Old Angel Midnight

Old Angel Midnight
by Jack Kerouac
   Old Angel Midnight might be the purest instance of jack kerouac’s spontaneous prose to reach publication. Indefinable in terms of genre—one cannot accurately label it novel, memoir, or poem—Old Angel Midnight remains one of Kerouac’s least known works. Unpublished in one volume until 1993, the book blends word play and the unfocused musings of a poet’s mind as Kerouac attempts to record “the sounds of the entire world . . . swimming” through his window. Kerouac worked on the project on and off for several years and later wrote that “it is the only book I’ve ever written in which I allow myself the right to say anything I want, absolutely and positively anything.” Seen in that light, Old Angel Midnight may stand as one of the loosest, least edited books ever published. The book offers an unadulterated look into the fluid associations in the nexus of incidental sounds and Kerouac’s imagination.
   Biographer Ann Charters reports that Kerouac began to write Old Angel Midnight on May 28, 1956, after a night of drinking with two companions, Bob Donlin and Al Sublette, to whom he had boasted that he was William Shakespeare reincarnated. To make good on his boast, he set about producing a jazzy, rambling, pun-loaded prose that was inflected by what he thought of as Shakespearean tone. Kerouac initially wrote in a cottage in Mill Valley on the slopes of Mount Tamalpais on the California coast, where he had been staying with gary snyder. When Snyder sailed for Japan on May 15, Kerouac remained in the cottage for another month before departing for a fire lookout job in the Cascade Range. michael mcclure, who spent time with Kerouac during his time at the cottage, recalls that Kerouac read to him some portions of Old Angel Midnight and told him that it was a long, spontaneous project that he hoped to work on for years. McClure states, “Old Angel Midnight is a pirate’s treasure chest. I can sit for a long time running the fingers of my mind through the shining doubloons and emeralds and pull out a crusty necklace of pearls and precious stones draped with sea moss.” The writing became an ongoing project that provided Kerouac with release for his creative energies and also helped him maintain his spontaneous prose style during the times when he was not writing books actively. Kerouac’s working title for the project was Lucien Midnight, for by 1956 Kerouac had determined to write books about his friends, and the speaker’s voice is influenced in part by Lucien Carr. In various other writings, Kerouac had captured Carr’s intonation as part menacing snarl, part insinuation, part playful bully. The language also features toss-off Shakespearean mimicry, such as “ending up nowhere & ne’er e’en born.” The prose also is flavored by Buddhist terms and concepts throughout, from “Visions of the Tathagata’s Seat of Purity & Womb” to madeup phrases that vaguely echo Hindu terms, such as paryoumemga sikarem nora sarkadium. Clearly, however, the biggest influence in the language comes from James Joyce, whom Kerouac greatly admired. Biographer Gerald Nicosia wrote that “in its ambitious scope as well as verbal ingenuity, Old Angel Midnight may indeed be the closest thing to Finnegans Wake in American literature.” Old Angel Midnight is divided into 67 sections. Although the sections vary in length, they average roughly one section per published page. The first section begins “Friday afternoon in the universe” and announces the rationale, such as it is, for the writing. The speaker sets out to tell a “vast” tale that includes everything in the universe as witnessed through his window. Initially, the speaker focuses on the sounds that roll in as one word leads to the next in terms of sound rather than semantics: “pones tics perts parts pans pools palls pails parturiences and petty Thieveries.” The first section ends with a reference to Carr, personified as “old Sound,” who comes home after work to “drink his beer & tweak his children’s eyes—.” The second section intensifies the speaker’s reliance on sound, “the sonora de madrigal,” by introducing onomatopeia: bardoush and flaki; the latter may represent the sound of a chain saw stalling in the log, but one may also experience the word simply for its sound. Kerouac repeatedly sets up the reader to anticipate actual meaning, only to undercut the reader’s expectation. For example, “—God why did you make the world? Answer:—Because I gwt pokla renamash ta va in ming the atss are you forever with it?” The reply may represent a riddle that implies that God will not answer the question, at least not in a way that average people understand. The reply may also be interpreted in various ways, depending on how one “translates” the language. Is gwt merely a mistyping of get (e and w are adjacent on the keypad) that set the writer off in a new direction? Ought one rearrange various letters to find new words such as renaming and ass? James Joyce’s readers have been rewarded by dissecting Finnegans Wake to identify various languages that work together with puns and neologisms to reveal the ordered whole of the novel. Kerouac’s work is not unified in that way. Instead, he is telling his reader, among other things, to move along with the sounds of words as one might with the sounds of the evening, to experience it without trying to make sense of the story.
   Sections 1 through 49 were published as “Old Angel Midnight” in Big Table I (Spring 1959), edited by Irving Rosenthal. Kerouac not only gave the magazine its title but was indirectly responsible for its creation. Rosenthal edited the Chicago Review, published under the auspices of the University of Chicago. The Winter 1958 issue would have featured Kerouac’s “Old Angel Midnight,” along with 10 episodes of William S. Burroughs’s naked luncH, had it not been suppressed by the university’s administration. According to Rosenthal, the administrators refused to allow the publication of “four-letter words,” and when negotiations broke down, Rosenthal and six of seven staff members quit. Rosenthal went on to found Big Table and published the suppressed works in its first issue. Kerouac hoped that the publication of “Old Angel Midnight,” along with the concurrent publication of selections from what would become visions of cody, would convince literary critics of his artistic merit. The recent publication of The dHarma Bums had given some critics the impression that Kerouac was merely cashing in on the success of on tHe road and not producing serious artistic literature. In spring 1959, lawrence ferlinghetti was interested in publishing “Old Angel Midnight” in book form, and Kerouac told him that he had 5,000 new words to add, making the new publication distinct from the Big Table publication. Kerouac assessed his ongoing project for Ginsberg: “I feel silly writing Old Angel tho because it is an awful raving madness, could make me go mad, I’m ashamed of it, but must admit it reads great, I wish other writers wd [sic] join me I feel lonely in my silliness writing like this is space prose for the future and people of the present time will only laugh at me, o well let em laugh.” Kerouac even rendered an ink-and-pastel drawing for the cover. Copyright complications doomed the City Lights publication, though, as Rosenthal insisted that Big Table owned the rights to the work. Evergreen Review later published “Old Angel Midnight Part Two” (sections 50 through 67) in the August/September 1964 issue. Old Angel Midnight held high value for its creator. Kerouac sometimes regretted his experimentation with language because he believed that his experimental style took a toll on his popular acceptance as a writer. However, after an experience with Mescaline in October 1959, Kerouac found confirmation of his artistic instincts. Recounting the profundity of the experience, he wrote to allen ginsberg, “Most miraculous of all was the sensational revelation that I’ve been on the right track with spontaneous never-touch-up poetry of immediate report, and Old Angel Midnight most especially, opening out a new world connection in literature with the endless spaces of Shakti Maya illusion.”
■ Kerouac, Jack. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. Edited by Ann Charters. New York: Viking, 1999.
■ McClure, Michael. “Jack’s Old Angel Midnight.” Old Angel Midnight, by Jack Kerouac. San Francisco: Grey Fox Press, 1993, xiii–xxi.
■ Nicosia, Gerald. Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac. New York: Grove Press, 1983.
   Matt Theado

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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