Scholar, editor, and biographer of Beat generation writer Jack Kerouac -- she even penned the preface to his groundbreaking On the Road -- Ann Charters captures the passion and promise of one of the most culturally influential decades of the century.
It's nearly impossible to come across a significant study of Jack Kerouac without encountering the name Ann Charters. A foremost Beat scholar, she wrote the first biography of the On the Road author and has studied his milieu for over 20 years. Charters also has a personal connection to back up her scholarly interest in the Beats: When she was a junior at University of California, Berkeley, her roommate set her up on a date with Peter Orlovsky. Charters was actually in love with her professor, Sam Charters, whom she later married; as for Orlovsky, he was Allen Ginsberg's boyfriend. Charters said in a magazine interview, "My roommate...said to me, 'I'll fix you up with a wonderful boy who's your own age.' This was Peter Orlovsky, before he was living with Allen, and who considered 'Howl' to be the greatest poem since Whitman's Leaves of Grass."
Though the romance didn't pan out, Charters' love of the Beats endured, and she became the genre's anthologist of note. After completing biographies of Kerouac and the futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, Charters assembled the now-classic The Story and Its Writer, a collection of exemplary short stories and commentary by and about authors such as Raymond Carver and Anton Chekhov. In addition to her taste and eye for good literature, one of Charters' strengths is her ability to incorporate the author's voice. She got Kerouac's cooperation on her biography of him and included the authors' own analyses of their work in The Story and Its Writer.
This acumen probably reached its apotheosis when Charters edited a collection of Kerouac's letters. By that time, a second Kerouac biography, Memory Babe by Gerald Nicosia, had been released, and as Charters told the Alsop Review, "my book was, I thought, in comparison, woefully inadequate." She continued, "That's why I took on the editing, because I saw with the letters that it could be a way of giving a biography through my selection, which emphasizes Jack's life as a writer.... If I were to write a biography -- and I will not rewrite my first biography -- well, I've done that with this two-volume set."
Though she has focused on Kerouac in her work, Charters has also done a lot to improve the understanding of Beat literature in general, not only by editing well-known anthologies such as The Portable Beat Reader but also by writing introductions and essays in editions of major works. For a British anthology called The Penguin Book of the Beats (which follows the structure of The Portable Beat Reader), she explained her approach in a publisher's interview: "I decided I wouldn't just alphabetically arrange my favorite Beat writers or put them in big sections, like Poetry, Fiction, Essays. I would organize it historically, so that someone who didn't know much about Beat writing could come in and use the book as an introduction to the whole field and have some guidelines."
Charters is appealing as an editor and anthologist because she embraces, rather than trying to distance herself from, her personal connection to the era she covers. With The Portable Sixties Reader, her most expansive collection yet, she continues to illuminate a crucial literary era.
Good To Know
Charters has taught at Brown University, Columbia University, and the University of Connecticut, where she has been a professor of English since 1974.
Charters on Kerouac's detractors: "Most people are, at heart, good people, but fairly conservative. They really like to think that there's a tried-and-true way of writing, and you sit and write 13 revisions. And when they hear that he's bragging that he's written it in one draft they kind of get their hackles up." (online zine interview)