Jack Kerouac

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Warren French (essay date 1986)

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SOURCE: “Off the Track,” in Jack Kerouac, Twayne Publishers, 1986, pp. 46-57.

[In the following essay, French discusses key differences among The Subterraneans, The Dharma Bums, Pic, and Kerouac's other major novels.]


While The Subterraneans is usually looked upon as part of the Duluoz Legend, it would take very extensive revision to fit this nearly hysterical tale into the whole panoramic work.1 In the first place, the name used here for Kerouac's alter ego, Leo Percepied, occurs only in this brief novel and was apparently not a substitution required by cautious publishers. It is difficult, therefore, to ignore the symbolic implications of the name, which could be translated “Lion with a Pierced-Foot,” suggesting some kind of primitive jungle king disabled by a crippling wound or with an Achilles' heel. Although the novel has been praised by those close to Kerouac for its verisimilitude, its credibility is immediately suspect because of the fact that, although it parallels events that took place in New York's Greenwich Village during the summer of 1953, the novel is set in San Francisco.

It is also entirely different in tone from any of the novels in which Kerouac is transformed into Ti Jean Duluoz. It is the most sexually specific of any of Kerouac's works, so that is is understandable why he asked his mother not to look at it. Leo Percepied is much closer to John Clellan Holmes's Gene Pasternak in Go, an irresponsible womanizer, than any other of Kerouac's avatars in his own fiction.

The novel has been praised by Kerouacophiles as one of the best illustrations of his technique of “sketching”; detailed study of the complex structures of some of the sentences—especially as they are analogous to the techniques of jazz improvisation praised in the novel—serve to document Kerouac's often elusive concept of “spontaneous prose,” so that the novel strikes one as more an exercise in style than a contemplated contribution to a Legend covering a lifetime. Even such a novel, however, is more than an exercise in style; when one breaks the almost hypnotic spell that Kerouac in his best improvisatory moments creates with a torrent of words, and seeks out the underlying theme that is obscured by the artful variations, one discovers that this tale is a nasty bit of business indeed.

Apparently few readers have taken a close, critical look at the novel, or else by now it would have become a glaring example for antiracist and feminist critics of the attitudes they decry in American culture and its mainstream literary tradition. Far more than television's famous bigot Archie Bunker, Leo Percepied is the fictional embodiment of the woman-degrading, male chauvinist, racist, and homophobic attitudes that have engendered some of the ugliest controversies in the United States since World War II.

Ostensibly this is the story of a two-month love affair between Percepied and a half-black, half-Indian outcast girl named in the novel Mardou Fox (for understandable reasons, the model for this character has never permitted herself to be identified); but, despite the inclusion of one of the grossest descriptions of sexual relations to be found even in recent sensational literature, climaxing the description of “the precious good moments” that the couple has enjoyed,2 the emphasis is on the bad times (“I have a list of bad times”—Percepied interjects parenthetically into this account—“to make the good times, the times I was good to her and like I should be, to make it sick.”)

This negative emphasis is scarcely surprising in the account of an affair that begins with Percepied's avowing on first...

(This entire section contains 5248 words.)

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seeing Mardou, “By God, I've got to getinvolved with that little woman” (10, italics mine), a sentiment exactly in keeping with his description of himself as “crudely malely sexual and cannot help myself and have lecherous and so on propensities.” Although some readers may be outraged by the universalizing “as almost all my male readers are no doubt the same” (11) that concludes this “confession,” at least we are informed about the stereotypes that shape the narrator's thinking about women and about other men and their interrelationships, so that we proceed at our own risk. We should scarcely later be surprised that even three weeks before the end of this affair, which lasts only two months, Percepied is plotting to end it. He never specifies his reasons for this quick change, although they are implied through the principal events of the story. Percepied several times expresses regret about the actions—admittedly his own—that end the affair; at one point he even utters the incredible aside that “poverty would have saved this romance,” in spite of the fact that both he and Mardou are totally broke throughout.

The principal reason for its inevitable outcome has nothing to do with finances, but is the product of his condescending attitudes towards Mardou, whom he refers to as a “poor subterranean beat Negro girl with no clothes on her back worth a twopenny” (104). In one of the most incredibly patronizing remarks one is likely to encounter in literature, Percepied also reports that when they try to communicate with each other telepathically, he undermines the experiment through his “fear of communicating White images to her … for fear she'll be (in her fun) reminded of our racial difference, at that time making me feel guilty, now I realize it was love's gentility on my part—Lord” (83). One example suffices to illustrate his running comments about Mardou's being “unable to bear the polite conversation” of his friends, “the likes of which,” he has earlier assured us, “cannot be surpassed anywhere in the world” (113, 103).

Reading these remarks out of context one would suppose that they were intended sarcastically, but the whole slant of the novel is toward making one sympathize with the suffering Leo, as evidently many readers have. Behind the intellectual snobbery here lie “the white ambitions” that Sal Paradise in On the Road had blamed for the breakup of his genuinely affectionate relationship with the Mexican girl Terry. Early in The Subterraneans, Percepied, again universalizing himself, explains to “all lover readers who've suffered pangs,” the principal sources of his doubts about the relationship—“doubts, therefore, of, well, Mardou's Negro, naturally not only my mother but my sister whom I may have to live with some day and her husband a Southerner and everybody concerned would be mortified to hell and have nothing to do with us—like it would preclude completely the possibility of living in the South” (56). When Mardou is afraid to go into a white bar with him, he tries to console her with the thought that some day, “in fact baby I'll be a famous man and you'll be the dignified wife of a famous man so don't worry”; not surprisingly, she responds, “You don't understand” (81).

Indeed when the final breakup with Mardou comes as a result of Leo's petulant behavior, fancying himself “the only man in South City who ever walked from the neat suburban homes and went and hid by boxcars to think” the vision that cracks him up at last is of his mother, bending over him and saying in Quebecois, which he painstakingly translates for the reader after quoting the original, “Poor Little Leo … you suffer, men suffer so, you're all alone in the world I'll take care of you … my angel” (119).

The Subterraneans, thus, even more than On the Road, justifies John Updike's malicious parody of Kerouac's mother fixation.3 In terms of the “Peter-Francis” split in Kerouac's personality, this is clearly one of “Peter's” works, which ends with the narrator's return after a brush with the strange and frightening to the comforts and security of home. In fact, from the point of view of exposing the author's rather than the narrator's psychology, the novel is of considerable interest as one in which we witness a transformation of Mr. Hyde back to Dr. Jekyll as homebody Peter worms his way out of an affair into which Francis, with his exotic tastes, has plunged him.

There is more to the breakup of the affair in The Subterraneans, however, than simply the overwhelming of a free spirit tempted to take dangerous chances by oedipal immaturity; an element missing from On the Road, in which “Peter” is suppressed until the end while “Francis” tells of his adventures, emerges here in the description of the kind of “tests” that Leo Percepied tries on Mardou Fox to determine her faithfulness.

When at one point Leo becomes jealous of a black man's attentions to Mardou, Adam Moorad, a character based on Allen Ginsberg, advises Leo, “If she should hear that you went out with a white girl to see if you could make it again she'd sure be flattered” (88), but the tests that Leo devises actually do not involve other women at all.

Early in the novel Leo admits that the “first foolish mistake in my life and love with Mardou” was refusing to go home with her after a party breaks up because he has been invited to stay and “study” the host's “pornographic (homo male sexual) pictures” (48), although he never explains the source of his interest in them. The two tests that he imposes upon Mardou, however, certainly involve homoeroticism. The first concerns a famous visiting novelist, Arial Lavalina, of whom Gore Vidal has admitted being the original. Leo describes Lavalina as being a “perfectly obvious homosexual”; yet he abandons Mardou to go spend the night at a hotel with the writer. His account of what transpired is ambiguous, as he acknowledges only that he woke up on a couch the next morning with the “horrible recognition” that he never did get to Mardou's and that he decided to apologize at once to Lavalina “for getting so drunk and acting in such a way to mislead him” (66). Vidal, however, insists elsewhere that on the occasion mirrored here, Kerouac did go to bed with him, a fact Kerouac later reluctantly acknowledged.4

The second test involves Leo's attentions to a “beautiful faun boy,” who follows a party of subterraneans from bar to bar, until Mardou finally yells at Leo, “It's him or me goddamit” (67) and leaves still yelling, “We're through,” though Leo refuses to believe it. Later Leo is accused by Frank Carmody (apparently based on William Burroughs) of getting “a reputation on the Beach as a big fag tugging at the shirts of well-known punks” (74), and Leo and Mardou attend a party arranged by a friend with Leo's “acquiescence,” at which the other guests “were just boys and all queer” (80). Homosexual jokes are scattered throughout the text, and much of the action takes place in a deteriorating lesbian bar.

Friends have circulated stories about Kerouac's involvement in homosexual activities, but nowhere else in his writing is such an emphasis placed on testing a female lover by attentions not to other women, but to gay men. It is dangerous here, as elsewhere, to assume that the narrator is a faithful reproduction of the author; but a serious question of literary intentions is raised when an infatuation (and that is all that the love affair here can really be called) is relatively quickly overcome not by the attraction of competing women but by repeated involvement with homosexual men. The question is especially intriguing in a novel that portrays the overwhelming of the adventurous, alienated “Francis” by conservative homebody “Peter.”

Since Leo never develops any deep relationship, however, with any of the gay characters he meets, we must consider the possibility that his real interest is in avoiding any kind of commitments at all because of his primary interest in what he describes as his “all consuming work” (64). He continually places his emphasis upon the importance of his “work” (64); indeed the novel ends, not with Leo's redeeming vision of his mother, but with his acknowledgment that having lost Mardou's love, he went home to “write this book” (126).

Ann Charters seems completely justified in her conclusion that “Kerouac's pride in tossing The Subterraneans off in three nights gave him more lasting satisfaction than anything that happened between him and the girl that summer. … He never got that deeply emotionally involved.”5 This observation, however, prompts the question of whether he ever got deeply emotionally involved with anyone except his mother. The tests that he has Leo impose upon Mardou can be interpreted as aimed at determining whether she was going to insist that his relationship with her be taken more seriously than his relationships with his gay bar companions. In any event The Subterraneans can only finally be satisfactorily interpreted as the portrait of an individual who uses other people simply as grist for the machinations of his own imagination. No wonder when after Kerouac's death Charters asked the girl who was the original of Mardou how she felt about what happened, she only shrugged—“none of it was important to her.”6 The novel portrays a few days' dalliance in the life of a totally narcissistic person, but there is no evidence that the author has any insight into the story that he is telling. Like On the Road,The Subterraneans cannot be called a Bildungsroman because the narrator has learned nothing. It is a portrait of a young prig from whom the author has not ironically distanced himself.

THE DHARMA BUMS (1957, 1958)

While The Dharma Bums unquestionably makes a contribution toward filling an important gap in the Duluoz Legend by supplying Kerouac's only account based on some important months before the publication of On the Road, it suffers from having been hurriedly written on commission and never revised or rewritten. The tentativeness of the novel is indicated by Kerouac's using here, for the only time in a published work, the name Ray Smith for his alter ego; although he had used the same name in one of the early, unfinished versions of On the Road, so that it is associated with uncompleted efforts to find himself. His fuller treatment in Desolation Angels of the narrator's final days as a fire watcher on Desolation Mountain and of what followed after he came down also suggest what Kerouac might finally make of the material from this period. As it stands, the novel can only be regarded as the potboiler that Kerouac himself considered it,7 even though it has been one of his most popular novels after On the Road. Certainly it is one of his most poorly structured works.

The problem with the novel is that Allen Ginsberg was right when, after a sympathetic review in the Village Voice, he privately advised Kerouac to stop writing “travelogues.”8 Although the book is not divided into sections, it, like On the Road, joins together four separate episodes. Though this time the action is continuous, the episodes are not paralleled by any climactic dramatic structure that gives the narrative shape as a whole. The trouble does not seem to have been that Kerouac could not find a unifying device, but that he seems not to have cared about finding one. He was simply in a hurry to get it done. The book was written about the period when Buddhist influences in his life were at their height and when the two conflicting natures in his personality seemed to have most nearly reached resolution with the exotic, aesthetic Francis in control and farmboy Peter emerging only occasionally to introduce Christian pieties.

What unity the novel has derives from its fictionalizing the months of Kerouac's most intense association with Gary Snyder, who here appears in the person of Japhy Ryder. Ryder is present only in the first and third episodes, but the Buddhist leanings that provided his finally unstable link with Kerouac color the whole narrative.

The first section, which runs more than one-third of the length (70 of 187 pages), begins with the famous description of the beginnings of the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance on 13 October 1955 with Allen Ginsberg's reading of Howl for the first time at the Six Gallery; but consists mostly of a minutely detailed account of Kerouac's first mountain climbing expedition with Snyder and John Montgomery (Henry Morley in the text) on the California Matterhorn.9 Ray Smith then takes off on a transcontinental journey, accomplished mostly through the courtesy of a truckdriver who befriends him near Calexico on the Mexican border and transports him to Ohio. Smith then travels on to North Carolina to spend the winter and early spring with his mother, sister, and brother-in-law.

When things become tense there, especially after his mother leaves, because he spends his time in the woods meditating while the others work, Smith takes off again for the West Coast by bus. Here he spends an idyllic time, described in another seventy pages, in a cabin in Marin County with Japhy Ryder before he takes off on a freighter for another stay in Japan.

Smith then goes to the state of Washington to spend the summer as a fire watcher in the mountains; but this episode, toward which the whole book has apparently been moving, is surprisingly thin, running only twenty-two pages, little more than ten percent of the whole text, most of which is taken up with somewhat tedious details of his preparations for the actual months of loneliness. Although we learn a great deal about Smith's meditations in North Carolina, we learn little about the nature of his experiences alone in the cabin on the mountain. The narrative ends abruptly with his going on “down the trail back to this world.” While this ending is considerably more upbeat than that of On the Road, it conveys little sense of just what the whole year's experiences have added up to and accentuates the “travelogue” aspects of a book that is probably of greatest interest to those intrigued by Smith and Ryder's inconclusive palaverings about Buddhist theory and practice.

The action is episodic in the most negative sense of that term, for there is no cumulative movement toward what Poe called the out-bringing of a “preconceived effect.” Long passages of apparently unedited conversation alternate with moments of unassimilated violence. Kerouac could have benefited from contemplating Poe's strictures about the poem in “The Philosophy of Composition”: “Had I been able, in the subsequent composition, to construct more vigorous stanzas, I should, without scruple, have purposely enfeebled them so as not to interfere with the climacteric effect.”

A striking example of the inclusion of material with momentary shock value that is unwarranted by its contribution to any thematic pattern is the digressive introduction of the suicide of Rosie, the latest girl friend of Cody Pomeroy (based on Neal Cassady). Smith's only reaction to this sensational news is, “if she had only listened to me.” It is followed by his decision to hit the road again, with the observation that “Rosie was a flower we let wither.”10 The incident is quickly passed over without being integrated into any overall story line. Even Cody plays such a peripheral role in this story that it would have been better to omit his affairs altogether than to introduce them and then fail to integrate them into the action.

The excuse for mentioning Rosie's suicide cannot be that Kerouac attempted to mention everything that he was involved in during the period because, comparing the novel with information from other sources, we know that he did omit or downplay episodes that he might not have wanted to recall. He makes no attribution to Ray Smith during this period, for example, of The Scripture of the Golden Eternity, a Buddhist tract that Kerouac himself wrote at Gary Snyder's behest, since by the time he compiled the novel he was beginning to lose his interest in the subject, as he explains himself near the beginning of the novel: “I was very devout in those days and was practicing my religious devotions almost to perfection. Since then I've become a little hypocritical about my lip-service and a little tired and cynical” (6). Since we know that by 1960 Kerouac had become somewhat flippant about the whole Buddhist venture, the novel may not shed as much light as it could on the period when he was still enthusiastic about creating a kind of society from which he withdrew during the 1960s.

Probably the passage from the novel that has been most frequently taken out of context is Japhy Ryder's proclamation at a party after he returned from the mountain-climbing expedition:

I've been reading Whitman, know what he says, Cheer up slaves, and horrify foreign despots, he means that's the attitude for the Bard, the Zen Lunacy bard of old desert paths, see the whole thing is a world full of rucksack wanderers, Dharma Bums refusing to subscribe to the general demand that they consume production and therefore have to work for the privilege of consuming all that crap they don't really want anyway such as refrigerators, TV sets, cars, at least new fancy cars, certain hair oils and deodorants and general junk you always see a week later in the garbage anyway, all of them imprisoned in a system of work, produce, consume, work, produce, consume, I see a vision of a great rucksack revolution thousands or even millions of young Americans wandering around with rucksacks, going up to mountains to pray, making children laugh and old men glad, making young girls happy and old girls happier.


Significantly, this vision of an impending transformation in American life is assigned to Japhy (Gary Snyder). While it is reinforced on a few other occasions, it is never developed to the extent that one likes to recall it is in the novel.

Just before Japhy leaves for Japan, he does tell Ray that something good is going to come out of their feelings about life: “You and I ain't out to bust anybody's skull, or cut someone's throat in an economic way, we've dedicated ourselves to prayer for all sentient beings and when we're strong enough we'll really be able to do it, too, like the old saints” (166).

Ray himself also ventures into a much more genial, folksy version of the venomous satire in Ginsberg's Howl, when he observes, riding through Kansas City, “When I woke up in the morning, on Monday, I looked out and saw all the eager young men in business suits going to work in insurance offices hoping to be big Harry Trumans some day” (104). At one point when Ray is depressed by the tyranny of the authorities that threaten the rucksack revolution, he gives vent to an almost incredible foreshadowing of the vision that will give force and direction a few years later to Ken Kesey's One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest: “The only alternative to sleeping out, hopping freights, and doing what I wanted, I saw in a vision would be to just sit with a hundred other patients in front of a nice television set in a madhouse, where we could be ‘supervised’” (96).

These are only passing comments, however. Kerouac is not about to depict or embrace any such confrontation as Kesey does. In his “Biographical Resume” written the same year as The Dharma Bums, he observed, “I am only a jolly storyteller and have nothing to do with politics or schemes and my only plan is the old Chinese way of the Tao: ‘avoid the authorities.’”11

The irony about Kerouac's position is that there has been indeed a rucksack revolution for which he has often been given credit, but in which he played no part. Even if there has not been a transformation of American life on the scale that Japhy envisioned, one of the most profound long-term influences of the Beat Generation has been relaxing the tensions bred by the American “rat race” and helping to create, with the aid of meditation movements, a less disastrously competitive attitude in many young Americans. Ruckpacking has indeed become a widespread practice among American youth, which one can see today especially abroad, where thousands are enjoying a life that Kerouac himself found he could never master. Many have also been returning to the farms that Kerouac apostrophized but to which he never actually went back. Although The Dharma Bums has inspired many readers, it fails to develop a consistent enough vision to have become a prophetic guidebook. It is an unusual work from which readers appear to have derived more than the writer put into it, a work that is better remembered for its striking passages than digested as a whole.

PIC (1950 AND 1969, 1971)

In 1971 after Kerouac's death, Grove Press published what many presumed to be his last novel. If Pic had been indeed the work of his final months, it would have represented a startling departure from the other writings of his last decade, for in it he abandons autobiographical materials to tell in first-person dialect the adventures of a naive but enterprising eleven-year-old North Carolina black boy, who is taken from his aunt's house by an older brother, with whom he travels to New York and California as the brother searches for work. Handling a difficult dialect with skill enough to be convincing, Kerouac seems to have been belatedly trying to make a fresh start as a fictionist by returning to the detached ironic mode of the Okinawa scene in The Town and the City.

Very little of Pic, however, appears to have been written in 1969. Although the unavailability of Kerouac's manuscripts makes certainty difficult, possibly only the final chapter was added to an earlier manuscript that Kerouac resurrected from his neatly kept files. The first hundred pages of the novelette can be identified as at least derived from one of Kerouac's early efforts to find a satisfactory form for the novel that would become On the Road.12

Dissatisfied with earlier efforts to tell the story in the third person, Kerouac, who had been visiting in North Carolina off and on since his sister's marriage in 1949, decided in 1950 to attempt a first-person narrative. For this purpose he contrived the character of eleven-year-old Pictorial Review Jackson, a black orphan whose hitherto uneventful life with his grandfather is disrupted when the old gentleman is taken to the hospital critically ill. Pic moves into the crowded home of his Aunt Gastonia, but encounters difficulties there, particularly with a vengeful Grandpa Jelkey, who had been blinded years earlier by Pic's fiery-tempered father. Pic's brother Slim turns up to take the boy away. When the Aunt refuses to surrender custody, Slim spirits Pic out of a bedroom window and rushes him to New York by bus.

All this activity was apparently intended as only the prologue to an account of the brothers' hitchhiking across the United States to seek a new life in California, where Slim's pregnant wife had already gone by bus. Only one chapter of the present text actually takes place on the road; but in this thirteenth chapter an unmistakable link with On the Road is established, because a brief account of the brothers' acquaintance with a mad old man headed for “Canady,” whom they call “The Ghost of the Susquehanna,” had already been published in quite similar form as the climax of Sal Paradise's unsettling experiences during his first round-trip across the continent in part 1 of On the Road (87-88). In Pic, Kerouac does not, however, have the narrator indulge in the pretentious meditation about the American wilderness that appears in On the Road. The material used in Pic seems to be the original version of an episode that was all Kerouac salvaged from the unfinished work when he returned to the project.

As Tim Hunt points out, Kerouac was still strongly under the influence of Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn when he conceived Pic, and had he continued the tale, the two black brothers would probably have developed even more strikingly into counterparts of Huck and Jim.13 The best writing in the novelette occurs in the long chapter 10, during which it appears that Slim may get at least temporary work at his real trade of playing the horn in a jazz combo. Pic describes the effect of his brother's playing: “Oh, he talked and talked with that thing and told his story all over again, to me, to Sheila and ever'body. He jess had it in his heart what ever'body wanted in their hearts and they listened to him for some of it.”14 Perhaps it is significant that Pic at this time is “scarce eleven years old” (35), the same age that Kerouac was when he wrote his own first novel carefully modeled on Huck Finn.

Why Kerouac abandoned this narrative in 1950 is not clear, but Hunt suspects that he became frustrated by the limitations of a child narrator.15 In any event, Kerouac kept the uncompleted work in his files for two decades, and there is no reason to believe that he revised it substantially when he resurrected it at a time when he was in failing health and the family needed money desperately. The only certain example, therefore, of Kerouac's “last manner” is the tacked-on final chapter, in which he violates the original intention of the story by having Pic and Slim earn enough money in Pittsburgh to take the bus to California.

This sloppily written piece of something over a thousand words was reputedly composed to please Kerouac's mother.16 In this sentimental episode, which harks back to the days when Kerouac admired William Saroyan, an Irish Catholic priest appears as a deus ex machina to bring the meandering tale to an abrupt and incredible conclusion when he discovers Pic's remarkable voice and pays the boy to sing in the church.

Several other quaint characters, including a mysterious woman, are introduced, but disappear without adding anything to the episode. Because of the contrast between the leisurely development of the scenes in North Carolina and the accounts of Pic's discovering the wonders of the life on the road, on the one hand, and the sudden, contrived ending, on the other, the novelette as a whole is a totally unsatisfying experience. It is doubtful that it would have been published at all if Kerouac's early death had not caused a stirring of new interest in his life. Even so it attracted little attention and few readers. Since no character in any way based on Kerouac himself appears in the short work, it has no place in the Duluoz Legend, although this last feeble effort to find a market for his work serves to reinforce our impression of what a downbeat ending the real life of Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac had.


  1. Dates given in subheadings in this chapter identify first the date of the writing and second the date of the publication of the work.

  2. The Subterraneans (New York: Grove Press 1958), 85-86. Subsequent page references in the text.

  3. John Updike, “On the Sidewalk: (After Reading, At Long Last, ‘On the Road,’ by Jack Kerouac),” New Yorker, 21 February 1959, 32.

  4. Quoted in Gifford and Lee, Jack's Book, 183. Vidal criticizes Kerouac for not going on in the novel to show the two characters going to bed together. Kerouac claimed he had “forgotten,” but when Vidal challenged this explanation, Kerouac replied, “Maybe I wanted to forget.”

  5. Charters, Kerouac, 186.

  6. Ibid., 185.

  7. Clark, Kerouac, 166.

  8. Ibid., 183. Ginsberg's review appeared in the Village Voice, 12 November 1958, 3-5.

  9. This mountain in Marin County is pictured on the cover of John Montgomery's Kerouac West Coast (Palo Alto, Calif.: Fels & Firn, 1976).

  10. The Dharma Bums (New York: Viking Press, 1958), 89-91. Subsequent page references in the text.

  11. Heaven & Other Poems, 40.

  12. Tim Hunt, Kerouac's Crooked Road (Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1981), 100.

  13. Ibid., 102-3.

  14. Pic (New York, 1971), 78. Subsequent page references in text.

  15. Hunt, Crooked Road, 104.

  16. Ibid., 101-2.


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Jack Kerouac 1922-1969

(Born Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac) American novelist, poet, and essayist. See also Jack Kerouac Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 2, 3, 5, 14, 29.

Kerouac was the key figure of the artistic and cultural phenomenon of the 1950s known as the Beat Movement. The Beat Movement, which took its name from Kerouac's abbreviation of “beatific,” began in Greenwich Village and San Francisco as a reaction against the conservatism prevalent in America during the Cold War era. Other important participants in the movement included Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Neal Cassady, and William S. Burroughs, all of whom were close friends of Kerouac. Kerouac's best-known novel, On the Road (1957), depicts the counter-culture lifestyle of the Beats, which was marked by manic travel and experimentation with sex and drugs.

Biographical Information

Born in a French-Canadian community in Lowell, Massachusetts, Kerouac was raised a Catholic and educated in parochial schools. An outstanding athlete, he received a football scholarship to Columbia University but withdrew from school during the fall of his sophomore year. He joined the navy in 1943 and was released after six months for psychological reasons. Kerouac worked the remainder of World War II as a merchant seaman and associated with the bohemian crowd around Columbia that included Ginsberg and Burroughs. The publication of On the Road brought Kerouac sudden notoriety, and eight more of his books appeared during the next few years as publishers rushed to capitalize on his popularity. Kerouac's natural shyness, however, kept him from enjoying his fame; he was known to arrive at interviews intoxicated and failed in his sporadic attempts to withdraw from society to concentrate on writing. A sincere patriot and Catholic, Kerouac became increasingly bewildered and alienated from his bohemian fans in the 1960s. He returned to the place of his birth in 1966, and in 1969 died of medical complications deriving from his longterm alcoholism.

Major Works

Many of the characters in Kerouac's novels were based on his friends in the Beat Movement. Novelist William S. 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 more celebrated novels, The Dharma Bums (1958). Undoubtedly the single most influential personality in Kerouac's circle of friends, and the basis for the main characters 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. Kerouac also cited Cassady's stream-of-consciousness writing style, exemplified in his voluminous letters, as having inspired his own “spontaneous prose” technique.

Kerouac considered his novels a series of interconnected autobiographical narratives in the manner of Marcel Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu (Remembrance of Things Past). The novels that compose “The Legend of Duluoz,” as Kerouac called the totality of his works, include Visions of Gerard (1963), which pictures Kerouac's childhood as overshadowed by the death of his beloved brother Gerard at age nine; Doctor Sax: Faust Part Three (1959), a surrealistic depiction of Kerouac's boyhood memories and dreams; Maggie Cassidy (1959), which recounts Kerouac's first love; and Vanity of Duluoz: An Adventurous Education, 1935-1946 (1968), which chronicles Kerouac's years of playing football at prep school and Columbia. In On the Road, Kerouac wrote about the late 1940s, focusing on the years of traveling and socializing with Cassady, Ginsberg, and Burroughs. Visions of Cody, viewed by many critics as a late revision of On the Road, retells the story in spontaneous prose. Kerouac wrote about his love affair in 1953 with an African-American woman in The Subterraneans (1958), and his adventures on the West Coast learning about Buddhism from Gary Snyder are delineated in The Dharma Bums.Desolation Angels (1965) covers the years just prior to the publication of On the Road, while Big Sur (1962) displays the bitterness and despair Kerouac experienced in the early 1960s and his descent into alcoholism. Together these novels portray the birth, development, and dissolution of the Beat Movement.

