Song of Solomon 7:2. The fictional Ruth Heaper is based on Kerouac’s friend and lover, Helen Weaver. Now, more than fifty years later, Weaver has published her memoir of their affair. She writes with warmth and candor about Kerouac, the fifties and quite a bit more.

On her web page ( Weaver explains her reasons for titling this book The Awakener:

“First, a silly one: because when Jack lived with me, I couldn’t get enough sleep. But on another level, his books–especially On the Road–woke up an entire generation, from the long dream of the fifties. And through books like The Dharma Bums, Jack played an important role in introducing Buddhism to America. That was a major wake-up call, for the very word Buddha is Sanskrit for “awakened one.” Finally, there’s an astrological reason which is way too technical to go into here, but it has to do with the prominence in the charts of the whole Beat generation of the planet Uranus, which rules revolution and art, and is known to astrologers as ‘the Awakener.’ So I guess you could say the title–and maybe the whole book–was written in the stars.”

The Awakener references Dan Wakefield’s New York in the Fifties and Joyce Johnson’s Minor Characters, acknowledging Weaver’s debt to these writers and their books. Certainly this is a memoir in the same vein, but there’s something surprisingly fresh about it. Weaver’s point of view and unique sympathies make this a brand new story. Instead of a rehash of the same old Kerouac episodes, this book offers poet and translator Richard Howard, a visit to Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick, a night at Brecht’s Threepenny Opera starring Lotte Lenya, the comedy routines of Lord Buckley and Lenny Bruce, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins singing “I Put a Spell on You,” and how Leonard Bernstein helped the author become orgasmic.

Weaver writes very well, with a light touch and a sense of humor. She shares some funny lines from friends and colleagues of the fifties, when she lived in Greenwich Village and worked briefly for Paradigm Books and then for five years at Farrar, Straus. Included are some interesting anecdotes about Roger Straus, Robert Giroux and others. She doesn’t pull punches with regard to failings and foibles—her own and others’—but her recollections seem to hold no bitterness or recrimination. It would appear she has learned to forgive and remember.

After an opening chapter on her initial meeting with Kerouac, the book backtracks briefly to Weaver’s early life—childhood, high school, Oberlin College, marriage, a gay affair, a straight affair, divorce—before moving on to a further exploration of her relationship with Kerouac and her life and loves after that. It’s full of surprises, it’s erudite and it’s wisely non-wordy, presenting interesting and intriguing parts of a woman’s life story.

She could have just forgotten Kerouac and written him off after a brief love affair, as others no doubt did. Why did he remain important enough to her to write about fifty years later? I think it’s because, like Joyce Johnson, she was not just a lover but a fellow writer. For Weaver, as for many others, there was no denying the power and beauty of his words. Over the years, she continued to consider him important, and then in the 1990s she really began to read his work. The result was a renewed determination to tell her side of the story. “Through it all,” she writes, “I never stopped feeling that I had a responsibility to present my little slice of history to the world, that, like Jack, I had a duty to record my experience to the best of my ability.”

This book does a good job of humanizing and demystifying the Beats. All the parties, problems, romances, brief affairs and hurt feelings Weaver talks about are specific to her and her friends in the ‘50s, but very much like the things my friends and I went through in the ‘70s, and that artistic young people are going through today while coming of age, groping for identity, finding love and making their way in the world. Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and Lucien Carr are just guys on the scene, running around, partying and trying to get laid and published. When Weaver writes, “Jack did a one-week stint at a Greenwich Village nightclub called the Vanguard,” she is simply telling what happened next, not trying to hype it as some legendary performance by a Beat icon.

Among the experiences recorded are Weaver’s involvement with Lenny Bruce, her long friendship with Allen Ginsberg and her work as a translator and astrologer. It was Ginsberg who appealed to her for help when Lenny Bruce was arrested and charged with obscenity by the New York District Attorney. Weaver and her friend Helen Elliott wrote and solicited signatures for a well-publicized petition defending his right of free speech. As one who had not previously read much about Bruce and his obscenity trial, I learned quite a bit from this sympathetic first-hand account.

In the late ‘50s Weaver quit her job at Farrar, Straus. “By the time I was twenty-nine I was bored with my job,” she writes. “I was afraid that if I didn’t make a break before I was thirty I would spend the rest of my life writing rejection letters to nut cases in California who thought they could write.” After travels in Europe she returned to New York and thereafter made her living primarily as a translator of French books, notably Antonin Artaud: Selected Writings.

In the early 1970s she moved to Woodstock, New York. She also began to study astrology and eventually co-authored and translated The Larousse Encyclopedia of Astrology, still considered a standard reference work in the field. The Awakener has “An Astrological Appendix” which includes Weaver’s birth chart of Kerouac along with her explication of same. I can’t say I understood all of it, but it piqued my interest enough that I may seek out a copy of The Larousse Encyclopedia of Astrology.

Late chapters include one on a visit to Allen Ginsberg at his East Village apartment—a kind of snapshot of the poet’s life in the mid-1980s—and two in which she considers Kerouac from a critical perspective. As she expressed when interviewed by Wakefield for New York in the Fifties, Weaver considers Dr. Sax to be perhaps his best book, an underappreciated work of literary genius. She also writes about the unique magic of Kerouac’s voice, and the difficulty in matching it as one of the stumbling blocks to production of the long anticipated film version of On the Road. Another plus for Beat aficionados is the inclusion of some previously unpublished photos and some excerpts from letters which are not included in Kerouac’s Collected Letters.

Full disclosure time: I met Helen Weaver at a Beat literature conference at NYU in 1994. We recognized each other as fellow Kerowackos and shared a beer, laughs and conversation. So I can make no claim to objectivity with regard to this book. For me it resonates perfectly. Weaver expresses beautifully not just a love and appreciation for Kerouac but an approach to life that I happen to share—that it is beautiful and ugly, happy and sad all at the same time, and that much can be made right by patience, kindness, forgiveness, and a sense of humor properly applied.


To read an excerpt of the book, click here.


Read Dan Barth's review of Kerouac's Some Of the Dharma.