Kerouac, Jack 1922–1969
Kerouac, an American beat novelist of the spontaneous composition method, is best known for On the Road. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 25-28.)
The reactions to his works have varied from one extreme to another, from inordinate praise to absolute condemnation. He has been admired for being wild, sensational, and irresponsible; he has been attacked for being nihilistic, pessimistic, and bizarre. His works have been called pointless, formless autobiographical ramblings.
It seems to me, however, that both judgments are off-center: most people who have praised him have done so for the wrong reasons, and those who have passed him off cursorily have perhaps not examined the works closely enough. For I think that a definite rationale motivates Kerouac's writing. He is, first of all, serious about his work: he is a writer with a "message." Through autobiography, social criticism, and prophetic mysticism he speaks to America of the mid-twentieth century….
The narrators of his novels, Jack Duluoz, Sal Paradise, Ray Smith, and Leo Percepied, are in fact Jack Kerouac. This artistic device has been used by other American writers who, taking their cue from Emerson's exaltation of the individual, have done at least similar things: Walt Whitman, Thomas Wolfe, and even Henry Miller, for example. Nor is Kerouac alone when he assumes that the view of the world he presents is more than a subjective, isolated account; all of the writers mentioned above, and the poet Hart Crane as well, have taken their visions to be representative of what the American vision is, or should be….
In On the Road and throughout all his subsequent works, Kerouac criticizes the attitudes of American middle-class society. In the 20th Century, Kerouac feels, Americans have retreated into a standardized and institutionalized way of life that has stultified the individual. Conventionality, conformity, uniformity—these are the conditions he sees and attacks. The blind following of conventional moral codes, which one neither believes in nor understands, has led to a boring conformity, which in turn has resulted in a paralytic uniformity. Freudian and Marxist interpretations, which tend to exclude any other way of seeing life and to proscribe individuality, have become panaceas. The welfare state tells the individual what to do; propaganda and advertising tell him what to believe. His basic drives have been put into a strait jacket, and there they remain because of social pressures, fear, and apathy. To Kerouac, the organic structure of society as it has evolved historically is but an impediment to one's individuality….
Kerouac's rejection of middle-class values has led to a search for values of his own. In this search he has identified himself with all outsiders from accepted society—the Negro, the jazz musician, the hipster, the homosexual, even the dope addict and the bum. He has sympathy for all these outcasts and a great affinity for them, even a certain amount of envy of their freedom….
And it is the search for "IT" that Kerouac describes in each novel. The individual who asserts himself in this search for a meaning for life, and who is dissatisfied with the sham civilization based on fear and conventionality, is praised….
His style like his message represents an outcry for individuality. Just as he rejects the contemporary emphasis on set formulas to explain life, so does he reject the restraints and conventions of the literary and intellectual world….
Such is Kerouac's writing: punctuation is erratic, his later works mainly using what he calls "the vigorous space dash separating rhetorical breathing (as a jazz musician drawing breath between outblown phrases)"; the sentences, therefore, are long, rambling, repetitious, association-filled monologues, often running well over a page in length. Minute details abound, and descriptions are flowing, sensuous, excited or meditative. Kerouac's eye misses little. And his ear too is acute to everyday language, to slang, to individual speech patterns…. The immediate reaction may be that Kerouac writes for himself alone….
Granville H. Jones, "Jack Kerouac and the American Conscience," in Lectures on Modern Novelists, Department of English, Carnegie Institute of Technology, 1963, pp. 25-39.
Kerouac's … most widely read "beat" novel, On the Road, is a radical departure from his first [book, The Town and The City] both in language and in way of looking. The language is the trial run, and least extravagant example of his "spontaneous" prose. It is simply the unimpeded flow of observation in which sentence structure, image, and idea drift together, released from established rhetorical patterns of English….
Kerouac's way of looking in On the Road, and in his subsequent novels, is to present his characters as absolutely cut off from all the normal pursuits of those affiliated with the social order…. Kerouac's Dean Moriarty in On the Road (or his Japhy Ryder in The Dharma Bums, or his Mardou Fox in The Subterraneans) is unaware that traditional society is in existence. Dean Moriarty, the young "jailkid" of On the Road, is wholly emancipated from normalcy. His speech itself is a delirium of words….
The substance of Kerouac's "beat" fiction is actually rather hard to describe because it consists of events which occur more or less at random and which have no retained meaning to the characters who are involved in them. A précis of On the Road suggests this odd formlessness….
