Kerouac, Jack 1922–1969
An American Beat novelist, Kerouac advocated a method of spontaneous writing allegedly derived from James Joyce. Kerouac was also a student of Zen. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 25-28.)
Such Zen as Kerouac picked up makes him realize, it seems, the cosmic importance of the primal elements of life: not food, clothing, shelter, sex (here [in The Dharma Bums] Kerouac's alter ego Ray Smith is less trammelled than the Zen saint, Japhy) … but a melodious phrase, a woodland bird, a rock formation, a mountain silence. Call him anti-social, infantilely regressive, a lily of the field, a sluggard grasshopper … Kerouac, with his Thoreau and Whitman genes tingling in his protoplasm, brings back in transfigured form the very thing he is taught to adjure, the very thing conventional writers have exploited beyond measure: the world of physical sensation, of touchable and seeable matter. A tree, a rock, a cloud … as Carson McCullers once indicated in a short story … these be the things. And Kerouac enfleshes the words.
Why, then, do they persecute Kerouac, these critics? Children will be children, but will not leaders come from children? They persecute Kerouac because his fictional characters do not attend Sunday School and because his stories do not have a beginning, a middle, and an end….
One presumes that the heaven set against this kind of "limbo" is the kingdom of taste, of tone, of proper form adumbrated on earth by Henry James and guarded carefully by a Petrine censor ancestor alike of the neo-Victorian moralists and the "How to Write Better" school of Rudolf Flesch. In such a resting place, free livers daring to indulge in sloth or easy virtue will suffer didactically for it, however late, and no prose will be spontaneous. Nor will birds sing.
But let us concede, for argument's sake, Kerouac to have the virtue of his defects. Do his stories, particularly The Dharma Bums, bear re-reading, when Whitman and Thoreau are available in expensive reprints? Will he endure, or may even the interdiction of his inquisitors not be strong enough to preserve him? For the present, it seems as if they do and he will. There is always the chance that a greater one will arise, however, and hymn the Open Road, the Zen way, the offbeat reply to modern decadence more melodiously, more maturely, more stalwartly, more morally, more achitectonically.
Samuel I. Bellman, "On the Mountain," in Chicago Review, Winter-Spring, 1959, pp. 68-72.
Just as Fenimore Cooper seemed unable to stop defining and thereby explaining his forest hero, Natty Bumppo (called, in various novels, Leatherstocking, Deerslayer, Hawkeye, Long Rifle, etc.), Kerouac seems equally determined to define the sensibility of the members of his own subgeneration in as many ways as he possibly can. We knew them under such guises as the Beat Generation, the Subterraneans, the Dharma Bums; and now we see them as Desolation Angels, sadly pursuing their empty futilities, grimacing with unfelt cheerfulness as they move from self-defeat to self-defeat….
Desolation Angels also explains perhaps better than the other Kerouac novels what the place of religion may have been in the Beat mystique. The "upside down" vision of the sometimes-Buddhist narrator, whose greatest hero is Jesus, demands our close attention while it also gives us sharp insights into the classic Salinger tales. The Beat theme of insanity is explored at length too, and one can only conclude that Kerouac, for all his little-boy attitudes and repetitiousness, has a great deal to say about the time when he and his cohorts should have been coming of age.
Samuel I. Bellman, "A Fevered Snowflake," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1965 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), June 12, 1965, p. 47.
In so many ways there is something essentially American about Kerouac's writing; his restless energies could never settle for a final form, and each of his novels demonstrates an eager variety in their differences from each other, and from conventional expectations of what the novel should be like. His voice, too, seemed representative of an endemic colloquialism in the American character: to listen to the recordings of Kerouac reading his poems is to attend to a purely natural inflection completely without literary affectation. Kerouac heard with raw ears (as Ginsberg said of William Carlos Williams) and fulfilled the romantic imperative of a language fashioned out of ordinary speech. But the demotic was only one of Kerouac's many voices. As John Clellon Holmes has asserted, Kerouac was gifted with an extraordinary range, almost responding stylistically to his own awe at the physical dimensions of his country, as his own exuberant bravado and gloomy sloughs were expressed in his great playfulness with words, his getting high with language as cascading rhythms resolved into Joycean sound games, or the baroque intricacies of Dr. Sax….
