Kerouac, Jack 1922–1969
Kerouac was an American novelist and poet. Along with Ginsberg, Burroughs, and others, he was also an original member of the group which, in the middle 1940s, became the Beat movement. Kerouac's own work was an effort to "invent a new prose," specifically American, which was to reflect in its spontaneity and formlessness the vastness and beauty of this country. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 25-28.)
Jack Kerouac's Visions of Cody is at once an epitaph and a rhapsodic celebration of the American beat world of the late 1940s and early 1950s. A long, voracious and uneven novel, it is an important addition to his published work, though for any but the initiate or aspiring novice it is a book to be left well alone, or blasted through at a single sitting. Never previously published in its entirety, it has been known only as an underground legend. Kerouac wrote the novel between 1951 and 1952, immediately before On the Road, which itself waited five years before its publication in 1957.
Both books deal with the same hero and the same period. Cody Pomeray is Neal Cassady of On the Road, but whereas the later book is a fairly straightforward example of the American picaresque, Visions of Cody is a much more ambitious, much more revealing, and probably a much more honest book. Certainly it makes the symbiotic relationship between the narrator, Jack Duluoz, and the beat hipster, Cody, a good deal clearer. Kerouac's admiration for the restless energy and raw egocentricity of Cody is at root that of the American college dropout's respect for the real thing….
Cody, son of a Denver drunk, brought up homeless and motherless during the Depression years,… and living as a youth among society's misfits and outcasts, was disposessed from birth….
That Cody, born into this world, should be able to act at all is what Kerouac celebrates. The will to fulfill the self through sex, pot, peyote, jazz, and a total acceptance of the moment, are not for Cody, as they are for Duluoz, part of a gesture, a rejection the American dream turned sour….
Kerouac, the compulsive recorder of his chosen world, calls the book his "record of joy", but time is the enemy of the arch-Romantic. "Whenever I realize I'm going to die, I no longer can understand the meaning of life." Movement, however frenetic, leads only to death. "All you do is head straight for the grave, a face just covers a skull awhile. Stretch that skull-cover and smile." The split between Kerouac's twin roles as celebrant and elegist is never resolved. Ever contradictory, he is at one moment full of love and tenderness, and the next adopting the stance of the quintessential American male chauvinist…. Yet the novel is repeatedly shot through with the pathos of Kerouac's desperation, and marked by moments of self-recognition….
Self-indulgent? Yes. But not pompous or self-regarding. Kerouac's naivety, his unawareness of his own charisma, are virtues…. Kerouac was no prophet; he was a suffering, self-destroying talent, desperately attempting to encompass his experience, his America, by recording its losses and its ecstasies, an heir of Whitman without his genius.
"Hobo Concerto," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers, Ltd., 1973; reproduced by permission), November 2, 1973, p. 1333.
The best that can be said of Jack Kerouac's posthumous Visions of Cody … is that it contains some very fine writing and gives as convincing and detailed a portrait of a complete love-friendship between two men as we have in American literature. Unfortunately, the perhaps seventy-five pages of fine writing makes up less than a fifth of the book; a painful amount of the rest is taken up by tape transcriptions of drunken conversations between Kerouac and Cody…. Moreover, Kerouac and his admirers thought that Kerouac was Huck Finn—boyish, compassionate, fleeing big bad society armed only with his charm and his zest for life, sweetly sad that others could not be as naturally good as he. And it is true that the best passages of Visions of Cody could have been written by a Huck Finn jaded into the twentieth century. There are tenderly passionate character sketches of persons seen only fleetingly, prose denunciations of the worst aspects of American Life, the insights that became the clichés of the protest movements of the sixties. But mostly, what emerges is a portrait of a couple of latter-day Tom Sawyers—con artists oblivious to the hurt they inflict on others, inflating their own egos and deflating others, chortling over their own cuteness, crying over self-inflicted wounds, constantly reopening the wounds that were not self-inflicted. Despite the impression Kerouac tries to give—that the beats were beaten by modern American middle-class establishment philistine bourgeois materialism—we see Kerouac and Cody beaten by their arrogance, by their pretensions to wisdom when they lack even elementary common sense. (pp. 88-9)
Lee T. Lemon, in Prairie Schooner (© 1974 by University of Nebraska Press; reprinted by permission from Prairie Schooner), Spring, 1974.
