Kerouac, Jack 1922–1969
Kerouac was an American novelist and poet. Along with Ginsberg, Burroughs, and others, he was 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 CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 25-28.)
With each passing book Jack Kerouac begins to come down to earth a little more, to reveal what he's made of and allow for some practical judgments. There has been such a gossip campaign about our so-called wild man, the King of the Beats, that ordinarily serious literary people have come to assume a fighting stance (either for or against) that has little to do with Kerouac's actual performance….
[Ray Smith in The Dharma Bums] adds mountain-climbing and meditation to the typical Kerouacian staple of batting madly around the country. In a sense, this book is gentler and less pretentious than both On the Road and The Subterraneans; Kerouac-Smith is in a more thoughtful and introspective mood than previously, and spends much time by himself digging the beauties and possibilities of nature. A genuine pastoral charm can be found in the Bums, and it is quite refreshing until it becomes overdone. But although this new facet of Kerouac's sensitivity has been seized upon by some conventional critics who couldn't see what all the fuss was about before, Kerouac's sensuous response to nature should not be hoisted high as proof that he is a good boy after all, wholesome and bracketable. (p. 359)
The most widely quoted reviews of On The Road compared Kerouac to Thomas Wolfe as a rolling, roaring, all-American type of prose bard. As his writing … tumbles out into book form …, we can see that this original comparison was misleading. Kerouac does not have the classic verbal equipment or majesty of Wolfe at his best, and anyone who goes to his...
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Kerouac's sound starts up in his first novel, The Town and the City, and anyone who grew up with or remembers the sentimental music of the 1930s will recognize what he is doing. The New England nights and days of his childhood and youth are orchestrated with slow violins, to which sound the children whose lives he chronicles are stirred into awareness as the stars dip down and slow breezes sweep along diminishing strings towards soft music on a farther shore. It is the considerable achievement of the novel that Kerouac is able to sustain the note of profound sentimentality his style conveys even as he is tracing, with remorseless intelligence, the downfall of the New England family…. (p. 65)
The jazz is in the continuity in which each episode [in On the Road] tells a separate story—variations on the holiness theme. And it is in the remarkably flexible style as Kerouac improvises within each episode seeking to adjust his sound to the resonance of the given moment. Some moments come through tinged with the earlier Town and City sentimentality. Others rock and sock …, the sentences jerking about like muscles on an overwrought face. Still others are curiously quiescent, calm. And the melody which unifies the whole and lifts the cockeyed star up into the jazz sky is the holiness of life because this for Kerouac is the meaning of words, the inside of his sound…. To read On the Road with attention to the variations Kerouac achieves is to realize something of the very impressive talent for meshing his sound with the strongly-felt rhythms of many and various moments. It is not possible to compare him very closely with other stylists of note because his fiction is the first in which jazz is a dominant influence. (p. 69)
[The Subterraneans] is written with the driving but hungup rhythms of a hurrying man who is also, always, alas, looking back over his shoulder…. A failure of love by reason of deep fissuring guilts emerges from the depths on the rush but not exactly on the wings of Kerouac's spontaneous Bop style. As Percepied says, 'I'm the Bop writer.' As one might expect, the spontaneity falters in a good many pages. Yet I do not doubt that the method does permit Kerouac to tap his imagination in spontaneous ways. Nor do I doubt but that The Subterraneans is his most important novel and a very important one indeed. (pp. 70-1)
The easiest way to approach The Dharma Bums—the truth bums—is to imagine an exceptionally talented musician trying out a new instrument in an interested but nonetheless very tentative way. The instrument is Zen Buddhism, American fashion. The novel is full of hummed songs, muttered chants, self-conversations carried on in railroad yards, on beaches, in groves of trees, in the mountains. The half-embarrassed, half-serious mutterer is Ray Smith, Zen amateur, and the style which Kerouac floats through the novel is part of an obvious attempt to adjust the practices, the flavour, the attitudes of Zen to an American sensibility. (p. 71)
It is … significant that in the opening paragraph [of the novel] Smith travels past the place where the 'king and founder of the Bop generation', the jazzman Charlie Parker, 'went crazy and got well again'. Kerouac might be hinting at the strain of writing eleven books in six years and about the need for a temporary so-long to jazz, hello to Zen. But the hello is most tentative. To put the very best...