Visions Of Cody … is Kerouac's most literary composition, full of the formal play with fictional dimension that most of his work rather blatantly excludes. Visions Of Cody is an exultation of Kerouac's best long-line sequences, passages combining the density of poetry with the compressed intensity of haiku, including at least two of his Scattered Poems run as prose. Digressively crowding impressions, anecdotes, tall-tales and cons, Kerouac's line approaches his own ideal of the jazz saxophonist, pursuing the ineluctable ultimate note, always furthering his sound with another association, always reaching and extending an oceanic continuum, secretly knowing that to cease is to die. A Shandyean profusion is compounded by a variety of means to enrich the texture: drawings and letters, imitations of Tom Sawyer and Bloom's trial in Ulysses, superbly rendered discontinuities and drug fantasies. The book becomes a realization of Kerouac's most apt mode—a kind of diary notation in which distinctions between fact and fancy, prose and poetry are deliberately blurred for the sake of imaginative recall….
Jack Kerouac is right now our most misunderstood and underestimated writer. Like Henry Miller he was uninterested in the ideal of "literary" perfection or in the orderly fiction of his time, believing that even seemingly immutable tastes could change. His writing was always excessive, disorderly, and unbalanced because he responded to entirely different imaginative priorities than most writers of his time, not because he was unable to compose in the conventional mode of his first novel, The Town and the City. His attitudes were often raw and impulsive, as partial and erratic as his view of women was deplorable. Yet he seemed in touch with certain hidden vitalities of the future, verities beyond the ken of the middle class, like his warm response to black Americans that Eldridge Cleaver found so remarkable in Soul On Ice, or his involvement with the Buddhist notions that figure so significantly in his work.
John Tytell, "Revisions of Kerouac," in Partisan Review (copyright © 1973 by Partisan Review, Inc.), Vol. XL, No. 2, 1973, pp. 301-05.
In a posthumous novel [Visions of Cody] filled with pages of close-set narration, and dialogues that are merely more colorless narration disguised as conversation, Mr. Kerouac has possibly earned for himself a glory in heaven denied him on earth. His book can be called a novel by courtesy, but in any case it cannot be read without risking torpor and absolute lassitude.
Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 49, No. 2 (Spring, 1973), p. lvi-lvii.
Kerouac's hero [in The Dharma Bums] is not merely personal history: the wandering hipster finding meditation is like the heroes of classical myth and fairy-tale, for Ray Smith is also a journeying everyman, whose awakening derives not only from intense sensual and personal experience, but from the endless adventure of living and becoming that is both a journey overground and a search within…. In portraying the hero's journey as an initiatory adventure that leads to Dharma, to meditation and self-in-sight, Kerouac has given archetypal form to his own spontaneous recollections of thought and feeling that he talked into shape and then wrote down with a burst of energy. Although the Kerouac novel glows with the spontaneous flow of thought and phrase that critics have both praised and ridiculed, the classical structure of The Dharma Bums is integral to both style and meaning.
Writing in a post-war world where social and political authority had become deficient and even despised, Kerouac designed The Dharma Bums as both rebellion against the immediate past and a search for something personal and positive….
Although Kerouac's writing has varied from his "highly experimental speedwriting of Railroad Earth to the ingrown toenail packed mystical style of Tristessa" and the "confessional madness" of The Subterraneans, he soon found that writing slowly with much rehashing and endless deleting only destroyed the "rhythmic thought impact."…
Kerouac's style is more than speed and spontaneity; before the confessional outburst, considerable preparation has taken place. He did not just sit down and write. First, he lined up the story and tried to see the total piece as clearly as he could without words. Then, he continues to explain [in The Paris Review, 11 (Summer, 1968)]: "You think out what actually happened, you tell friends long stories about it, you mull it over in your mind, you connect it together at leisure, then when the time comes to pay the rent again you force yourself to sit at the typewriter, or at the writing notebook."…
The hero's journey East [in The Dharma Bums] may itself be symbolic of Beat thinking, for it reverses the pattern of Westward movement that has characterized the progress of materialistic America. Smith's Christmas pilgrimage to see his mother is clearly a retreat into a winter of meditation that resembles many a retreat in religion and fairy tale and myth….
