Kerouac, Jack

Kerouac, Jack
   Architect and cofounder of the Beat Generation, Jack Kerouac was the innovator of Beat literature’s distinctive poetics. His legacy of associational composition techniques and hybrid forms—African-American styles of culture, language, and music amalgamated with European literary ones—reflects his ambition both to join canonical literary tradition and also to reinvent it. This dual impulse epitomizes his pivotal position on the 20th-century modern/postmodern divide. Though his seminal status in post–World War II U.S. culture and literature has been underestimated by many critics, Kerouac’s oeuvre—comprised of 14 published novels forming “The Duluoz Legend” (a multivolume extended narrative of the life of a U.S. American postwar writer), books of poetry, various essays, two writing manifestos, and posthumously published texts—had wide influence on Beat movement contemporaries such as allen ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, ruth weiss, brenda frazer, and john clellon holmes, and on succeeding artists, such as bob dylan, ken kesey, ed sanders, hunter s. thompson, and Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, as well as giving rise to literary modes such as New Journalism and forms of historiographic metafiction. Kerouac has been dismissed as simply an autobiographical writer, and numerous, often erroneous, biographies and memoirs in thrall to his Beat-Generation reputation have fetishized his personal history. However, his works themselves argue against reading his life as a literal source for or influence on his writing because the originality of his writing’s aesthetics of mind, or consciousness, complicates simplistic ideas about reading his literature as a mirror of life. Rather, Kerouac’s books narrate the workings of his mind as he composed, not merely his conjured memories of the past. Therefore, Kerouac’s most Jack Kerouac smokes a cigarette on an apartment’s fire escape in the Lower East Side with R. R. Brakeman’s salient Beat-Generation story is told not by the exaggerated emphasis placed by fans and overzealous biographers on his life’s facts but by recounting his development of his literary inventions, which helped transform American writing to meet the emerging postmodern era. The books, far more than the man or what is speculated about the man, are the lasting legacy and influence of the writer Jack Kerouac.
   Jean-Louis Kerouac was born on March 12, 1922, in Lowell, Massachusetts, the grandson of French-Canadian immigrants who settled in Nashua, New Hampshire, where his parents met and married. An intense connection to America that often marks children of immigrants and the influence of Catholic myth and dogma reflect his formative experience of Lowell’s French-Canadian, Irish, and Greek immigrant communities between the two world wars. His first language was joual, the French of Quebec, and he did not routinely speak or write English until he entered junior high school. The death of his older brother Gerard in 1926 at age nine from rheumatic fever and the family’s struggles during the Depression attuned Kerouac to suffering and hardship. Dependent on his mother, Gabrielle (Mémêre), he lived with her through his three marriages and more than 30 moves. He died in 1969 of alcoholism and the effects of a barroom fight in St. Petersburg, Florida, where he and Gabrielle, still together, lived with his third wife, Stella, the sister of his close boyhood friend, Sebastian Sampas. At his funeral, his Beat-Generation friends mingled with the Greek- and Franco-American families of his Lowell life, embodying the two worlds that he commemorated in his 1950 debut novel, The town and tHe city. Kerouac was a writing prodigy. His earliest compositions, handwritten and illustrated onepage home newspapers and magazines, are from 1933–34. At age 11 he wrote his first novel, “Jack Kerouac Explores the Merrimack.” He left Lowell in 1939, at 17, to attend Horace Mann School in New York City before matriculating to Columbia University on a football scholarship in 1940. The next year he left Columbia found a job in Hartford, Connecticut and wrote “Atop an Underwood,” a lost story collection whose title has been reused. After Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Kerouac enrolled in a navy V-2 program; while awaiting qualification he was a sportswriter for the Lowell Sun and then signed on as a scullion on the S.S. Dorchester. He attended Columbia in fall 1942 but quit football. At Christmas in Lowell, he handprinted the novel that had been begun on the Dorchester, “The Sea Is My Brother” (never published). In 1943 at naval boot camp in Newport, Rhode Island, Kerouac rebelled against military authority, walking away during a drill session. He received an honorable discharge on psychiatric grounds in June and later caught another ship, the S.S. George Weems, bound for Liverpool. During the October crossing Kerouac read John Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga, a multivolume prose epic that inspired “The Duluoz Legend.”
