Kerouac, Jack (Vol. 29)
Jack Kerouac 1922–1969
(Born Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac) American novelist and poet.
Kerouac is best known as the key figure of the artistic and cultural phenomenon of the 1950s known as the Beat Movement. The Beat Movement, which began simultaneously in Greenwich Village and San Francisco, was a reaction against the conservatism in America during the Cold War era. Other key figures in the Beat Movement included Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Neal Cassady, and William Burroughs, all of whom were close friends of Kerouac. Kerouac coined the label "Beat" as an abbreviation of "beatific," and his best known novel, On the Road (1957), is considered the manifesto of the Beat Movement. On the Road depicts the counter-culture lifestyle of the Beats, which was marked by manic travel and experimentation with sex and drugs. While On the Road stunned the public and the literary establishment when it was first published, it is now recognized as an American classic.
Kerouac's early life had a considerable impact on his fiction. His French-Canadian parents, particularly his mother, were devout Catholics, and Kerouac suffered lifelong guilt over the contradictions between his bohemian lifestyle and his own deep-rooted belief in Catholicism. Kerouac was also psychologically scarred by the death of his older brother, who was deemed a near saint by the Kerouac family and their friends. Two of Kerouac's lesser known novels, Doctor Sax (1959) and Visions of Gerard (1963), are viewed by critics as autobiographical works in which Kerouac attempted to exorcise the fear and guilt of his childhood.
Many of the friends Kerouac made during his adult life served as the basis for the characters in his novels. Novelist William Burroughs and poet Allen Ginsberg are portrayed in On the Road as Old Bull Lee and Carlo Marx. Beat poet Gary Snyder inspired Japhy Ryder, the main character in one of Kerouac's better-known novels, The Dharma Bums (1958). But undoubtedly the single most influential personality in Kerouac's circle of friends, and the main character in both On the Road and Visions of Cody (1972), was Neal Cassady. Kerouac saw the energetic, charismatic Cassady as the quintessential Beat figure and the last of a vanishing breed of American Romantic heroes. The female characters in Kerouac's novels are also largely based on the women in Kerouac's life and the lives of his friends. However, women generally assume minor roles in Kerouac's fiction. They are often depicted as the "property" of the male characters, or as purchasable commodities. Tristessa (1960), a novel which has been largely dismissed by critics, is based on Kerouac's relationship with a drug-addicted prostitute in Mexico. Maggie Cassidy (1960) was inspired by Kerouac's long, ill-fated love affair with his high school sweetheart. Tristessa and Maggie Cassidy are Kerouac's only two works in which women are central figures; Kerouac's considerable ambivalence toward women is revealed in both works.
Twenty-seven years after the publication of On the Road, critics are beginning to seriously consider Kerouac's place in con-temporary American fiction. Much of the sensationalism and subjectivity which marked early Kerouac criticism is gone. What has replaced it is traditional, scholarly critical effort. Some recent critical studies show considerable interest in Kerouac's "spontaneous prose" method, which is a variation of the "stream of consciousness" technique utilized by James Joyce. There have also been critical attempts to compare On the Road thematically with such American classics as Huckleberry Finn and The Great Gatsby. And because of his flamboyant and tragic life and career, Kerouac has been the subject of several recent critical biographies. The past speculation of whether Kerouac would merit a permanent place in contemporary American fiction has ended; he is now widely recognized, if begrudgingly by some, as an important contributor to American literature.
(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 5, 14; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed., Vols. 25-28, rev. ed. [obituary]; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 2, 16; and Dictionary of Literary Biography Documentary Series, Vol. 3.)
Robert A. Hipkiss
The father and mother images in Kerouac indicate a strong fear of the masculine world and a concomitant Oedipal tie to the mother. This repulsion-attraction syndrome has much to do with Kerouac's lifelong preservation of the child's innocent vision as a stay against the sophisticated adult world.
In the 1950s Kerouac was haunted by a recurrent dream of a shrouded stranger tracking him through streets and across the desert. In his Book of Dreams he recounts a dream in which "my Shroud approaches—I know he'll get me … but being a kid I have great potentiality and all the world yet and left to hide in and cover with tracks—Shall I go towards the mysterious old Chalifoux woods beyond where woodstumps I was born in redmorning valleys of life hope?—or sneak back snaky into town?" The Shroud will get him. But before that fatal end, the child in the dream has time to realize the hopes of his birth. The problem is how to do so. He is torn between retreat toward birth and going onward into a corrupt adult existence (sneaking back, snaky, into town). High on marijuana and preoccupied with Buddhist thought, Kerouac had another dream in which his father comes toward him, and in this dream the father is the "Shroudy Traveller." (p. 15)
Kerouac wrote The Town and the City in the following two years, in part to atone for the wayward behavior of his youth and the disappointments he had caused his father...