Critical Reception

When first published, On the Road was rejected by many as a morally objectionable work. Kerouac, through his first-person narrator, Sal Paradise, enthusiastically describes the adventures that make up the book's narrative, including stealing, heavy drinking, drug use, and sexual promiscuity. To many critics of the time, Kerouac's novel signaled the moral demise of a generation. Gilbert Millstein, representing the opposing view, decreed that the publication of On the Road was an “historic occasion” and the immoderate lifestyle of the Beats was a “search for belief.” Critics who shared this attitude focused on the theme of spiritual quest that permeates the novel, arguing that this theme made On the Road a descendent of American “road literature” as represented by such works as Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Although On the Road was once commonly considered to have inspired the peripatetic hippie generation of the 1960s, later evaluations have paid greater attention to the narrator's disillusionment with the life of the road at the conclusion of the novel. Some commentators now view On the Road as depicting the conflicting appeal of a contemplative, inner-directed life on the one hand, and an unexamined, outgoing existence on the other. More recent critical studies also evidence considerable interest in Kerouac's “spontaneous prose” method, viewing it as an extension of the “stream-of-consciousness” technique used by James Joyce. While On the Road and subsequent works by Kerouac once stunned the public and the literary establishment, the enduring attraction these works hold for both readers and critics argues for their importance in the canon of modern American literature.

Regina Weinreich (essay date 1987)

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SOURCE: “The Road as Transition,” in The Spontaneous Poetics of Jack Kerouac: A Study of the Fiction, Southern Illinois University Press, 1987, pp. 34-56.

[In the following essay, Weinreich discusses On the Road as a picaresque novel.]

The Open Road. The great home of the soul is the Open Road. Not heaven, not paradise. Not ‘above.’ Not even ‘within.’ The soul is neither ‘above’ nor ‘within.’ It is a wayfarer down the Open Road.

—D. H. Lawrence, “Whitman”

If The Town and the City establishes the essential proposition of the Duluoz legend—that is, the loss of spiritual values prophesying the decline of America and its soul—then On the Road [hereafter abbreviated as OR] extends this idea in a picaresque mode. The soul journeys along the open highway of America, in search of permanence, of values that will endure and not collapse. Indeed, as the design of the Duluoz legend unfolds, the progression of Kerouac's career becomes one in which his own persona retreats further and further away from the distractions of this world to the inwardness of writing, “telling the true story of the world in interior monolog,” as he recommends to writers in his “Belief and Technique for Modern Prose.”1

Thus, within the context of the entire legend, On the Road functions as a transition both stylistically and thematically. The road becomes a structural option based on temporal progression as well as a metaphor for the conventional quest myth. The novel takes the central ideas of The Town and the City—disillusion with the American Dream—and develops it into a quest for new values; that quest, however, ends only in increased despair and desolation.

According to the pertinent biographical and critical data, sketches for Kerouac's second novel were written while Kerouac was still working on The Town and the City, during a period of hitchhiking west, as “Kerouac began to appreciate the potential of a novel that would capture the vitality of America.”2 Clearly he felt that the earlier novel could not do so, and the criticism that it was “imitative” made him all the more certain to supersede the structural limitations of the conventional The Town and the City. Ironically enough, Kerouac's structural solution in On the Road is amazingly conventional considering all the bravado about breaking tradition attributed to the book at its first appearance. After all, the quest tradition is the oldest convention of the novel itself.

On the Road follows upon The Town and the City as a development of one narrative strand, most predominantly Peter Martin's; and indeed, Kerouac's second novel dramatizes that strand in the outwardly-searching mode of the traditional quest romance. Through the creation of a superlinear motif, a quest of hyperbolic momentum and episodic frequency, Kerouac's fascination with high-speed cross-country excursions brings quest romance into a distinctly twentieth-century mode.

But On the Road requires clarification beyond its explanation as a variation of the quest motif. The essential myth of the novel is the search for something holy, something lasting, something that will allow the narrator, Sal Paradise, the genuine tranquility of his “hearthside” ideals. In the process of that quest, he must renounce the material and follow after Dean Moriarty as his guide. The quest is for something as ephemeral as the holy grail or as the Zen denial of the concrete in favor of the spirit or soul.

Dorothy Van Ghent finds this quest for the holy a redeeming feature of all Beat literature. She sees the Beat myth as following authentic archaic lines. Thus the hero, the angel-headed hipster, comes of anonymous parentage, “parents whom he denies in correct mythological fashion. He has received a mysterious call—to the road, … [to] the jazz dens. … The hero is differentiated from the population by his angelic awareness. … His myth runs along these lines toward the familiar end, some sort of transcendence.”3 Though Van Ghent is correct in focusing upon the heroic quality of the quest and in isolating the special quality of that Beat hero the angel-headed hipster, this definition lacks analysis and as such is far too narrow to encompass the quest myth that is On the Road.

To be specific, On the Road is an elegiac romance. According to the most recent critical theories on the quest romance tradition in Western literature, there are three developmental stages to this genre; elegiac romance is but the latest and most keenly aligned with modernism.4 Old romance, that of Gawain and Parzival, directs our attention exclusively to the task and character of the knight, who must overcome weaknesses of his own character in order to merit his noble station and warrant the reputation of chivalric gallantry and valor. Romance changes radically, however, in the hands of Cervantes, where the entire story becomes ironic. In this second stage, the structure of traditional romance is revised so that the knight no longer holds the center of attention, but shares the stage with another figure, the squire. The story's fundamental irony results from the fact that we are never quite sure whose values we are meant to share, the knight's or the squire's, but we are still led to admire chivalric service, gallantry, and valor even as we are also led to doubt them. The third stage, elegiac romance proper, brings us back to Kerouac.

On the Road can be seen as an example of the evolution of quest romance as it turns elegiac. The knight and squire of old are retained in the personages of Dean and Sal. While the knight is obsessed by the goal of the quest, the squire does not share in the knight's preoccupation, but instead seems satisfied to look meekly on. If Dean is driven by the immediate gratification of kicks, of fast cars, women, and drugs, Sal—Kerouac's surrogate—is the observer who views Dean as a catalyst for the only action he knows: writing. In old romance the knight undergoes the pain of change brought on by the rigors of his quest; in the second stage of romance, the knight and squire together undergo development during the course of the quest. In elegiac romance, the knight does not change at all; like Dean, he does not mellow, he experiences no enlightenment, his character remains constant. Instead, the squire, like Sal, is the center of attention. It is his character that develops and it is his enlightenment we must try to understand.

Thus the genre of prose to which On the Road properly belongs is one in which the narrator regains his identity by revealing it to himself. He accomplishes this task of self-enlightenment by telling a story about a person who represents loss to him in some sense—a person, for example, ridden by misfortune, or full of daunted hope—but whom he still admires. Dean's relationship to Sal is thus clarified: he represents a loss to Sal, what Sal hopes to realize by admiring only those who burn out like incandescent roman candles: “The one thing that we yearn for in our living days, that makes us sigh and groan and undergo sweet nauseas of all kinds, is the remembrance of some lost bliss that was probably experienced in the womb and can only be reproduced (though we hate to admit it) in death” (OR, 124).

A Freudian interpretation of this passage would reveal Sal's attachment to Dean to be far more instinctual and beyond conscious control than would be suggested by the narrative itself.5 At times the relationship between Sal and Dean is seen more appropriately as one between a son and lost father or between two brothers lost to one another. At first Sal says of Dean, “he reminded me of some long-lost brother (OR, 10).6 In the final lines of the novel Sal sums up: “I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty” (OR, 310).

Sal observes his object lost through his hero, and the novel is shaped to direct our attention to the narrator's sense of this loss, which he transmutes and refines. And because the hero is somewhat bigger than life and to that degree distinguished from humanity, the hero is almost an abstraction which Sal creates through memory and fantasy. It does not matter, therefore, that Dean fails to reach or even embody the goals of his quest for lasting values. What matters instead is that Sal as narrator reaches the goal for which Dean is a catalyst—the understanding and freedom which comes of telling his tale, celebrating the fact that he is both alive and free. He tells the story to celebrate further that he has survived on terms authentically his own.

In On the Road, Kerouac advantageously shifts from one kind of romance to another, from family romance to elegiac romance, to dramatize more effectively the central philosophical preoccupation of The Town and the City: the question of who killed the father. Dean can be seen as a larger-than-life heroic embodiment of the renewal and survival that overcome the “anxiety of influence”—and specifically, the authority of the father—of the earlier novel. In Visions of Cody, the novel that parallels On the Road in legend time, Kerouac refines and transmutes the sense of loss in a totally different manner—into subtle, expansive meditations, into vast tropes on time, memory, and art. But in On the Road he opts for the elegiac romance form.


In the same way that On the Road's overall structure of plot—the zigzagging across America in hyperbolic adventures and kicks—suggests a linearity that eventually renders the elegiac romance form superficial and almost comic, the novel's language starts to take on the unique style we associate with Kerouac. Visions of Cody and Desolation Angels are both more successful exemplars of the language that is beginning to take hold of the temporal progression of On the Road, here initiated by a dissatisfaction with the limitations of a linear structure the novel sets in place only to criticize; but the extraordinary quality of the language in On the Road distinguishes the novel's stylistic break with the limitations Kerouac perceived in his earlier effort. A discussion of Kerouac's language will reveal (1) how linearity or seeming temporal progression is broken down into smaller structures or phrases which can be analyzed as tropes of collapsing and building, and (2) how the texture of On the Road is controlled by a musical metaphor whose seeming onflow contains rhythms and cadences, interior sound systems, in the manner of prose poetry—though the full resources of Kerouac's spontaneous bop prosody have yet to be achieved.

During this “road” or transitional period, Kerouac was in fact evolving his philosophy of spontaneous composition, that spontaneous bop prosody which he wished to develop through each subsequent creation. Kerouac's philosophy is, moreover, one which involves a discovery of language through a new definition of structure. Each novel subsequent to On the Road is an attempt to redefine structure as it solves formal problems through the discovery of resourceful properties of language. Thus the quest for language becomes the solution to Kerouac's problem of form, with language itself becoming the object of the quest motif from Kerouac's own perspective. As he says in his essay “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose,” “Modern bizarre structures … arise from language being dead, ‘different’ themes give illusion of ‘new’ life.”7

Much has been made of the manuscript of On the Road, which provides evidence of Kerouac's linguistic experimentation. It has a scraggly, raw look, jagged and unrevised. Its mode of composition is famous. It was first written on a roll of paper and consisted entirely of one sentence, which uncoils over two hundred pages when finally paginated. Ann Charters refers to the manuscript as a “teletype.”8 John Clellon Holmes even recalls Kerouac in the process of writing—how the typewriter clattered without pause, how Kerouac unrolled the manuscript thirty feet beyond the machine, “a scroll three inches thick made up of one single-spaced, unbroken paragraph 120 feet long.”9 John Tytell's description is the most specific: Kerouac wrote on “sixteen-foot rolls of thin Japanese drawing paper that he found in the loft, taping them together to form one huge roll.” Calling it a “marathon linguistic flow,” Tytell goes on to describe Kerouac's handling of the 250-foot single paragraph, “as it unreeled from his memory of the various versions he had attempted during the past two years, but writing now with more natural freedom, somehow organically responding to the Zen notion of ‘artless art.’”10 This methodology goes far to explain Kerouac's purposeful “natural flow,” or “struggle to sketch the flow that already exists intact in mind.”11

This methodology, however, is not to be mistaken for the product. After Kerouac's six-year search for a publisher, Malcolm Cowley, Kerouac's editor at Viking Press, finally printed the book—edited, punctuated, and paginated.12 Gerald Nicosia describes some of the specific revisions of On the Road: how it had been retyped on regular bond, how “the roll had been turned into a 450-page manuscript,” and how the manuscript had been divided into its five “books,” among other changes. Nicosia sums up Kerouac's attitude to the revision: “If the present On the Road were false from the point of view of art, it was the version truest to reality, and so he couldn't dismiss it out of hand. … [A]s he wrote to Holmes, On the Road—even as it now stood—was a good deal less false than The Town and the City.13 When Tytell suggests that On the Road is less successful than Visions of Cody because the latter is unedited and therefore closer to Kerouac's ideals,14 he misses the artistic import of the earlier book as a transitional phase. Rather, each novel solves the structural problem of unrevised prose through a rhetorical paradigm, based largely on an analogy with the idiom of jazz. And not only does the paradigm work for Kerouac's legend as a whole, but within the linguistic structures of each novel as well.

The specific textual components of On the Road are explained by the jazz reference. First, the musical analogy for temporal progression is made explicit as Kerouac's fundamental modus operandi. He describes his philosophy of composition, “Blow as deep as you want to blow,” as if he were thinking of a writer as a horn-player. But then he ties this description of his methodology to a rationale for the peculiarities of his punctuation: “Method. No periods separating sentence-structures already arbitrarily riddled by false colons and timid usually needless commas—but the vigorous space dash separating rhetorical breathing (as jazz musician drawing breath between outblown phrases).”15 The words and phrases that occur between dashes have the semblance of linguistic entities unaligned with the conventional subject-verb arrangement of English sentences.

A different notion of time exists in these linguistic configurations. The sentence traditionally functions by framing statements and ideas within a past-present-future arrangement. The sentence fixes time and does not allow the movement, flashes, and fluctuations of Kerouac's intent. Thus the musical analogy allows Kerouac to work out a notion of time distinct from the temporality of conventional writing, less prosaic and more poetic, less linear than the overall structure of the adventure he suggests, more temporally dislocated than the traditional quest formula. Phrases become poetic utterances, “‘measured pauses which are the essentials of our speech’—‘divisions of the sounds we hear’—‘time and how to note it down’ (William Carlos Williams).” Thus Kerouac's prose has a measured breath, and timing is the key to purity of rendition. Kerouac describes the procedure as follows: “Time being of the essence in the purity of speech, sketching language is undisturbed flow from the mind of personal secret idea-words, blowing (as per jazz musician) on subject of image.”16

This is the beginning of Kerouac's aesthetic solution to the time and space problem he had encountered in his first novel. On the Road is the attempt to solve that structural problem. Even though his solution also involves an attempt to follow a prescribed form such as the elegiac romance, the musical metaphor suggests a nonlinear ideal that will eventually explode the superlinear form of “blowing” in On the Road. Kerouac will perfect this form in sections of Visions of Cody and Desolation Angels; On the Road is therefore transitional, not yet exemplary of the form at its fullest.

A continued examination of Kerouac's essay “The Essentials of Spontaneous Prose” in tandem with a close reading of sections of the text of On the Road will provide concrete evidence of a compositional process analogous to the structures of jazz and of a repetition of these musical structures that provides a deeper pattern than the novel's linear surface narration might suggest.17 It is useful to remember that jazz music almost always works as the repetition of a series of chord changes. Key to this music is the notion of repeated forms that become redefined and redeveloped through each rendition of the series. Moreover, timing is of course not only important for the phrasing of jazz notes but also integral to the very articulation of certain phrases, ideas, and structures.18

Kerouac's descriptions usually begin with the privileged image of the “jewel center,” as he calls it in the essay on spontaneous writing.19 A particularly instructive example occurs when Sal, Dean, and their friends leave Louisiana and “Old Bull Lee” to head further west. The passage begins with an interlude, or introductory phrase: “What is that feeling when you're driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing?—it's the too-huge world vaulting us, and it's good-by. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies” (OR, 156). Here Kerouac is only partially conscious of the meanings of words, conjured up primarily to incite the “semi-trance,” the state “without consciousness” which he recommends for all writers in the essay under examination. Visually, he sets up an impressionistic canvas of forms breaking apart like atoms, but contained by the “world” and “skies,” as though he were looking through a fish-eye lens.

After this first sentence, Kerouac reaches the key word or “jewel center” of this association as he is transported to the unconscious state which he aspires to achieve in the writing of spontaneous prose: “We wheeled through the sultry old light of Algiers, back on the ferry, back toward the mud-splashed, crabbed old ships across the river, back on Canal, and out; on a two-lane highway to Baton Rouge in purple darkness; swung west there, crossed the Mississippi at a place called Port Allen” (OR, 156). The repetition of “back” develops in a typical build-up so that the pacing of the unconscious exposition that follows gains momentum. This momentum is further triggered by the assonance and alliteration that move the line of Kerouac's free prose. The initial w and long e sounds lead into the slant rhymes of “ul,” “ol,” and “Al.” The short a of “back” is echoed in “splashed” and “crabbed,” all intended to emphasize the “wheeling” motion that he is describing. The use of prepositions—“on,” “toward,” “out”—reinforces “wheeling,” so that a great deal of ground is covered in a compact motion.

Note the pacing in the “unconscious” exposition that follows: “Port Allen—where the river's all rain and roses in a misty pinpoint darkness and where we swung around a circular drive in yellow foglight and suddenly saw the great black body below a bridge and crossed eternity again” (OR, 156). First, the repetition of “Port Allen” creates force. Second, the poetic affects are tighter. The rolling r's of “where,” “river,” “rain,” “roses,” are picked up by “darkness,” with “where” again creating a circular motion. The word “swung” is repeated; “around” picks up the rolling r as does “circular drive,” which actually states what the writing accomplishes at the levels of both sound and sense. A change in light from “sultry old” to “yellow fog” signals a change in geographic detail to give the journey its proper significance—enlightenment. In the next breath, Kerouac sums up the meaning of the trip as a whole as a panoramic vision not confined to the concrete geographical detail (the “Suddenly saw” reflects such awareness). And the alliteration of the b's in “black body below a bridge” suggests something still mysterious as the passage comes full circle in crossing the Mississippi (and eternity) again.

The next part of the paragraph picks up after this minirelease or exhilaration with a new “jewel center,” even stronger than the first, building up rhetorically to “What is the Mississippi River?” from which the answer gushes forth:

A washed clod in the rainy night, a soft plopping from drooping Missouri banks, a dissolving, a riding of the tide down the eternal waterbed, a contribution to brown foams, a voyaging past endless vales and trees and levees, down along, down along, by Memphis, Greenville, Eudora, Vicksburg, Natchez, Port Allen, and Port Orleans and Port of the Deltas, by Potash, Venice, and the Night's Great Gulf, and out.

(OR, 156)

Here again certain repetitions of sound and punctuation carry the pace as Kerouac's definition of the powerful river at once echoes and reveals his admiration for its spontaneous flow. The short o sound of “washed” and “clod” is repeated in the next phrase, with “soft,” “plopping,” “from,” “drooping,” “Missouri,” and “dissolving” all echoing with subtle changes the movement described. Again concrete physical images in nature remind Kerouac of eternity, the “eternal waterbed” an image for the sought-after ideal—that which never changes—the final end of the search, at rest, in the grave. An earth image of “brown foams” then becomes a point of departure for all the port cities and towns here enumerated. Gerund phrases such as “voyaging,” adjectives such as “endless,” the repetition of “and” (and the long e in between) redramatize ongoing movement, while “down,” “along,” “by,” and “out” carry this movement and its meaning toward the ultimate metaphor for the gaping womb/grave, “The Night's Great Gulf.” In a similar manner, each passage or section comes full circle to a release in a metaphysical image, which explains in part the litanous, lyrical quality of a language that aspires to the state of “semi-trance.”20

In yet another section, the focus is on Sal's narration of the Ghost of the Susquehanna, a story that reveals the same structural ingredients that prevail in the previously quoted passage. The “jewel center” starts off: “I thought all the wilderness of America was in the West till the Ghost of the Susquehanna showed me different” (OR, 105). All of the resonant language that follows, with its rhythms and cadences, is related to the central myth of “America.” Moreover, the supernatural element of the ghost is significant because Kerouac's idea of revelation turns on how natural objects can conjure universal, eternal truths. The desired end of the natural flow of language is thus the same as the desired end of myth.

The buildup and repetitive sound patterns mark the now familiar circular motion: “No, there is a wilderness in the East; it's the same wilderness Ben Franklin plodded in the oxcart days when he was postmaster, the same as it was when George Washington was a wild-buck Indian-fighter, when Daniel Boone told stories by Pennsylvania lamps and promised to find the Gap, when Bradford built his road and men whooped her up in log cabins” (OR, 105). Starting with the contradiction “No,” emphatic in its signal to set off a new riff, the passage builds on a pioneering image that sees the great men of American history as common people (an idea repeated in Kerouac's image of America in The Book of Dreams). The notion is both Christian and democratic in its vision of each man's place under God and law. The o sounds of “no,” “plodded,” “ox,” and “post” propel Kerouac's language, while the “when” functions to trigger a phrase as “back” does in the previously cited passage. Kerouac's unusual diction—the use of compounds such as “wild-buck” and “Indian-fighter”—and his use of onomatopoetic verbs like “whooped” attempt to create a literary language that echoes the language of America.

Central also—and paradigmatic of our other motif—is the emphasis on the idea of “building” and “collapsing.” Optimism is expressed in the terseness of the adjectives and the idea of “promise.” But this optimism is, of course, followed immediately by the down side of the vision, so that the description is actually controlled by a sense of opposition and contradiction: “There were not great Arizona spaces for the little man, just the bushy wilderness of eastern Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia, the backroads, the black-tar roads that curve among the mournful rivers like Susquehanna, Monongahela, Old Potomac and Monocracy” (OR, 105). This image therefore collapses the optimism of the previous sentence, showing the up-and-down movement of Kerouac's myth about America. The rhythmic and patterned sounds are created to present the optimistic and exuberant but also the sad and mournful. The idea of the “little man” conjures Kerouac's association with his father as he begins to understand the side of the American Dream that is destructive. Here “backroads” and “black-tar” emphasize the sorrowful aspect of the “promise” in the first part. Unlike the “great black body” that was a symbol of eternity earlier, these rivers seem sadly dead and, like conventional sentences, end-stopped.

But the next paragraph, predictably enough, must begin with a new jewel center: “That night in Harrisburg I had to sleep in the railroad station on a bench; at dawn the station masters threw me out” (OR, 105). Here Kerouac continues his narrative with a hobo image of himself, humbled by his “station.” The dawn womb of the station connotes expulsion, leaving the narrator to extrapolate philosophically: “Isn't it true that you start your life a sweet child believing in everything under your father's roof? Then comes the day of the Laodiceans, when you know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked, and with the visage of a gruesome grieving ghost you go shuddering through nightmare life” (OR, 105). This is a thematically and structurally important passage, one that sums up much of Kerouac's deepest paranoia about life, and one to which all the narrative circles eventually point as they oscillate between building and collapsing. This is the vision of the innocence from which we start our childhood beliefs, a womblike paradise that becomes revealed through the process of living. Part of Kerouac's litany is a fond reminiscence of this state and the nostalgic sense of loss that accompanies his life. But another part is a sense that dream and reality partake of the same substance. This image of expulsion from paradise leaves Kerouac likening himself (and all of us humble humans as well) to a ghost, not in death but in life. The sense of the dream or of paradise collapsing is thus all too real, whereas the future afterlife is as yet unknown and an end of the quest itself. The sounds build an image of all-inclusiveness to this paranoia of possibilities: “ands” link the adjectives “wretched,” “miserable,” “poor,” “blind,” and “naked,” telling us that we are hallucinatory images, each with the same abject visage—that of the alliterative “gruesome grieving ghost”—which comes from the collapse of the protective structure, the father's roof.

A buildup of images of despair recounts Sal's hunger, until a final apocalyptic image concludes part 1 as we reach its consummate jewel center: “Suddenly I found myself on Times Square.”

I had traveled eight thousand miles around the American continent and I was back on Times Square; and right in the middle of a rush hour, too, seeing with my innocent road-eyes the absolute madness and fantastic hoorair of New York with its millions and millions hustling forever for a buck among themselves, the mad dream—grabbing, taking, giving, sighing, dying, just so they can be buried in those awful cemetary cities beyond Long Island City.

(OR, 106)

The passage brings the journey full circle, literally and figuratively. Kerouac speaks of being “back” in Times Square, in a womblike image of America as a body. The sounds reinforce this notion: key words like “millions” are repeated, key syllables such as “ing” elongate action, the short u in “hustling,” “buck,” “among”—all these elements emphasize the circular return enacted thematically. The staccato rhythm of “forever for” moves toward the trope of the “mad dream” at the passage's center, a comment on the American Dream that becomes the key thematic element of the novel, and that finally ends in the grave, “buried” in “cemetary cities.”

This passage goes on to conclude part 1 of On the Road. What is most evident in it is the rhythmic pulse that is taking shape in the writing, a pulse that arises from Kerouac's use of tropes that are original and yet follow a system that can be analyzed and determined. As Kerouac's story progresses, this language—especially in its ability to hold in a sustained tension both optimism and pessimism, up and down—becomes indistinguishable from the myth that it conveys.


On the Road achieves a rhetorical solution to the philosophical problem Kerouac faced in The Town and the City. The quest myth, in its linear, temporal progression seems adequate for the revelation of adventure. It relies, however, upon the conventional Christian tautologies that become insupportable as modernist notions interrupt the assumptions of absolutes and authority, of God, government, and of the Good. Kerouac's very questioning of these assumptions parallels a fundamental collapse of faith within society at large, which makes Kerouac's redefinition of the quest motif a reexamination of values at every point. Indeed, the language and myth of On the Road reflect an emotive as well as an aesthetic problem.

Integral to the mythic notion of the quest is the idea of the hero. Here he is identified at the outset: “I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up” (OR, 3). This sentence appears banal enough, but not so after a reconsideration of On the Road as a system of tropes of collapse and rebirth. Since the narrative begins with an image of collapse and in its larger schema works out a circular pattern of building and collapsing again, the heroic action is unrelated to event and deed. In Tom Jones, by contrast, the picaresque quest motif frames action that is episodic and moves through climactic moments of plot. The dramatic Inn at Upton scene is a climactic turning point. Nowhere in On the Road, however, do we get a sense of one incident or another becoming more or less dramatic or illuminating to either the reader or narrator. Similarly, the contrast is exemplified in the creation of the hero, who in the eighteenth-century novel acquires that identity in the process of the quest. In On the Road, Kerouac extends the characterization described in The Town and the City by ascribing a mock-heroic heightening and diminishing to characters to underscore the up-and-down movement at large. Sal relates the adventures of his friends, especially Dean (“the Holy Goof”), calling them clowns and angels at once. Hence the heroic heightening in On the Road stems from the hyperbolic mood, is ironic, and is derived from the bold assertions of heroism Sal attaches to the comedic gestures of his friends, likening those angels to Groucho Marx and W. C. Fields. We are moved through a series of heightened moments of “meaning-excitement”21—each being part “up,” part “down,” as the linguistic experimentation requires them to be—that Kerouac himself terms moments of “IT.” “IT” is both integral to the notion of the hero and to the quest. The cyclical movement of tropes becomes “riffs” that culminate in “IT.” “IT”—as I shall show—is thus the real object of the quest.

Because “IT” is an isolated moment, it is necessarily defined by a solid structure against which “IT” can be contrasted. “IT” is like a chord progression off Kerouac's central red line (Route 6) across America; for Kerouac the country is physical, solid, like a body or “the great raw bulge and bulk of my American continent” (OR, 79). This solid structure indicates that the long red line that leads from the tip of Cape Cod clear to Ely, Nevada, and on to Los Angeles is a significant system of signposts, symbolic of something concrete and whole, which might also signify some direction. But, says Sal, “It was my dream that screwed up, the stupid hearthside idea that it would be wonderful to follow one great red line across America instead of trying various roads and routes” (OR, 13). Sal's sense of direction is thrown off most by Dean. Sal laments, “With frantic Dean I was rushing through the world without a chance to see it” (OR, 205). As we might expect, tropes of collapsing are juxtaposed with tropes of concrete images to strike the overall thematic chord, “Everything is collapsing” (OR, 56, 99). Likewise moments of “IT” shatter the continuity of the cross-country excursions, like variations off the central theme, with each exposition quite technically a riff.