   In winter 1943–44 Kerouac lived with Edie Parker and her roommate Joan Vollmer Adams at 421 West 188th Street, and they attracted a volatile bohemian crowd that included Lucien Carr, David Kammerer, Burroughs, and Ginsberg. Kerouac’s arrest as a material witness in Carr’s notorious murder of Kammerer in the early morning of August 14, 1943, galvanized his marriage to Parker, whose family bailed him out (he was ultimately exonerated). Kammerer’s murder fit with the bizarre “Self-Ultimacy” ritual of purgation and suffering that Kerouac developed in 1944 that included writing notes in his own blood and burning manuscript pages as they were written; resonated with Ginsberg’s arrest for involvement with stolen property and sentence to Columbia Presbyterian Psychiatric Institute for “rehabilitation”; and matched Bill Cannastra’s decapitation in a 1950 subway-train accident and Burroughs’s reckless shooting of his wife Joan Vollmer Adams Burroughs during a game of William Tell in Mexico City in September 1951. As a neophyte writer Kerouac was engrossed in this violent cycle, although of the deaths, only Kammerer’s turned up in his published work, veiled as a suicide.
   His marriage to Edie Parker disintegrating, Kerouac fraternized in New York with herbert huncke and Ginsberg. He collaborated with Burroughs on the unpublished novel “And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks,” each writing successive chapters in Dashiell Hammett detective style about a murder based on the Carr/Kammerer episode. As his father Leo lay dying in December 1945, Kerouac made notes for The Town and the City. Late in 1946 with the novel underway, he first met neal cassady, who, like Carr and Huncke, would exert considerable effect on his writing. In 1947 Kerouac hitchhiked to California, stopping in Denver. This trip, and another the next year with Cassady, provided the inspiration for on tHe road. In 1948 Kerouac finished The Town and the City at some 1,100 handprinted pages “a perfect Niagara of a novel,” and began to attend classes in literature and writing at the New School for Social Research on the G.I. Bill.
   In fall 1948 Kerouac wrote an account of his 1947 travels with a narrator called Ray Smith, a first attempt at On the Road. In a conversation with Holmes, Kerouac coined the term Beat Generation from a phrase used by Huncke—“Man, I’m beat.” Traveling cross-country with Cassady in early 1949, as always he kept a detailed journal; these notes of observations, incidents, and American landscapes grounded several works that he wrote in the 1950s. In March 1949 Kerouac began a second version of On the Road with a narrator called Red Moultrie. That month, Robert Giroux, then an editor at Harcourt Brace, accepted The Town and the City, which debuted in 1950 to mixed reviews. In 1949 Kerouac met Cassady in Denver for what he called their last great trip to Mexico City. On his return Kerouac started another road tale using a first person narrator, a southern black boy named Pictorial Review Jackson, which later became Pic. On November 17, 1950, Kerouac married Cannastra’s exgirlfriend, Joan Haverty, after a month’s courtship. The couple parted in May 1951.
   Kerouac’s failed marriage to Haverty was fruitful nevertheless. Their daughter Janet Michele was born on February 16, 1952, and while living with Haverty, Kerouac wrote what became the published version of On the Road to answer her questions about his adventures with Cassady. Typing on a continuous paper roll that was made from tapedtogether teletype sheets, Kerouac ingeniously invented the physical correlative to his aesthetic of spontaneous composition. This April 1951 version narrated by “Sal Paradise” was preceded by one using the third-person “Ray Smith” narrator again and by Kerouac’s receipt, in February 1951, of the legendary (and now lost) “Joan Anderson letter,” in which Cassady detailed his early sexual experiences in a directly confessional style—this inspired Kerouac to write On the Road as an “autobiography of self-image” following Herman Melville. But the novel surpasses the sum of its influences to anticipate its postmodern moment: Figuring the hero “Dean Moriarty” both “mad Ahab at the wheel” and “Groucho Marx,” the novel collapses distinctions between high and mass culture; celebrating the “mad ones” who chafe against postwar conventions, it questions “white ambitions” to the American dream.
