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Was it a gift or a loan? That is the question to answer in suit over original Jack Kerouac manuscript

James Olney, director of the Northport-East Northport Public

James Olney, director of the Northport-East Northport Public Library, next to a display of a microfiche copy of Kerouac's manuscript in the library's collection. Credit: Pablo Garcia Corradi

An original manuscript of Jack Kerouac’s first published novel, "The Town and the City," is at the center of a lawsuit filed by the executor of the beat generation author’s estate against the Northport-East Northport Public Library.

John H. Shen-Sampas, 36, manager of the estate of the so-called "King of the Beats," filed the lawsuit in March in State Supreme Court in Riverhead, alleging the library was only loaned the manuscript and is refusing to give it back.

Library officials contend Kerouac donated the document to the library in 1964.

"There is no merit to the contention that 'The Town and the City' manuscript has merely been 'on loan' to the library for 56 years and, to the best of our knowledge, no evidence whatsoever to support it," according to a statement released by Melville-based attorney Andrew K. Martingale, who is representing the library.

The story begins in 1958, when Kerouac spent what was six years of living on and off in Northport. He moved to the village with his mother that year, a year after the publication of his iconic and signature literary achievement, "On the Road." The book was hailed as "historic" and an "authentic work of art" in a New York Times book review in 1957.

According to Shen-Sampas, it was in 1964 that the library gained possession of the manuscript, but Kerouac asked library officials only to "safe-keep" the manuscript while he traveled to Florida. The writer died in in 1969 in St. Petersburg, Florida, before he could retrieve the document.

Shen-Sampas said he has offered to buy the document and compensate the library for all the years of housing the manuscript, but the library has declined, prompting him to file a lawsuit.

"I want it back to preserve it," said Shen-Sampas, who lives in San Francisco. "I’m worried that they have sold it to someone else without my knowledge and that person would not share it with the public."

He said the last time he saw the manuscript was in 2018 and that it had been bound as a book, was deteriorating and not properly preserved.

"A manuscript is supposed to be loose pages," Shen-Sampas said. "The margins where they bound the book with the glue there are words, notes written by Jack."

The library statement said the original manuscript is insured and stored in a climate-controlled fireproof safe.

"Initially, the manuscript was on the open shelves in the reference collection; however, with the passing of time, preservation outweighed access and a microfilmed copy was created, which, for decades, has served as the "use copy" for researchers and Kerouac fans," the statement said.

Shen-Sampas said unless there is a document from Kerouac showing that the intent was to give the manuscript as a gift, it's not a gift.

"It’s not up to me to show it was not a gift," Shen-Sampas said. "When they say they accepted it as a gift, the intent of a gift is not proved by the recipient."

The library statement said if required to uphold its ownership of the manuscript in court, "the Library is well prepared to do so."

Because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the shutdown of courts, no further action has been taken in the case.

KEROUAC & THE BEAT

The Beat Generation was a literary movement of young authors whose writings focused on and influenced American society and politics in the post-World War II era. It began in the late 1940s and was popularized through the 1950s. Zen Buddhism, modern jazz, free sexuality, anti-materialism and recreational drug use were activities favored by the group. Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg are among the names most associated with the movement.

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