[Although] many readers of On The Road have thought it a modern version of the picaresque, its structure is formidably complex. Here is no loose scribbling of notes whose only organization is geographical and chronological, but a delicately constructed account of the relation between the narrator, Sal Paradise, and his friend, Dean Moriarty—an account built according to a classic dramatic design. On The Road is a love story, not a travelog (and certainly not a call to Revolution). It is told with all the "art"—the conscious and unconscious shaping of verbal materials—one expects from the best writing. Kerouac may legitimately be, even on the basis of On The Road alone, a great American author—an author the equal of Mailer himself. (pp. 200-01)
The book begins with the narrator's construction of distinctions and boundaries; it ends with his discarding them—a discarding which indicates his desire to suspend opposites in a perhaps continuous state of flux. The book moves from hierarchy to openness, from the limitation of possibilities to their expansion. (p. 201)
One of Kerouac's accomplishments in On The Road is in fact to unify the open ending (in which all points of view in the novel are combined without being resolved) with a time-honored novelistic and dramaturgic structure. (p. 202)
George Dardess, "The Delicate Dynamics of Friendship: A Reconsideration of Kerouac's 'On The Road'," in American Literature (reprinted by permission of the Publisher; copyright 1974 by Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina), May, 1974, pp. 200-06.
Though [Kerouac's] writing seems loose and colloquial, careless, written on the run, its influence—and the influence of his personality imprinted in it—entered the stream of American life and literature and rushed it to unexplored possibilities. The Kerouac "charisma," as Seymour Krim called it, affected individual writers like Norman Mailer and helped mobilize literary movements like the San Francisco Renaissance. More pervasively, his charisma reached out to a wide and dispersed group of adorers who pursued him years after his immediate fame had dimmed. To them he was the legend he imagined himself: their fantasies and his coalesced…. The constant confusion inherent in his wild cross-country circuits—futile except for their ultimate conversion into fiction—his depression, dependence, and self-destruction reached pathological intensity. That he became a legend in this time tells us that his pathologies were not private. They had, and continue to have, cultural relevance: they are part of a shared vision; and what must disturb us in that vision are the political implications of an exemplary life that seemed rebellious and exhilarating, and ended in inanition. (pp. 415-16)
What about him inspired a generation of followers to idealize him as a rebel of social and political meaning? Was it because he told how he did not like the "mean old cops" he encountered on the road? Or that he did not like suburban houses and TV sets—though proud of having bought both for his mother? Was it because he liked Krazy Kat, hiding in an alley with a brick for the cop? But that, patently, is childish social criticism. When infrequently he faced political problems straight on, he resolved them by simple and sudden intuitions that "everything would be all right." It just would. (p. 416)
Political commitment assumes the possibility of power, and through power, of change. Kerouac lived with a profoundly defeated sense of helplessness, reflected in his prolonged, or rather his unending, adolescence. He had an appalled vision of life as empty, meaningless, and futile. His readers saw him as a modern Whitman affirming life and beckoning them to its open roads. But his obverse side was nihilistic, and his refrain that of Beckett—born to die. In a late book, Vanity of Duluoz, he gave his testament to the young, a message from Ecclesiastes: "No 'generation' is 'new.' There's 'nothing new under the sun.' 