   Major breakthroughs followed from Kerouac’s devotion to his art. Attaining the scroll version of On the Road after three attempts (and a draft of Pic), he persisted to further postmodern forms with visions of cody. He began this fifth version of the Cassady road tale in May–June 1951, pursuing “deep form,” a way to blend linear (On the Road) and metaphysical (doctor sax) material. In October 1951 painter Ed White helped Kerouac conceive of “sketching.” This fleet notational style, the foundation of spontaneous prose and vehicle for “deep form,” began as a technique to capture real-life events as they happened, but the style was extended to writing about remembered and imagined ones. In December Kerouac stayed with Neal and his second wife Carolyn in San Francisco, embarking on a ménage à trois and continuing the “Neal book,” completing it in April 1952. Kerouac conceived Visions of Cody as a “vertical” successor to the “horizontal” On the Road. It featured interior confessions, treated pop culture forms and icons (the Three Stooges) with high culture seriousness, and mixed nonfiction (“Frisco: The Tape”) and improvisational (“Imitation of the Tape”) genres to achieve an unprecedented postmodern prose narrative. In Mexico City in May, while Burroughs was being investigated for killing Joan, Kerouac wrote, in longhand in a month of afternoon writing sessions, another experimental work, Doctor Sax. Articulating a philosophy for sketching the remembered and invented past, narrator “Jack Duluoz” counsels “don’t stop to think of words when you do stop, just stop to think of the picture better—and let your mind off yourself in this work.” A metaphysical coming-of-age novel of 1930s Lowell, Doctor Sax amplifies “vertical” poetics.
   By now Kerouac was habituated to a peripatetic existence adapted to the demands of an isolated writing life and his emotional reliance on his mother. Moving in September 1952 back to California and the Cassadys, he began to write “October in the Railroad Earth,” “experimental speedwriting” about the American landscape and working man. That fall Holmes published Go, the first novel of the Beat Generation that Kerouac would later apotheosize. But for now, Kerouac was unsung and at loose ends, and in New York in early 1953, he wrote “Springtime Mary”—maGGie cassidy. Its adolescent love affair mingles with war (“No idea in 1939 that the world would turn mad”) and charts the narrator’s Horatio Alger ambition to be “a big hero of New York . . . incarnation of the American Super Dream Winner,” traditional success Kerouac would ironically seek through literary experimentalism. His frustration at disappointed publishing opportunities was unrelieved by travels to Quebec and San Francisco, but returning to New York, he produced another breakthrough novel and a major manifesto of his composition techniques. In three successive nights in October 1953, Kerouac wrote The suBterraneans, whose aesthetic to “just . . . start at the beginning and let the truth seep out” yields a narration of “confessional madness” that encompasses both “the conscious top and the unconscious bottom of the mind.” The Subterraneans also represents postwar cultural hybridity in the mixed-race hipster community and the biracial “Mardou Fox,” whose “new bop generation way of speaking”—“part Beach, part I. Magnin model, part Berkeley, part Negro highclass”-exemplifies the pastiche postmodern literary style that Kerouac helped pioneer. Burroughs and Ginsberg found the novel so exceptional that they asked Kerouac to explain his techniques. His nine-point list, “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose,” describes a method that honors the private mind that speaks freely in the moment of composition by sketching or “blowing” like a jazz musician an “undisturbed flow . . . of personal secret idea–words”; that permits “free deviation (association) of mind”; and, most famously, that insists on “no revision.” These demanding ideals, mastered in the compositions of 1951–53, would be the gold standard for all Kerouac’s work.