In a sense, in accounting for On the Road one has accounted for all of Kerouac's "beat" fiction, because its view of events and people as intermixed in sequential episodes having no fictional importance beyond their having happened establishes the pattern for all his later writing….
Out of all [of Kerouac's writings], I would single out only On the Road and The Dharma Bums as reasonably successful fictional studies in disjunction. They represent Kerouac's view of things with the greatest freshness and vivacity, in spite of passages of intolerable innocence where every hobo becomes a cute little Dharma bum, in spite of the unmotivated sentimentality with which Dean Moriarty and Japhy Ryder are presented. These novels are made interesting to us, I think, because Kerouac's sense of his characters' being cut off, disaffiliated, is clearer here, more available to us as part of the malaise of our times than in his other works. As he moves away from the communicable excitement of these first two "beat" novels into The Subterraneans, and then into the flood of his later work, one is aware of a falling off of imaginative drive, an accumulation of new episodes of disjunction to no new purpose. He seems to be consciously moving, in his fiction and his poetry, in the direction of greater and greater incoherence.
David L. Stevenson, "James Jones and Jack Kerouac: Novelists of Disjunction" (© 1963 by Nona Balakian and Charles Simmons; reprinted by permission of Doubleday & Co., Inc.), in The Creative Present: Notes on Contemporary American Fiction, edited by Nona Balakian and Charles Simmons, Doubleday, 1963, pp. 195-212.
Kerouac does have some fine comic lines and situations [in Satori in Paris]. His self-parodies, and the irony of aging Jack looking for the beginnings of his supposed aristocratic family in the dusty tomes of the Bibliothèque Nationale and in a sickroom in Brittany are amusing. The work is without real form, though, and the sketches are little more than "black-outs."
George Hendrick, in Books Abroad, Summer, 1967.
In the past Mr. Kerouac has written some intuitive, enraging but sweet books—sometimes listed as novels, sometimes as items of autobiography, the two always merging in the event of reading—of which this [Satori in Paris] is not one….
Mr. Kerouac has a certain rum gift for self-exposure and for making parts of this vivid. He retails, with a rueful amusement we can share, some of his sillier and more soiled exploits. But all too often he sounds not just like a Hemingway gone wrong but a James Jones gone wrong…. He still charms a little, but my word how he bores!
John Coleman, "Off the Road," in The Observer, November 19, 1967.
Vanity of Duluoz is the capstone of one of the most extraordinary, influential, maddening, and ultimately prodigious achievements in recent literature. Its follies are our follies; its hopes are the hopes that we, too, have lost. And the broken heart that beats stubbornly within it is our own heart, to which (out of embarrassment of pseudohipness) we try so doggedly not to listen any more, thereby postponing any sort of mending. As Kerouac might say: One last vanity.
John Clellon Holmes, "There's an Air of Finality to Kerouac's Latest," in National Observer, February 5, 1968.
In the fifties critics as eminent as Malcolm Cowley dubbed Jack Kerouac the literary spokesman for a generation professing supreme contempt for the entire canon of middle-class values….
Any number of incidents in "Vanity of Duluoz" seem potentially interesting. But Kerouac, not without talent, is not interested. Apparently seeing himself as a lily which ought neither to toil not to spin, he refuses to create them for us; instead he rather grandly refers to them.
Peter Sourian, "One-Dimensional Account," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1968 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 18, 1968.
Vanity of Duluoz, [Kerouac's] best book, is a picaresque novel in a tradition as old as Tristram Shandy and about as avant-garde as Laurence Sterne—a man in holy orders, puckish though he was.
Actually an autobiography, the book tells of Kerouac's rise (in Lowell, Mass.), his fall (on the high seas), and his moral death and resurrection in Manhattan. As a story it is nothing much….
This is fundamentally the story of all prodigals, and through it the book attempts to get to the heart of America as a country of wanderers—or as Evelyn Waugh put it, "a nation of waifs and strays."…
Unfortunately, Kerouac lacks the verbal talent to match his passionate commitment to the truth in himself. He suffers from a breathless style and the frequent burble of "fine writing." His book must be reluctantly put down with the thought that here is another monument brave in conception but botched by clumsy chisels….
The strange thing is that through the dreadful indiscipline of the prose, or perhaps because of it, the innocence of Kerouac is established beyond question. Alas, in literature, as in all other secular endeavors, innocence is not enough. The reader is left with the uneasy feeling that Kerouac's pilgrimage should have brought him to an understanding more profound than the discovery that "all is vanity."
"Sanity of Kerouac," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; © 1968 by Time Inc.), February 23, 1968.