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More than fifteen years after its publication, On the Road still has a large and growing audience. For many, it was the book that most motivated dissatisfaction with the atmosphere of unquestioning acceptance that stifled the fifties; remarkably, despite the passage of time and its relative unpopularity among older university instructors, its audience grows, and young people especially gravitate to a force in it that seems to be propelled by the material itself, almost as if its author did not exist as an outside agency of creation.
On the Road was unprecedented both formally and thematically, but most of all in depicting an underground subculture that departed entirely from the dominant middle-class mores of the fifties, and instead offered as an ideal the sense of release and joy experienced by the less materially privileged segments of the society. Part of the genius of Kerouac's art was his ability to record the emerging values of his age without obtrusive commentary or overt judgments. (p. 419)
On the Road was much more general in scope [than The Town and the City], a record of a new kind of existence in postwar America, a novel whose atmosphere suggested the new cultural forces destined to further erode the loyalties to place and family that Kerouac had shown disintegrating in his earlier book. The new hedonism with its contagious excitement, its unmannered recklessness, its...
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In spite of its reputation, On the Road is best understood as a skillfully managed traditional novel. Both the manuscript history and the text itself make it clear that Kerouac's most famous book is a good deal more challenging and intricate, if less innovative, than has been generally believed. Even though the particular version that led to On the Road as published was drafted in about three weeks of typing onto a continuous roll of paper, at that point Kerouac had been working on versions of the book for two and a half years…. (p. 1)
Kerouac's later claims that he did not revise are not accurate reflections of his practice or even his theory. He revised carefully both On the Road and most of the novels that followed it…. [In a letter to Allen Ginsberg in May, 1952, Kerouac] first insists that he will not allow anyone to edit the book and then talks about how hard he has been laboring with his revisions of the book. It is clear from this letter that what Kerouac opposes is having others cut material out of his manuscript. He is not opposed to craft with language. Even Kerouac's "Essentials of Spontaneous Prose,"… a primary source for the notion that Kerouac refused to revise, indicates that his primary concern was that the conscious critical mind might censor the richness of the imagination. (p. 2)
On the Road's traditional nature is also suggested by its relationship to Visions...
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Sal Paradise, the narrator of Jack Kerouac's On the Road (1957), sees the book's central character, Dean Moriarty, as a hero in a variety of American styles—the spirit of the West, the energetic mover and doer, the cowboy, the Whitman-like enthusiast, "that mad Ahab at the wheel" compelling others at hissing, incredible speeds across the country. But the subsuming model for the Cassady legend is of the American hero as a confidence man…. (p. 266)
In Sal's usage, "con-man" is a phrase of admiration—"the holy con-man with the shining mind," "a great amorous soul such as only a con-man can have"—and the novel explores the meaning and value of a confidence man in modern American life.
Sal Paradise is essential to the creation of a con man as hero, for someone has to register that radiant energy, someone has to receive and interpret it, almost like a priest. (p. 267)
On his own Sal tends to brood and his imaginative energy runs down, but each time Dean appears or sends a summoning letter—even if in the guise of a frightful Angel or the Shrouded Traveler—Sal perks up and sets off, as if Dean were a tonic for a tired soul. He instills the energy to move, to do, to dare getting off dead center, and more important, he encourages Sal to believe. (p. 267)
He and Dean share the vision of the country as an oyster for them to open, and Sal repeatedly re-enacts the promissory...
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Small Press Review
[Dear Carolyn, Letters to Carolyn Cassady] spans the decade from 1952 to 1962. The first letter, June 3, 1952, sings the praises of the cheap life in Mexico, and is loaded with amazing prices for luxuries like Filet Mignon and full of advice for Carolyn about her relationship with the man Kerouac helped make a legend…. The final letter is full of writing, his writing, Neal's writing, and laden with the disgust and discouragement that came of what he calls "being insulted by critics" and written off by his family. It contains the defiant bragadoccio with which he countered despair: "… I have written the greatest prose in America since Melville, and the greatest English prose since Joyce and William Shakespeare." In between these two samples are tucked as much gossip, as many of the details of this extraordinary and public affection, as much serious talk about writing and literature in America as one might hope for.
Kerouac reveals the worst of himself in his anti-semitic tirade against writers like Malamud and Roth, and the best in his clearly genuine affection for the Cassady children and a desire somehow to sort out the complexities of his relations with both Cassadys and make them all worthy and workable. Certainly Kerouac has earned a place in our literary history, and these letters help illuminate his life as a writer and his relationship to what became his most famous subject.
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