   In 1953 Kerouac started to study Buddhism and to meditate. In December he began some of tHe dHarma as reading notes; the 100-page section that he sent to Ginsberg in 1955 evolved into a comprehensive literary work that he finished in March 1956. Visiting the Cassadys in 1954 he wrote some “sketch poems” that later were titled “San Francisco Blues.” Back in New York he wrote the science-fiction meditation on global decline, “CITYCitycity.” His finished novels were continually rejected by publishers, his thrombophlebitis (a chronic condition dating back to the early 1940s) flared up, and in January 1955 Joan Haverty brought him to court for child support. The Viking Press editor Malcolm Cowley, interested in On the Road, provided small funds that Kerouac used to escape to Mexico, where he wrote the first part of tristessa in pencil by candlelight. Kerouac cryptically lauded its “ingrown-toenail packed mystical style,” but the narrator “Jack Duluoz” is overcome by “All of us trembling in our mortality boots, born to die, BORN TO DIE,” the existential preoccupation of most works Kerouac composed after embracing the practical but unflinching Buddhist thought.
   Kerouac also wrote mexico city Blues in summer 1955, “all by hand” in pencil, counterbalancing spontaneity by limiting the choruses to the page size of his pocket notebook. He moved to Berkeley, California, where Ginsberg had just completed “howl,” obviously indebted to Kerouac’s spontaneous method. Orchestrating audience fervor but not presenting his work at the pivotal Six Gallery reading on October 7, 1955, Kerouac began his important literary friendship with gary snyder and alienated kenneth rexroth, the poet impresario who proclaimed the landmark event—at which Ginsberg premiered “Howl”—to be the birth of the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance. At his sister’s in North Carolina, Kerouac wrote visions of Gerard by hand in January 1956 in 12 nights; the novel’s “windblown” Shakespearean style and “soul and mind” memory temper the pitiless “born to die” ethos that the tale commemorates. With Snyder in Marin County in spring, Kerouac began The Scripture of the Golden Eternity, carefully revising because “it was a scripture. I had no right to be spontaneous.” He also worked on old anGel midniGHt, styling its “sounds of the universe” “a spontaneous Finnegans Wake.” Recommended to the post by Snyder, Kerouac spent 63 days alone in summer 1956 as a fire lookout in the Cascade Mountains in Washington, watching over Desolation Peak.
   Kerouac returned to “the world” in September 1956, traveling to San Francisco and Mexico City, completing there the second part of Tristessa and writing Book One of desolation anGels. The narrator’s Zen recognition that “I know there’s no need to tell a story and yet I know there’s not even need for silence” is countered by his aesthetic of the “tic,” which codifies the way narrative results from mind prompts when “a thousand memories come like tics all day . . . almost muscular spasms of clarity and recall.” In New York in December Kerouac contracted with Viking Press to publish On the Road and met the young writer Joyce Glassman (later joyce johnson), who became an important confidant after it came out. Visiting Burroughs in Tangier, he typed parts of the book that he named naked luncH, returning for the September 5, 1957, publication of the groundbreaking On the Road that marked a pivotal point in Kerouac’s life and writing. Gilbert Millstein’s star-making review in the New York Times naming On the Road its generation’s The Sun Also Rises—comparing Kerouac to Ernest Hemingway—made Kerouac a high-profile culture icon, and he was never able to reclaim the privacy of mind and anonymity that his writing required. One of the first American writers to gain television exposure, he appeared on John Wingate’s Nightbeat in September 1957, while in early 1958 he was interviewed by Mike Wallace on CBS. Henceforth, his biography as a writer is complicated by the impact on his art of his outsized public status.