'All is vanity.'" From his very first book, The Town and the City, with its image of a dying fish hooked and suffering, he sought metaphysical support for his personal sense of helplessness. He believed we were all victims, born victimized by "metaphysical causes," as he called them in Vanity of Duluoz—yet simple and obvious causes: that we were born to die. Believing this, he was relieved of social responsibility and could justify his "apoliticalness"; since the causes of suffering were beyond help, there was nothing anyone could or need do…. He valued energy, went after "the wild ones," as he said in a famous passage in On the Road; he gambled on his energy and won for a while—and then lost. He died at the age of forty-six. His life raises troublesome questions about the fate of energy in America and of art committed to energy. Like Jackson Pollock, with whom I find many affinities, he tried by sheer energy to vitalize his art, to force life and art into union…. Kerouac attempted an impossible coalescence of life and writings, and he did as well as anyone. That, I think, is his appeal, that his books, even the weary ones like Tristessa, reach us immediately, sometimes confuse and even alienate us, but always immediately, as if the person in his complexities and his childishness were there. This effect of immediacy comes in part, I believe, very strangely from the sense of helplessness the books convey. They start usually at the end of his story, when he stands depleted by the experience he is about to recount. Life and fiction merge, and he is trapped, moving in a circle from the experience he pursued in order to have something to write about, which having been captured, leaves him with nothing except something to write about. And there he is before us, writing. (pp. 417-18)
Kerouac believed in a mimetic art. He sought a language and a form to give shape to "shapeless experience," experience as he found, made, and conceived it. But I believe that shapelessness is an illusion he created through a discernible and definable form he gave his novels. (p. 419)
Regressive, narcissistic, dependent, and neurotically hostile towards those upon whom he depended, Kerouac has, nevertheless, the power to possess us still as once he possessed his generation. We share with him a sense of loss; and day by day nowadays, that loss becomes sharper and more poignant as the dream of America recedes like his dream of innocence. When energized, he vitalized us by his romantic vision of movement, experience, ecstasy, and transcendence. When tired and worn out, as often he was, he tells us the romantic dream is delusive, and the open road, "a nightmare place." Like Beckett, a much greater writer, with whom he shares a vision of nihilistic despair, he found himself gripped by the compulsion to write; and through his books, as through Beckett's, the human voice persists and reaches us: that is [one] secret of the immediacy of his art. In her biography [Kerouac: A Biography], Ann Charters reminds us to listen to this voice, for it spoke of American dreams hopes, and defeats. Through his voice, going on incessantly from one autobiographical novel after another, Kerouac established his style. That style has both energized and depleted us—and disturbed a generation. We, too, suffer its disturbance. That is why we must look at it … deeply …—to see how in the past it possessed us as an adolescent dream, and how in the future we can move beyond it to responsible maturity while possessing still its vision of freedom. (pp. 421-22)
Blanche H. Gelfant, "Jack Kerouac," in Contemporary Literature (© 1974 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System), Vol. 15, No. 3, Summer, 1974, pp. 415-22.
[Although] the continuing communal stream … did largely spring from the fountainhead of [Kerouac's] "spontaneous bop prosody" sagas, his real-life sentences were penned in solitary, born of suffering, alienation, and an idealism as genuine as that of his beloved Thomas Wolfe. He rejoiced in the writing, like anyone who sweats to join others together, but he harked back constantly to the theme of modern man in search of a soul—articulating the common loneliness hitherto more often celebrated in American folksong and spirituals, and in the cry of jazz and blues.
Coleridge distinguishes between Mechanic, and Organic "Form as Proceeding"; Kerouac's forms are of the latter kind, emanating directly from his personal experience with a strong oral bias and phenomenal recall….
[In her biography, Kerouac, Ann Charters] confirms that The Subterraneans, which I've always taken to be his most honest and revealing testament, writ in three nights, to chronicle his tempestuous affair with a black girl for whom he eventually proved too soft, "was closest in its desperateness and vulnerability to the way Kerouac actually lived." For all his anti-intellectualism he was pretty badly stuck in the impotent grooves of the 'white negro'; and yet his real love of the dark sun of America comes across, paradoxically, as effective literature—which has since catalysed diverse upheavals for the better, in observation that was typical and accurate for all that it was vastly sentimental….