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[Central] to Beat writers, though little noticed, is the desperate flight from lower middle class life and its culture of anxiety. The unredeemable horrors of petit bourgeois meanness and restriction combine, as also in Céline's Death on the Installment Plan, with dissociated child fantasy, savage forbodings, and strange moments of tenderness. This characterizes most of the Beat confessions. Kerouac's lyrical-ruminative documentaries of his anxious wanderjahrs—On the Road (1958), The Dharma Bums (1959), the travel sketches not masquerading as fiction such as The Lonesome Traveller (1960) and his later imitations of his earlier work (such as Big Sur)—depend essentially on the softness of the child in flight from a petty order. This is not only the guilty-ecstatic adolescent romanticism and its poignant muddle (and its artistic correlative of the inability to realize character and scene other than in ragged detail and forced private mood—in the Thomas Wolfe manner) but the yearning for the return to innocence, both of the self and the American order. Identifying his wanderings with the quest for freedom, from that of Zen monks and American hobos through the prophetic outcasts ("Jesus was a strange hobo who walked on water"), hardly modifies the personal pathos.
Kerouac touches at moments on the existential intensity and profundity of the traditional wanderer: the defiant separateness, the sharp moral comment of a life denuded of surplus, the suspension of time by those wedded to motion, and the outcast's brilliant perceptions of most of what passes for humane order and meaning. But childishness usually takes over. On looking at the lights in the night, Kerouac comments: "I wish I was a little child in a crib in a little ranch style sweet house." In similar forlorn need, and incisive prose, he describes "kid dreams," juvenile ideas and adolescent tastes. As he notes of his "gang" of rather over-aged "boys," "We sorta wander around like children." The ideal is to return to "the happy life of childhood again." The style corresponds, with inflated and run-on sentences (perhaps an attempt to give a literally breathless heightening) and cute expletives ("comfy," "heavenly," "raving great," "glady," and the catatonic "Wow!"). The insights show similar quality, it being a great revelation of Kerouac that everybody walks around with a "dirty behind," or that most people are "crazy," or that buddies are "great," or that America is a "nutty" place. Of course there is a rather burbling charm about intensifying the commonplace, such as eating a hot dog or hungering for home. LIFE is unalterably "sad" or "fun," we are regularly told....
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Kerouac was the first writer I ever met who heard his own writing, who listened to his own sentences as if they were musical, rhythmical constructions, and who could follow the sequence of sentences that make up the paragraph as if he were listening to a little jazz riff….
[He] would model sentences on the choruses, on the particular squiggly little "dadadadadadaduhdada"—"As I was goin' walkin' down to Larimar" of "Lester Leaps In" is "dadada dadadada dadada, dadadadadadada dadada, dadadadada dada dadada, dadaadadaydyadadda." So it was a definite rhythmical squiggle that he was hearing when he was writing his prose sentences, a funny body rhythm, a breathing rhythm and a speech rhythm that he was...
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[Kerouac's novels], taken together, exemplify a change of consciousness so subversive to prevailing American values and institutions and so attractive, at least within a decade, to millions of Americans that all defenders of the Establishment felt compelled to shout them out of existence. Kerouac's novels are more readily summarized than Ginsberg's poetry or the Beats' innovations in life styles, but all three manifest a rebellion against the Establishment—the goals and habits of middle-class America…. (p. 435)
On the Road, written in 1951 concerning events of the preceding four years, superficially appears to be much as the book's cover brazenly proclaims, a "wild Odyssey of two dropouts...
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[Doctor Sax] was Kerouac's favourite book: it's easy to see why. It was much abused by the critics: it's easy to see why. Now, twenty years after its appearance in the United States, and a generation after it was written, a canonical book, this hash-brown study of the demons and angels of adolescence achieves hardback publication in Britain. For Kerouac Doctor Sax was a myth of puberty, the second chapter after Dreams of Gerard in the vast envisaged "Legend of Duluoz", the mythification of the author's life….
A literary nomad needs an origin and a promised land. Kerouac was multiply exiled: pelagic in the city the smalltown boy from Lowell, Massachusetts, where he was one of...
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