   Initially, Kerouac’s enormous celebrity permitted wide-ranging artistic expression. In November 1957 he typed The dHarma Bums for Viking Press in 10 sessions on a long paper roll. His “Visions of Gary” Snyder novel is renowned for its “vision of a great rucksack revolution”-often interpreted as foreseeing the 1960s counterculture. A postmodern hybrid of postwar existential nihilism and Buddhist relinquishment is transmitted in the narrator “Ray Smith’s” refrain, “I didn’t know anything anymore, I didn’t care, and it didn’t matter, and suddenly I felt really free.” The 1958 publication of The Dharma Bums coincided with spoken word projects. Kerouac recorded Poetry for the Beat Generation to Steve Allen’s improvised piano accompaniment; Blues and Haikus with Zoot Sims and Al Cohn; and Readings on the Beat Generation, a solo performance. He improvised a voiceover narration for the acclaimed short film based on his writings, Pull My Daisy, which was shot in painter and director Alfred Leslie’s New York loft in January–February 1959. The Spring 1959 issue of Evergreen Review carried “Belief & Technique for Modern Prose,” Kerouac’s other writing manifesto. When Kerouac appeared on The Steve Allen Show in November, he read pages of Visions of Cody hidden in his copy of On the Road, signaling his preference for its experimental aesthetics. During this period of overwhelming popular attention, Kerouac’s strong artistic showing was mitigated by increased drinking and defensive loutish public conduct.
   Kerouac’s postfame novels emphasize the high price of “making it” in America. In early 1960 lawrence ferlinghetti’s City Lights Books published Book of dreams, middream notes that observe the interior mind with stylishly Freudian detail. Kerouac escaped fame’s oppressive scrutiny in Ferlinghetti’s cabin near Big Sur, California, in July 1960, but this visit proved to be a living nightmare. Written in 10 nights almost a year later, in October 1961 in Orlando, Florida, on a roll of paper, BiG sur depicts a breakdown under extreme alcohol sickness and debilitating celebrity. The author’s claim that the book “tells a plain tale in a smooth buttery literate run” contradicts the narrator’s inordinate suffering. In the preface Kerouac confidently reveals his literary master plan to make all his books “chapters in the whole work which I call The Duluoz Legend . . . one enormous comedy seen through the eyes of poor Ti Jean (me), otherwise known as Jack Duluoz.” Signed “Jack Kerouac,” this statement blurs biography of self-image and autobiography, enclosing Duluoz and Kerouac in a shared consciousness that is at once imagined and real, like the delirium hallucinations of the novel’s climax.
   The postmodernism of Kerouac’s late writing, wherein distinctions between the writer’s life and his books’ legend are obscured, was galvanized by what he called the horror of literary notoriety. The existential aspect of Big Sur’s alcoholic suffering appears in 50,000 words that Kerouac wrote in Mexico City in July 1961 and that form Book Two: Passing Through of Desolation Angels. This account of fame’s crisis state—Kerouac’s first extended writing since publication of On the Road and The Dharma Bums—iterates a “new way of writing about life, no fiction, no craft, no revising afterthoughts” while writhing under the lost privacy of fame’s exposure, a condition which undermines invention. The narrator of Desolation Angels styled himself a “20th Century Scrivener of Soul Stories,” but in Big Sur the narrator laments that he is “the bloody ‘King of the Beatniks,’ ” opposing self-images of writer and reputation that increasingly close in on each other.
   In March 1962 Kerouac submitted to a courtordered blood test that confirmed his paternity of his daughter Jan. The next year and a half was filled with drinking, distressing press reports, and negative reviews. Driving Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters in the psychedelic bus “Further” in 1964, Cassady engineered a meeting with Kerouac, who, underscoring the disjuncture between the man and the legend, was repulsed by the group whose counterculture his books inspired. Kerouac moved his mother from Northport, New York, to St. Petersburg, Florida, where they weathered his sister Caroline’s unexpected death in fall 1964. By late that year, most of Kerouac’s books were out of print and unobtainable. In July 1965 he traveled to France to study his genealogy and spent 10 days writing satori in paris, which was serialized in Evergreen Review in 1966 and then published as a book.