The analogy of “IT” with the action of the jazzman is made explicit in the text. The alto player is described: “He starts the first chorus, then lines up his ideas. … All of a sudden somewhere in the middle of the chorus he gets it—everybody looks up and knows; they listen; he picks it up and carries. Time stops” (OR, 206). This description proclaims the terms of Kerouac's aesthetic stance as much as his more explicit statements in the essays and Paris Review interview. He indicates the purposes of establishing such an aesthetic as an effective mediation of time and space. At the moment of “IT,” time stops. But as the description goes on, Kerouac describes a movement in space: “He's filling empty space with the substance of our lives, confessions of his bellybottom strain, remembrance of ideas, rehashes of old blowing. He has to blow across bridges and come back to do it with such infinite feeling soul-exploratory for the tune of the moment that everybody knows it's not the tune that counts but IT” (OR, 206). In other words, it is not the continuity of causal relationship of experience that counts, but the heightened moment.

Kerouac enlarges on the meaning of “IT” by alluding to Wilhelm Reich, whose work Kerouac was reading during the period prior to the writing of On the Road, and who is specifically mentioned as yet another figure of “collapse.” When Old Bull Lee suggests that the others try his orgone accumulator to “put some juice in your bones” (OR, 152), the explanation is that “according to Reich, orgones are vibratory atmospheric atoms of the life-principle. People get cancer because they run out of orgones” (OR, 152). Later, the mention of Reich at moments of “IT” are related to “complacent Reichianalyzed ecstasy” (OR, 200). “IT” therefore represents some form of isolated and radiating pleasure as a feeling and end in itself, unallied to some purpose or spiritual accomplishment.

Rather than heroic action in conventional terms then, “IT” is satisfying as a form of instant gratification, a thrill for the moment, an epiphany. This momentary satisfaction becomes more significant to Sal than the pursuit of more conventional values such as permanence and ultimate security—the delusion of the hearth. Sal's attraction to Dean's amorality is thus explained, albeit fraught with ambiguity and concomitant irony:

I shambled after as I've been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes, Awww!

(OR, 8)

The heroic ideal is imaged through an ironic stance of madness, which has the ecstatic effect of Reichian energy but, as we might expect, at the same time the impermanence emphasized in the quality of “burn,” three times repeated; “IT” represents the greatest high and the ultimate low simultaneously. The tenorman who has just achieved “IT” says, “‘Life's too sad to be ballin all the time …’” (OR, 199).

In order to create the effect of simultaneity of antithetical images, then, Kerouac uses intertwining rhetorical tropes of building/collapsing with the concomitant emotive response of ecstasy/sadness. In these antitheses/extremes, Kerouac depicts the spiritual decline of America. This decline becomes the object lost in the elegiac romance genre because these values and their loss are personified by Dean. Moreover, as these tropes develop in the narrative, a design takes the place of plot: the intertwining rhetorical tropes intersect at moments of “IT” in Kerouac's schema. Otherwise, they move through the narrative to a syncopated beat. Indeed, the musical metaphor allows Kerouac to solve the artistic problem not only of how to represent these antithetical images, but also how to build into them a double charge of affect. On the Road therefore becomes a paradigm for his state of vision both structurally and emotively. And thus the double signification of “beat” is realized as a thematic end in itself.

This simultaneous rendition of opposites solves the organizational problem of Kerouac's myth by centering itself on the double signification of “beat” in its antithetical meanings of both “down-and-out” and “beatific.” This is the inference of “IT” on the mythic plane as well as on the structural level. Only in this pattern can the shifting ambiguities and complexities of unidealized existence become a parody of the American Dream romance through which Kerouac can take his ultimate ironic stance about America—that it is beat.

The plot of On the Road zigzags just as Kerouac's prose zigzags. The end of the linear road is death, but Kerouac has attempted to resolve the structural problem in a reassessment of linearity. The musical analogy and the redefinition of the quest form suggest a spatial, nonlinear relationship of language and form. On the Road, though, is only a temporary solution. The stylistic progression of the later novels makes this point evident. The structure of On the Road only suggests the desired effect of the simultaneity of antithetical images which is articulated at the next stage of legend in Visions of Cody. The road is merely transition.


  1. Kerouac, “Belief and Technique for Modern Prose,” p. 57.

  2. Tytell, Naked Angels, p. 63.

  3. Dorothy Van Ghent, “Comment,” in A Casebook on the Beat, ed. Thomas Parkinson, p. 213.

  4. See Kenneth A. Bruffee, Elegaic Romance: Cultural Change and Loss of the Hero in Modern Fiction (Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1983).

  5. See Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, trans. James Strachey (1920; reprint, New York: Norton, 1961). Freud defines an instinct as “an urge inherent in organic life to restore an earlier state of things which the living entity has been obliged to abandon under the pressure of external disturbing forces” (p. 30).

  6. Tytell states explicitly, “Kerouac identified Cassady with his lost brother Gerard” (Naked Angels, p. 62). See also my analysis of Visions of Gerard in chapter 6.

  7. Kerouac, “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose,” p. 73.

  8. Charters, Kerouac, p. 129.

  9. Quoted in Charters, Kerouac, pp. 127-28.

  10. Tytell, Naked Angels, pp. 67-68.

  11. Kerouac, “Belief and Technique in Modern Prose,” p. 57.

  12. In Gifford and Lee's Jack's Book, Malcolm Cowley is quoted as attesting to Kerouac's careful revision of On the Road. Cowley thought that Kerouac should write in regular sentences and not as if writing were like “toothpaste coming out of a tube” (p. 206).

  13. Nicosia, Memory Babe, pp. 352, 353, 356, 441.

  14. See Tytell's discussion of Visions of Cody in Naked Angels, p. 175ff.

  15. Kerouac, “Belief and Technique in Modern Prose,” p. 57; Kerouac, “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose,” p. 72.

  16. Kerouac, “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose,” p. 72.

  17. For a brief analysis of Kerouac's writing in On the Road in tandem with his professed method of composition see LeRoi Jones, “Correspondence,” Evergreen Review 2 Spring (1959): 253-56.

  18. See Murray, Stomping the Blues.

  19. To quote Kerouac from his essay “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose”: “CENTER OF INTEREST. Begin not from preconceived idea of what to say about image but from jewel center of interest in subject of image at moment of writing, and write outwards swimming in sea of language to peripheral release and exhaustion” (p. 73).

  20. Of course—and ironically—Kerouac is entirely paradoxical in his insistence upon writing “without consciousness.” As he puts it in his essay “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose”: “MENTAL STATE. If possible write ‘without consciousness’ in semi-trance (as Yeats' later ‘trance writing’)” (p. 73).

  21. Kerouac explains in “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose”: “Satisfy yourself first, then reader cannot fail to receive telepathic shock and meaning-excitement by same laws operating in his own human mind” (p. 72).

Principal Works

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The Town and the City (novel) 1950

On the Road (novel) 1957

The Dharma Bums (novel) 1958

The Subterraneans (novel) 1958

Doctor Sax: Faust Part Three (novel) 1959

Mexico City Blues (poetry) 1959

Maggie Cassidy (novel) 1959

The Scripture of the Golden Eternity (nonfiction) 1960

Tristessa (novel) 1960

Book of Dreams (nonfiction) 1961

Big Sur (novel) 1962

Lonesome Traveler (novel) 1962

Visions of Gerard (novel) 1963

Desolation Angels (novel) 1965

Satori in Paris (novel) 1966

Vanity of Duluoz: An Adventurous Education 1935-46 (novel) 1969

Pic (novella) 1971

Visions of Cody (novel) 1972

San Francisco Blues (novel) 1983

Regina Weinreich (essay date 1987)

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SOURCE: “The Sound of Despair: A Perfected Nonlinearity,” in The Spontaneous Poetics of Jack Kerouac: A Study of the Fiction, Southern Illinois University Press, 1987, pp. 89-118.

[In the following essay, Weinreich examines Desolation Angels as the culmination of Kerouac's religious and philosophical thinking just before the publication of On the Road.]

Do you hear that? The sound of it alone is wonderful, no? What can you give me in English to match that for sheer beauty of resonance?

—Henry Miller, The Colossus of Maroussi

Kerouac attempted to resolve the aesthetic problems of Visions of Cody in his next period of writing, from 1953 with the writing of The Subterraneans on through the sixties, as his life and thinking became more religious and philosophical. The culmination of the experiments that comprise Visions of Cody is found in Desolation Angels, [hereafter abbreviated as DA] a novel concerned with the period of legend/life from 1956 to 1957. The novel, first published in 1965, is based on Kerouac's journals written in the year before the appearance of On the Road; these writings were put in novel form after the success of On the Road,1 and integrate the events of the road with the Zen philosophy he was learning as he developed both as a man and as a writer. The first half of the book was completed in Mexico City in October 1956 and “typed up” in 1957; the second half was not written until 1961, although chronologically it follows immediately after the first.2 The novel is thus another take on Kerouac's road adventures: it covers roughly the same aspects of his legend as On the Road and Visions of Cody and is stylistically the logical culmination of them both.

Although the merits of this novel have often been hinted at, some critics, such as Dennis McNally, state flatly that the writing is not nearly Kerouac's best.3 Tytell, on the other hand, lauds the work as “the best existing account of the lives of the Beats” and further claims that its influence upon the nonfiction novel emerges in such books as Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Tytell also groups Desolation Angels with The Dharma Bums in claiming that neither novel represents the essential Kerouac—the ideal of spontaneous composition, the flaunting of conventional novelistic expectations.4

Indeed, Desolation Angels has not yet been understood as a stylistically integrated work. If the earlier experimental novel combines adventure with the meditative mode, then the later novel builds upon that combined form by sustaining the structure, techniques, and images beyond the initial experimentalism. If On the Road describes the outward journey and Visions of Cody the inner one, here the techniques of both are joined for a more consistent narrative. Thus, even though several books follow in the chronological sequence of Kerouac's career, Desolation Angels will be shown here to be the stylistic perfection of the techniques of the Duluoz legend, and perhaps its best expression.

The circular narrative structure of Desolation Angels begins and ends with a period of intense confrontation with the self. The terror and beauty of utter solitude on Desolation Peak—sixty-three days of proximity to nature's powers, including lightning storms, huge looming mountains, voids of gorges and canyons, bright sunsets, fog, silence, loneliness—end with Duluoz/Kerouac's finding nothingness at the bottom of “myself abysmal,” after the lustful desire to return to the world.5 In the end he finds only “a peaceful sorrow at home is the best I'll ever be able to offer the world, in the end, and so I told my Desolation Angels goodbye. A new life for me” (DA, 366). Ironically, the descent from the heights of the mountain provides for the ascent of the writer's spirit. Opposing images once again define the thematic shape as well as the linguistic component of Kerouac's text. And the return to the self follows from it full circle.

Kerouac's ability to integrate the diverse components of his prose emerges at last in a distinct narrative voice. More highly evolved than the Paradise or Duluoz narrators of the previous books, this Duluoz voice provides a consistent method of discourse for each prose segment. Each division—whether book, part, or section—echoes the circular shape of the whole, with the opposition between the “abysmal self” and the world vast and teeming with “angels” magnified. The Dean/Cody persona is no longer needed as a catalyst for the narrator's philosophical and adventuring self. The Duluoz narrator here is thus more developed, integrated, and self-contained.

As a self-conscious persona, Kerouac's narrator shapes the action of the novel through his perception. Kerouac now achieves greater control of his method in the reflexive connection between the act of living and the act of writing. Most important, Kerouac's command of his spontaneous prose technique has developed through his experience. The disclosures of Desolation Angels are really the revision of initial insights recorded in On the Road and Visions of Cody. This revision is now his methodological control.

The circular shape of his local discourse controls the design of his narrative at large. Thus the overall form is but the largest circle of these interior structures of thought, the prose paragraphs that comprise the whole. The book and part divisions are named and numbered and the sections are numbered; but even though they are therefore sequential and cannot be transposed as was the case in Visions of Cody, the book and part divisions nonetheless follow the familiar romantic circle. “Desolation Angels,” the first book, contains two parts—“Desolation in Solitude” and “Desolation in the World”—indicating the linguistic polarities of Kerouac's thought in this final stage of legend. “Passing Through,” the second book, has four part divisions in which the writer/self defined in the first book becomes a transient being (like the “gruesome grieving ghost” identified in the earlier fiction) who is “Passing Through Mexico,” “Passing Through New York,” “Passing Through Tangiers, France and London,” and “Passing Through America Again.” Structurally and thematically, then, there is a beginning in innocence that must pass through experience. The Higher Innocence that Kerouac characteristically desires can only be accomplished by the return to themes that are American.

It will be worthwhile to see what this writer/self has to say about his enlightenment in order to describe fully the circular journey as well as to see how the creation of the narrator follows the precepts of Kerouac's earlier literary ethic: “And now, after the experience on top of the mountain where I was alone for two months without being questioned or looked at by any single human being I began a complete turnabout in my feelings about life. … I knew now that my life was a search for peace as an artist, but not only as an artist—As a man of contemplations …” (DA, 219). Jack Duluoz sees himself as singular, lonely, and separate. He talks about the circular notion of a “turnabout” following the movement down from the mountain. This movement echoes the shape of the entire work structurally and thematically.

“A man of contemplations” further defines the consistency of mood of Desolation Angels, a contemplative mood which Kerouac only now achieves: “I was searching for a peaceful kind of life dedicated to contemplation and the delicacy of that, for the sake of my art (in my case prose, tales) (narrative rundowns of what I saw and how I saw) but I also searched for this as my way of life, that is, to see the world from the viewpoint of solitude and to meditate upon the world without being imbroglio'd in its actions …” (DA, 220). Here is another circumlocution that develops in more detail his notion of the writer/self. The contemplation initiates a down movement, as if in his thoughts he were still perched above on the mountain. The word “rundown” resonates, as does the manifest integration of life and art in solitude. But most important of all is Kerouac's declaration (through Duluoz) that his life is dedicated to the contemplation of the creation of not only “what I saw” (a minor explanation of his interest in the form of description called sketching), but also “how I saw” (that is, the vehicle of perception in language). The legend reaches its fullness, in other words, as a discovery of language.

The language of the writer/self is made up of rhetorical tropes similar to those we have found in the earlier novels, revealing an integrity of preoccupation as well as a more highly-evolved form. The free prose sections of the Visions of Cody experiment become a harmonious sphere in the novel's three-dimensional atmosphere, as once again a musical analogy provides a solution to structural problems. Duluoz explains his control over the material in the following way: “‘There's a certain amount of control going on [in my writing] like a man telling a story in a bar without interruptions or even one pause’” (DA, 280).

The voice of Desolation Angels is especially appropriate to Kerouac's interior journey as a rhetorical spiral leads him from exuberance to despair. A hymnal, litanous language maintains the musical analogy. Thus Kerouac solves the time/space, linear/nonlinear problems encountered in the earlier novels because chord structures—or, in the linguistic register, “narrative rundowns”—allow him to repeat as well as to progress. The effect is the paradox of circular motion, at times a mandala of themes on a circular plane. The spiral of recurrence and progression provides the familiar circular motion from beat to beatitude: “It's béat, it's the beat to keep, it's the beat of the heart, it's being beat and down in the world and like oldtime lowdown and like in ancient civilizations the slave boatmen rowing galleys to a beat and servants spinning pottery to a beat” (DA, 123). The juxtaposition of antithetical images in earlier works is now the very subject of Kerouac's prose. Here the matrix of rhetorical tropes is, as I shall show, simultaneously the completion of an entire image in all its possibilities. The beat moves from a staccato rhythm of exuberance in terse phrasing, through the images of “down in the world” and “oldtime lowdown,” to longer, more cumbersome descriptions of mundane labors usually associated with human misery. Thus Kerouac uses the preoccupations and themes of the entire legend with a more masterful command of the material as his mind recollects it in memory.


A detailed account of the elements of Kerouac's circles will illustrate this solitude in action. Several sections of prose will be analyzed to explain Kerouac's mature methodology. Indeed, the language of Desolation Angels will be shown to be Kerouac's highest expression of “free prose.”

In section 2 of “Desolation in Solitude,” Duluoz explains why he is on Desolation Peak and has to stare at it for over seventy days. Contained within the passage are suggestions of the madness of solitude, especially in the allusions to King Lear on the heath. At times, the language reflects the garbled and mangled musings of a man in painful isolation; his speech in inchoate syllables of suffering reflects his inability to express these feelings coherently. At these times, the sounds themselves control the narrative. In toto, the section reads like a dramatic monologue:

Yes, for I'd thought, in June, hitch hiking up there to the Skagit Valley in northwest Washington for my fire lookout job “When I get to the top of Desolation Peak and everybody leaves on mules and I'm alone I will come face to face with God or Tathagata and find out once and for all what is the meaning of all this existence and suffering and going to and fro in vain” but instead I'd come face to face with myself, no liquor, no drugs, no chance of faking it but face to face with ole Hateful Duluoz Me and many's the time I thought I die, suspire of boredom, or jump off the mountain, but the days, nay the hours dragged and I had no guts for such a leap, I had to wait and get to see the face of reality—and it finally comes that afternoon of August 8 as I'm pacing in the high alpine yard on the little wellworn path I'd beaten, in dust and rain, on many a night, with my oil lamp banked low inside the cabin with the four-way windows and peaked pagoda roof and lightning rod point, it finally comes to me, after even tears, and gnashing, and the killing of a mouse and attempted murder of another, something I'd never done in my life (killing animals even rodents), it comes in these words: “The void is not disturbed by any kind of ups and downs, my God look at Hozomeen, is he worried or tearful? Does he bend before storms or snarl when the sun shines or sigh in the late day drowse? Does he smile? Was he not born out of madbrained turmoils and upheavals of raining fire and now's Hozomeen and nothing else? Why should I choose to be bitter or sweet, he does neither?—Why cant I be like Hozomeen and O Platitude O hoary old platitude of the bourgeois mind “take life as it comes”—Twas that alcoholic biographer, W. E. Woodward, said, “There's nothing to life but just the living of it”—But O God I'm bored! But is Hozomeen bored? And I'm sick of words and explanations. Is Hozomeen?

Aurora Borealis
                    over Hozomeen—
The void is stiller

—Even Hozomeen'll crack and fall apart, nothing lasts, it is only a faring-in-that-which-everything-is, a passing-through, that's what's going on, why ask questions or tear hair or weep, the burble blear purple Lear on his moor of woes he is only a gnashy old flap with winged whiskers beminded by a fool—to be and not to be, that's what we are—Does the Void take any part in life and death? does it have funerals? or birth cakes? why not I be like the Void, inexhaustibly fertile, beyond serenity, beyond even gladness, just Old Jack (and not even that) and conduct my life from this moment on (though winds blow through my windpipe), this ungraspable image in a crystal ball is not the Void, the Void is the crystal ball itself and all my woes the Lankavatara Scripture hairnet of fools, “Look sirs, a marvelous sad hairnet”—Hold together, Jack, pass through everything, and everything is one dream, one appearance, one flash, one sad eye, one crystal lucid mystery, one word—Hold still, man, regain your love of life and go down from this mountain and simply be—be—be the infinite fertilities of the one mind of infinity, make no comments, complaints, criticisms, appraisals, avowals, sayings, shooting stars of thought, just flow, flow, be you all, be you what it is, it is only what it always is—Hope is a word like a snow-drift—This is the Great Knowing, this is the Awakening, this is the Voidness—So shut up, live, travel, adventure, bless and dont be sorry—Prunes, prune, eat your prunes—And you have been forever, and will be forever, and all the worrisome smashings of your foot on innocent cupboard doors it was only the Void pretending to be a man pretending not to know the Void—

I come back into the house a new man.

All I have to do is wait 30 long days to get down from the rock and see sweet life again—knowing it's neither sweet nor bitter but just what it is, and so it is—

So long afternoons I sit in my easy (canvas) chair facing Void Hozomeen, the silence hushes in my little shack, my stove is still, my dishes glitter, my firewood (old sticks that are the form of water and welp, that I light small Indian fires with in my stove, to make quick meals) my firewood lies piled and snaky in the corner, my canned goods wait to be opened, my old cracked shoes weep, my pans lean, my dish rags hang, my various things sit silent around the room, my eyes ache, the wind wallows and belts at the window and upped shutters, the light in late afternoon shades and bluedarks Hozomeen (revealing his streak of middle red) and there's nothing for me to do but wait—and breathe (and breathing is difficult in the thin high air, with West Coast sinus wheezings)—wait, breathe, eat, sleep, cook, wash, pace, watch, never any forest fires—and daydream, “What will I do when I get to Frisco? Why first thing I'll get a room in Chinatown”—but even nearer and sweeter I daydream what I'll do Leaving Day, some hallowed day in early September, “I'll walk down the trail, two hours, meet Phil in the boat, ride to the Ross Float, sleep there a night, chat in the kitchen, start early in the morning on the Diablo Boat, go right from that little pier (say hello to Walt), hitch right to Marblemount, collect my pay, pay my debts, buy a bottle of wine and drink it by the Skagit in the afternoon, and leave next morning for Seattle”—and on, down to Frisco, then L. A., then Nogales, then Guadalajara, then Mexico City—And still the Void is still and'll never move—

But I will be the Void, moving without having moved.

(DA, 4-6)

Like every section, this one is a microcosm of the whole work, a compendium of antithetical imagery, a prose poem complete within itself. Placed at the book's beginning, this passage sets up the idea of the quest in solitude and without movement, reminiscent in its way of the gnomic utterances of the Old English “Seafarer” poem of which Ezra Pound was so fond. Kerouac uses the solitude of the American landscape, so profoundly frightening in its accentuation of his own preoccupations about life, to eclipse his own expression, his own self. The linguistic oppositions that unified earlier novels recur as animation is pared away and he is left alone, all the wandering “to and fro” supplanted by stillness. In the austere clearing that remains, the two principal Kerouacean techniques of vision are particularly evident: the all-inclusiveness of opposing imagery and the generalization from the particular to make a philosophical point.

Duluoz begins with a rhetorical “yes” of affirmation and proceeds to build up to a philosophical dialogue with himself. Words like “up,” “top,” “peak,” are countered by “valley”; he suggests he must go up to stay level. In his first speech to himself, he speaks of lateral movement which balances up and down. He begins the narrative refrain of “face to face,” for example, and balances that with “to and fro” for the creation of the tautologies that are characteristic of this section. The narrative takes a turn with “but,” and between the repetitions of “face to face” he begins a series of negations to counterpoint the “yes” at the start: “no liquor, no drugs, no chance of faking it. …” The first tautology of “face to face” is “Hateful Duluoz Me,” a self-negating image followed by verbs that suggest his death: “I thought I die, suspire of boredom, or jump off the mountain. …”

After the first break, indicated by dashes, concrete details bring reality home. The word “and” precipitates the all-inclusiveness of oppositions. “Wellworn,” “beaten,” “banked low” contrast with “peaked pagoda roof and lightning rod point.” Extreme actions, even when referring to mice, contrast with a simultaneous stasis: “The void is not disturbed by any kind of ups and downs,” Duluoz muses. He then identifies the Void and the mystery of the experience on Desolation Peak with another mountain vision which he can actually sight from his perch, a vision of Hozomeen, which becomes the object of a set of rhetorical questions from which he generalizes. He questions the oppositions of “bitter or sweet,” for example, and asks why we must choose between them. Then, in further tautologies, he reveals that no choices can be made because every choice already contains its own opposite anyway.

Kerouac's haiku in midsection is typical of Desolation Angels,6 and is a compressed form of his philosophizing in general. Here the idea that the endurance of the mountain is second to the endurance of the Void is central to the linguistic collapse of oppositions, to the unified vision of all-inclusiveness. The next segment suggests that even the mountain will crack and fall apart, since “Nothing lasts.” Again, Kerouac suggests a lateral movement of activity which goes along with the extreme stasis, boredom, and stillness of the mountain (“faring-in-that-which-everything-is” and “passing-through”), which is then set in opposition with the desire to “ask,” “tear,” “weep,” echoing Prufrock's dilemma. The next cluster of mere syllables evokes Shakespeare (”burble blear purple Lear on his moor of woes”). Not only does Kerouac's narrator liken himself to Lear, but he generalizes from the comparison to the human condition as a whole—to be a “flap with winged whiskers beminded by a fool.”

Then, evoking Shakespeare once more, he revises a tautology into “to be and not to be,” with special emphasis upon the “and.” Consciously or not, Kerouac strives for a stasis or balance of oppositions, leading to a series of questions about the activity of the Void—“Does the Void take any part in life and death? does it have funerals? or birth cakes?”—which ends in a single question, identifying the narrator in the negative: “Why not I be like the Void, inexhaustibly fertile, beyond serenity, beyond even gladness, just old Jack (and not even that).” The Void is represented in images of passing through: “beyond serenity,” and “beyond gladness.” Even Jack and non-Jack are represented with the same strong metaphor: “winds blow through my windpipe.” Then he negates the Void to affirm himself. The oxymoron “ungraspable image” is used to define the Void and the “crystal ball”; the “hairnet of fools” is that by which he is “beminded” (like Lear above) when he preoccupies himself with his woes. Thus he brings the Lear image full circle. The net contains the hair torn away by man in despair. But it is a reassurance that allows the narrator to transcend the conceits of these tautologies by exhorting himself to have the courage to pass through.

First he tells himself to “hold together … everything,” whether “dream,” “appearance,” “flash,” “eye,” “crystal lucid mystery,” or finally, “word.” He thus exhorts his writer/self to “hold still” and to “go down”—that is, to descend in order to ascend. This action results in “infinite fertilities,” a correspondence with the “inexhaustibly fertile” nature of the Void earlier in the passage. And rather than create thoughts or words that prevent the passing through from taking place, he exhorts himself to “flow.” This exhortation precipitates another set of tautologies as the old ones break down: “It is only what it always is”; “Hope is a word like a snow-drift”; “This is the Great Knowing”; “[T]his is the Awakening”; “This is the Voidness.” Thus Kerouac implements the “flow.” And just as the appearance/reality theme is resolved in the me/not me imagery of Desolation Angels, the antithetical images brought “face to face” bring the picture of the Void full circle with its image of “pretending to be a man pretending not to know the Void.” This writing, as if in Kerouac's characteristic “semi-trance” has thus built up to a release of expression—to the completion of an all-inclusive image.

There follows a return to Duluoz's physical state, with new understanding. That is, insight follows release: “I come back into the house a new man.” Now an interior landscape is juxtaposed with the exterior landscape of the first movement. But the interior is not the same after the new insight. “Bitter” and “sweet” are not oppositions but are together in “what it is.” Thus the description, though specific in detail, generalizes from the particular to show the interior in a total image, not subject to flux. Lateral movement marks the passivity of the scene: “silence hushes,” “stove is still,” “dishes glitter,” “firewood … lies piled and snaky in the corner.” The stillness evokes the Edenic paradise of prebirth bliss for which Duluoz is nostalgic. Though the objects in this cabin are personified, the verbs indicate passivity: “canned goods wait,” “pans lean,” “dish rags hang,” “things sit silent.”

But there is still movement in this silent scene as the wind “wallows and belts … upped shutters,” a movement indicating ascension after a going down. This movement leads to enlightenment, to images of passing through: “wait,” “breathe,” “eat,” “sleep,” “cook,” “wash,” “pace,” “watch,” “daydream.” Kerouac capitalizes Leaving Day as if it were a day of celebration and exuberance, and in one long breath envisions the future in a kind of apocalypse of mundane images that brings the section full circle with the repetition of Skagit and other geographic detail; the repetition of “then” allows the enumeration to flow. The ultimate paradox of the circular imagery of all-inclusiveness then emerges: “And still the Void is still and'll never move.” The flow which implies movement is so all-inclusive as to take up all space and need not operate in time at all. This is the final enlightenment of the passage. Duluoz ends, however, by identifying himself (“face to face”) with the Void in the bridge: “But I will be the Void, moving without having moved.” True to Kerouac's design, even this bridge that ends the section defies closure as it leads to the next.


The second part of the first book opposes “Desolation in Solitude” with “Desolation in the World.” An examination of a sample section will reveal still another development in Kerouac's expression. For example, Kerouac's “sketch” of Seattle in section 52 bears the refrain of how hard it is to come off the mountain:

Seattles in the fog, burlesque shows, cigars and wines and papers in a room, fogs, ferries, bacon and eggs and toast in the morning—sweet cities below.