Although fictional, The Dharma Bums is largely autobiographical….
Like Kerouac, Smith is more than mere bum. He is the descendant of a type, a kind of intellectual hobo, the "Homeless Brother," whose dreams of "freedom and the hills of holy silence and holy privacy" have formed a goodly part of man's intellectual and literary history and have forever fed his impulses and desires for freedom….
Members of the Beat Movement are not the first to have resisted established ways and customs. Those rebellious spirits in other revolutionary movements—the Puritan, the Enlightenment, the Romantic and Transcendental, the Pre-Raphaelite, the Realists, the Imagists—had scorned old solutions in their search for styles and ways that were more common, simple, and natural to man. Likewise, the Beat Generation not only rejected the established order, but in turning to a more distant past, sought values that were radical and primitive. As John Clellon Holmes has pointed out [in The Philosophy of the Beat Generation], the Beats returned "to an older more personal, but no less rigorous code of ethics, which includes the inviolability of comradeship, the respect for confidences, and an almost mystical regard for courage—all of which are the ethics of the tribe, rather than the community."
Kerouac's rebellion and his turn to meditation make The Dharma Bums a confessional that is both personal and universal. His concern for man's Ego is a pilgrimage that follows the pattern of the great journeys and self-explorations in the literature of rebellion: of Odysseus, of Don Quixote, of Christian, Rasselas, Huckleberry Finn, Nick Adams; of Wordsworth, Whitman, Wilde, and Joyce. For all the spontaneous flow of feeling, Kerouac has in The Dharma Bums shaped his experience into a classical and universal mold.
John E. Hart, "Future Hero in Paradise: Kerouac's The Dharma Bums," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XIV, No. 3, 1973, pp. 52-62.
Nothing has been published about Jack Kerouac for seven years. Most of what has been written is either hostile or condescending or both. [But] … Kerouac has, as [Melville, Twain, and Hawthorne] have, provided an enduring portrait of the national psyche; like Fitzgerald, he has defined America and delineated American life for his generation. Certainly, Kerouac is not a great writer, but he is a good writer, and has more depth and control than his critics allow. On the Road is more than a "crazy wild frantic" embrace of beat life; implicit in Kerouac's portrayal of the beat generation is his criticism of it, a criticism that anticipates the charges of his most hostile critics….
In that novel Kerouac makes it clear that Sal Paradise goes on the road to escape from life rather than to find it, that he runs from the intimacy and responsibility of more demanding human relationships, and from a more demanding human relationship with himself. With all their emphasis on spontaneity and instinct, Sal and his friends are afraid of feeling on any other than the impassive and ultimately impersonal "wow" level. For Sal especially, emotion is reduced to sentimentality, role-playing and gesture. His responses are most often the blanket, indiscriminate "wow!" or the second-hand raptures gleaned from books and movies….
Kerouac's characters take to the road not to find life but to leave it all behind: emotion, maturity, change, decision, purpose, and, especially, in the best American tradition, responsibility; wives, children, mistresses, all end up strewn along the highway like broken glass. Sal refuses responsibility not only for the lives of others but for his own life as well. He does not want to own his life or direct his destiny, but prefers to live passively, to be driven in cars, to entertain sensations rather than emotions….
Sal and his friends are not seeking or celebrating self, but are rather fleeing from identity. For all their solipsism, they are almost egoless. They do not dwell on the self, avoid thinking or feeling. They run from self-definition, for to admit the complex existence of the self is to admit its contingencies: the claims of others, commitments to society, to oneself. Solipsism rather than an enhancement of self is for them a loss of self, for the self is projected until it loses all boundaries and limits and, hence, all definition….
[For] all their exuberance, Kerouac's characters are half in love with easeful death. And this Sal Paradise and his creator well know. Neither is deceived about the nature of beat existence….
Kerouac further points out that the shortcomings of his characters parallel the shortcomings of the country to which they are so intimately connected. Kerouac's response to America is typically disillusioned. America is a land of corruption and hypocrisy, promising everything and delivering nothing, living off the innocence and opportunity, the excitement and adventure of the past. In particular Kerouac indicts America for failing to provide his searching characters with any public meaning or communal values to counteract the emptiness of their private lives….