   In May 1966, providing the first scholarly attention to his writing, Ann Charters visited Kerouac at his home in Hyannis, Massachusetts, and catalogued his archive for a bibliography published in 1967. In September his mother was partially paralyzed by a stroke, and on November 19, 1966, Kerouac married Stella Sampas. In Lowell, in 10 sessions from March to May 1967, Kerouac wrote the last novel published during his lifetime, vanity of duluoz, which he had been contemplating since 1963 and now addressed to Stella. A scathing account of the costs of fame, the novel connects prewar American innocence and postwar American Dream ideology in a single circular figure: “[Y]ou kill yourself to get to the grave before you even die, and the name of the grave is ‘success,’ ” a destabilizing unreality in which the narrator feels that he is “not Jack Duluoz at all . . . but just a spy in somebody’s body pretending.” In that postmodern way that Kerouac brilliantly anticipated, Duluoz morphed with his creator in the dizzying fame that renders all aspiration “the general vanity of Duluoz.” In summer 1968 Kerouac moved again to St. Petersburg, returning briefly to New York in fall for a ruinous television appearance on William F. Buckley’s Firing Line. By November Kerouac was in an intense alcoholic downward spiral; revising Pic for publication in early 1969, he had no new books planned, demand for his work was at its lowest point, and he had run out of money. In late summer he published “After Me, the Deluge,” a widely syndicated essay on his condition as writer. It turned out to be his last word, for Kerouac died on October 20, 1969, in a St. Petersburg hospital.
   The critical neglect of Kerouac’s literary innovations is partly a fluke of timing; his masterwork Visions of Cody was not published in its entirety until 1972 when the familiarity of American postmodernity as well as his trivializing “beatnik” reputation obscured the book’s importance. Kerouac continues to be read, but his cultish fans, unremitting commercial exposure, and careless posthumous publications thwart his acceptance into canons of American writing. Nevertheless, recent fresh reception may redeem this lapse and provide the recognition that his work merits. This recovery will be greatly facilitated by the long overdue placement in the New York Public Library’s Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of Kerouac’s large archive, that he meticulously kept for future studies of his legacy and that is reported to include about 1,800 pieces of correspondence; more than 1,050 manuscripts and typescripts; 130 notebooks for almost all his works, published and unpublished; 52 journals from 1934 to 1960 that include materials used in some novels; and 55 diaries that Kerouac wrote between 1956 and his death. With access to this trove of material, critics and scholars will be able to construct a clearer and fairer picture of Kerouac as person and as writer and to assess his rightful, pivotal place in postwar American literary history.
■ Dardess, George. “The Delicate Dynamics of Friendship: A Reconsideration of Kerouac’s On the Road.” American Literature 46 (May 1974): 200–206.
■ Grace, Nancy M. “A White Man in Love: A Study of Race, Gender, Class, and Ethnicity in Jack Kerouac’s Maggie Cassidy, The Subterraneans, and Tristessa.” College Literature Special Issue 27, no. 1 (Winter 2000): 39–62.
■ Hunt, Tim. Kerouac’s Crooked Road: Development of a Fiction. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1981.
■ Johnson, Ronna C. “ ‘You’re putting me on’: Jack Kerouac and the Postmodern Emergence.” College Literature Special Issue 27, no. 1 (Winter 2000): 22–38.
■ Jones, James T. a Map of Mexico City Blues: Jack Kerouac as Poet. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1992.
■ Kerouac, Jack. Windblown World: The Journals of Jack Kerouac 1947-1954. Edited by Douglas Brinkley. New York: Viking, 2004.
■ Maher, Paul. Kerouac: The Definitive Biography. New York: Taylor Trade, 2004.
■ Martinez, Manuel Luis. Countering the Counterculture: Rereading Postwar American Dissent from Jack Kerouac to Tomas Rivera. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003.
■ McNally, Dennis. Desolate Angel: Jack Kerouac, the Beats, and America. New York: Random House, 1979.
■ Tallman, Warren. “Kerouac’s Sound.” The Tamarack Review 11 (Spring 1959): 58–74.
   Ronna C. Johnson

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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