Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Jack Kerouac: An Appreciation

I'm not a beatnik, I'm a Catholic -- JACK KEROUAC
Like a lot of college kids who came of age in the Sixties, reading Jack Kerouac's On the Road was a rite of passage for me, one that occurred a few days into my freshman year when my considerably more sophisticated dormitory roommate loaned me his dog-earred copy.

I caught the Kerouac bug so bad that I went on to read virtually everything he wrote after tracking down a last few obscure titles in the early 1970s, when I was traveling the Far East, at a wonderful bookstore on the Ginza in Tokyo that specialized in those orange-spined Pengiun paperback editions. And like the movable feast of characters that populated Kerouac's real and fictional lives, I spent much of the 1970s on the road, an odyssey that took me to 49 of the 50 American states. (Sorry, Montana, I'll drop by someday.)

The good news from this literary experience is that I can confirm -- as if I needed to tell the bibliophiles among you -- that Kerouac is deserving of the mantle of trailblazing Beat Generation writer. He has exerted an enormous influence on many writers, myself included, as well as Ken Kesey and Richard Brautigan, and musicians like as Bob Dylan and Tom Waits.

The bad news is that I was to read only two more Kerouac books -- The Dharma Bums and Desolation Angels -- that gripped me as On the Road had, and most of the rest of what Kerouac wrote is second rate or worse. Maybe that's just me because most critics are somewhat kinder.

Kerouac had many of the ingredients that make up the tortured artistic soul, including a difficult lifelong relationship with his mother, deep sensitivity and low self esteem, ambivalence about spirituality, ambiguous sexuality, unhappy in love and a profound addiction -- in his case alcohol. That is obvious from the body of Kerouac's work, some 25 or so novels and other books in all, but does not explain why his prolific but relatively short life produced a mere handful of books that arguably are worth reading today.
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Jack Kerouac was born Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac, in Lowell, Massachusetts some 86 years ago today to French-Canadian parents, Léo-Alcide Kerouac and Gabrielle-Ange Lévesque, who like many other Quebecers of their generation had emigrated to New England to find work.

Kerouac and his family spoke joual, a Quebec French dialect, and he did not begin to learn English until the age of six, two years after the death of his nine-year-old brother, Gérard, whose passing affected him deeply.

Kerouac started writing poetry at a young age, but it was his ability as a running back and a football scholarship to Columbia University that was his ticket out of gritty Lowell.

In a twist of fate, Kerouac broke a leg in a game during his freshman season, soon dropped out of college and began meeting many of the Beat Generation characters who would populate his novels, including Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, John Clellon Holmes and William S. Burroughs. He joined the Merchant Marine in 1942 and the Navy in 1943 at the height of World War II, but was honorably discharged on psychiatric grounds – for having an "indifferent disposition."

He later lived with his parents in the Ozone Park neighborhood of Queens after they, too, moved to New York, and that is where he wrote his first novel, The Town and the City (1950) and began On the Road.

From the outset, Kerouac's novels were long, rambling, dense and packed with details about his daily life and thoughts, and his editor at publisher Robert Giroux cut some 400 pages from The Town and the City, a generational epic influenced by Thomas Wolfe. No matter, the book sold poorly and for the next six years Kerouac was unable to find a publisher.

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Fame, all of its attendant problems and Kerouac’s eventual undoing came calling with publication of On the Road in 1957.

Kerouac had written the book on a roll of Teletype paper in the course of a three-week Benzedrine and coffee binge in 1951. Inconveniently for fans who believe that the novel was written off the top of his head, much of it had been laid out in diaries and correspondence during an extended road trip across the U.S. and into Mexico with Cassady, who was the model for the character Dean Moriarty.

On the Road relied heavily on the narrative style, Kerouac's early flirtation with Buddhism and the music of Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and the other bebop musicians that he and his friends were grooving to. It also borrowed liberally – too liberally for the alternately awed and hurt Cassady, who himself never matured as a writer -- from Cassady's own letters to Kerouac.

Publisher after publisher rejected On the Road because of its experimental writing style, but finally Viking Press purchased it after insisting on and getting major revisions.

Kerouac was living and writing in Orlando, Florida by the time On the Road was reviewed by The New York Times on September 5, 1957. Gilbert Millstein hailed him as a major American writer and the book as the defining work of the Beat Generation.

The review began:

[I]ts publication is a historic occasion in so far as the exposure of an authentic work of art is of any great moment in an age in which the attention is fragmented and the sensibilities are blunted by the superlatives of fashion (multiplied a millionfold by the speed and pound of communications).