Kerouac equips his narrator with a double vision, enabling Sal to comment on the people and events of the novel as he saw them when they happened, and as he views them now that they are over, a sadder-but-wiser hindsight which acts as a check upon his naive, undiscriminating exuberances and provides a disillusioned alternative view of the beatifics of the beat generation….
Sal's double vision does more than correct his impulses. It projects the reader forward in time and provides the sense of continuity the disjunctive characters, including the younger Sal, lack. This older voice offers relations and connections, causes and effects, connects past with present and projects into the future. It firmly anchors reader and narrator to the familiar world of change and conjunction. It knows the discrepancy between appearance and reality and realizes sadly that Time eventually captures even frantically speeding children….
On the Road ends with a rejection of beat life. Sal turns his back on Dean and the life of "bursting ecstasies" and frantic traveling, for he knows now that it, too, is meaningless,… that it is, ultimately, the way of Death. Sal himself must opt for life, and for growth….
In a sense, Sal's growth as an adult can be measured through his responses to Dean and in the changing aspects of their relationship. Sal moves from idolatry to pity, from a breathless, childlike worship of Dean as alternately Saint and Father, to a realization of Dean's own tortured humanity, marked by Sal's attempt to be brother, then Father, to his friend, sensitive to Dean's needs without melodrama, facing responsibility and decision, allowing himself to feel blame and love, yet, eventually, for the sake of his own soul, rejecting, deliberately and sadly, his lost, perpetually circling friend….
Sal's relationship with Dean has served as an apprenticeship during which he has learned how to accommodate to intimacy, as his disillusionment with America has prepared him to look beyond the road for salvation and paradise. Neither America nor Dean can successfully order his life, provide him with direction or meaning. Neither can father him; ultimately, he must father himself, must look inward for purpose and belief….
On the Road ends with an elegy for a lost America, for the country which once might have been the father of us all, but now is only "the land where they let children cry." Dean Moriarty is himself America, or rather the dream of America, once innocent, young, full of promise and holiness, bursting with potential and vitality, now driven mad, crippled, impotent ("We're all losing our fingers"), ragged, dirty, lost, searching for a past of security and love that never existed, trailing frenzy and broken promises, unable to speak to anybody anymore.
Carole Gottlieb Vopat, "Jack Kerouac's On the Road: A Re-evaluation," in Midwest Quarterly, Summer, 1973, pp. 385-407.
Jack Kerouac, who was at first mercilessly puffed and then mercilessly denigrated, is probably one of those writers whose real virtues have little to do with the common preconceptions about them, and are best understood by a reading of their entire body of work. This is a daunting task to recommend, no doubt, since Kerouac published 13 novels, as well as two books of poetry, a meditation on Buddhist scriptures, two autobiographical travel books and a film script. Most of these appeared soon after the great success of On the Road, during and following the wave of publicity about the Beat Generation, and were critically savaged; it was a striking case of a writer's ruin at the hands of his various publishers, who wished to cash in on the interest in the Beats, and rushed out books they had been sitting on for years…. Visions of Cody, his own favourite among his novels, gives an opportunity to sample the tenderness, richness and vibrancy of his best writing, and to appreciate his haunted, doom-laden feeling for his own country. It is certainly his most ambitious novel.
This said, it must be quickly added that much of Visions of Cody is disastrous: it's also the least disciplined of his novels, the most indulgent, the one with the longest stretches of wordy tedium. The practice Kerouac called 'sketching', a kind of free spontaneous improvising, first employed in the writing of Visions of Cody, meant that any thought or memory, any digression that came to mind, had to be incorporated into Kerouac's memorial to his friend Neal Cassady, who is Cody and who had also been the model for the central figure of On the Road. Kerouac saw Cassady as a new type of the archetypal American—cowboy, criminal, wanderer, father, (inevitably) saint, a fiercely energetic 'superhuman spirit walking'—just as he saw 'sketching' as his breakaway from the confinements of traditional prose narrative; but while many of the close descriptions of Cody and his settings are both beautiful and poignant, the book reads like a journal for a novel to be published three years hence. Yet it must be one of the most deeply felt odes to male friendship in American literature, and it demonstrates that Kerouac undeniably possessed the resources of a deeply significant writer.
Peter Straub, in New Statesman, November 23, 1973, p. 782.