Down about where the heavy timber begins, big Ponderosas and russet all-trees, the air hits me nice, green Northwest, blue pine needles, fresh, the boat is cutting a swath in the nearer lake, it's going to beat me, but just keep on swinging, Marcus Magee—You've had falls before and Joyce made a word two lines long to describe it—brabarackotawackomanashtopataratawackomanac!

We'll light three candles to three souls when we get there.

The trail, last halfmile, is worse, than above, the rocks, big, small, twisted ravines for your feet—Now I begin sobbing for myself, cursing of course—“It never ends!” is my big complaint, just like I'd thought in the door, “How can anything ever end? But this is only a Samsara-World-of-Suffering trail, subject to time and space, therefore must end, but my God it will never end!” and I come running and thwapping finally no more—For the first time I fall exhausted without planning.

And the boat is coming right in.

“Cant make it.”

I sit there a long time, moody faced and finished—Wont do it—But the boat gets coming closer, it's like timeclock civilization, gotta get to work on time, like on the railroad, tho you cant make it you'll make it—It was blasted in the forges with iron vulcan might, by Poseidon and his heroes, by Zen Saints with swords of intelligence, by Master French-god—I push myself up and try on—Every step wont do, it wont work, that my thighs hold it up‘s'mystery to me—plah—

Finally I'm loading my steps on ahead of me, like placing topheavy things on a platform with outstretched arms, the kind of strain you cant keep up—other than the bare feet (now battered with torn skin and blisters and blood) I could just plow and push down the hill, like a falling drunk almost falling never quite falling and if so would it hurt as much as my feet?—nu—gotta push and place each up-knee and down with the barbfoot on scissors of Blakean Perfidy with worms and howlings everywhere—dust—I fall on my knees.

Rest that way awhile and go on.

“Eh damn Eh maudit” I'm crying last 100 yards—now the boat's stopped and Fred whistles sharply, no a hoot, an Indian Hooo! which I answer with a whistle, with fingers in mouth—He settles back to read a cowboy book while I finish that trail—Now I dont want him to hear me cry, but he does he must hear my slow sick steps—plawrp, plawrp—timber tinker of pebbles plopping off a rock round precipice, the wild flowers dont interest me no more—

“I cant make it” is my only thought as I keep going, which thought is like phosphorescent negative red glow imprinting the film of my brain “Gotta make it”—

Desolation, Desolation
                    so hard
To come down off of.

(DA, 76-77)

Again the passage is made up of antithetical imagery with an eye toward all-inclusiveness. Again Kerouac's eye focuses on the particular to render the general. Again he has Duluoz speak from above, as if he were a god, as if the identification with the eternity cited in the previous passage were complete. The omission of the apostrophe in “Seattles” (and despite Kerouac's overall irreverence for standard punctuation) is purposeful. It renders the city an emblem of many an American city. Naturally the fog, mentioned twice, indicates the haziness reminiscent of Joan Rawshank's movie set in Visions of Cody. As Kerouac catalogs the things of this world, he chooses seamy details: “burlesque,” “cigars and wines,” mundane images of “ferries,” “bacon and eggs and toast.” Then he sums it all up in the clause after the dash: “sweet cities below.” The eye of the narrative's movement is down, and thus he descends.

The word “Down” in fact begins the following paragraph as Kerouac's eye now descends to the timber line, the specific Ponderosas, and inclusive “all-trees.” The next image is a technicolor “green” and “blue.” His own path is contrasted with the “cutting” boat, which is going to “beat” and “swing.” The juxtaposition of the two movements allows for a tentative release in enlightenment as “candles” correspond with “souls” at the point of reaching a “there” that is the bottom. Once again, he must descend to ascend.

Looking upward, Duluoz compares this portion of the journey by stating that the last half mile is worse. But this journey down the mountain is a metaphor for Kerouac's life as a whole. Just as Duluoz laments “‘It never ends!’” the “But” signals a change in the course of the narrative. The suffering trail as “a Samsara-World-of-Suffering trail, subject to time and space, therefore must end,” but it will “never end.” He resolves to stop the “running” and “thwapping,” lateral movements which obstruct his fall. And so, in letting go, he “falls.”

But again, the contrasting movement of the boat cuts his fall short: “‘Cant make it.’” The boat represents an aspect of civilization that deters man from his descent/ascent. It represents stoppage as the narrator must “sit,” “moody faced” and “finished.” The “But” signals a shift in the narrative, time and civilization drawing near. The all-inclusive image of the railroad is seen in “making it”/“not making it” on time. “It”—both civilization and time—is like a relief sculpture etched into eternity, “blasted” by society's heroes, by “Poseidon,” “Zen Saints,” “Master Frenchgod.” Against this image of stasis, Duluoz pushes “up.” But his effort to engrave himself on this surface “wont work,” and he falls further—“plah.”

The next paragraph is replete with christological images of the “fall.” Duluoz is “loading,” “placing topheavy things,” feeling “strain.” He is raw with “bare feet,” “torn skin,” “blisters,” “blood,” “I fall on my knees.” But after a brief rest, his expression turns toward contemporary civilization, as Fred hoots and whistles to him. In keeping, then, with the antithetical imagery throughout the description, the fall from grace is balanced by the “cowboy book,” “I dont want him to hear me cry,” “timber tinker … plopping,” and “wild flowers”—in short, by the civilization he has just described.

The final bridge of the passage contrasts “I cant make it” with “Gotta make it” and interprets the return to civilization as Duluoz images the descent from the mountain not in Christian terms but in a red neon imprint. The image is reminiscent of the lighting in the Hector's Cafeteria scene of Visions of Cody and is summed up in the haiku at the end with its “hard” mountain echoed by the clumsy line “To come down off of.” And yet, the quotidian images produce the divine as well as the mundane. The movement of the journey down the mountain likens Duluoz not only to a drunk, but also to a man on his knees, seeking repentance. Hence the all-inclusive image of beat/beatitude is complete.

But the pretext of closure in the all-inclusive imagery of beat/beatitude presents a paradox. The haiku at the end suggests that we must repeat in order to progress. Thus a spiral upward is created even as Kerouac preaches a “digging deep,” a down movement in the language itself. The language and structuring of language is indeed well-suited to the function of a novel that mediates, or attempts to mediate, the highly subjective quality of the experiments of Visions of Cody with the need to express something objective to the world. Hence the texture of Kerouac's language explains why his role as writer/self—distanced, itself an object of the novel rather than its subject—is so necessary in this book at this stage of legend. Therefore a preoccupation with expression emerges as a thematic motif in “Desolation in the World,” which becomes the object of the quest that finally gives context to Duluoz's arduous journey.

Thus in section 97 the overt concern is with the problem of expression. The passage is both consistent in movement with previously cited passages and shows the characteristic progression of techniques—from general to particular and all-inclusive imagery—to resolve the paradox of beat/beatitude:

So we go out and get drunk and dig the session in the Cellar where Brue Moore is blowing on tenor saxophone, which he holds mouthpieced in the side of his mouth, his cheek distended in a round ball like Harry James and Dizzy Gillespie, and he plays perfect pretty harmony to any tune they bring up—He pays litte attention to anyone, he drinks his beer, he gets loaded and eye-heavy, but he never misses a beat or a note, because music is his heart, and in music he has found that pure message to give to the world—The only trouble is, they dont understand.

For example: I'm sitting there on the edge of the bandstand right at Brue's feet, facing the bar, but head down to my beer, for modesty of course, yet I see they dont hear it—There are blondes and brunettes with their men and they're making eyes at other men and almost-fights seethe in the atmosphere—Wars'll break out over women's eyes—and the harmony will be missed—Brue is blowing right on them, “Birth of the Blues,” down jazzy, and when his turn comes to enter the tune he comes up with a perfect beautiful new idea that announces the glory of the future world, the piano blongs that with a chord of understanding (blond Bill), the holy drummer with eyes to Heaven is lilting and sending in the angel-rhythms that hold everybody fixed to their work—Of course the bass is thronging to the finger that both throbs to pluck and the other one that slides the strings for the exact harmonic key-sound—Of course the musicians in the place are listening, hordes of colored kids with dark faces shining in the dimness, white eyes round and sincere, holding drinks just to be in there to hear—It augurs something good in men that they'll listen to the truth of harmony—Brue has nevertheless to carry the message along for several chorus-chapters, his ideas get tireder than at first, he does give up at the right time—besides he wants to play a new tune—I do just that, tap him on the shoe-top to acknowledge he's right—In between the sets he sits beside me and Gia and doesnt say much and appears to pretend not to be able to say much—He'll say it on his horn—

But even Heaven's time-worm eats at Brue's vitals, as mine, as yours, it's hard enough to live in a world where you grow old and die, why be dis-harmonious?

(DA, 198-99)

The bridge tells us the all-inclusive imagery here is harmony/disharmony, itself the image of a circle, or wholeness, especially as it pertains to musical form. Throughout the passage, images of harmony are juxtaposed with images of disharmony, up until the final question posed at the passage's end. Yet the passage is also self-reflexive in its generalization of the musician's work to stand as a metaphor for the work of any artist; it is about the ability of art—in Kerouac's particular case, of writing—to render perfection.

Echoing the movement of passages cited earlier, Duluoz will “fall” or descend in order to ascend. He will “dig” in the “Cellar.” Images of harmony follow in the shape of a circle leading to perfection: “mouth” and “round ball” lead to “perfect pretty harmony”—“to any tune they bring up.” He goes down, in other words, to go up. Getting “loaded” and “eye-heavy”—images of plodding like Duluoz's difficult trip down the mountain—are used to describe the travail of the musician in Kerouac's cast of types or generalized personae. The “but” is not a rhetorical contradiction but a synthesis that completes the circle of his attributive perfection—“he never misses a beat,” “music is his heart.” Music is his vehicle of perfection. He has found in music “that pure message to give to the world.” Like Duluoz, he has a message. But, to complete the image, there is inevitably the contrast of trouble, or disharmony, stated in the negative in contrast with the prior affirmative: “they dont understand”; that is, there is no enlightenment.

“For example” is a narrative shift into the scene that follows, creating first a still setting shattered by disharmonious images. Duluoz sits facing the bar (like facing the Void) followed by a “but” that implies the synthesis of all-inclusive imagery that will emerge momentarily (“head down”). “Yet” shows the narrative will take another turn. “I see they dont hear it” shows a complete disharmony of the senses. The eyes of the people are darting about unlike the heavy eyes of those working. Images of disharmony ensue with particular pungency in phrases like “almost-fights seethe in the atmosphere,” “Wars'll break out,” and “harmony will be missed.”

After the dashes, images of harmony show what this audience will miss: “‘the Birth of the Blues’”—reminiscent of Kerouac's prebirth bliss—“down jazzy,” that is, in “Deep Form”7 (in its suggestion of “digging deep”). “Turn” underscores the change in narrative course as upward images make Duluoz ascend to an apocalyptic image: “up,” “perfect beautiful new idea that announces the glory of the future world.” This beatific view precipitates the “chord of understanding.” These “up” images of “holy,” “eyes to Heaven,” “lilting and sending in the angel-rhythms” that cause the stillness of passing through hold everybody “fixed.” And “of course” there is “the exact harmonic key-sound,” the highest point. And “of course,” too, the listeners who do hear—other musicians and black children described in antithetical images of “dark,” “shining,” “dimness,” and “round”—are, unlike their down counterparts, capable of perfection themselves. The message provides a quiet apocalyptic view—“It augurs something good in men that they'll listen to the truth of harmony.”

“Nevertheless” indicates another narrative turn, a lateral movement or development of the idea of carrying the message. Duluoz does so in “chorus-chapters” (his kinship and identification with the jazzman is explicit). And, wishing to progress, he continues to carry his message, to play a new tune. The lateral or shifting movement of antitheses is even graphic in “between,” “beside,” and “appears to pretend not to be able to say much—He'll say it on his horn.”

The bridge therefore has resonance as an image of the condition of the man with the truth, with a message to convey, whether by words or music or both. In his characteristic juxtaposition of images, Kerouac creates a vision of a heaven with a landscape of hell. The disharmonious is stated in the negative, which, as we might expect by now, only serves to reinforce the positive, the affirmation of the perfection of harmony. Therefore, as writer/self, Duluoz understands his calling. Like the jazz-man he must proclaim this truth of harmony through his art.


The second book of Desolation Angels, “Passing Through,” was written much later than the first book and shows Duluoz experiencing the lessons of that prior “desolation.” “Passing through” becomes a metaphor for traveling and, later on, a metaphor for life itself. More to the point of Kerouac's writing, “passing through” becomes a structural metaphor as it leads to the collapse of antithetical imagery in favor of images of stasis. These provide a more secure spiritual context for Kerouac's belief. Section 15 of “Passing Through Mexico” is particularly resonant in echoing the technique:

So, as Lazarus walks thru villages, so God walks thru our lives, and like the workers and the warriors we worry like worrywarts to straighten up the damage as fast as we can, tho the whole thing's hopeless in the end. For God has a bigger foot than Lazarus and all the Texcocos and Texacos and Mañanas of tomorrow. We end up watching a dusk basketball game among Indian boys near the bus stop. We stand under an old tree at the dirtroad crossing, receiving dust as it's blown by the plains wind of the High Plateau of Mexico the likes of which none bleaker maybe than in Wyoming in October, late October …

p.s. The last time I was in Teotihuacan, Hubbard said to me “Wanta see a scorpion, boy?” and lifted up a rock—There sat a female scorpion beside the skeleton of its mate, which it had eaten—Yelling “Yaaaah!” Hubbard lifted a huge rock and smashed it down on the whole scene (and tho I'm not like Hubbard, I had to agree with him that time).

(DA, 244)

First, we find the general in the particular, especially in the anecdote recounted in the postscript. There is also the customary “So” transition. And there is also the characteristic antithetical movement of rhetorical tropes. But more evident here are the images of “passing through.” “Walking thru,” for instance, is contrasted with images of stoppage like the “worker” and “worrywarts” fixing “the damage,” the still-life description of the Indian boys playing, the bus stop, and the activity of standing while the dust is blown by the winds. The hint of closure in the repetition of “end” contrasts with the abrupt cut-off line. Finally, the postscript remembrance is the concrete evidence of the message of “above,” told in up/down opposition as Hubbard lifts the rock (reminiscent of Sisyphus?) and then smashes it down on the whole scene. The image of the female scorpion's murder and cannibalism of her mate is the recognition that “the whole thing's hopeless in the end.” In nature the best and worst of circumstances are alike contained. There is, however, harmony and agreement in the incorporation of despair, because “passing through” is ultimately a metaphor for living life in the acceptance of its totality, bliss and despair together.

When Duluoz passes “through America again,” it is to return to the realization of the perfected image. The circle is now the image of life and death together. Section 84, the last section of the novel, repeats the structural solution of the entire novel, bringing it all full circle:

So I go downtown and get an expensive hotel room to make up for it—But a sinister Marble Hotel it is—Now that Gaines' gone away all Mexico City is a sinister Marble Hive—How we continue in this endless Gloom I'll never know—Love, Suffer, and Work is the motto of my family (Lebris de Keroack) but seems I suffer more than the rest—Old Honeyboy Bill's in Heaven for sure anyway—Only thing now is Where's Jack Going?—Back to Florida or New York?—For further emptiness?—Old Thinker's thought his last thought—I go to bed in my new hotel room and soon fall asleep anyway, what can I do to bring Gaines back to the dubious privilege of living?—He's trying his best to bless me anyway but that night a Buddha's born to Gina Lollobrigida and I hear the room creak, the door on the dresser creaks back and forth slowly, the walls groan, my whole bed weaves like I say “Where am I, at sea?” but I realize I'm not at sea but in Mexico City—Yet the hotel room is rocking like a ship—It's a giant earthquake rocking Mexico—And how was dying, old buddy?—Easy?—I yell to myself “Encore un autre petrain!” (like the sea storm) and jump under the bed to protect myself against falling ceilings if any—Hurracan is whipping up to hit the Louisiana coast—The entire apartment building across the street from the post office on Calle Obregon is falling in killing everybody—Graves leer under Moon pines—It's all over.

Later I'm back in New York sitting around with Irwin and Simon and Raphael and Lazarus, and now we're famous writers more or less, but they wonder why I'm so sunk now, so unexcited as we sit among our published books and poems, tho at least, since I live with Memère in a house of her own miles from the city, it's a peaceful sorrow. A peaceful sorrow at home is the best I'll ever be able to offer the world, in the end, and so I told my Desolation Angels goodbye. A new life for me.

(DA, 365-66)

First, a linguistic analysis reveals the repetition of the all-inclusive imagery, and second, a thematic analysis reveals the relationship of the section to the Duluoz myth. Once again the rhetorical “so” leads into the piece from the previous passage. The movement is down: “downtown” and “sinister” culminate in “endless Gloom”—the concept of gloom, in other words, has no closure. By contrast, the active tropes of “Love, Suffer, and Work” are what Duluoz inherits too: “I suffer more than the rest.” This proclamation leads him to question his direction. The upward “Heaven” contrasts with Florida and New York, which can provide only “emptiness.” The closure of “Old Thinker's thought his last thought” slides into images of the grave. The “bed” and “room” further signify falling—“fall asleep,” “the dubious privilege of living.” The attempt to bless is cut by “but” and an image of rebirth ensues (“Buddha's born”). The two movements of beat/beatitude are, in other words, once again juxtaposed with one another—“creaks back and forth,” “walls groan,” “bed weaves” (Kerouac's version of Whitman's cradle “endlessly rocking”). The “yet” signifies a synthesis with “room is rocking like a ship.”

As this death fantasy makes Duluoz envision his own death, he begins to talk to himself, the images becoming more active than those in life. He yells and jumps and protects himself from “falling ceilings.” Even a hurricane “whips” and “hits.” An entire apartment building falls and kills everybody as a prologue to the final announcement that signifies closure, or the end—“It's all over” the contrast to “passing through.”

“Graves leer under Moon pines” is, however, the most powerful image of the circle of closure/nonclosure. That “graves”—the image of the inanimate final resting place—are personified by “leer” and then juxtaposed with enduring images in nature—“Moon pines”—is a contrast to “It's all over,” which finishes the paragraph. But not surprisingly, it does not finish the book. The final paragraph is fraught with active oppositions: “Later,” “back,” “more or less,” “but,” “sunk,” “unexcited,” “tho,” “I live,” “it's a peaceful sorrow,” “in the end,” “A new life for me.”

Of course the creation of this language extends the Kerouac myth, and this final section of Desolation Angels draws the Duluoz legend to its close in the core group of Kerouac's novels. The characters (the Desolate Angels Bill Gaines, Irwin, Simon, and Lazarus) are identified by stock epithets or leitmotifs. In fact, they are deindividuated as characters in the traditional sense and reinvented as figures of myth. Bill Gaines, for example, is elsewhere called “Old Guru Gaines, in fact the first of many characters I was to know from that innocent time to now” (DA, 223). And “Gaines was the now fairly famous character who stole an expensive overcoat every day of his life for twenty years in New York and pawned it for junk, a great thief” (DA, 225). If the characters of The Town and the City are philosophical archetypes and those in On the Road and Visions of Cody “holy” or spiritual archetypes, here they are “angels” and godmen in fuller service to beatitude. Kerouac's mock-heroic progresses from that in his first novel. Comic types thus proliferate: “Everybody in the world is an angel, Charley Chaplin and I have seen their wings” (DA, 66); W. C. Fields is conjured as a voice in a vignette involving the “Thirties Luncheonette” (DA, 107); and Duluoz waits for his friends in Mexico, sitting on the edge of his rooftop, “looking down on the street for the Four Marx Brothers to come walking down Orizaba” (DA, 231). The four principal characters are thus placed within a larger mythic and relentlessly American context.

But their main function is to put the deeply reflective narrator in relief by contrast to them. Unlike the narrator of the earlier works, this Jack Duluoz is most concerned with a self-conscious appraisal of the writer—that is, himself—as he allows life to pass through him as he passes through it in God's image. Thus the God-reflexive/self-reflexive state becomes an aspect of the development of Kerouac's mind as he advances closer to carrying out his own aesthetic philosophy of simultaneity. Duluoz says, “My life is a vast inconsequential epic with a thousand and a million characters—here they all come, as swiftly as we roll east, as swiftly the earth rolls east” (DA, 12).

The moon becomes the chief icon for the new level of consciousness revealed by this novel. Duluoz repeatedly invokes the moon as if it were a poetic muse: “And that night I see the Moon, Citlapol in Aztec, and even draw a picture of it on the moonlit roof with house paint, blue and white” (DA, 228). Thus the moon is connected integrally with the act of writing: “I remember, that is to say, a spasm takes place in my memory chamber of the brain (O hollow moon!)” (DA, 60). The Moon represents a category of belief in the writer/self: “… and over such a text as the Lankavatara Scripture which says things like … Life is like the reflection of the moon on the water, which one is the true moon? meaning: Is reality the unreal part of unreality? or vice versa, when you open the door does anyone enter or is it you?” (DA, 349). This passage supports the life/death theme at the end (“graves leer under Moon pines”). The moon is a circle on one plane and therefore as a shape echoes the shape of the entire work.

The circle also maintains the musical analogy by containing as well the “big rhythmic loops” that allow Kerouac to incorporate even the images that are most ugly and despairing to him:

Because by far the sweetest gift on earth … leads to children who are torn out of the womb screaming for mercy as tho they were being thrown to the Crocodiles of Life—in the River of Lives—which is what birth is. … [F]or every Clark Gable or Gary Cooper born, with all the so called glory (or Hemingway) that goes with it, comes disease, decay, sorrow, lamentation, old age, death, decomposition—meaning, for every little sweet lump of baby born that women croon over, is one vast rotten meat burning slow worms in graves of this earth.

(DA, 267-68)

The image of rebirth is a circle that is repeated in the final pronouncement “A new life for me.” Clearly the return to prebirth bliss is the goal of Kerouac's ultimate journey and his discontent in the world. He writes, “All I remember is that before I was born there was bliss” (DA, 283). Presumably, the ultimate circle is the return to that bliss, in death. The return to that memory of prebirth bliss is the final expression of the Duluoz legend, the end/not-end. The canonical novels—The Town and the City,On the Road,Visions of Cody and Desolation Angels—represent the fullest expression of the life/legend and the spiritual development that completes the story they tell, even as the story remains without end.

Desolation Angels is a refinement of Kerouac's aesthetic philosophy. The circle analogy and musical metaphor go far to explain the culmination of control achieved in Desolation Angels, still written spontaneously as if in one long breath out of a horn but refined by a sensibility that understands the repetition of chord changes as a perpetual opportunity for refinement and revision. Thus Desolation Angels can be seen as the perfection of Kerouac's nonlinear or free prose. And this structural ideal underscores a thematic perfection he seeks as the object of his mythic quest.


  1. Tytell, Naked Angels, p. 174.

  2. Krim, “The Kerouac Legacy,” p. 214.

  3. McNally, Desolate Angel, p. 295.

  4. Tytell, Naked Angels, pp. 174, 175.

  5. Quoted in Tytell, Naked Angels, p. 173.

  6. The Columbia University Archives houses numerous manuscript pages of Kerouac's American haikus. These demonstrate his interest in a poetic form that accompanies his interest in Zen philosophy. In Desolation Angels his prose paragraphs often culminate in haiku lines that form a “bridge” to the next section. Kerouac also mentions his interest in haiku in his Paris Review interview, p. 367.

  7. Kerouac, “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose,” p. 73.

Carl D. Malmgren (essay date winter 1989)

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SOURCE: “On the Road Reconsidered: Kerouac and the Modernist Tradition,” in Ball State University Forum, Vol. 30, No. 1, winter, 1989, pp. 59-67.

[In the following essay, Malmgren asserts that Kerouac achieved an anti-Modernist aesthetic in On the Road.]

There was a conference in Boulder, Colorado, in the summer of 1982 to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication of Jack Kerouac's On the Road. In the brochure advertising the week-long multimedia “event,” various novelists, poets, and critics paid tribute to Kerouac's literary accomplishments. Not surprisingly, the compliments and claims are hyperbolic. William Tallman asserts that “you've got to get past Jack to get down to writing in our time.” James Laughlin states, “I think he was a turning point in the history of modern American fiction.” And the poet Ted Berrigan goes so far as to say, “I think that only with the arrival of Jack Kerouac did American fiction become American.” These are some pretty extravagant claims for the significance of Kerouac and On the Road, even given the promotional context. Now that we have passed the silver anniversary of its publication, it is appropriate to establish the place of On the Road in relation to postwar American fiction, to assess its contribution to the evolution of new narrative forms, to ascertain just how much the “Bible” of the Beat Generation opened new roads for narrative energies, roads that were intended to depart significantly from the closed systems of narrative that predominated in the fifties.

By closed systems of narrative, I refer of course to the other literary narratives of the fifties and, more specifically, to the aesthetic that informed them, an aesthetic that may be termed modernist because it adhered to aesthetic principles formulated by the great modernists and hypostatized by the New Criticism. Some of the tenets of this artistic creed were as follows:

True art is impersonal. T. S. Eliot argues in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” that “the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man that suffers and the mind which creates” (54). A poet must distance himself from his own experiences because “it is not in his personal emotions, the emotions provoked by particular events in his life, that the poet is in any way remarkable or interesting” (57). Elsewhere in the same essay he says that poetry “is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality” (58) and that “the emotion of art is impersonal” (59). Eliot's remarks are about poetry, but they express a point of view that characterized modernist art in general and that called for the necessary separation of art and life.

True art is detached from its subject matter. The artist cultivates an attitude of detachment toward his material, presenting it dispassionately or disinterestedly. Contemporary novelist John Hawkes, describing his own relation with his fictional creations, defines the nature of that detachment and its raison d'être as follows:

Detachment does not mean indifference, detachment is a psychic state that one learns in the face of the most overwhelming emotional destructiveness. You can live and create only when you manage to control, to keep at a distance the terrors that exist within the human being.

This detachment might be accomplished by any number of literary devices, including paradox, deliberate ambiguity, “showing” rather than “telling,” the adoption of ironic masks or unreliable narrators, or Eliot's own “objective correlative.”

The true work of art is, above all, a crafted or made thing. The modernists share an overriding concern or preoccupation with the form or structure of the art work. This fascination manifests itself in a self-consciousness about the how and what of art but, more importantly, in works that were carefully constructed, “architectonic” objects.

These three characteristics—impersonality, detachment, form—are not the only or even the defining characteristics of modernist art, but they constitute the primary literary pillars that Kerouac and other Beat writers attempted to topple.

As suggested above, the modernist definition of art had been, during the forties and fifties, canonized and given normative force by the New Critics in the universities, who acted as the arbiters of order and taste in the world of letters. The Beats rejected the modernist aesthetic as productive of art that had become, over the years, esoteric, obscurantist, elitist, safe, sterile, dead. Beat poetics called for rebellion against all forms of authority, especially culturally sanctioned authority, like Eliot's “great tradition.” It rejected the notion that the artist must distance himself from his material, seeing in it an unhealthy need to control or contain nature, life, people; the Beats preferred to “dig it.” Beat epistemology preferred intuition to logical or rational means of cognition as a more valid means of apprehending and comprehending are problematics of experience. For them the more authentic way is an emotive being that is more immediate, more true. Accordingly, the Beats tended to exalt the unique moment and the pure sensation of the experiencing and testifying individual—poetry for them was very much the expression of personality, the “with it” personality, not an escape into impersonality. Where the modernist sensibility preferred its life “cooked,” the Beats desired to present it “raw.” Where the modernist sensibility leads to and culminates in Wallace Stevens's idea of poetry as the “supreme fiction,” the Beats took their lead from William Carlos Williams's dictum: “no ideas but in things” (Paterson 1.15).

Kerouac championed the Beat sensibility and its corresponding aesthetic in his literary manifesto, “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose.” In this piece he specifies how the Beat Generation expresses itself in prose narrative. He calls for a highly personal and confessional narrative, one scribbled down without correction and at a high speed in a quest for spontaneity and, consequently, authenticity: “Never afterthink to ‘improve’ or defray impressions, as the best writing is always the most painful personal wrung-out tossed from cradle warm protective mind” (532). He thus subverts the modernist emphasis upon impersonality and form and le mot juste; he even subsumes the latter two under the word “craft,” a word that he uses pejoratively. His own work is interesting just because it is not “crafted.” For Kerouac revision is a form of inhibition, a repressive force that muddies the purity of the vision, destroys the immediacy of the experience recounted, dilutes the impact of “felt” life. He admits having been a “craftsman” once, but at inordinate expense to his writing:

And be sure of this, I spent my entire youth writing slowly with revisions and endless rehashing speculation and deleting and got so I was writing one sentence a day and the sentence had no FEELING. Goddam it, FEELING is what I like in art, not CRAFTINESS and the hiding of feelings.