Although some have seen Vanity of Duluoz as a more disciplined work—Kerouac now uses commas because, as he says in the opening pages, no one liked his factotum dash—it is really the same old heap of prose….
Seeing the Kerouac style as frantic propaganda makes it easier to understand the sour conclusions this work comes to, for in the end the author speaks of the sin of birth, the madness of nature, and the ineptness of social argument, either scientific or philosophical.
Jack Richardson, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1968 by NYREV, Inc.), April 11, 1968, p. 34.
On the Road retains a substantial period charm but most subsequent books that I have read are spoiled by logorrhoca and shapelessness. Dr. Sax is an exception to this statement but Satori in Paris is a disastrous illustration of it. This time 'ti Jean' fumbles his way to Paris and to Brest in search of his distinguished Breton ancestors. A kind of drunken Brendan Behan episode only without Behan's wit and humour, it is a bad trip, as they say nowadays, and one wonders why Kerouac or his publishers ever bothered to go on with it.
Julian Moynahan, in The Listener, June 27, 1968.
I don't think it is possible to proceed further in America without first understanding Kerouac's tender brooding compassion for bygone scene & personal Individuality oddity'd therein. Bypassing Kerouac one bypasses the mortal heart, sung in prose vowels; the book [Kerouac's novel, Visions of Cody] a giant mantra of appreciation and adoration of an American man, one striving heroic soul….
Art lies in the consciousness of doing the thing, in the attention to the happening, in the sacramentalization of everyday reality, the God-worship in the present conversation, no matter what. Thus the tape [one central section of the novel is called "The Tape"] may be read not as hung-up which it sometimes is to the stranger, but as a spontaneous Ritual performed once and never repeated, in full consciousness that every yawn & syllable uttered would be eternal … the tape coheres together with serious solemn discussion of their lives.
Jack Kerouac's style of transcription of taped conversation is, also, impeccably accurate in syntax punctuation—separation of elements for clarity … labeling of voices, parenthesizing of interruptions. A model to study.
Concluding we see the beauty of the tapes that Jack cherished, that they are inclusive samples of complete exchange of information and love thoughts between two men, each giving his mind history to the other—The remarkable situation, which we are privileged to witness thru these creaky tapes transcribed by now dead hand, is—of Kerouac the great rememberer on quiet evenings 1950–1951 with Neal Cassady, the great experiencer & midwest driver and talker, gossiping intimately of their eternities—here's representative sample of these evenings, and we can take as model their exchange and see that our own lives also have secrets, mysteries, explanations and love equal to those of feeble, seeking heroes past—Another generation has followed, perhaps surpassed, Neal & Jack conversing in midnight intimacy—if it hasn't discovered that "huge confessional night" then this tape transcript is fit model. If it's surpassed—more coherent these days—I doubt it!?! But then, this is ancient history—if History's interesting now that America has near destroyed the human compassionate world still surviving as in fragments of bewildering conversation between these two dead souls….
Jack didn't write this book for money, he wrote it for love, he gave it away to the world; not even for fame, but as an explanation and prayer to his fellow mortals, and gods—with naked motive and humble piety Search—that's what makes Visions of Cody a work of primitive genius that grooks next to Douanier Rousseau's visions, and sits well-libraried beside Thomas Wolfe's Time & River (which Thos. Mann from his European eminence said was the great prose of America) & sits beside Tolstoi for its prayers. A La La Ho!…
The last pages say, "All America marching to this last land." The book was a dirge for America, for its heroes' deaths too, but then who could know except in the unconscious—A dirge for the American Hope that Jack (& his hero Neal) carried so valiantly through the land after Whitman—an America of pioneers and generosity—and selfish glooms & exploitations implicit in the pioneers' entry into Foreign Indian & Moose lands—but the great betrayal of that manly America was made by the pseudo-heroic pseudo-responsible masculines of Army and Industry and Advertising and Construction and Transport and toilets and Wars.
Last pages—how tender—"Adios King!" a farewell to all the promises of America, and explanation & prayer for innocence, a tearful renunciation of victory & accomplishment, a humility in the face of "the necessary blankness of men" in hopeless America, hopeless World, in hopeless wheel of Heaven, a compassionate farewell to Love & the Companion, Adios King.
Allen Ginsberg, "The Great Remember," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1972 by Saturday Review; first appeared in Saturday Review, December 2, 1972; used with permission), December 2, 1972, pp. 60-3.
Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" was the "Huckleberry Finn" of the mid-20th century. Kerouac substituted the road for the river, the fast car for the slow raft, the hipster in search of freedom for the black slave in search of freedom. At one point, Kerouac even planned to write a black boy into his story to insure the comparison with Twain, then changed his mind. While Huck and Jim were floating down America's mile-wide aorta, while Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty were roaring across America's heart, they were helping to change the course of American prose.
Now, posthumously, Jack Kerouac's sequel to "On the Road" is being published; it is called "Visions of Cody." The book may, at first, seem like a raft that has broken up—no order, no plan, everything afloat in the stream of Jack Kerouac's consciousness. But if you can stand some disorder, you will find some of Kerouac's very best writing in this book. It is funny. It is serious. It is eloquent. To read "On the Road" but not "Visions of Cody" is to take a nice sightseeing tour but to forgo the spectacular rapids of Jack Kerouac's wildest writing….
When Allen Ginsberg first read "Visions of Cody" in manuscript, he wrote Cassady: "Jack's book arrived and it is a holy mess." If Ginsberg, Kerouac's most sympathetic reader, had trouble with the book, at least at first, then it should surprise no one if some other readers stumble on the problems the book presents. My suggestion would be to read the book in bits and pieces as if it were a book of poetry rather than a continuous narrative because it simply is not a continuous narrative….
While working on the book, Kerouac came to believe in what he called "automatic writing," meaning that he tried to turn the job of composing prose over to his subconscious. This theory of composition was much like that believed in by, of all people, Mark Twain. Kerouac is normally compared to writers like Thomas Wolfe, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, or Jean Genet, but he also learned a lot from Twain….
Jack Kerouac … helped to rediscover what seemed like a new form: nonfiction written in the form of a novel. Twain had done the same thing in books like "Roughing It" and "Innocents Abroad"—two titles which could describe Kerouac's entire oeuvre—but by the mid-point of this century most serious writers were writing fiction. Kerouac pointed writers back toward real experience the way it really happened as a subject for serious prose. He changed the names but that was all….
Jack Kerouac's influence can be seen with such disparate performing selves as Nelson Algren (especially in his remembrance of Hemingway), Jimmy Breslin (who attended Kerouac's funeral), Richard Farina (who himself died on the road), Roger Kahn (who went on the road in search of old Dodgers), and even Truman Capote. When "On the Road" made Jack Kerouac famous, Capote delivered his famous one-liner: "That's not writing, it's just typewriting." But would he have written "In Cold Blood" as a nonfiction novel if Jack Kerouac had not helped to make the form respectable?
Aaron Latham, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by the New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 28, 1973, pp. 42-3.
Despite moments of humor, compassion and even eloquence, Visions of Cody is often unreadable. Part of the problem is Kerouac's style. By the end of 1951 he had discovered "spontaneous prose" and "sketching."….
Far too much of Visions of Cody is the result of this theory. Kerouac simply typed up segments of a taped conversation he had with Neal Cassady—Cody Pomeray—dealing with Cassady's early life on the road and allowed the unrevised conversation to become part of the book….
The language and form of Visions of Cody are Kerouac's attempt to capture the spirit and dream that was Cody—Cody, who was Kerouac's brother, döppelganger and King…. But there is little evidence of all this in Visions of Cody. Cody is merely a bore, as is Jack Duluoz (i.e., Kerouac). When Cody and Duluoz first travel on the road for a period of 36 hours, "in all that time Cody just talked and talked and talked." And all that talk is vacuous. Neither Cody nor Duluoz seems any more capable of talking about anything other than themselves than were Cassady and Kerouac. The great failure of Visions of Cody, I think, is to be found in Kerouac's inability to transcend the mediocrity of his own existence….
There are times, to be sure, in On the Road and The Dharma Bums, when Kerouac's romantic vision does seem larger than life, and just as interesting. But there are other times, especially in Visions of Cody and Vanity of Duluoz, when that vision never manages to get beyond Kerouac's own terrified egotism, never convinces us that he was the man who "rode around the country free as a bee." Kerouac wanted to be a romantic hero—whether Lamont Cranston (The Shadow) or Neal Cassady didn't seem to make much of a difference. But finally,… Kerouac must be seen not as a romantic hero but as a frightened, vain and frequently unhappy man. He may have been "King of the Beats," but by the mid-60's he had estranged himself from that generation as well as from most of his friends….
There is a quality of joylessness about Kerouac and his work that goes quite contrary to the legend he tried to create about himself: there is little in Kerouac's work that corresponds to the free-wheeling, hard-drinking, sexual demon of the legend.
Jack Salzman, "End of the Road," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), April 8, 1973, p. 3.