And concluded:

There are sections of "On the Road" in which the writing is of a beauty almost breathtaking. There is a description of a cross-country automobile ride fully the equal, for example, of the train ride told by Thomas Wolfe in "Of Time and the River." There are details of a trip to Mexico (and an interlude in a Mexican bordello) that are by turns, awesome, tender and funny. And, finally, there is some writing on jazz that has never been equaled in American fiction, either for insight, style or technical virtuosity. "On the Road" is a major novel.

Overnight, Kerouac's antics with Cassady, Ginsberg and friends became the stuff of legend in large part because of his inevitably awkward appearances on "The Tonight Show” with Steve Allen and other programs. During his lifetime, many fewer people read Kerouac books than celebrated his adventures through the interviews he gave.

The Dharma Bums, set in California and based on Kerouac's experiences with Buddhism and San Francisco area poets, was published in 1958. (A personal aside: I reread Dharma Bums while living in San Francisco in the mid-70s. Book in hand, I was riding a city bus one afternoon when it stopped for a traffic light at Columbus Avenue and Broadway as Kerouac walked across that very intersection in the book.)

My other fave, Desolation Angels, drawn from a summer he spent as a fire lookout in the North Cascade Mountains of Washington state, appeared in 1965.

These books are to my mind the most accomplished examples of Kerouac's narrative style, which he later called Spontaneous Prose, a technique akin to stream of consciousness. Indeed, a big reason that I find most of the rest of his writing not as good is because it seems anything but spontaneous although, to bust another Kerouac myth, he rewrote and rewrote all of his manuscripts.

Years later, Kerouac was asked by Ginsberg to explain Spontaneous Prose. The result was a list of what he called 30 "essentials":

1. Scribbled secret notebooks, and wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy

2. Submissive to everything, open, listening

3. Try never get drunk outside your own house

4. Be in love with your life

5. Something that you feel will find its own form

6. Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind

7. Blow as deep as you want to blow

8. Write what you want bottomless from bottom of the mind

9. The unspeakable visions of the individual

10. No time for poetry but exactly what is

11. Visionary tics shivering in the chest

12. In tranced fixation dreaming upon object before you

13. Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition

14. Like Proust be an old teahead of time

15. Telling the true story of the world in interior monolog

16. The jewel center of interest is the eye within the eye

17. Write in recollection and amazement for yrself

18. Work from pithy middle eye out, swimming in language sea

19. Accept loss forever

20. Believe in the holy contour of life

21. Struggle to sketch the flow that already exists intact in mind

22. Don't think of words when you stop but to see picture better

23. Keep track of every day the date emblazoned in yr morning

24. No fear or shame in the dignity of yr experience, language & knowledge

25. Write for the world to read and see yr exact pictures of it

26. Bookmovie is the movie in words, the visual American form

27. In praise of Character in the Bleak inhuman Loneliness

28. Composing wild, undisciplined, pure, coming in from under, crazier the better

29. You're a Genius all the time

30. Writer-Director of Earthly movies Sponsored & Angeled in Heaven

To end at the beginning, why then did Kerouac produce a mere handful of books that arguably are worth reading today?

Because these books, notably On the Road, are "about how to live your life," as John Leland puts it in Why Kerouac Matters: The Lessons of On the Road (They're Not What You Think, a sweet little 2007 tome slightly longer than the title. And Kerouac simply was incapable of living that idyllic low-overhead life of work, love, artistry and faith.

Jack Kerouac died at age 47 on October 21, 1969 in a St. Petersburg, Florida, hospital as a result of internal bleeding caused cirrhosis of the liver, the result of a lifetime of heavy drinking. He was living with his third wife and his mother.

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This is the 14th in a series of appreciations of the people who have moved and inspired me over the years. It is based in part on the Wikipedia entry on Kerouac.

Previous appreciations have included Duane Allman, Hoagie Carmichael, John Coltrane, Aaron Copland, Jerry Garcia, Bill Graham, Stéphane Grappelli, Learned Hand, Ron "Pigpen" McKernan, Bob Marley, Laura Nyro, Eleanor Roosevelt and Tennessee Williams.

Photograph by John Cohen

1 comment:

cognitorex said...

I read "On the Road' when i was 14 years of age and went off to summer camp with the legs of my jeans dutiful frayed (tattered) to establish my oneness with the Beats. I also mixed yeast under the dining hall with number 10 tins of juice chasing fermentation as best I could.
I also read everything Kerouac and like you Shaun, felt he had sold out excellence in a haste to produce his later works.