(“Art of Fiction” 541)

The best writing approximates the emotional release of orgasm: “Come from within, out—to be relaxed and said” (Kerouac, “Essentials” 533).

This form of writing, Kerouac asserts, will not only convey an emotional charge, it will also come closer to the original experience and thus be more authentic. To write spontaneously is to discard the artistic mask, a mask that for Kerouac is a sign of distance and dishonesty: “If you don't stick to what you first thought, and to the words the thought brought, what's the sense of bothering with it anyway, what's the sense of foisting your little lies on others?” (Jones 500). When one denies the mask, one removes the artificial barriers between art and life and exposes the naked self, regardless of the personal or artistic consequences.

One critic summarizes Kerouac's attack on modernist literary “sacred cows” as follows:

The writer was not to revise his original impulses, for revision was a function of conditioning, a concession to standards of taste and propriety. … Revision was inhibition, the censoring of the purity of the artist's vision, the betrayal of immediacy, the lie in the face of actual experience.

(Tytell 144)

In order to breathe life back into art and to bring art back to life, Kerouac felt compelled to abandon modernist precepts and to run the risks of “imitative form.” The new narrative idiom more faithfully conveyed the “feel” of contemporary life. The polemical call for a spontaneous prose, then, was at once a rejection of an outdated literary code and at the same time a project for a new, free, more authentic narrative form.

Kerouac felt he had achieved the beginnings of this narrative revolution in On the Road. The Kerouac figure in Desolation Angels describes the earlier novel in the following way:

I was originating (without knowing it, you say?) a new way of writing about life, no fiction, no craft, no revising afterthoughts, all of it innocent goahead confession, the discipline of making the mind the slave of the tongue with no chance to lie or elaborate.

(Tytell 146)

In On the Road, then, Kerouac was attempting a new kind of narrative, one incapable of “lying,” if only because it tried to tell everything, all at once, to let it all spill out at once according to the peregrinations of a retentive active mind. And in its original form, it certainly was a radically shaped narrative. Kerouac had typed the entire novel in one paragraph on a typewriter scroll 250 feet long, without using any other punctuation than the dash. It is perhaps a measure of his “revisionism” that at his publisher's insistence (after waiting six years for someone to publish it), he agreed to allow the work to appear in well-punctuated, tidy paragraphs, divided into five sections. He even condensed a number of the cross-country journeys in order to give the novel a tighter structure. Allen Ginsberg, for one, insists that we have yet to read or experience the “real” On the Road.

It is, of course, the published version that I would like to examine, in order to assess its “newness,” its status as innovative or experimental fiction. First, we might consider the setting of the novel. It is almost redundant to say that almost all the episodes in the novel take place “on the road.” It would be more pertinent to point out that Kerouac deliberately invests the road with symbolic value, a value it traditionally has had in American road narratives from Huckleberry Finn to Catcher in the Rye. The road represents an avenue of escape from the limitations, restrictions, conformity, and claustrophobia of society, from the regimentation inherent in mass society and its organizations. To go “on the road” is to enter a kind of interzone where all the “mad” misfits inevitably meet and mingle and where there exists the possibility of growth and choice and spontaneity. To envision the road in this manner is not really to depart from a time-honored American tradition, but it should be noted that Kerouac could conceive of personal freedom only in the form of a flight from an oppressive society and that he necessarily took his show “on the road.”

Adhering to another tradition of road narrative, Kerouac adopted the potentially open-ended picaresque mode as the armature of plot. The picaresque mode, with its episodic form and its apparent submission to contingency, conventionally allows life to assert primacy over the aesthetic demands of art. A picaro follows the call of life or chance. In On the Road, Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty wander from adventure to adventure, responding to the call of the road, exploring and experiencing the squalid and sensational subterranean zone of American life. Sal and Dean are true picaros, to be distinguished from the quasi-picaresque heroes of two other famous fifties novels that also take place on the road, The Catcher in the Rye and Henderson the Rain King. Salinger's Holden Caulfield and Bellow's Henderson both go on the road in search of something, although that something may not be well defined. As numerous critics have argued, they are both picaro-pilgrims, journeying through an enigmatic and occasionally hostile world toward some unknown temple of truth. Although Sal Paradise exults about the possibilities of “visions” somewhere ahead, and although he and Dean seem from time to time to approach asymptotically the elusive “IT,” in fact their various journeys are not so much motivated by a specific goal as by a simple need to be on the road. Throughout the novel, various minor characters (like Carlo Marx once he has become “straight”) pose the question “Where are you going?” but for Dean and Sal the question is irrelevant. For them the road is not a means but an end. The road is their element: “And [Dean] hunched over the wheel and gunned her. … We were all delighted, we all realized we were leaving confusion and nonsense behind and performing our one and noble function of the time, move! And we moved!” (Kerouac, Road 133-34). Their movement, like the novel, has no specific telos.

If On the Road is a true picaresque novel in terms of plot, it deviates from the traditional picaresque in terms of function. The traditional picaresque serves a satirical function, pointing out the vices, wickedness, selfishness, etc., of the so-called good society through which the picaro moves. The picaro goes on the road ultimately to discover the “way of the world” and to suggest a more ethical alternative. On the Road, though it does make the distinction between the world of the Beats and that of the “squares,” does not dwell on the conformity, the hypocrisy, the emptiness, of that latter world. In fact, throughout the novel, we remain immersed not in the world of the squares, but in the fringe mileu of the Beats, which Kerouac is at pains to celebrate. On the Road is a novel that, like Dean, continually and fervently says “Yes!” It recounts Sal Paradise's love affair with the road, an affair that has its sensual side. The car hugs the white line in the middle of the road, Dean caresses or cradles the steering wheel, the road stretches out in front of them like an object of desire, with more allure than the various women the two men encounter along it.

By way of summary, then, the picaresque mode invests On the Road with a degree of formal openness that in itself distinguishes the novel from others of the fifties. The novel also does away with the modernist techniques of impersonality and detachment. In the original manuscript, Kerouac used the real names of his “real life” characters (Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassidy, Allen Ginsberg, Carolyn Cassidy, etc.). He supplied pseudonyms only at the insistence of his publishers, who were worried about possible lawsuits. In effect, Kerouac was trying to tell the “true” story of the way it was on the road in the early 1950s, to erase the artificial distinction between art and life. And there is no irony or detachment in the discourse of the narrator Sal Paradise, from the moment that he first declares his true allegiances:

[T]he only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.


Sal's discourse is throughout emotional, impassioned, honest, and open, and it is meant to be taken at face value.

On the Road then is a narrative with a degree of formal openness, a narrative that rejects detachment and impersonality in favor of (to borrow Kerouac's own words) “a wild yea-saying overburst of American joy” (10). But is it a radically different or “new” novel? Reading it twenty-five years after, I would argue that it really does not come across as radical. Even the subject matter does not seem so daring. More important, it seems very easy to read (if a trifle embarrassing in places) just because it invites a “reading.” A “reading” is the kind of activity the readerly text (Barthes's lisible) elicits from the reader—the formulation of a total, comprehensive vision of the world depicted in the text.1On the Road invites (one might even say demands) just such a reading.

It is not to my purpose here to supply the full argument for such a reading, but I would like to suggest those elements that point to its existence and define its boundaries. First, there is the structure of the text. The novel is divided into five “parts,” each of which centers on one journey across the country and back. In part one, an innocent and romantic Sal makes the journey alone, and the entire circuit is given relatively equal emphasis. In part two, Dean comes looking for Sal, and the emphasis is upon their journey from East to West (where Dean typically abandons Sal). The third part, the centerpiece of the novel, begins with Sal seeking out Dean for the first time, a fact that Dean is quick to recognize as important, and recounts their careening ride alone together (for the first time) from West to East, to New York City. Part four gives us a journey from North to South, to the “end of the road” in Mexico City, where Dean abandons Sal again. In the brief epilog of part five, Dean, now completely tattered and totally speechless, makes a lonely and desolate circuit of the country simply to “see” Sal. There is a pattern, a kind of formal elegance, to the apparently random movement in the text. In part one, Sal journeys alone; in part five, Dean makes the solo trip. In parts two and three, they travel together, but in opposite directions. In part four, they go from North to South to the climactic experience at the end of the road. This five-part structure contains a rhythm predicated upon the number of people on the road, the direction they take, and the inevitable collapse at the end of each journey. Seen from this point of view, On the Road is a rather “crafted” narrative.

More important, this structure reinforces the basic thematic thrust of the novel. The novel begins and ends with Dean Moriarty. The first page begins, “I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up” (3); the novel ends with the words, “I think of Dean Moriarty” (310). Dean remains the center of attention throughout the novel, even when he is waiting in the wings. Dean epitomizes life on the road for Sal, as numerous passages make clear, and his narrative about road life necessarily evolves into the story of his relation with Dean: “With the coming of Dean Moriarty began the part of my life you could call my life on the road” (3). As one critic has argued, On the Road is a love story, chronicling the vicissitudes of a relation between two men (Dardess: 200-06). It is Dean who gives Sal the impetus to go on the road in part one, they go on the road together in part two, and the relationship is cemented in part three, where Sal refers to Dean as his “brother” and where he is Dean's lone defender. In part four, the journey to the end of the road in Mexico, Sal begins to retreat a bit in his hero-worship of Dean, and he refers to Dean's mania in apocalyptic terms. Part five finds Dean on the road alone, tattered, shattered, speechless. The novel ends with a lyric evocation of Dean, one that suggests that he is gone (as is life on the road), but not forgotten:

So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, … I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty.


The tone here is elegiac; Paradise knows that life on the road is over, but by asserting his attachment to Dean, he affirms the value of the experience, a value implicit in the fact that he tells the story in the first place. Sal never repudiates either the “road” or Dean. To go on the road is for Sal both an end in itself and a necessary stage in life. To go on the road means to become like Dean, to hold intellection and evaluation in suspension and to experience life in the raw. On the road, life is, as Kierkegaard says, “not a problem to be solved but a reality to be experienced” (Jones 503). This is the vision that Kerouac attempts both to enact and to convey in On the Road.

I had said that I would not attempt a “reading” of the novel, and I see that that is exactly what I have done—inevitably, I might argue. It was inevitable because Kerouac, like the modernists he rejects, writes essentially in the romantic tradition. That tradition conceives the artist as outsider or pariah, but also as a clerical figure in a prosaic world, as (to borrow from Joyce) “priest of the eternal imagination,” gifted with powers to discover order in a world in which the “center will not hold.” This romantic belief or sensibility places Kerouac's On the Road in a novelistic great tradition and, at the same time, limits its value as a radically new narrative form. In effect, Kerouac's intent is exactly the same as that of the modernists—to interpret the human condition in the light of an achieved (as opposed to “imposed”) comprehensive world view. This aim we can refer to as “totalization.”2 The novelist attempts to render a “total” vision of reality and to endow public or private life with significance. He or she pulls away the veil and reveals some deeper, hidden truth, however fragile and ephemeral. We might refer to Kerouac's brand of truth-seeking as non-analytic totalization, but he still belongs to the grand Western tradition of the totalizing novel. In the final analysis how really different is the experiencing of IT (so sought after by Sal and Dean) from the Joycean epiphany?

Ihab Hassan, in his study of the fiction of the fifties, Radical Innocence, makes the following generalizations about the nature of the fifties protagonist:

Precisely what the new hero stands for, no one can yet define. He is not exactly the liberal's idea of victim, not the conservative's idea of pariah, not the radical's idea of the rebel. Or perhaps he is all of these things and none in particular. … [F]lawed in his sainthood and grotesque in his criminality, he finally appears as an expression of man's quenchless desire to affirm, despite the voids and vicissitudes of our age, the human sense, of life!


Another critic of the fifties, Irving Howe, describes the true subject of fifties fiction as “the recurrent search … for personal identity and freedom” (203). Neither man is thinking specifically of Kerouac's On the Road, but they might be. My point is that, despite claims to the contrary, Kerouac's novel fits very cozily with the rest of the fiction of the fifties, that Sal Paradise could be Augie March's or Frank Alpine's brother, that the creators of such characters see narrative as an act of cognitive self-discovery. On the Road is a novel of its time.

Kerouac's writing might best be described as anti-modernist, more reactionary than revolutionary. That is, he rejects modernist techniques and writes with the stated intention of undermining or unseating them, as do certain British writers like C. P. Snow and Kingsley Amis. But at the same time, he remains within the tradition of the totalizing novel, and that fact dramatically reduces the radicalness of his achievement.

Imamu Baraka said of the novel soon after its publication in 1957 that “On the Road breaks new ground, and plants new seeds” (Baraka 1x). We can refer to On the Road as ground-breaking in a limited sense of the word. That is, it breaks or overturns the ground of an accepted and encrusted literary canon and perhaps even sows the seeds of the new narrative forms that appeared in the sixties, for a postmodernist fiction. For one thing, Kerouac's highly confessional mode suggested new possible relations between art and life. His extensive use of autobiographical material prefigures the non-fiction novel and the work of Mailer, Capote, and Hunter Thompson. His technique of transcribing literally and verbatim the convolutions of his mind perhaps serves as a model for a novel like Warhol's a—a literal transcription of the random conversations in a New York apartment—or even the transcriptional technique that William Gaddis employs in JR. The way he confuses or collapses the realms of fiction and autobiography prefigures the works of fictionists like Ronals Sukenick and Raymond Federman, works that highlight the fictionality of reality and the reality of fiction. And the very publication of On the Road opened the doors for any number of “fringe” narratives, like William Burroughs's Naked Lunch (published in 1959), works that were thematically and formally more daring and experimental. I think one can say that On the Road, even if it did not itself discover the open road to new narrative domains, at least indicated where that road might be found.


  1. For a definition of the readerly text, see Roland Barthes, S/Z, tr. Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 1974), 156, 181-82.

  2. For a discussion of totalization and the non-totalizing novel, see Mas'ad Zavarzadeh, The Mythoporic Reality: The Postwar American Nonfiction Novel (Urbana, Illinois: U of Illinois P, 1976), esp. chap. 1.

Works Cited

Baraka, Imamu. “Introduction.” On the Road: Text and Criticism. Ed. Scott Donaldson. New York: Viking, 1979. vii-xiii.

Dardess, George. “The Delicate Dynamics of Friendship: A Reconsideration of Kerouac's On the Road.American Literature 46 (1975): 200-06.

Eliot, T. S. “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism. 1920. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1964. 47-59.

Hassan, Ihab. Radical Innocence: Studies in the Contemporary American Novel. New York: Harper and Row, 1961.

Hawkes, John. “Response to Richard Yarborough.” Mosaic 8.1 (1974): 17-28.

Howe, Irving. “Mass Society and Postmodern Fiction.” Decline of the New. New York: Harcourt Brace and World, 1963.

Jones, Granville H. “Jack Kerouac and the American Conscience.” On the Road: Text and Criticism. Ed. Scott Donaldson. New York: Viking, 1979. 485-503.

Kerouac, Jack. “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose.” On the Road: Text and Criticism. Ed. Scott Donaldson. New York: Viking, 1979. 531-33.

———. Interview with Ted Berrigan. “The Art of Fiction XLI: Jack Kerouac.” On the Road: Text and Criticism. Ed. Scott Donaldson. New York: Viking, 1979. 538-72.

———. On the Road. 1957. New York: Viking, 1974.

Tytell, John. Naked Angels. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976.

Williams, William Carlos. Paterson. New York: Vail-Ballon P, 1951.

Further Reading

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French, Warren. Jack Kerouac. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1986, 147 p.

Biographical and critical study.

McDarrah, Fred W, ed. Kerouac and Friends: A Beat Generation Album. New York: William Morrow and Co., 1985, 338 p.

Illustrated collection of reprinted and original essays recollecting the Beat era of the 1950s.


Coolidge, Clark. “Kerouac.” The American Poetry Review 24, No. 1 (January-February 1995): 43-9.

Analysis of Kerouac's poetic and prose style.

Foster, Edward Halsey. “Kerouac.” In Understanding the Beats, pp. 28-83. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1992.

Introductory biographical and critical essay.

Additional coverage of Kerouac's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers Supplement; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 25; Authors in the News, Vol. 1; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography & Resources, Vol. 2; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography, 1941-1968; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8R, 25-28R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 26, 54; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 5, 14, 29, 61; Contemporary Popular Writers; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 2, 16; Dictionary of Literary Biography Documentary Series, Vol. 3; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, 1995; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors, Novelists, Popular Fiction and Genre Authors, and Poets; Gay & Lesbian Literature, Vol. 1; Literature Resource Center; Novels for Students, Vol. 8; Reference Guide to American Literature; World Literature Criticism; and World Poets.

Gerald Nicosia (essay date 1990)

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SOURCE: “Kerouac: Writer without a Home,” in Un Homme Grand: Kerouac at the Crossroads of Many Cultures, edited by Pierre Anctil, Louis Dupont, Rémi Ferland, and Eric Waddell, Carleton University Press, 1990, pp. 19-39.

[In the following essay, Nicosia examines the theme of homelessness in Kerouac's writings, as well as the biographical reasons behind the recurrent theme.]

Near the end of his novel On the Road, Jack Kerouac's persona Sal Paradise sings a little poem:

Home in Missoula,
Home in Truckee,
Home in Opelousas,
Ain't no home for me.
Home in old Medora,
Home in Wounded Knee,
Home in Ogallala,
Home I'll never be.

It comes at a point in the book, based on Kerouac's own experience living with his mother, when the narrator is living with his aunt in New York. He has just sold a novel (The Town and the City) and has fine prospects of becoming a successful writer in the literary capital of America. Instead of exploiting this opportunity, he packs his belongings into a rucksack and once again sets out on a bus going west. Why does he leave? Kerouac explained: “Whenever spring comes to New York I can't stand the suggestions of the land that come blowing over the river from New Jersey and I've got to go.” For a writer so concerned about his homelessness, it might seem strange to be voluntarily leaving home. But the truth is that Kerouac's whole life was a search for the home he never had.

Of course, Kerouac did have a home, like everyone else. He was born and raised in the French-Canadian community in Lowell, Massachusetts, during the 1920s and 1930s. It was a place he would come to love above all others on earth—the empty, red brick mill buildings, the machine noise and inky smell of his father's print shop, the canals built for hydraulic power, the Merrimack and Concord Rivers, the high old haunted-looking frame houses, the tarry street corners where French and Irish and Greek kids played games and made mock wars and dreamed of triumphs that for most of them would forever remain imaginary. It was the time of the Great Depression, when men went for long periods without work; but that meant more time to get together, have fun, and share with one another at big dinners and parties. His own family belonged to a set of about a dozen couples that met every week at a different house for food and merriment. What people lacked in money and material wealth, they made up for in camaraderie and loyalty to friends and family. It was an enchanted time, a time of love and promise, for the world could only get better, it seemed, and good times were just around the corner.

What happened, instead, was the Second World War, and the uprooting of millions of families. Jack Kerouac's father Leo lost his printing job in the late 1930s, and after several moves the family ended up in New York, since his parents wished to be near Kerouac while he studied at Columbia University, and near to their daughter Nin, who was in the WACS (Womens Army Corps). But his father was not able to hold a steady job in New York either. Soon he contracted cancer of the spleen, and for two years before his death, his life was a living hell. Jack was permanently traumatized by the sight of his father dying this slow, painful death. Worse, his father bequeathed a great bitterness to Jack during this time, while Jack helped to care for him. Leo Kerouac told his son that life always ended badly, that one's happy days quickly perished, and that one was left with only loss and a bleak old age. Then, as if to confirm the prophecy and at the same time to try to refute it, he died in Jack's arms, making Jack promise to take care of his wife Gabrielle.

The move to New York and the subsequent death of his father were major forces behind Jack Kerouac's enormous insecurity. But looking at the earlier stages of his life one finds that Kerouac's childhood, however rich in mythic lore and family intimacy, was far from secure. His brother Gérard, whom he was inseparably attached to, died a painful death from rheumatic fever when Jack was only four. The family moved nearly twenty times before Jack was seventeen—a sign of poverty and other financial problems, most notably Leo Kerouac's penchant for gambling away his paychecks on poker games and the racetrack. Moreover, Jack Kerouac could not speak English until he was seven years old. Like other French-Canadians who had come to New England to work in the mills, the young Jack Kerouac found himself an alien because of his language and his heritage.

His mother was herself an orphan in New Hampshire—she had lost her twin sister at birth, and her mother and father soon afterward—and so she was doubly deprived of both historical and personal continuity. Yet it was from listening to his mother's and his aunt's tales of a happier life in Canada, he said, that he learned the art of “natural story-telling”. His first introduction to writing, then, came from hearing descriptions of a better world that was also a lost world—a paradise lost to the senses but not to the imagination, and recoverable, at least in part, through the magic of language.

With the coming of World War II, the whole nation began to experience the same sense of homelessness and rootlessness that had long troubled Jack Kerouac. He dropped out of Columbia University, where he had never felt at home—where he was continually ridiculed for his clothing which never fit quite right, and for his working-class manners. He was at Columbia because he could play football, not because he fit in with the scions of Ivy League society. So he signed up with the Navy, but got himself discharged by punching a commanding officer who had reprimanded him for smoking before breakfast. He made a couple of trips with the Merchant Marine, then got himself blacklisted by jumping ship in Norfolk, Virginia. Back in New York, no longer a student but a kind of raffish dropout, he hung aroung Columbia University and Times Square and began meeting the future members of the Beat Generation - a substitute family that was more satisfying than the bleak apartment on Long Island where his father lay dying of cancer and his mother kept reproaching him for his uncouth lifestyle. For a brief time the apartments he shared with his future wife Edie, William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Hal Chase, Joan Adams, and other disenchanted young rebels became a veritable home away from home. But Lucien Carr's homicide of Burroughs' friend David Kammerer, and Jack's subsequent arrest as a material witness, put an end to that brief, joyous interlude. Then came the death of his father, the meeting with Neal Cassady, and the promise of the great spaces of the West, where even oddball writers might find a place to fit in.

The literary influence of Thomas Wolfe upon Kerouac has often been noted, but it is seldom pointed out that one of the key themes that both writers share is the mourning and eulogizing of a home they cannot return to—Wolfe's in Asheville, North Carolina, Kerouac's in Lowell. Kerouac's first novel, The Town and the City, can be read as a very literal record of this loss and the resulting disorientation experienced by all the characters — but most poignantly, and autobiographically, by Peter Martin, whose life most closely parallels Jack's own.

The motif of a lost home runs through The Town and the City. It is seen at the very beginning, when two neighbour boys run away from home, and Peter agrees to hide their trail from family and police. Later, when the boys run into real trouble, Peter and two of his brothers set out on their own to rescue them, and they in turn get in trouble when their boat is driven ashore in a storm. Suddenly they find themselves drenched by something colder than rain:

It seemed to the boys that there was something they had betrayed, something that had to do with home, their parents, their brothers and sisters, even their things in drawers and boxes in closets and chests—and that this now was their dark punishment.

The same theme recurs in the older brother Joe's wanderlust and his bouts of madness in wartime England, where he goes AWOL and loses the last traces of his patriotism in prison. When he returns to the United States after the war, Joe finds hardly any difference:

… between love or indifference, devotion or disgust, confidence or carelessness, and finally—between living joy or outlawish fury … there was no more joy, somehow no more beauty in life, no more young man's awe and delight in it, and it seemed to him that something was over and done with.

Even more significantly, we see this confused sense of direction in the arguments that Peter and his lover Judy (based on Edie Parker) have about the question of getting married. She often complains to him that he is still a child because he can't bring himself to settle down with her, and instead keeps disappearing for days at a time. He claims he wants to spend time at home with his parents, but she contends that he should make a new home with her. Peter refuses, accusing:

You want to get married, but you don't want anything that goes with it. Sure, sure, you want to get married … I don't know what kind of mother you'd make—you won't even speak a civil word to my own folks.

She protests that she wants to marry him, not his folks, but he counters that: “Where I come from young married couples get along with their folks.”

There is already an irreconcilable split between the world of exciting kicks in Manhattan, to which Peter is fatally attracted, and the last vestiges of small-town domesticity represented by his folks, which seems to offer his only hope for inner peace. He cannot have both, but he wants neither by itself. And so, at the end of the novel Peter, like Kerouac himself, hits the road in search of a new home where the opposite drives in his psyche can be satisfied. He seems confident that such a place can be found: “Don't worry about me,” he cried. “It's not raining hard at all. See? Just a drizzle, just a little drizzle. I'll be all right.” But it is clear that his journey will be long and solitary:

He was on the road again, travelling the continent westward, going off to further and further years, alone by the waters of life, alone, looking towards the lights of the river's cape, towards tapers burning warmly in the towns, looking down along the shore in remembrance of the dearness of his father and of all life.

In other words, the very nature of the journey almost precludes the possibility of his ever finding the kind of comfort and the sense of belonging he has left behind—the pursuit of this home is rendered futile even as it is begun. That both Peter and Kerouac perceive this is illustrated by the ghosts that cry out as the journey begins: “Peter, Peter! Where are you going, Peter?” They are answered only by “a big soft gust of rain”; and, as if inured to his perpetual exile, Peter: “put up the collar of his jacket, and bowed his head, and hurried along.”

Of course, when the ghosts, “the dear voices of everybody he had known”, cry out to him, “Where are you going?” the question refers to more than just physical direction—travels in the real world. The question also has to do with the career and lifestyle Kerouac has chosen, so different from that of his ancestors — French-Canadian farmers and carpenters and small shopkeepers—and from the Breton and Cornish seamen that preceded them. His family and ethnic heritage comprised working-class people who earned their living by physical toil. He alone had chosen to become an intellectual, a writer, an artist. He was well aware of the working man's scorn of such an effete, superfluous profession. His own father had scorned writers as “sissies” and degenerates, and he had warned Jack against spending time with such dangerous ne'er-do-well young poets as Sam Sampas and Allen Ginsberg, whom Leo Kerouac called “the cockroach”. In the eyes of Jack's father, artists were parasites; most of all he worried that as a writer Jack would not be able to earn his own living, let alone support a family. For most of Jack's life, that worry proved all too true.

Spiritually Jack was treading on even more perilous ground. His friend Ed White tells of how in the late 1940s Kerouac was seriously tormented by the question of whether or not he should remain a member of the Catholic Church. The Church was a strong tie with centuries of French tradition, and his own mother was a devout believer and churchgoer. But Kerouac concluded that he could not explore life sufficiently—which he needed to do as a writer—and still obey all the proscriptions that are incumbent on a good Catholic. He wanted to get drunk, to get high and get wild, and to enjoy all the pleasures of the body as well as the spirit. A part of Jack Kerouac always wanted to remain a solitary, ascetic Catholic mystic saint, scribbling his visions of heaven. But it was only in “the streets of life”, he said, that he could find the material for those visions. His brother Gérard, whom the nuns of St-Louis-de-France had called a saint, did not have to live to adulthood and struggle with adult desires, passions, and needs. Jack Kerouac, as obsessed with heaven as his brother, had to carry that quest into the real world, and the resulting paradoxes and ambivalences literally tore him apart. Perhaps that is why he often spoke of reaching a point where he would not have to write any more—where his visions would be sufficiently pure and clear that they would not need to be articulated in words. But he never reached that point, and so he never completely returned to the Catholic Church in his lifetime, though he died believing in and praying to Jesus Christ. His choice of art over religion was in some ways a measure of his integrity, but it was one more destroyer of his peace of mind, and made the possibility of finding a home even more remote.