It's not as a mystic or prophet or spokesman that I value him …, but as a compulsive writer who insisted on laying down his vision of reality, bleak as well as exultant; beatific in squalor, he uniquely held his mirror to the nature he saw and knew. With Dylan Thomas before him, Bob Dylan unsuspected ahead, Kerouac was essentially a word-magician and a bard: but … being constitutionally incapable of either running with the radical commitments of his immediate poetic peers, or staying within the limits of even the newest open verse forms, he kissed the leper of prose—and cured it! His purity is what was unique. Insofar as he projects himself, it's hardly the spectacle of a man attaining wisdom, but rather all the awkward complexity of a weak and puritanical/average-sensual seeker after truth, declaring his quest with a kind concern and compassion for the people he encounters on it—not forgetting the reader; hence presaging the renaissance of authentic human communion looked for by that other late-lamented jazz-poet, Kenneth Patchen: "Men were made to talk to one another…. The writing of the future will be just this kind of writing—one man trying to tell another man of the events in his own heart." And hung-up though he was on his 'legend,' Kerouac was saved by a fine excess of inspirational energy from wasting his words to polish a monument, carve an acceptable image or jostle with literati for reputation. His heroism was not in the 'holy goof' who sadly, in the closing chapter of his life, seemed to degenerate into almost a caricature of rednecked lush-hood: it lay, even then, in sticking to his last: whatever happened (and a helluva lot did, in his forty-six short years) "bringing it all back home," from travels and travails to notebook and typewriter, 'artificial aids' notwithstanding.
Michael Horowitz, "Those Were the Daze," in The Spectator (© 1974 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), August 10, 1974, p. 181.
Jack Kerouac is … mawkish enough for a whole literature and Maggie Cassidy … is a book fatally flawed by Kerouac's single-minded devotion to his own passions. He employs that familiarly incantatory prose which has won the hearts of Eng. Lit. students everywhere, and in this story of awakening adolescence it summons up squads of emotion with code-words like "tragic," "brooding," "sad," "alone," "incredibly" to much the same purpose and with much the same effect as Pepsi glamourise their Cola.
It was a prose which worked magnificently in The Town and The City, a first novel which showed the depths to which Kerouac could aspire as a romantic novelist, but in Maggie Cassidy it is a weaker and looser thing, becoming so loose, in fact, that it connects with no 'reality' other than the wayward burst of Kerouac's sentiment. It is quite in character that the novel should be dominated by Kerouac's ulterior ego, a snivelling French Canadian known somewhat archly as Jacky Duluoz, and the narrative is much concerned with his secret passions, his sporting prowess, his first love and his delayed maturity. The titular heroine hardly gets mentioned, and becomes yet another sacrificial victim to Kerouac's pathetic and abandoned sense of chronology.
Maggie Cassidy is indeed a pallid book, casting post-impressions like dried petals and capitalising hugely on the universal and sympathetic attractiveness of 'first love'. Every event and every character is mediated through Kerouac's reverent but gaseous memory and the narrative is interesting only if you happen to find Kerouac interesting. When he forgets about his own emotions, the prose reverts to that low and monotonous hum which is characteristic of generators waiting to be utilised. His occasional genius lies only in expressing the most conventional emotions and the most conventional impressions with an exuberance that makes them apparently his own, but they remain stubbornly unoriginal for all that. The depths of this book's [particular] solipsism can be measured in the fact that large areas of dialogue are altogether pointless and unreal. The book falls apart into a number of fine and memorable phrases which I have, unfortunately, already forgotten. (pp. 246-47)
Peter Ackroyd, in The Spectator (© 1974 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), August 24, 1974.
When Jack Kerouac died was it that we felt it was the end of an era or we felt we ought to feel it was the end of an era the day that Jack Kerouac died?… It's like the end of an era, we said and we had to mark it, like lighting bonfires on the year's shortest day to warm the world back to life, to stop it going any further into cold and darkness. What's kerouac? the uni students said when I talked about getting a room for free to hold the wake. We'd had readings against the war and readings against censorship, now we would have readings for seasons of the year, a reading for kerouac, or the winter solstice. (p. 65)
What's kerouac? Kerouac is a registered code name, like Kodak® or Coca-cola®. It is a magic incantation. It represents the out, the other, the away…. I'm reading On the Road … and lying in bed … holding my kerouac, that's what it is, a talisman. (pp. 65-6)
Michael Wilding, "Bye Bye Jack. See You Soon," in Stand (copyright © by Stand), Vol. 16, No. 2, 1975, pp. 65-6.