Jack Kerouac described himself as “a great rememberer redeeming life from darkness” and fondly recalled moments when he had “the quiet opportunity to remember my own mind.” In one sense, the Beat movement itself issued from his memory. In his June, 1959, Playboy essay “The Origins of the Beat Generation,” Kerouac claimed that the guts of the Beats had come from his ancestors—the independent Breton nobles who fought against the Latin French; his grandfather, Jean-Baptiste Kerouac, who used to defy God to put out his kerosene lamp during a thunderstorm; his father, who used to give such loud parties that the Lowell police came for drinks—and from his own childhood, peopled with the Shadow, the Moon Man, and the Marx Brothers, all eccentric, rebel individualists whose nonconformism was inspired by a notion of being contrary to the expectations of a fearful, bourgeois social system. At the least, its roots were in the post-World War II generation that had seen the face of Evil, had traveled across the globe, believed that there was nothing they could not accomplish, and were inspired by a search for what Ginsberg called the promise of “a lost America of love.”
Kerouac claimed on more than one occasion that his books were actually one book about his entire life. He had intentions to consolidate them, but these plans were not carried out before his death. The areas of life that he remembered and celebrated include the dichotomy between his family and friends in Lowell, Massachusetts, and the Beat friends with whom he carried on such a frenzied, peripatetic relationship. As a rememberer, he never separated the two entirely; the Roman Catholic Bretons and the gentle Leo and Gerard were never far from his consciousness. Kerouac declared that his father had never lifted a hand to punish his children, or even their little pets, and that Gerard had extracted from his younger brother a promise never to hurt or allow anyone else to hurt a living thing. These two strains—the fierceness of the Bretons and the gentleness of his brother and father—culminated in the vitality and the kindness of Jack Kerouac, whose disappointments at the unavoidable failure of his largest dreams grew into an almost inchoate anger against a universe that had betrayed his quest for something sacred perhaps unattainable on earth.
The disparity between the legend of the Beat saint and the reality of Kerouac’s life is likely to increase just as the full power of his literary achievement is becoming “officially” acknowledged. Contrary to the early critics who misconstrued On the Road according to their own agendas, the novel can be understood, as Louis Menand has put it, as a “sad and somewhat self-consciously lyrical story about loneliness, insecurity and failure,” but also as a story of high-energy enthusiasm for a vast continent always ready for an eager explorer. Menand maintains that the Beats were more misfits than rebels, “men who wrote about their feelings,” but there is an outlaw—that is, outside the law—inclination in their lives and more so in their artistic endeavors. Kerouac dreamed of recognition as outstanding student-athlete and great writer, at least in his youth. The books that made him famous, however, could not have been written by a man satisfied with standard measures of success. Like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and other men who, in Menand’s words, “stretched a canvas across an entire continent,” Kerouac’s ambitions were vast, and in the service of their fulfillment, he reached—as really outstanding artists must—beyond what even his skills could encompass.
The Town and the City
When he was ready to write his first published book, The Town and the City , Kerouac found it necessary—or more aesthetically pleasing—to use five boys to present the many facets of his own character and...
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