On the other hand, Jack Kerouac was not breaking completely with family tradition by leaving the Church, since his father Leo was vociferously anti-Catholic. But Leo Kerouac had other strong anchors to the real world—a wife, children, a good trade—which his son lacked. Nor did Leo stray into such foreign and spiritually difficult waters as Jack—neo-platonism, existentialism, Zen Buddhism, etc. For Leo Kerouac, to disavow Catholicism was just a convenient ploy for a jovial businessman who liked good times, drinking and gambling and an occasional extramarital adventure. For Jack Kerouac, leaving the Catholic Church meant leaving behind any certainty about life, the meaning of life, and his own purpose in life. It meant he was completely free, and thus completely alone, in the struggle to define his own identity.

The core of Kerouac's most famous novel, On the Road, is Jack's fascination with Neal Cassady. And a great part of that fascination lies in the fact that Cassady is a saint—however unusual a variety—who goes all over the continent having fun and yet “moaning for man”, appreciating mankind's suffering and caring for it as much as he is able. Thus Cassady—known as Dean Moriarty in the novel—is never really a stranger or an outsider; he creates a family around him wherever he is at the moment. He is at home everywhere, whether in a little village in Mexico or in New York City; women love him, men love him, children love him. At one point Dean, like the reallife Neal, has wives and children in both New York and San Francisco. But rather than condemning him as a bigamist, Kerouac praises the exuberance of Cassady's life force, and of his attachment to other people. He is not the lonesome writer that Kerouac is, and Kerouac wishes desperately to be like him. But Jack is never able to work steadily at a paying job as Cassady did on the railroad, or to devote himself to a woman with the lifelong dedication of Cassady, who continued seeing his wives and lovers long after he divorced or broke up with them.

In real life, Kerouac was continually drawn to Cassady not only because of the excitement Neal generated, but also because he allowed Kerouac to enter into his extended family, and even to become the lover of his wife Carolyn. Bill Tomson, a close friend of Neal's, said that Neal used Jack's love for Carolyn as a means of manipulating Jack's friendship for him. According to Tomson, Neal always held over Jack's head the threat that he might at any time reclaim Carolyn, who was of course his lawful wife. Thus Jack was only being allowed to participate in the Cassady family by Neal's good grace, which could be revoked any moment, especially if Jack did not pay sufficient homage to Neal's masculine superiority. In fact, Jack described the nature of his problems with Neal in a similar fashion in a letter to John Clellon Holmes, where he complained of Neal cultivating the “familiar American pseudo-virility of workingmen and basketball players.”

The root of the problem was that Jack Kerouac was never capable of forming his own family, of being the breadwinner and paterfamilias that his own father Leo had been. In On the Road Sal (who is Jack) and Dean continually seek for Dean's lost father, but in effect they are searching for the father in themselves—a quest in which Dean succeeds too well, whereas Sal (Jack) succeeds not at all. In real life, Kerouac could never bring himself to acknowledge paternity of his daughter Jan, not even when he met her face to face, when she was sixteen and about to leave for Mexico. He told her, “Sure, go to Mexico. Use my name. Write a book.” That was as close as he could come to acting as a father toward her. And in cutting off his connection to his own child, to future generations, he was also cutting off his own tie to the French-Canadian ancestors whom he so deeply revered. That is the great irony of his life—that the heart of his writing, like William Saroyan's, is respect and admiration for the family, for the continuity of generations upon the earth, but in order to write the story of that continuity he was forced to isolate himself from almost everyone close to him.

The novelist Nelson Algren, himself a victim of several bad marriages and love affairs, once wrote that writers must inevitably lead lonely lives. According to him:

The writer needs, as much as anybody, he needs this steady situation with one woman and he knows, as everybody knows, that it's not good to scatter yourself. If you stay with one woman then it gets better. But, if you do that, the conflict arises in this because he not only wants that, but he also wants to use this particular ability he has. Everybody he knows, anybody can get married and have children. He wants to be the one who does it differently. Anybody just by falling in love and having somebody fall in love with him can achieve that, but not many people can get love the way Dickens had, where people, an ordinary housewife, would follow him down the street and thank him for the people he had given her. So this is a very rare opportunity and if you see this, and even if you only see it or even if you begin to get through letters from people you've never seen a kind of a love and a kind of a recognition that you're helping them, this is something more. This is something that can seem to the writer to make it worth while giving up the stable situation.

Clearly Jack Kerouac wanted that something more—the love and recognition of his country and his people. Like Whitman he wanted to be a voice both for past ages and for the unborn. And he could not at the same time manage a steady commitment to a wife and children. Algren at least had a home in the city of Chicago, where he lived for most of his life, even though Chicago often repudiated him and severely criticized his pictures of the city. But Kerouac had lost Lowell as a teenager, and did not come to live there again till a few years before his death. The only real tie he had to humanity was in the person of his mother, Gabrielle Kerouac, known as Mémère.

Quite simply, Mémère represented home to him. Much has been made of that mother-son connection, in Freudian neurotic terms, and there is no doubt some truth to the unhealthy quality of Jack's great dependence on her. One of the poems he liked to read began with the line, “I keep falling in love with my mother.” But he did not mean merely that his mother held more attraction for him than most of the women he knew; but rather, that he needed that confirmation of love which only his mother provided with any consistency, and which he had failed to find elsewhere in thousands and thousands of miles of travel. Home, after all, is where you are loved and accepted, and it was only with his mother that he could be certain of feeling that way.

Again, in Kerouac's novel The Subterraneans, critics often attach an Oedipal significance to the narrator Leo's rejecting the black woman Mardou in favor of his mother. But there is a very important passage near the end of the book, when he speaks of his fear that Mardou will some day disappear. In terror of being left alone, he has a vision of his mother's face that reassures him. He seems to hear her speaking to him in dialectical French:

Pauvre Ti Leo, pauvre Ti Leo, tu souffri, les hommes souffri tant, y'ainque toi dans le monde j'va't prendre soin, j'aim'ra beaucoup t'prendre soin tous les jours mon ange. Poor Little Leo, poor Little Leo, you suffer, men suffer so, you're all alone in the world I'll take care of you, I would very much like to take care of you all your days my angel.

He attributes his deep attachment to his mother to the fact that she will unconditionally offer him a vision of the face of the woman:

… who is your mother who loves you so much she has supported you and protected you for years, you a bum, a drunkard—never complained a jot—because she knows that in your present state you can't go out in the world and make a living and take care of yourself and even find and hold the love of another protecting woman.

Similarly, in his book Lonesome Traveler, Kerouac tells how after a week of sightseeing in London, he listens to a performance of Bach's St. Matthew's Passion by the St. Paul's choir, and suddenly sees “a vision of an angel in my mother's kitchen”, which suggests to him that it is time to return “home to sweet America again.” It is interesting how the combination of Christian music with memories of his mother inspires him to go back to his house in Florida and resume writing; as he leaves St. Paul's Cathedral, he writes, “I saw my own mission.” Clearly that mission is as much to find a home as to write the story of his search; and somehow he believes that the writing will lead him to his goal.

It is also useful to examine Kerouac's interest in Buddhism as a further extension of his search for a home. Homelessness is one of the principal themes of his Buddhist novel The Dharma Bums. As he hitch-hikes, the narrator Ray Smith sings a song called “Everybody's Got a Home but Me”. He speaks of the bleak feelings of homelessness that oppress him in cheap hotel rooms along the road. And most movingly, he relates how one night in a hobo jungle in Los Angeles, for no particular reason, he began to cry: “I felt rather sad, in fact real sad … After all, a homeless man has reason to cry, everything in the world is pointed against him.” The function of his Buddhism is in some ways to deny the importance of a physical home, by declaring that the world, indeed the whole universe, is completely empty. At the same time, that vast emptiness becomes a kind of ultimate, supreme home for him. He is empty, the world is empty, and that emptiness is where he belongs:

I am God, I am Buddha, I am imperfect Ray Smith, all at the same time, I am empty space, I am all things, I have all the time in the world from life to life to do what is to do, to do what is done, to do the timeless doing, infinitely perfect within, why cry, why worry. …

He tries to convince himself it is “better to sleep in an uncomfortable bed free, than sleep in a comfortable bed unfree.”

To the perfect Buddhist sage, of course, one's home is in the tranquility of the one mind; and it matters not whether you sleep in a mansion or by the side of the road. In San Francisco Blues he wrote: “I want to go to Golden—that's my home—sleep in my golden dream.” But the truth is that Jack Kerouac never attained such serene acceptance. His good friend Gary Snyder, a practicing Buddhist, said that in his more honest moments Jack knew better than to claim he was a Buddha. Jack's endless religious preoccupation was rooted in his inability to accept any solution completely. In effect, he was often seeing his own problems reflected in various religious scriptures, rather than entering into those scriptures on their own terms. So it was that what attracted him in both Buddhism and Christianity was the description of the holy wanderer, the man without a home who then embraces all of humanity—in the case of Buddhism, the whole sentient universe—because of its similar situation. One of the most famous passages in the New Testament is Jesus' declaration that: “the foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.” In a description of St. Patrick's Cathedral in “Manhattan Sketches”, Kerouac writes a wonderful paean to Saint Joseph as “an old hobo saint of haylofts and camel trails.” What Kerouac loves about Saint Joseph is his absolute humility and lack of pretension:

… eyes lowered to a mystery he himself wasn't hipped to yet he'll go along in the belief that poor St. Joseph was clay to the hand of God … a humble self-admitting truthful Saint—with none of the vain freneticisms of Francis, a Saint without glory, guilt, accomplishment or charm—a self-effacing grave and demure ghost in the Arcades of Christendom—he who knew the desert stars, and spat with the Wise Men in back of the barn. …

In Saint Joseph—the anonymous carpenter glad of the opportunity to rest in a stable, and yet helping to unfold a mystery of which he himself is ignorant—Jack saw himself.

One of the ambivalences that Kerouac could never resolve was his simultaneous reverence for hobos, for men of the road, and his insistence on tracing his human roots across the centuries, as if to fix with great finality his place in the ever-evolving pageant of mankind. He accepted his own mortality, but he wanted to leave behind a long shelf of books, the story of “what really happened to him”, which would be read forever. And as he grew older, and saw death approaching, the writings were no longer sufficient guarantee of a permanent home for his self in history, and he became obsessed with tracing and recording his exact genealogy.

Even casual visitors to his home in the 1960s would hear him expound about his Breton ancestry, about the Baron François-Louis-Alexandre Lebris de Kerouac who left Brittany and came to Canada to help Montcalm fight Wolfe for the valley of the St. Lawrence, and how the Baron later travelled north with an Iroquois princess to found a large family that spread in all directions, from Prince of Wales Island down to New England. Even farther back, he speculated about the path of his ancestors from Ireland to Cornwall to Brittany, and he claimed that Kerouac was “the oldest Irish name on earth”. He also claimed that the legendary Isolde was a Kerouac kidnapped by the Cornishman Tristan; and he imagined that he could remember a past life as an Arthurian knight. Eventually he traced his supposed ancestors back to Scotland, Russia and Persia, from whose warrior caste came the Buddha. When he spoke of these matters, he did so with great passion and insisted that they were “generally true”; but it seems clear that he was really trying to convince himself of his right to participate in this world, in the family of man, from which he had always felt excluded.

The folly of his genealogical pursuit appears most clearly in Kerouac's novel Satori in Paris. Back in 1957, on his first big trip to Europe, he had stopped in the British Museum and looked up his family in Rivista Araldica, where he found “Lebris de Keroack. Canada, originally from Brittany. Blue on a stripe of gold with three silver nails. Motto: Love, work and suffer.” So in June 1965 he began what was to have been an extended trip to Paris, Brittany and Cornwall, to further research his family's history. But by this time he was a severe alcoholic and scarcely capable of taking care of himself. He did get as far as the Bibliothèque nationale, but the librarians were suspicious of his drunken and dishevelled appearance and would not entrust him with the rarer volumes necessary to trace the royal lineage of his family. He was similarly snubbed at two other libraries and was even asked to leave the office of his publisher Gallimard because of his intoxication. From there he proceeded to have numerous misadventures with bartenders, prostitutes and cab drivers. But finally, in Brittany, he did make contact with a distant relative, Ulysse Lebris, the proprietor of a large restaurant in Brest. Of course, he was proving a point just by being the first Kerouac in 210 years to return to his French roots—and it was his feelings about belonging in France that really counted, not the specific entries in biographical dictionaries. But in reality he was so drunk and disorderly that he just barely kept out of serious trouble, and depended upon numerous compassionate strangers to get him safely on his plane back to Florida, where he looked forward to hearing the sound of the Sunday paper being thrown on his driveway.

In Satori in Paris he makes clear just how farcical the whole endeavour had been: “Johnny Magee around the corner as anybody knows can, with any luck, find in Ireland that he's the descendant of the Morholt's King and so what? Johnny Anderson, Johnny Goldstein, Johnny Anybody, Lin Chin, Ti Pak, Ron Poodlewhorferer, Anybody.” Ultimately finding a heraldic shield connected to his name could provide no more satisfaction than mingling, as he did years earlier, with what he called the “fellaheen” people, the peasants of Mexico and Tangier, or asserting his brotherhood with the Indians of the Southwest or the Northwest Territories. Since at this point in his life he had put so much of himself into his writing, what he needed was acceptance for that writing. And the great tragedy for Kerouac is that, as the 1960s wore on, his books went out of print almost as quickly as they were published, and the recognition he lived for dwindled to almost nothing.

Gregory Corso has painted one of the finest pictures of Kerouac at this time in his poem “Elegiac Feelings American.”

How inseparable you and the America you saw yet
was never there to see. You and America, like the
tree and the ground, are one the same; yet how like
a palm tree in the state of Oregon … dead ere it blossomed …
How so that which you were or hoped to be, and
the America not, the America you saw yet could not
see …
Did it look beautiful to you, did it sound so too, in
its cold electric blue, that America that spewed and
stenched your home, your good brain, that unreal
fake America, that caricature of America, that
plugged in a wall America … a gallon of desperate
whiskey a day it took ye to look that America in its
disembodied eye …
And it saw you not, it never saw you, for what you
saw was not there … and sad and lonely, you the
real face and voice … caught before the fake face and
voice—and it became real and you fake,
O the awful fragility of things.
What happened to him? What happened to you?
Death happened to him; a gypped life happened; a
God gone sick happened; a dream nightmared …
And you, Jack, poor Jack, watched your father die,
your America die, your God die, your body die, die,
die, die; and today fathers are watching their sons
die, and their sons are watching babies die, why?
why? How we both asked WHY?
O the sad sad awfulness of it all.

What Corso proposes is that Kerouac's vision of America was somehow truer than the actual course America chose to take in the 1960s—the time of imperialistic warmaking, of police repression at home. Indeed, in the last essay he wrote, “After Me, the Deluge”, Kerouac argued with great pathos that he could no longer identify with anyone in America, neither the right-wing warmongers, nor the long-haired, unwashed kids in the street burning the American flag and screaming, like Jerry Rubin, “Murder your parents!” No wonder he turned seriously to the writing of a long story of his ancestry, to be called Memory Babe, which unfortunately he lacked the health and concentration to finish. And in 1962, he began a series of futile attempts to return to Lowell, to the home of his memories, which no longer existed in the real world.

Kerouac's return to his native town in those last years marks one of the saddest episodes in his life story. When he reappeared in 1962, hoping to buy a house with money from his lastest novel Big Sur, his appearance shocked most of his former friends and acquaintances. He was dirty, his face booze-lined, his hair dishevelled; he was loud and overbearing, singing off key to jukeboxes, guzzling booze by the quart, making a disgusting spectacle of himself. He came back again in 1964, with similar intent and with similar results. It was only with the protection of close friends, like the Sampas family, that he managed to escape serious beatings or arrest by the police. And then finally, in 1967, after his mother's stroke and his marriage to Stella Sampas, the sister of his boyhood friend Sam, he did purchase a home in Lowell, and proved to himself once and for all that “you can't go home again.”

The tales I heard of him during that year and a half in Lowell, 1967-1968, suggest a man so tormented and abused that it is painful even to contemplate. It seems he hardly drew a sober breath; he was drunk almost continuously. His former best friends, like G. J. Apostolos, would cross the street to avoid meeting him. His vile language in front of women caused several old friends to punch him and throw him out of their bars. He was even thrown out of the Pawtucketville Social Club, which his father had once managed. People complained that he “stank like a goat”; they laughed that the great author was often to be found passed out under a pinball machine. Those close to him barely tolerated him. Most people did not understand him at all, and out of sheer loneliness and boredom he chose the company of barflies, bartenders, bums, and minor criminals. His wife Stella loved him but was unable to control his bouts of madness and Dionysian drinking. Sometimes she would hide his clothing and shoes to keep him from going out, but he would go out anyway in his pajamas and bedroom slippers, and sometimes get arrested for exposing himself while urinating on a fireplug.

Out of the alienation of those last years he produced one of his greatest novels, Vanity of Duluoz. His present status as outcast made him recall lovingly the time when men passing on the street were not afraid to look in one another's eyes; and if they didn't look, it wasn't out of guilt or fear, but merely because they were so deeply absorbed in things they believed in. He described:

… a guy going home for supper with his fists buried deep in the side-pockets of his jacket, whistling and striding along in his own thoughts, not even looking at anybody else on the sidewalk, and after supper you'd always see the same guy rushing out the same way, headed for the corner candy store, or to see Joe, or to a movie or to the poolroom or the deadman's shift in the mills or to see his girl.

In Vanity of Duluoz he deplores an America “where everybody's begun to lie, and because they lie they assume that I lie too.” The worst of those lies was the way people now denied their origins, and in so doing they robbed themselves and others of the dignity that accrues to families and nations that have struggled to maintain their traditions and values down through the centuries. The worst insult he received was from a woman who wrote him, “You are not Jack Kerouac. There is no Jack Kerouac. His books were not even written.” To her, and to the world, he answered in Vanity of Duluoz: “Who is he that is not ‘he’ because of an idiot's ignorance?” The main impetus of the novel was an insistence on the authenticity of the Duluoz Legend, the legend of his life, to keep himself from believing that:

I'm not Jack Kerouac at all and that my birth records, my family's birth records and recorded origins, my athletic records in the newspaper clippings I have, my own notebooks and published books, are not real at all, but all lies. …

Indeed, he used all those records and clippings and notebooks while writing the novel, and even went so far as to set a mirror above his typewriter, so that from time to time he could stare into his own face while writing the book.

In his earlier novel Desolation Angels, Kerouac had decided that his travels on the road must end—this was in 1957—because the loneliness and pain of living as a stranger in strange places was simply too much for him to bear. At the end of that book he stated his intention to:

… live with Mémère in a house of her own miles from the city, it's a peaceful sorrow. A peaceful sorrow at home is the best I'll ever be able to offer the world, in the end, and so I told my Desolation Angels goodbye. A new life for me.

He also spoke of his house as a monastery, of which Mémère was the Reverend Mother. Now in Lowell, in the late 1960s, that new so-called monastic life had proved even more lonely and more painful than his life on the road. And as the intensity of his personal horror grew, so his vision of the perfect home his family had left behind in Canada came to occupy his mind ever more strongly.

In March 1967 a Montreal television crew invited him to appear on the Radio-Canada television program «Le sel de la semaine». Kerouac was embarrassed that the audience laughed at his pronunciation of French words, for the French-Canadian dialect in Lowell was quite different from the language spoken in Canada. But the brief trip to Montreal inspired Kerouac to attempt a longer trip that summer to Rivière-du-Loup, to research the civic and parish records for both his mother's and father's families. He made the trip with a good friend of his from Lowell, another French-Canadian, Joe Chaput, who served as his driver. But the trip proved even more disastrous than his trip to Paris in 1965. Jack was terribly drunk on cognac for several days, and kept himself from passing out only by taking large doses of benzedrine. He got in fights in bars and was turned away from numerous motels. Fortunately, Joe protected him from serious injury. He never got to see the archives in Rivière-du-Loup. He was simply grateful for a few days away from the anguish and misery that awaited him at home in Lowell. For he could no longer avoid the realization that he had no real home on earth. His home, he then saw, was with his father and his brother (and now also his sister) in heaven.

This notion had occurred to him as early as 1955, when he had written in Mexico City Blues: “I wish I was free of that slaving meat wheel and safe in heaven dead.” The great significance of heaven, for Kerouac, was that it was a home that could not be taken away from him. If the French in Canada are exiles in their own homeland, the French-Canadians in America have no homeland at all. The only town he could call home, Lowell, was a decaying mass of betrayed dreams and dead hopes. If hope still existed, it had to be found somewhere outside of his own experience. “Christ was right,” he wrote in Satori in Paris, “in that, the life of a person is, as W. C. Fields says, ‘Fraught with eminent peril’ but when you know that when you die you will be elevated because you've done no harm, Ah take that back to Brittany and Elsewhere too.” He came finally to realize that all the research in the world will lead one only to the grave, and that the answers to be found there cannot be read with human eyes.

The result of this understanding led Kerouac, in his last years, to see life as if he were looking at it from his own grave. It may seem a final irony that this man, who celebrated the idea of home with such glorious poetry, should have ended his life by turning away, at least in spirit, from the earth itself, and from all attachment to the material world. But one must remember what Father Morrisette said in his eulogy at Kerouac's funeral in St-Jean-Baptiste Church in Lowell. He declared: “To share completely is to give up completely. Christ did this.” And in truth, by giving up at last his claim on any particular home, or on any particular forbears, Kerouac was somehow reaching out to join all of us more completely—just as his books would eventually travel across national boundaries and lines of race, creed, sex, and colour, to touch millions of individuals, rich and poor, dropouts and college graduates, homebodies and revolutionaries, all around the world, and make each of them value and appreciate their own unique lives more than they could have done before.

Jack Kerouac was a writer without a home, and so he found a home with all of us, in all our hearts.

And yet, to the very end, those deep ties of blood and memory were still with him. On the morning of his death, he was writing in a notebook on his lap, making notes for a new novel to be called The Spotlight Print, after his father's last print shop in Lowell. There you have it—the French-Canadian father, the hometown of Lowell, the printed word—all together in one integral vision of the meaning of his life. It would have been a masterpiece, had he lived to write it. As it is, we will have to write it for him, in our thoughts and memories, and in our own visions.

Joe Panish (essay date fall 1994)

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SOURCE: “Kerouac's The Subterraneans: A Study of ‘Romantic Primitivism’,” in Melus, Vol. 19, No. 3, fall, 1994, pp. 107-23.

[In the following essay, Panish argues that Kerouac unwittingly used white stereotypes of African-Americans to achieve intertextuality with black jazz culture in The Subterraneans.]

In a review of Jack Kerouac's 1958 novel, The Subterraneans, poet/critic Kenneth Rexroth said “The story is all about jazz and Negroes. Now there are two things Jack knows nothing about—jazz and Negroes” (Nicosia 568). Whatever the source of Rexroth's disdain for Kerouac's novel, this criticism of The Subterraneans hits close to the mark.1 Kerouac's romanticized depictions of and references to African Americans (as well as other racial minorities—American Indians and Mexican-Americans) betray his essential lack of understanding of African American culture and the African American social experience. That is, Kerouac's novelistic attitude toward racial minorities in The Subterraneans (and elsewhere) is similar to the stance of those “romantic racialists” of the 1840s and 1850s described by George M. Fredrickson, who, in African Americans, “discovered redeeming virtues and even evidences of … superiority” (Fredrickson 101). For Kerouac uses (as did the nineteenth-century romantic racialists) racial minorities as symbols of those entities that he feels are “tragically lacking in white American civilization” (Fredrickson 108). American society, Kerouac says, desperately needs an infusion of the qualities embodied by her oppressed minorities: the existential joy, wisdom, and nobility that comes from suffering and victimization.

It is an indication of how deeply racism is embedded in American discourse that the African American characters and art forms that are depicted in Kerouac's novel are not substantially different from the “Negro symbols” used by the romantic racialists over a century earlier to help eradicate slavery. Even on the dawn (and later, in the midst) of the Civil Rights Movement, white authors, such as Kerouac, who positioned themselves on the outside of the social and literary mainstream of American—that is, contiguous with, if not intersecting those groups who had been forced outside—were not any closer than writers of previous generations, such as Carl Van Vechten, to representing America's oppressed minorities in ways that respected those groups and their history and traditions. Not recognizing their own complicity in perpetuating racist ideology, Kerouac and others continued the tradition of primitivizing and romanticizing the experiences of racial minorities (particularly African Americans) and raiding their culture and contemporary experience for the purpose of enhancing their own position as white outsiders.

While the attraction of white writers such as Kerouac to African American society and culture was not new to the 1950s,2 the amount and vitality of both the white and black literary work with these materials during this decade combined with the proximity of this period to the succeeding boom in white and black cultural interaction has prompted many cultural historians to speculate about this decade's unique characteristics. The favored explanation for the attraction of white people in general to African American society and culture during the 1950s has been their identification as victims of nuclear terror with the traditional victims of American governmental policy—African Americans—and their need to replace the cold logic and reason of this scientific terror with a strategy for living that is more spontaneous, emotional, and spiritual. Similarly, the conventional explanation for the white writers's interest in African American culture involves their use of these materials in reaction against the literary establishment; that is, jazz and a kind of African American oral poetry gave these writers forms for their expression that they believed were more alive, vital, and honest than what they perceived as the fake, impotent, and artificial forms of literature emanating from the establishment.3

Both of these explanations (the general and the specific) fit very well with classic descriptions of cultural and artistic “primitivism.” That is, in times when people are discontented with the progress of their society, these so-called civilized people look to the “other”—usually a Noble Savage—as a remedy for their dissatisfaction. The civilized people, in other words, endow a symbol with those characteristics that are opposite those that their society champions. The white writers of the 1950s, then (like such earlier ones as Van Vechten in Nigger Heaven or Sherwood Anderson in Dark Laughter), do not see the “other” (in this case, mostly African Americans) for what he or she is—a person just like any other who is involved in the complex relations of his or her culture—but as a static, unreal image. As Marianna Torgovnick points out, the image of the primitive itself is “infinitely docile and malleable”: The real secret of the primitive in this century has often been the same secret as always: the primitive can be—has been, will be [?]—whatever Euro-Americans want it to be” (Torgovnick 9-10).

Although the actual experiences Kerouac depicts in The Subterraneans occurred slightly earlier (1953) than the full-fledged Beat “scene” that later developed in Greenwich Village (primarily during the second half the 1950s), a glimpse of the contours of race relations in the Village Beat scene during the late 1950s will help prepare us for understanding the discursive racial patterns (that is, his primitivizing of African American culture and society) that emerge in Kerouac's novel.4 Not only were some of the same people depicted in The Subterraneans still involved in the later Beat scene (including Kerouac himself) but the same racial power relations existed at both times as well. Revolving around Greenwich Village, the New York Beat scene members saw themselves as a new, racially integrated sub-society, apart from both of the racially constituted parts of New York City (i.e. black Harlem and white elsewhere). Describing the difference between what she still (when the book was published in 1990) sees as the difference between the Beats's interest in African American culture and that of previous generations of white bohemians, Hettie Jones says,

But it's important to the particular history of what would later be called the New Bohemia that going to the Five Spot was not like taking the A train to Harlem. Downtown was everyone's new place. … And all of us there—black and white were strangers at first.

(Jones 34)

Although Jones does depict herself as being rather naive (or, at least, idealistic) upon first arriving in the Village (especially with regard to race), she does portray the Village bohemian scene as being one that is remarkably free of not only the sicknesses of the dominant society (e.g. racism) but also of those that had been ascribed to hipsters by the likes of Norman Mailer.

That summer [1957] Dissent magazine published Norman Mailer's essay “The White Negro.” There I read that jazz was orgasm, which only blacks had figured out, and that white “hipsters” like me were attracted to the black world's sexy, existential violence. But the only violence I'd ever encountered, the one time I'd heard bone smashing bone, had been among whites in the South. The young, black musicians I met didn't differ from other aspiring artists. And jazz music was complicated, technically the most interesting I'd heard, the hardest to play. (Jones 35)

In fact, contrary to Mailer's theoretical stance, Jones's overall depiction of the Village in the late 1950s is one of an open, youthful community full of optimism and goodwill and beyond any racial tension. As Dan Wakefield has recently described it, the Village during the 1950s was a “haven where people were not only allowed but expected to dress, speak, and behave differently from the herd” (Wakefield 121).

