Cleis Press recently sent me a review copy of One and Only: The Untold Story of On the Road and Lu Anne Henderson, The Woman Who Started Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady on Their Journey by Gerald Nicosia and Anne Marie Santos (Berkeley, CA: Viva Editions, 2011). Here are a few thoughts.

In 1978, Beat biographer Gerald Nicosia had the opportunity to interview Lu Anne Henderson twice – once her a hospital in San Francisco, when she was recovering from surgery, and shortly after her release when she invited him to the house where she was recovering for a lengthy recording session. Over thirty years later, One and Only brings us these oral historical narratives in the form of heavily edited autobiographical vignettes. The sections of One and Only drawn directly from the interviews are framed by Nicosia’s contextual commentary and supplemented by other historical material about the Beats and their milieu – including a number of photographs and an essay by Henderson’s daughter, Anne Marie Santos.

I have, I will admit upfront, never been drawn to the Beat movement either in terms of its literary output or its place in American twentieth-century history. I have had passing acquaintance with its main personalities and the echoes of their work in 1960s and 70s cultural critiques. But I come to this work largely without preconceptions about the personalities of the individuals or the nature of the relationships between the main players. Therefore I’m not the best person to comment on the contribution this autobiographical narrative adds to the field of Beat studies. What I would like to talk about is the way in which Nicosia frames the oral history, and how one might approach reading the text with a skeptical eye — yet still gain a valuable personal perspective on some fairly iconic historical people and events.

Nicosia’s introduction does not inspire confidence in One and Only either as a work of oral historical scholarship or as a meaningful portrait of Lu Anne Henderson and her experience of mid-century American bohemia. Nicosia leans heavily on qualitative descriptions of his subject that came across  in my reading as tasteless objectification – he introduces her as “beautiful fortyish woman” who has a certain “homespun charm” and retains “touches of … charming innocence” (24; 33). Given his position as a younger (at the time) man requesting an interview about Henderson’s life and sexual relationships, I find the focus on her simultaneous sensuality and almost childishness to be a little creepy.

Nicosia walks a fine line between asking his readers to recognize Henderson’s agency – even as a fifteen-year-old teenage girl, she situates herself as a person who made choices about how to live her own life – and eliding the power dynamics borne of age and gender. While still a young man when he married Lu Anne, Cassady was in his early twenties, with more travel experience and a stint in the military under his belt. While not all such relationships need be inherently exploitative, this dynamic is never unpacked either by interviewer or interviewee. While Lu Anne’s interview emphasizes their shared youthfulness and complicity in continuing to live in or on the edge of poverty, readers can’t help but observe how Henderson is often forced into the position of providing for her husband and his friends, by hook or by crook, as in 1946 when Neal and Lu Anne, newly wed, arrive in New York City:

It was up to me to support us, so I found a job at a bakery. I had just gotten the job that morning, it was my first day, and Neal told me to steal some money! We didn’t have a penny, and Neal told me, like, ‘Bring some money home!’ Well, the woman who ran the bakery caught me [and] dismissed me. It really put me through a traumatic experience (67).

Henderson passes over these incidents with a light touch, often turning them into amusing anecdotes. Similarly, she glosses over the emotional and physical abuse threading through her relationship with Cassady and, later, Kerouac, and subsequent husbands. “Neal was not a violent person,” she observes at point point, and then immediately qualifies this by saying, “except with me. And when Neal would hit me, that was simply emotion” (87).

Nicosia acknowledges that Henderson herself had an agenda in granting him an interview, as did he in seeking her out. She was unhappy with contemporary accounts of her place in the constellation of Beat relationships, approached the interview as an opportunity to correct historical memory. He was collecting material for a biography of Kerouac eventually published in 1983 under the title Memory Babe. To a great extent, Nicosia’s focus on the high-profile male personalities in Henderson’s circle persists in One and Only. He observes with unselfconscious approval that “Unlike so many of the other women who have written about Kerouac, [Lu Anne] resists the temptation to shift the focus of the story from Jack (or in this case, Jack and Neal) to herself” (27). In the context of a biography of Kerouac or Cassady, such an on-task informant might be an asset to the researcher – in the context of a book that places Lu Anne Henderson front and center, the observation tastes a bit sour on the tongue. Really, Nicosia? You make it sounds like Henderson’s life story is only valuable to the degree she keeps herself in the background and focuses on the menfolk in her life? I really hope you didn’t mean that the way it came out.

Despite my (many!) frustrations with the framing of Lu Anne’s narrative by Nicosia, there will likely be value to Beat scholars in the publication of Henderson’s perspective on the oft-chronicled historical events that inspired On the Road and other Beat works. Until now, the interview was unavailable to the public, for reasons Nicosia doesn’t elaborate on – only hinting that he was “forced” to bring a lawsuit in order to open the archive. I certainly found Henderson’s narrative compelling, and while her portrait of life on the economic and cultural edge was at times heartbreaking, I think it’s an important antidote to those who might romanticize the outsider while forgetting the real material and social costs of socioeconomic and philosophical marginalization … even if some aspects of that marginalization are, at least partially, by choice.

I look forward to seeing what future scholars do with the published work as well as the raw interviews, which I hope will be made available to scholars and the general public for research purposes.