Similarly, Lawrence Lipton justified the Beats's use of the descriptive term “spade cat” instead of “Negro” by appealing to the notion that the relationship between these hip whites and their black counterparts is outside what has been and is typical in American society: “the holy barbarians, white and negro, are so far beyond ‘racial tolerance’ and desegregation that they no longer have to be polite about it with one another” (Lipton 317). In this quotation, it is significant that Lipton places the relationship between “white and negro” bohemians outside what was the most progressive race politics of the time—“desegregation”—as well as what could be called more polite, middle-class politics—“racial tolerance.”

Corroboration of Lipton's and Hettie Jones's characterizations (at least at the initial stages of the association of people in the Village) comes from both Jones's friend, Joyce Johnson, and her ex-husband, Amiri Baraka. Johnson says,

In the excitement and hope of that moment [1957]—in what was real and strongly believed and truly lived out, as distinct from fad—there seemed the possibility of enormous transformations. It seemed entirely possible that newness and openness expressed in the poems, the paintings, the music, would ripple out far beyond St. Marks Place and tables in the Cedar, swamping the old barriers of class and race, healing the tragic divisions in the American soul.

(Johnson 216)

Although Baraka is, predictably, less charitable than Johnson in his retrospective assessments of this same gathering of bohemians, he does admit that he “came to the Village thinking the people there, those vaunted intellectuals and artists, could not possibly be ‘prejudiced’ because that was dumb shit” (Baraka 132). Moreover, he says, “I could see the young white boys and girls in their pronouncement of disillusion with and removal from society as being related to the black experience. That made us colleagues of the spirit” (157).

However, as Baraka and even Joyce Johnson (but not Hettie Jones) recognize (even if for slightly different reasons), the hope that the relationships between white and black bohemians were free from America's racist disease was only a hope, only illusion. That is, no matter how much these idealistic young bohemians hoped and imagined that they were beyond racism, the same power relations existed in the Village that exited outside of it. Using Hettie Jones herself as her example, Johnson attributes this false hope to the idealism of youth that obscured the social facts of the period: “Children of the late and silent fifties, we knew little of political realities. We had the illusion our own passions were enough. We felt, as Hettie Cohen Jones once put it, that you could change everything just by being loud enough” (Johnson 216).

An African American man in a predominantly white island of outsiders, Baraka recounts that he, at least, always felt a tension between his imaginative connection with these people and the social reality of their interaction. He remembers that even though he felt a “spiritual” connection with these white outsiders, he never quite felt that he fit in—their ultimate concerns were not his and vice versa.5 Finally, he was an outsider “even inside those ‘outsider’ circles” (157).

A close examination of Kerouac's The Subterraneans will reveal how this distance between imaginative projection and social reality is manifested discursively. The novel's depictions of jazz and African American characters will also expose the essential racism that is at the core of Kerouac's work and that formed the basis for the race relations that existed in the later Village Beat scene.

Written in 1953 but not published until 1958, The Subterraneans narrates a brief, ill-fated affair Kerouac had with a young African American woman the same year the novel was written. Kerouac wrote the book shortly after the affair broke up in a furious “three days and nights of speed typing on benzedrine” (Nicosia 445). It is not considered of primary significance by most Kerouac scholars.6The Subterraneans is nevertheless an interesting novel for this study because it not only focuses on topics relating to African Americans—jazz and interracial relationships—but is Kerouac's most direct and sustained example of the literary method he modeled, in part, on bebop and later called “spontaneous bop prosody.”7

Jazz (or, more specifically, bebop), then, is at once the backdrop and one of the organizing principles of The Subterraneans: readers “hear” it in the many clubs that the two main characters—Leo Percepied and Mardou Fox—frequent and also in the rhythm of the words and sentences used in the novel. As backdrop, jazz is depicted by Kerouac as being produced by beautifully suffering jazz musicians for the enjoyment and even liberation of Kerouac's generation of bohemians. Although jazz as backdrop occurs many times throughout the novel, one scene in particular presents an interesting example of Kerouac's perspective on jazz, its performers, and its performance in clubs.

Occurring early in the novel, the scene describes the night the narrator (a Kerouac substitute named Leo Percepied) first meets the young African American bohemian Mardou Fox and they go with some friends to hear jazz (more specifically, Charlie Parker) at a club called the Red Drum:

… and up on the stand Bird Parker with solemn eyes who'd been busted fairly recently and had now returned to a kind of bop dead Frisco but had just discovered or been told about the Red Drum, the great new generation gang wailing and gathering there, so here he was on the stand, examining them with his eyes as he blew his now-settled-down-into-regulated-design “crazy” notes. …


A number of aspects of this passage are both significant and characteristic of the way Kerouac depicts and attributes meaning to jazz. First, Kerouac's focus on Charlie Parker is, of course, on his victimization—“been busted fairly recently”—and, just as importantly, on Parker's emotional response to his existence as a suffering black jazz musician—solemnity, perhaps indicating a certain amount of resignation to his martyr-like status among the jazz faithful (certainly the religious connotation of a work like “solemn” cannot be ignored, especially as the scene is further developed by Kerouac).8 Of course, Kerouac was not the first nor the last to emphasize the notion that Parker (especially, but really all black jazz musicians are included) suffered at the hands of white society. However, this is, and remains, Kerouac's major use of the Parker image in his work. In a later characterization of Parker—found in the later choruses of his Mexico City Blues—the same themes, victimization and Parker's resignation to his Christ-like status, are also emphasized. This time Kerouac compares Parker to another religious figure, Buddha, but again focuses on the quiet resignation on his expressive face:

And his expression on his face
Was as calm, beautiful, and profound
As the image of the Buddha
Represented in the East, the lidded eyes,
The expression that says All is Well”
—This was what Charley [sic] Parker
Said when he played, All is Well.


In this chorus (239), Kerouac's focus on Parker's victimization by his followers takes the following form,

—Charley burst
His lungs to reach the speed
Of what the speedsters wanted
And what they wanted
Was his Eternal Slowdown


There may be much truth to the idea that Parker and black jazz musicians were victimized and exploited (and may have even contributed to this perception).9 However, the focus on this aspect of their persona was more characteristic of their white audiences (and the whites who wrote about them) than their black audiences. In any case, as jazz writer Nat Hentoff has said, to blame Parker's death solely on society and absolve him of any contribution is to be too simplistic (Hentoff 194); most jazz musicians suffered from the same racism and economic exploitation and survived, only Parker and some others did not.

Also significant in the passage from The Subterraneans is Kerouac's portrayal of Parker as being interested in the existence and presence of his audience—“been told about the Red Drum, the great new generation walling and gathering there … examining them with his eyes as he blew …”—that is, Parker is depicted not as playing the Red Drum simply because he has been booked into another jazz club where he can work and earn some money, but as being interested in this particular club because of the audience that would be seeing and hearing him: “that great new generation.” The connection between Parker and his bohemian audience is made personal and momentous in this way and is enhanced by further linking Parker and the audience through the image of his eyes, which have already been designated (not just by this passage but by tradition as well) as the locus of Parker's emotional response to his victimization as a black jazz musician.

The nexus Kerouac emphasizes between the jazz performance and his bohemian audience is one that the novelist repeats often in this and other works. Throughout The Subterraneans and On the Road, for example, are tossed-off references to Kerouac and friends being the “bop generation” or “children of bop.” Also included in On the Road is a scene remarkably similar to the one reproduced above from The Subterraneans:

… he [a Negro tenor saxophone player] looked at us, Dean and me; with an expression that seemed to say, Hey now, and what's this thing we're all doing in this sad brown world? … because here we were dealing with the pit and prunejuice of poor beat life itself in the god-awful streets of man, so he said it and sang it “Close—your—” and blew it way up to the ceiling and through to the stars and on out. …


In this passage, the musician and his bohemian audience are connected by their mutual and equal suffering in the world and are able to transcend this squalor through the magic of the music. In Kerouac's descriptions of jazz performances there is usually this personal, emotional link made between performer and audience, especially if it involves an African American jazz musician.

Moreover, Kerouac is often even more focused in his connection between jazz performers and their audience; that is, he also delineates a close bond between the performer and himself as the fictionalized artist/narrator. From the same scene in The Subterraneans we find

… returning to the Red Drum for sets, to hear Bird, whom I saw distinctly digging Mardou several times also myself directly into my eye looking to search if really I was that great writer I thought myself to be as if he knew my thoughts and ambitions or remembered me from other night clubs and other coasts, other Chicago—not a challenging look but the king and founder of the bop generation at least the sound of it in digging his audience digging his eyes, the secret eyes him-watching, as he just pursed his lips and let great lungs and immortal fingers work, his eyes separate and interested and humane, the kindest jazz musician there could be while being and therefore naturally the greatest—watching Mardou and me in the infancy of our love and probably wondering why, or knowing it wouldn't last, or seeing who it was would be hurt, as now, obviously, but not quite yet, it was Mardou whose eyes were shining in my direction, though I could not have known and now do not definitely know. …


As with the earlier passage, this one offers an imaginative, romanticized portrait of Charlie Parker, one that is at odds with the conventionally accepted depiction of the bebop legend.10 Again, the eyes are the locus of emotion and interaction and the audience is somehow able to sense something about Parker's life and his strategy for living that life from gazing into his eyes. More importantly, though, Kerouac himself (as the narrator) obliterates Parker's non-performing existence in this description by fusing him with his art: his performing, his sax playing. Parker is described as being “the kindest jazz musician there could be while being and therefore naturally the greatest”: his personality—kindness or humaneness—is thus linked only to his gift for playing music; in essence his off-stage life is irrelevant to who he is because he is, as far as the narrator is concerned, his music.

The obliteration of Parker's off-stage life is especially significant because Kerouac uses this rhetorical strategy, finally, not to say something about Parker or jazz musicians in general but to enhance his own image as a suffering, victimized artist and man by connecting himself to the already established image of the exploited jazz musician. Kerouac needs a de-historicized symbol of suffering and outsiderism so that he can link himself to it. The passage begins and ends with the narrator making an intimate connection with the jazz performer: Percepied sees Parker not just looking at him and his “date,” but looking at them very meaningfully. Percepied imagines that Parker connects with him from the bandstand as a fellow artist11 “looking to search if really I was that great writer I thought myself to be as if he knew my thoughts and ambitions”—and also as a sad, doomed, suffering individual, “watching Mardou and me in the infancy of our love and probably wondering why, or knowing it wouldn't last, on seeing who it was would be hurt as now, obviously, but not quite yet it was Mardou whose eyes were shining in my direction, though I could not have known and now do not definitely know.” The effect of this narrative strategy—linking himself with the jazz performer—on his depiction of Charlie Parker is to even further romanticize and stereotype the image of Parker specifically and the jazz musician more generally. Parker becomes more than simply a saxophone player; he is a seer, a savant, a psychic—able to see in the one look that Mardou directs at Percepied (what the narrator himself misses) that she is going to hurt him. Perhaps more importantly, at the same time Parker becomes less than a full-fledged character in the novel, he simply remains a static, stereotyped symbol. As with most nonwhites in Kerouac's work Parker never speaks for himself; his silence is necessary to maintain the focus on Kerouac's (and his cohort's) experience as American outsiders and to obscure the difference between their choice to remain outside and the force used (and maintained by the silence of the bohemians themselves) to put and keep African American there.12

Slightly more difficult to discuss than the depictions of jazz and jazz musicians is the notion that jazz is the organizing principle of The Subterraneans (that is, the basis for the novel's narrative structure). There is no argument about whether Kerouac designed his prose style, in part, to imitate not only the creative process of jazz—the spontaneity that comes from improvising—but also the sound of jazz or, more specifically, the sound of bebop. However, the question of how successful he is in being as spontaneous as a jazz musician or, even more difficult to determine, imitating the sound of bebop is, it seems to me, a thorny one. How does one, finally, determine whether, or how much, Kerouac's prose sounds like or follow similar patterns to the alto sax lines created by Charlie Parker?

The passages from The Subterraneans analyzed above present an interesting subject to consider the success of Kerouac's approximation of jazz improvisation because they are part of a scene—occurring in a jazz club featuring the great Charlie Parker—that one would expect to transmit the reader to Kerouac's jazzy milieu. Moreover, this scene is used by at least two Kerouac critics (John Tytell and Regina Weinreich) to exemplify Kerouac's musicality. Both of these critics point to the same formal device—the building of “associations” or the “spontaneous flow” of images—as the technique that convinces them that Kerouac's goal of approximating the spontaneity of the jazz musician has been reached. Really, though, this is only to call what has been practiced by previous writers—Joyce or Faulkner, for example—by another name; that is, “stream-of-consciousness” becomes “spontaneous prose”; or, put another way, a practice based on a psychoanalytical model becomes one based on a musical one. It seems to me that there is nothing inherently musical or jazz-like in Kerouac's writing. The recipe for improvisational writing that Kerouac offered in “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose”—composing without editing (if indeed he did do this), replacing standard punctuation with dashes, and tapping into some sort of essential part of one's self—does not necessarily make Kerouac's prose sound more like jazz.

The scene from The Subterraneans is also an interesting one for consideration because there is a recording of Kerouac reading it. Recorded in 1959 on the jazz label Verve and recently rereleased on The Jack Kerouac Collection, this recording is touted (in the booklet to the recent compilation) by Kerouac biographer Gerald Nicosia as being “so immediate, intense, and full of subtle emotional changes that it rivals any piece Bird himself ever recorded” (10). Nicosia, moreover, says that “as with the greatest jazz musicians, Kerouac is not just blowing a tune, he is blowing this own life, up on the bandstand for all the world to witness”(11). Setting aside the likelihood that Nicosia's hyperbole is calculated to magnify the significance of this “product,” these are substantial claims for Kerouac's writing and performing (this latter is supposed to be believable despite the fact that both Nicosia and Ann Charters report that Kerouac's late-fifties Village Vanguard performances were marvelously unsuccessful). And yet, may repeated listenings to this recording followed by listenings to Charlie Parker convinces me that only a very sympathetic listener would agree that Kerouac's sound “rivals” Charlie Parker's or even that Kerouac's performance is similar to the performance of a jazz musician. This is not to say that there are not any similarities between Kerouac's prose and bop. He does move from association to association, modulate his tone, and underpin his prose with a quick, quirky rhythm. However, if, in jazz historian James Lincoln Collier's words, “Bop was, in the exact sense of the word, a musical revolution” (361), then Kerouac's prose—following Joyce, Faulkner, and others—did not “rival” Charlie Parker's music because it was not, in any sense of the word, a literary revolution.

Nevertheless, what is even more crucial for the purposes of this essay than Kerouac's success or failure in imitating jazz is the way Kerouac characterized the jazz structures that he tried to imitate in his prose. That is, just as he primitivizes the image of Charlie Parker in this narrative so does he primitivize the process a jazz musician uses to create the music he plays. This can be seen most readily in Kerouac's major statement of his writing method, “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose.” In this manifesto, Kerouac relies heavily on jazz metaphors to characterize his own writing process.13 Specifically, under “Procedure,” Kerouac emphasizes the notions of spontaneity and improvisation. Mixing jazz and pictorial art metaphors, he states that “sketching language is undisturbed flow from the mind of personal secret idea-words blowing (as per the jazz musician) on the subject of image.” Under “Method,” Kerouac advises using a different kind of punctuation to inject more vitality into writing: that rather than using periods, colons, or commas to separate sentences, one should use “the space dash separating rhetorical breathing (as a jazz musician drawing breath between outblown phrases). Finally, discussing what should be the subject of one's writing, Kerouac exhorts writers to “blow as deep as you want … tap from yourself the song of yourself, blow!—now! …” (65-67). Similarly, in his 1968 Paris Review interview, Kerouac focuses on the same jazz metaphors—breath and blowing—to talk about the connection between his writing and jazz. In response to a question about the influence of jazz and bop on his writing, Kerouac says, “Yes jazz and bop, in the sense of a, say, a tenor man drawing a breath and blowing a phrase on his saxophone, till he runs out of breath, and when he does, his sentence, his statement's been made … that's how I therefore separate may sentences, as breath separations of the mind …” (“Art of Fiction” 83). In this interview Kerouac furthermore states that what he is after with this jazz-influenced method is “FEELING, Goddamn it, FEELING is what I like in art, not CRAFTINESS and the hiding of feelings” (65).

Taken by themselves, these statements of method might not add up to a primitivized depiction of the jazz process. However, combined with the portraits of jazz misicians (such as the one of Charlie Parker in the Subterraneans) found in Kerouac's fiction that obliterate their off-stage lives and de-historicize them, Kerouac's overarching portrayal of the process of creating in jazz is one that requires almost no training, skill, or education: just pick up a horn, tap into your emotions, and “blow.” Kerouac repeatedly portrays the process this way even though, according to Gerald Nicosia, Kerouac himself had to learn to hear and appreciate the technical innovations of bop (125). In Kerouac's work, the jazz process remains one that is not the result of a cultural development on the group level and disciplined practice on the individual level but one that is fundamental to any “primal” human existence.

Combined with the romanticized portrayed of jazz and jazz misicians, The Subterraneans offers an exoticized image of African American women in the depiction of Leo Percepied's lover, Mardou Fox. Although Mardou is initially described in quite “civilized” terms as being well-educated and “part Negro high class” (10), throughout the novel she is revealed to be a woman with impeccable oppressed and suffering blood lines—African Americans on her mother's side, American Indians on her father's side. In fact, more often than not, the narrator's attraction for Mardou seems due to her pedigree rather than to her own characteristics. In her company the narrator continuously slips into reveries of such scenes as the of “her Cherokee halfbreed hobo father … lying bellydown on a floater with wind furling back his rags and black hat, his brown sad face facing all the land and desolation” (27). One of Kerouac's biographers says that the real Mardou “made him think of Indians he'd seen crossing the country. They were outcasts, going nowhere. Kerouac was moved and saddened by the vanquished Indians and desperate blacks of America …” (Charters 192).

Most telling though is the fact that the narrator never sees Mardou when he looks at her. Instead he sees “in Mardou's eyes now the eventual Kingdom of Inca, Maya and vast Azteca shining of gold snake and temples as noble as greek, Egypt, the long sleek crack jaws and flattened noses of Mongolian geniuses creating arts in temple rooms” (35). The narrator alternately sees the African American woman as a Negro goddess, and Indian princess, an Aztec, or Greek, or Egyptian mask; the specific historical locale does not matter, what does is only that she is an exotic, alien, distant figure. When, in fact, the narrator sees Mardou for what she actually is he is slightly repulsed: “So in the morning I wake from the scream of beermares and see beside me the Negro woman with parted lips sleeping and little bits of white pillow stuffing in her black hair, feel almost revulsion, realize what a beast I am for feeling anything near it …” (24). Although the “revulsion” the narrator feels could be connected to his disgust about her general sloppiness, it is revealing both that the particular imagery he chooses to emphasize Mardou's sloppiness highlights white against black and that this revulsion hits him while in bed after having spent the night with her. As Calvin Hernton says, “The first focus of racism it the physical body—skin color, facial features, hair, physique, particularly the ass, and most of all the sexual genitalia of both males and females of the black race” (xii). Finally, this passage reveals that although the narrator knows he should be beyond racial tolerance (and even this mea culpa is barely believable), he is actually not even close to being there yet.

Later in the novel, as their relationship begins to deteriorate (due to Mardou's “affair” with a younger poet [Gregory Corso] who is also one of the narrator's rivals—and Percepied's inability to accept or work through the crisis this precipitates), the narrator describes the doubts he has about Mardou, doubts that further reveal the narrator's deeper feelings toward Mardou, doubts that further reveal the narrator's deeper feelings toward Mardou. One doubt has to do with the fact that the relationship would prevent him from realizing one of his fantasies—living in the South in a Faulkenerian homestead (of all things!). Not realizing this fantasy, he says, “would cut my life in half, and all such sundry awful American as if to say white ambition thoughts or white daydreams” (62). The narrators's instinct in this speculative situation is not to challenge the social forces that would make being an interracial couple in the South difficult but to sacrifice the relationship to the fantasy. More revealing though is his “last deepest final doubt … about Mardou that she was really a thief of some sort and therefore was out to steal my heart, my white man heart, a Negress sneaking in the world sneaking the holy white man for sacrificial rituals later when they'll be roasted and roiled” (67). These passages betray the closeness of Kerouac's romantic stereotype of African Americans with the earlier more pernicious ones—they are, in fact, different sides of the same coin. In another passage that makes this juxtaposition even clearer, the narrator admits that his anger over their deteriorating relationship has made him look at Mardou in a different way:

“Honey, what I see in your eyes is a lifetime of affection not only from the Indian in you but because as part Negro somehow you are the first, the essential woman, and therefore the most, most originally most fully affectionate and maternal …” I'd added one time—but now in my hurt hate turning the other way and so walking down Price with her every time I see a Mexican gal or Negress I say to myself, “hustlers,” they're all the same, always try to cheat and rob you.


On the other hand, the narrator ascribes to Mardou extraordinary powers of insight and intuition. For example, the centerpiece of the novel is a long story Mardou tells about wandering the streets of San Francisco, naked and in a daze, wherupon she discovers the “truth” of her existence. After hearing the story the narrator say, “No girl had ever moved me with a story of spiritual suffering and so beautifully her soul showing out radiant as an angel wandering in hell and the hell the selfsame streets I'd roamed” (50). Another indication of Mardou's innate virtues as an African American is her connection to jazz. Not only does Charlie Parker make special eye contact with both her and the narrator, but Mardou “is the only girl I've ever known who could really understand bop and sing it” (86).

The exoticism of this characterization is made even more apparent with knowledge of the real-life relationship between Kerouac and “Mardou Fox.”14 For example, Gerald Nicosia reports that Kerouac's depiction of Mardou as a jazz fanatic was, at best, one-dimensional: “Though they [Kerouac and Mardou Fox] both liked classical music, he only discussed jazz with her” (443). Further, even though Kerouac gives Mardou a “voice” in this novel (something he does not do, as I mentioned earlier, for Charlie Parker), making her story the connective thread for the novel, he actually only puts his ideas in her mouth. Although he defends Kerouac against the charge of distortion by claiming that Kerouac was letting “the characters speak through him,” Gerald Nicosia relates that “mardou” told Kerouac that she “was also upset by the ridiculous speeches he had put in her mouth” (452). Joyce Johnson also relays that when she and Kerouac went to visit Mardou upon the publication of The Subterraneans in 1958, Mardou was still angry about Kerouac's portrayal of her. Johnson says that Mardou “seemed to be saying [that] The Subterraneans wasn't a real picture of her or of anything, just a lot of distorted impressions for the media to feed upon” (229).

Certainly some of the more hostile, obvious racism in Kerouac's depiction of Mardou Fox can be attributed (as both John Tytell and Joyce Johnson point out) to his penchant for demanding self-revelation (Tytell 197; Johnson 227). To a certain extent, Leo Percepied's narrative stance toward his recently ended relationship with mardou Fox is one of self-blame. And part of this self-accusation is Percepied's recognition that his relationship with Mardou was made more difficult for him because of her race; he could not transcend the social pressures on interracial couples. Apparently, no matter how much Kerouac fancied himself a social outsider he could not cope with the “fugitive” status assigned to “people who trespass across race and sex barriers” ((Hernton xviii).

However, beyond the superficial recognition of the narrator's own failings are the images, descriptions, and scenes in the novel that are racist and are not accompanied by any acknowledgment that thy are so. These include most of the characterizations of jazz and jazz misicians and much of the exotic romanticization of Mardou Fox. Moreover, although the narrator acknowledges that racism exists (he recognizes, for example, that his mother, sister, and brother-in-law—a Southerner—would be “mortified” if he married an African American woman and that it would be impossible to live in the South [62]), he demonstrates that he does not truly understand the effect it has on its “victims.” An example of his complete lack of understanding (and, even, his condescension toward the experience of racism) comes in the following recollection:

… out on Market Street she would not have me hold her arm for fear people of the street there would think her a hustler, which it would look like but I felt mad but let it go and we walked along, I wanted to go into a bar for a wine, she was afraid of all the behatted men raged at the bar, now I saw her Negro fear of American society she was always talking about but palpably in the streets which never gave me any concern—tried to console her, show her she could do anything with me, “In fact baby I'll be a famous man and you'll be the dignified wife of a famous man so don't worry” but she said “You don't understand” but her little girl-like fear so cut, so edible, I let it go, we went home, to tender love scenes together in our own and secret dark—


In this passage, Kerouac clearly reveals not only that he does not understand the “palpable” effect even the most mundane form of racism has on African Americans but also that he does not really believe it exists and, furthermore, does not care. Moreover, Kerouac belittles Mardou's feeling of oppression by describing it as “her little girl-like fear so cute.”

Finally, then, there is not much in this book or any of his other works to convince us that Kerouac did not truly believe the racial differences depicted in The Subterraneans. From the infamous “At lilac evening …” passage in On the Road to the depictions of Charlie Parker in Mexico City Blues and The Subterraneans to the portrayal of Mardou Fox in The Subterraneans, Kerouac's romantic racism is clear. Following in what has been and, to some extent, remains an accepted white American tradition, Kerouac tried to enhance and ennoble his position as a voluntary social outsider by linking himself to the historical status of African Americans as forced outsiders and victims of white oppression. Discursively, Kerouac make this connection by raiding African American culture for its method of expressing the experience of this oppression and its strategy for surviving it. The result of Kerouac's unwarranted identification with the African American experience and his appropriation of African American culture is a depiction of these materials that is distorted because it trivialize the true nature of American racial oppression by blurring (if not obscuring) the difference between voluntary and forced outsiderism.


  1. There is some suggestion in Ann Charters's biography of Kerouac that Rexroth felt some personal animosity toward Kerouac because of Kerouac's “offhand characterization” of him in The Dharma Bums (Charters 307).

  2. For a good account of this American Poets and the Racial Discourse in the Twentieth Century (Athens and London: The University of Georgia Press, 1988).

  3. For examples of this historical explanation see W. T. Lhamon, Jr., Deliberate Speed: The Origins of a Cultural Style in the American 1950s (Washington: Smithsonian Institution P, 1990); John Patrick Diggins, The Proud Decades: America in War and Peace, 1941-1960 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1988); Douglas T. Miller and Marion Nowak, The Fifties: The Way We Really Were (New York: Doubleday, 1977); and John Tytell, Naked Angels: The Lives and Literature of the Beat Generation (New York: Grove P, 1976).

  4. Although the actual incidents fictionalized in this novel take place in New York, Kerouac changed the locale to San Francisco.

  5. Interestingly, Baraka also attributes his discomfort with “bohemianism” to his “lower-middle class craving after order and ‘respectability’” (Baraka 157). That is, he portrays himself as being more inhibited by these “mainstream” values than the middle-class whites with whom he associated.

  6. Regina Weinreich, for example, places The Subterraneans in a grouping of “noncanonical” Kerouac writings; that is, those novels that she reads as variations on the central themes or strategies in what she terms the “core group” of writings—The Town and the City, On the Road, Visions of Cody, and Desolation Angels (Weinreich 13). Although they are less rigid in their evaluations of Kerouac's work, Ann Charters, Gerald Nicosia, and John Tytell seem to agree that The Subterraneans is a “successful” and powerful novel but to a smaller and more limited degree than some of his other works.

  7. In fact, according to Ann Charters, it was as a result of The Subterraneans—at Allen Ginsberg's urging—that Kerouac's one major statement—“Essentials of Spontaneous Prose”—of his literary methodology and its connection to jazz was written (Charters 188-89).

  8. W. T. Lhamon does an excellent job of explaining Kerouac's use of the jazz club as a “secular, vernacular rite that substituted for religious sacrament” (Lhamon 152).

  9. See, for example, Ralph Ellison's characterization of Parker's life and the cult that followed him in life and death in the essay “On Bird, Bird-Watching, and Jazz” in Shadow and Act. Ellison says that Bird's efforts to combat the existing role of the black jazz musician as “entertainer” (from Louis Armstrong) by portrying himself as a serious artist led to much of the perception of him as a “tortured” artist. Miles Davis says much the same thing in his Autobiography.

  10. In his Autobiography, for example, Miles Davis depicts Parker in very uncomplimentary terms, saying that he was “greedy” and not a very likable person. Also, in The Making of Jazz James Lincoln Collier describes Parker as having a “character disorder” which manifested itself in a “total lack of concern for [the] well-being of others” (371).

  11. In later piece, “The Origins of the Beat Generation,” Kerouac reveals the conflict (without any seeming awareness) between what he knows to be real—the jazz musicians's ignorance of him as an artist and person—and what he wants to be true—a human connection between fellow suffering artist. He says, “When I first heard Bird and Diz in the Three Deuces I knew they were serious musicians playing a goofy new sound and didn't care what I thought …” However, in the next sentence Kerouac continues, “I was leaning against the bar with a beer when Dizzy came over for a glass of water from the bartender, put himself right against me and reached with both arms around both sides of my head to get the glass and danced away, as though knowing I'd be singing about him someday …” (72)

  12. As W. T. Lhamon points out, even Cody, the Neal Cassady in Visions of Cody, takes Kerouac to task for this. Lhamon says that Cody “wants to listen for the central voices of black culture—or whatever else he is attending to—for their own sake: ‘listen to the man play the horn, that's all.’” Kerouac, Lhamon says, cannot heed Cassady's advice because it would “inhibit his writing” (162).

  13. While not denying Kerouac's affinity for jazz, George Dardess has claimed that “the most vigorous metaphors” in this manifesto derive not from jazz or pictorial art but from “nature” (733-34). Although “most vigorous” is a little bit too vague to be very meaningful, his argument is reasonable allows Dardess to make interesting connections between Keroauac's method and Emerson's and Thoreau's methods.

  14. This character has always been anonymous, identified either as her character's name—Mardou Fox—or the pseudonym Irene May.

Works Cited

Baraka, Amiri. The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka. New York: Freundlich, 1984.

Charters, Ann. Kerouac: A Biography. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1987.

Collier, James Lincoln. The Making of Jazz: A Comprehensive History. New York: Dell, 1978,

Davis, Miles, with Quincy Troupe. Miles: The Autobiography. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989.

Dardess, George. “The Logic of Spontaneity: A Reconsideration of Kerouac's ‘Spontaneous Prose Method.’” Boundary 2 (Summer) 1982.

Ellison, Ralph. Shadow and Act. New York: Random House, 1964.

Fredrickson, George M. The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny, 1817-1914. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 1987.

Hentoff, Nat. Jazz Is. New York: Random House, 1976.

Hernton, Calvin C. Sex and Racism in America. New York: Grove P, 1988.

Johnson, Joyce. Minor Characters. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983.

Jones, Hettie. How I Became Hettie Jones. New York: Penguin, 1990.

Kerouac, Jack. “The Art of Fiction XLI: Jack Kerouac.” Paris Review Summer, 1968.

———. Essentials of Spontaneous Prose.” A Casebook on the Beat. Ed. Thomas Parkinson. New York: Crowell, 1961.

———. The Jack Kerouac Collection. Santa Monica: Rhino Records, 1990.

———. Mexico City Blues. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1990.

———. On the Road. New York: New American Library, 1957.

———. The Subterraneans. New York: Grove P, 1958.

Lhamon, W. T., Jr. Deliberate Speed: The Origins of a Cultural Style in the American 1950s. Washington: Smithsonian Institution P, 1990.

Lipton, Lawrence. The Holy Barbarians. New York: Julian Messner, 1959.

Nicosia, Gerald. Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac. New York: Penguin, 1986.

Torgovnick, Marianna. Gone Primitive: Savage Intellects, Modern Lives. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1990.

Tytell, John. Naked Angels: The Lives and Literature of the Beat Generation. New York: Grove P, 1986.

Wakefield, Dan. New York in the 50s. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1992.

Weinreich, Regina. The Spontaneous Poetics of Jack Kerouac: A Study of the Fiction. New York: Paragon House, 1990.

Robert Holton (essay date summer 1995)

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SOURCE: “Kerouac among the Fellahin: On the Road to the Postmodern,” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 41, No. 2, summer, 1995, pp. 265-83.

[In the following essay, Holton explores Kerouac's approach to racial issues in On the Road.]

We need studies that analyze the strategic use of black characters to define the goals and enhance the qualities of white characters. Such studies will reveal the process of establishing others … so as to ease and to order external and internal chaos. Such studies will reveal the process by which it is made possible to explore and penetrate one's own body in the guise of the sexuality, vulnerability, and anarchy of the other.

—Toni Morrison (52-53)

“It's the world,” said Dean. “My God!” he cried, slapping the wheel. “It's the world! We can go right on to South America if the road goes on. Think of it! Son-of-a-bitch! Gawd-damn!

—(On the Road 277)


During the early postwar era, the pressures to conformity in middle-class white American culture were enormous, and it should come as no surprise that a reaction against that conformity—the Beat Generation—should arise and attain notoriety. In some ways this response may now seem shortsighted or dated, yet there are nonetheless aspects that remain contemporary, especially in the light of recent discussions of postmodernism:1 one of those is the attempt to rethink the white American male subject in relation to the racial diversity of the nation. While a sense of racial alterity had long been a central topic of white American literature—examples from Freneau to Faulkner come to mind—one can argue that in Kerouac and the Beats a quite different manifestation of this American preoccupation appears. In Kerouac's Beat classic On the Road there is, on one hand, the expression of a radical desire to challenge the existing social order through a foregrounding of the conventions and limitations of racial identity; and, on the other hand, there is a misrecognition of those conventions and limitations so profound as to justify the claim that ultimately On the Road legitimates as much as it challenges the master narratives that postmodernism seeks to undo.2

As a young writer, Kerouac attempted to escape from the constraints of the bourgeois position which awaited him by seeking out a liberated discursive space in an exploration of American racial heterogeneity. However one assesses its literary strengths and weaknesses, Kerouac's On the Road has had an undeniable impact in ways that very few novels ever do. Enormously successful and influential, it contributed significantly to the alteration of postwar culture's universe of possibilities by making an image of white male subjectivity defined in terms of alienation, rebelliousness, intensity and spontaneity widely accessible—qualities repeatedly associated in the book with America's marginalized racial others. Given the endemic racial prejudice and oppression of the period, there would, however, seem to be a profound paradox entailed in Kerouac's search for freedom in the realm of injustice's victims, a paradox that calls into question the political and aesthetic presuppositions underwriting this strategy.

Alienated from the white mainstream, the Beats found models to emulate in all kinds of excluded groups, most notably perhaps African-Americans. In his influential 1957 essay “The White Negro,” Norman Mailer asserted that “the source of Hip is the Negro” (313), adding that “The hipster … for practical purposes could be considered a white Negro” (315). Allen Ginsberg's classic “Howl” begins with a vision of “the best minds of [his] generation,” “dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn” (126). In their virtual deification of jazz greats such as Charlie Parker, the Beats turned away from the aesthetic traditions of white America;3 and in their adoption of a slang based on a style of “hip” African-American speech, they articulated a radically redefined relation both to the dominant white community and to the black community.4 Even Malcolm X commented on this development, observing that during the 1940s “A few of the white men around Harlem … acted more Negro than the Negroes” (George and Starr 191). While it was not, of course, unheard-of for American whites prior to this to accept the equality of African-Americans, outright emulation was unusual. Furthermore, rather than working for the integration of marginalized peoples into the American mainstream, in their discourse and their behavior the Beats expressed a desire to join the excluded others on the margins—not on the barricades. A peculiar reversal of Frantz Fanon's notion of black skin/white masks, this sense of racial alterity contrasted sharply with prevailing American ideologies.5

Throughout On the Road, Kerouac celebrates America's racial diversity. Mill City, for example, is described as “the only community in America where whites and Negroes lived together voluntarily,” and, he adds, “so wild and joyous a place I've never seen since” (60). In California, Sal (Franco-American) and Terry, his Mexican-American lover, eat in a Chinese-American restaurant and spend a pleasant evening with an African-American family she knows (87-89). This passage seems to anticipate Lyotard's description of contemporary culture in which “one listens to reggae, watches a western, eats McDonald's food for lunch and local cuisine for dinner, wears Paris perfume in Tokyo and retro clothes in Hong Kong” (Postmodern 76); but Kerouac's depiction of this postmodern moment seems less depthless than Lyotard's “eclectic degree zero of culture” which is predicated on an evacuation of cultural depth. Whether African-American or Chicano, North American Indian or Asian, the imaginary racial other that Kerouac constructs and sometimes refers to as “the great fellahin peoples of the world” (98) offers him a discursive opening by means of which some of the structures of freedom and necessity that organize his subjects may be inverted. Adapting the term fellahin from Spengler, Kerouac employs it very generally to designate all those peoples—in North America and throughout the world—who appeared to him to be culturally situated outside the structures and categories, the desires and frustrations, of modernity.6 Whatever their own problems, problems of which he seems for the most part unaware, Kerouac's fellahin appeared to exist in a more authentic, more real and vital space beyond the confines of a consumer culture which defined its subjects as those who “consume production and therefore have to work for the privilege of consuming, all that crap they didn't really want anyway … all of them imprisoned in a system of work, produce, consume, work, produce, consume” (Dharma Bums 78).

For Kerouac, racial difference is conflated with escape from that prison. George and Starr note that this vision from the margins not only accepted difference, it valorized difference: in doing so the Beats were able to “ridicule the authorities, debunk the myths, expose the hypocrises, and, thus, delegitimate the culture of domination” (203-204). This postmodern desire for a heterogeneous, fellahin world, while scandalous at the time, offered the Beats a sense of renewed possibility, of release from conventional white middle-class desires. If this position provided them a vantage point which ultimately proved not only uninhabitable but also insufficiently aware of the real conditions of existence of the dominated groups, it did nevertheless afford for a time a much-needed disruptive critical perspective on the stifling affirmative culture of the period.

In their discussion of Kerouac, Deleuze and Guattari point out the importance of artists who know “how to leave, to scramble the codes, to cause flows to circulate. … They overcome a limit, they shatter a wall” (132-133). And, they continue later, “What matters is to break through the wall” (277). But which wall is the wall? Kerouac, a Deleuzian nomad, at least temporarily deterritorialized, does break through a wall, but other walls stubbornly remain. As Sal watches a sandlot baseball game, for example, he is touched by the peaceful scene: on the field, “heroes of all kinds, white, colored, Mexican, pure Indian.” And in the stands a similar mix:

Near me sat an old Negro. … Next to him was an old white bum; then a Mexican family, then some girls, some boys—all humanity, the lot. … Across the street Negro families sat on their front steps, talking and looking up at the starry night through the trees and just relaxing in the softness and sometimes watching the game.


There is an idyllic, almost utopian quality to this all-American scene, but as Deleuze and Guattari note, cultural revolutionaries like Kerouac who choose the road of cultural flight are rarely able “to complete the process” (133). While the apocalyptic overtones of this postmodern formulation may be open to dispute—what, precisely, would it mean to complete the process?—the estimate of the limits of Kerouac's accomplishment is accurate.

For instance, while celebrations of diversity and difference are frequent in the novel, at times Kerouac attempts further transformations. At one point, Sal Paradise finds himself “wishing I were a Negro, feeling that the best the white world had offered was not enough. … I wished I were … anything but what I was so drearily, a ‘white man’ disillusioned.” He blames his sense of emptiness on the fact that “All my life I'd had white ambitions,” and concludes by “wishing I could exchange worlds with the … Negroes of America” (180). This longing—a sort of fantasized racial version of cross-dressing—tells us little, however, about that other world. A distant and indirect descendant of minstrel show blackface perhaps, a peculiar inversion of the earlier African-American concern with “passing,” this desire comes up often in one form or another during the period. “Blackface whiteness,” writes David Roediger, most often meant “respectable rowdiness and safe rebellion” (127) rather than any real cultural understanding. And, like the minstrelsy tradition described by Alexander Saxton, Kerouac's evocation of African-American life combines aspects of critique and naive escapism: a “ridicule of upper-class pretensions” (170), argues Saxton, is linked to a fantasy of “moral permissiveness” (171), and a nostalgia for a life of “simplicity and happiness” (173).7 While Sal's desire to be black shares none of the overt and sometimes vicious racism of the earlier minstrel show tradition, it does in fact lead here to a revelation of a similarly extreme cultural misrecognition: as he gazes at the African-American family he is filled with a kind of envy for this “life that knows nothing of disappointments and white sorrows'” (181). The suggestion seems to be that African-Americans are insulated from disappointment because they are lacking in aspiration, a notion that can be sustained only at a considerable distance from the actually existing African-American community. Nor could these fantasies of the placid fellahin survive exposure to the African-American literary culture of the time which included Richard Wright, Ann Petry, Chester Himes and Ralph Ellison, writers whose articulations of disappointment and frustration are, to put it mildly, unmistakable.

It is not difficult here to realize the limitations of Kerouac's naive vision; and ultimately his predicament conceals more than it reveals about “the happy, true-hearted, ecstatic Negroes of America” (180). Nor is it hard to predict that his desire to avoid his “white sorrows” by changing racial/cultural worlds will not be realized. The transformation Sal desires is, then, an impossibility based on a misconception: a doubly obstructed road to heterogeneity. For all his desire to be black, the limits of his cross-cultural vision are all too often in evidence.8 Kerouac's ethnic others rarely emerge from a sort of pastoral (or urban-pastoral) simplicity9 and, as Kaja Silverman argues in her study of T. E. Lawrence's somewhat analogous “alignment with a series of Arab figures,” this kind of “symbolic and imaginary identification [has] concrete political consequences … since imaginary identification always carries meanings in excess of its fantasmatic use value” (337). Indeed, in light of the cultural limits of Kerouac's flight, and his eventual retreat to alcohol-fueled right-wing delirium, one might question whether Kerouac's work does not ultimately do far more to confuse the issues than to clarify them, more to augment than to destabilize the reified racial and gender categories of social identity. Still, to dismiss Kerouac entirely would be as simplistic as to elevate him to the level of cult hero, which many hagiographic Kerouac studies continue to do.


Kerouac's deployment of the fellahin registers a concerted move away from at least some of the master narratives constraining early postwar culture. According to Allen Ginsberg, Kerouac took the term fellahin from Spengler's The Decline of the West (Gifford and Lee 38). Originally signifying Arabic peasantry, the term is extended by Spengler to include one of the three types in his historical “morphology of peoples” (169). The first stage, the primitive, refers to the predecessors of the world-historical cultures, the imperial cultures which make up the second term. The fellahin is the third term and refers in part to descendants of the primitives, those groups marginalized by civilization during its ascendancy who remain when a culture, having risen to world dominance, ends its trajectory with a gradual collapse. “[B]etween the primitive and fellah,” he writes, “lies the history of the great culture” (362). In the aftermath of civilization, “The residue is the fellah type” (105) which occupies its ruins. Spengler thus sets up an opposition between the “historical peoples, the peoples whose existence is world history” on one hand, and the fellahin on the other, whose lives are post-civilization, posthistorical. Whereas the lives of the former are imbued with the meaning and depth legitimated and guaranteed by the imperial culture, “[l]ife as experienced by … fellaheen peoples is just … a planless happening without goal … wherein occurrences are many, but, in the last analysis, devoid of signification” (170-171).

According to Spengler, a curious thing begins to happen when an imperial culture goes into decline: the intelligentsia, once leading the nation's historic climb from the local and primitive to world significance and imperial dominance, gradually become “the spiritual leaders of the fellaheen” (185). In their rejection of the metanarrative of national destiny, these “cosmopolitan” literary intellectuals too begin to accept that reality is “a planless happening without goal” in which the significance of events is not guaranteed. In their self-conscious relativist recognition that their national narrative or myth is in fact only one among many, neither unique nor divinely ordained, their existence becomes a “being without depth” (172-173). As the numbers of such intellectuals—“world-improvers” Spengler calls them dismissively, historical “wasteproducts” (185)—increase, so is the ultimate demise of the culture assured.10 Spengler's conservative and pessimistic vision was enormously influential and can be found echoed in many cultural documents of the first half of this century.

Kerouac recognized himself in this description, but with a major difference. The image of the postimperial, postcivilization, postcolonial—indeed postmodern—depthless life of planless happening shared by fellahin and intellectuals that Spengler disparages, Kerouac, at least at the outset of his career, inversely admired and emulated. On the Road details a virtually plotless series of journeys across the continent, occurrences valuable not for their depth of signification but for their immediacy, their sense of thrilling surfaces. And as Fredric Jameson argues, “perhaps the supreme formal feature of all the postmodernisms” is “a new kind of … depthlessness” (9). Rather than the careful construction of nuanced levels of symbolic resonance which give a multilayered sense of depth to modernist art, Kerouac experimented with what he called the “spontaneous prose method,” an attempt to record both the mind's surfaces and America's surfaces on paper as directly and immediately (literally without mediation) as possible.

Kerouac's reversal of Spengler's valuation, if not his teleology, stems from his sense of the relation of surface and depth. The surest way to allow the emergence of the deepest contents of the mind, he argues in “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose,” is to transcribe its surfaces as immediately and unobstructedly as possible.11 The great model for such an art form is, of course, the improvisational jazz developed by African-American musicians—further confirmation for Kerouac that the fellahin margin rather than the imperial center is the site of authentic existence and true art. Thus fellahin culture, by virtue of its immediacy, its spontaneity, appears to afford access to a depth that the dominant culture increasingly voids.

Arriving in Cheyenne, for instance, Sal encounters a manifestation of postmodern history we have all become familiar with. The streets are crowded with people: in cowboy boots and ten-gallon hats, they “bustled and whooped on the wooden sidewalks of old Cheyenne.” The saloons are crowded and gunshots are ringing out. Alas, it is “Wild West Week”: tourists and businessmen are dressed up as cowboys, the guns shoot blanks, and history has become a parody of the past, a consumer spectacle without depth typifying postmodern historicity in one of its most banal forms. Except for one curious and repeated detail: scattered among these postmodern cowboys, the “fat burpers [who] were getting drunker and whooping up louder,” are some Native Americans looking “really solemn among the flushed drunken faces … a lot of Indians, who watched everything with their stony eyes” (33-35). In these, Kerouac's fellahin, there is a suggestion of impenetrable depth wholly absent from the general scene which, Sal says, “was ridiculous: in my first shot at the West I was seeing to what absurd devices it had fallen” (33-35). The fall he speaks of is the collapse of history into depthless postmodern parody. In a curious nearreversal of Spengler then, the fellahin “residue,” whose evident alienation is strategically juxtaposed in order to highlight the superficiality of the event and to lend another dimension to Sal's parallel disillusion, seems to possess a kind of historical depth that the postmodern bourgeois subject lacks, and it is this that attracts Kerouac's imagination—if not to sound those depths, at least to reflect them.

One has the sense that there is a finite amount of reality in white America and that it is being consumed too rapidly by the culture industry, whose function it is to transcribe reality into depthless signifiers, simulacra. Soon, perhaps, reality will be exhausted and only empty signifiers such as Wild West Days will remain to remind people of their relation to a past whose specificity will have utterly disappeared.12 This is the transformation of the real into the simulacrum that Baudrillard describes, a process in which the real is lost. It is, as Baudrillard suggests of postmodernity, a world strangely similar to the original but, he adds ironically, “even better” and “more authentic” (23). Kerouac, reacting against this postmodern tendency, locates the “real” in the fellahin, who have not experienced this loss presumably because they never identified with (or were excluded from) the narratives of white dominance that traditionally legitimized white versions of reality. The figure of the fellahin, then, is employed by Kerouac to represent a position that is neither wholly premodern nor wholly postmodern but more accurately extra-modern, thus making available a critical perspective outside the degraded culture of modernity.

The obvious problem with this notion is that it constructs others purely from the point of view of the alienated white male observer and never from the point of view of the others themselves—a fact that is never more apparent than when the privilege of the white subject is explicitly compounded by the privilege of masculinity. In a Mexican brothel, for instance, the necessity of restrained behavior that accompanies white middle-class respectability is transformed into its opposite, a carnivalesque indulgence in transgressive sexuality, alcohol and drug consumption—behavior that Sal associates with the freedom of lowered expectations supposedly experienced by the fellahin. That this space is constructed as freedom from a white male point of view, however, does not mean that it can be understood that way for anyone else, a point that emerges as Sal notes the sadness and despair of the young prostitute whose “awful grief” drives her to outrageous alcoholic consumption, who fixes “poor sunken lost eyes” on him as she begs for money and drinks (289-291). Yet his (un)critical analysis of the situation stops there, leaving her grief as an aesthetic or existential effect rather than one with more definite political or cultural reference. The description of the scene, the frequently noted skin colors of the “girls,” place this narrative episode within the now-familiar racial and gender category of Orientalist discourse: Sal compares it to an “Arabian dream … [including] Ali Baba and the alleys and the courtesans” (289).13 As the white American men leave and the Mexican “girls … gathered around the car,” Sal reflects that they had “left joys and celebrations over hundreds of pesos behind us, and it didn't seem like a bad day's work.” This postmodern quester wants the depth of real experience to be there, to be in evidence, but does not sound those fellahin depths himself. As Sal declares giddily elsewhere, “I was rushing through the world without a chance to see it” (205).

Similarly, when Sal and Dean finish a long night of drinking with a visit to the tenement apartment of an African-American man named Walter, they are very impressed by his wife's compliant behavior which contrasts markedly with the resistance to male dominance and irresponsibility articulated earlier that evening by the white women they know. While those white women are dismissed for their very vocal criticism of the men (“It wasn't anything but a sewing circle” [193]), the positive depiction of the black woman stands in marked contrast. She was “the sweetest woman in the world,” says Sal, “She never asked Walter where he'd been, what time it was, nothing. … She never said a word” (203). In fact she never speaks at all, only smiles as they repeatedly wake her up with their drunken comings and goings, and their admiration grows in direct proportion to her silence and submissiveness. As they leave at dawn, Dean remarks, “there's a real woman for you. Never a harsh word, never a complaint. … This is a man, and that's his castle” (203). In this incident, as in the brothel incident, the multiple layers of dominance and submission—determined by race or gender—remain uninterrogated as Sal and Dean's admiration grows. The reduction to cliché of the significance of this event suggests in fact the degree to which the other is established not in order to investigate the complexity of social relations but precisely to limit that complexity and to act as a shield from it.

It is at least possible, then, that Kerouac locates depth in the ethnic or racial other in an attempt to maintain a distance between the personal and the political rather than traverse it. Unlike questions of race or ethnicity, which could in a sense be addressed from a safer distance, questions of gender seem to pose problems too difficult and too immediately threatening to address. For instance, to explore the depth in marginalized gay experience (with which he was intimately involved) would be to transgress a very powerful masculine taboo. Despite the very autobiographical—almost confessional—content of On the Road, and despite its importance to Kerouac and to a number of his male friends, gay sexuality is largely repressed in the book. One revealing reference occurs when Sal moves from discussing his erotic frustrations with women (“I tried everything in the books to make a girl”) to the availability of gay men:

There were plenty of queers. Several times I went to San Fran with my gun and when a queer approached me in a bar john I took out the gun and said, “Eh? Eh? What's that you say?” … I've never understood why I did that; I knew queers all over the country. It was just the loneliness … and the fact that I had a gun. I had to show it to someone.


The mixture of an explicit threat of anti-gay violence with barely concealed desire, of the evident phallic imagery of the gun with a denial of understanding, suggests the existence of a complex pattern of attraction and repulsion that Kerouac apparently preferred not to investigate further.14 Similarly, to explore depth in women's experience would be to call into question his own complex and fragile relationship to women, including not only wives and lovers but also his mother (from whom he never managed to separate) and daughter (whom he refused to acknowledge). Gender and sexuality seem frequently to exist in Kerouac's life and work as a site of fear and confusion and his resort to fellahin stereotype in many instances appears as an attempt to ease those fears and reduce those complexities.

The fellahin, in Kerouac, thus becomes the sign of the real, a device which allows him, a white male, a means of reflecting on himself—at times even deflecting the difficulties of selfhood—more than it provides insight into the experience of the marginalized other. Baudrillard speaks of a postmodern sense of “mourning for the real” (46), and Sal's response finally, as always, is sadness, a kind of nostalgia for the vanishing American “real” which increasingly, he feels, can only be located in the fellahin. If, as Jameson posits, “a history lesson is the best cure for nostalgic pathos” (156), this cure by means of exposure to historical depth fails to penetrate the surface of Kerouac's subject. Certainly in Kerouac, with his location of a nostalgia for the real at the sign of the fellahin, the attribution and exploration of depth in women, African-Americans, American Native people, Chicanos and so on could only have been successfully accomplished at the cost of forcing a political dimension to puncture the aestheticizing surface of the postmodern white male subject—a step away from cultural fantasy Kerouac was not interested in taking nor able to take. As Gifford and Lee put it, Kerouac's position “was subversive without being political” (232). Yet this separation of subversion and the political accepts not only a collapse of political resistance, but also of the very depth Kerouac was attempting to preserve.15

Sal's encounter with Terry, a Mexican migrant fruit picker, provides an interesting example of this problem of fellahin depth and postmodern surface. Having been beaten by her husband, she has left him and is heading to Los Angeles to stay with a sister. Her child has been left with her parents, grape-pickers who live in a shack in a vineyard (81-82). Despite the levels of social mediation implied in this brief narrative, Sal accepts it primarily as an aesthetic surface—borrowed in part from Steinbeck to whom he refers (90)—on which he can inscribe his own identity problems. During their time together, there do occur genuine attempts to cross or at least gaze across the ethnic barrier, attempts that recognize the real differences and depths of culture; at other times the situation wholly dissolves into stereotype and cultural fantasy. While picking cotton with her, for example, one of the common American images of fellahin labor, Sal realizes just how arduous it really is and how difficult to make a living at. Yet the responses he has to this and to his fellow workers are notable: The “old Negro couple in the field,” for instance, “picked cotton with the same God-blessed patience their grandfathers had practiced in ante-bellum Alabama” (96), remarks Sal, an observation leaving a great deal of history and ideology unpacked. At the end of the day, he proclaims, “I looked up at the sky and prayed to God for a better break in life and a better chance to do something for the little people I loved.” The condescension and cultural distance articulated here collapses on the next page into something even odder. That evening, Sal's desire for the real, for depth of experience, leads him to absorb, as if by osmosis, aspects of another subjectivity: “Sighing like an old Negro cotton-picker, I reclined on the bed and smoked a cigarette” (97). Later, following further osmosis, he uses the phrase “we Mexicans” and adds that the other pickers “thought I was a Mexican, of course; and in a way I am” (97). He does not make it clear exactly in what way that is though, and his summation of the pastoral idyll has a similarly peculiar ring to it: after a few days with Terry and her child in the cottonfields, he declares, “I was a man of the earth, precisely as I had dreamed I would be.” His dreams have not so much been realized though, as they have been overlaid as depthless cultural stereotypes on the backdrop of his surroundings. A couple of weeks cannot make Sal a “Mexican,” or “a man of the earth” any more than it can make him “an old Negro cotton-picker.” Rather than offering a renewed sense of the authentic reality, this fascination with the fellahin tends instead to obscure in nostalgia and cliché the real historical conditions of their lives.


There is, toward the end of the novel, an apocalyptic vision of a future which can be taken to frame On the Road. While they travel through Mexico, a powerful sense of cultural difference is manifest as Sal and Dean pass through “[s]trange crossroad towns” and encounter “shawled Indians watching us under hatbrims” (299). As these people reach out their hands, begging for “something they thought civilization could offer,” Sal reflects that “they never dreamed the sadness and poor broken disillusion of it. They didn't know that a bomb had come that could crack all our bridges and roads and reduce them to jumbles, and we would be as poor as they some day” (299). With a nuclear holocaust, the gap between civilized and fellahin would finally be closed. This is, in a sense, Kerouac's version of the conclusion to modernity as predicted by Spengler—but again with a twist. In Kerouac's rendition, the decline of the west is also a return to a unified source: “For when destruction comes to the world of ‘history’ and the Apocalypse of the Fellahin returns once more as so many times before, people will still stare with the same eyes from the caves of Mexico as well as from the caves of Bali, where it all began and where Adam was suckled and taught to know” (281). Albeit tragic, this is the fulfillment of Sal's desire to put an end to his white bourgeois life. Just as they begin there, all Keroauc's roads lead back to the fellahin. In On the Road, the road of modern western history leads inevitably to its own destruction—“bridges and roads” reduced to jumbles—and thence to ultimate union with the fellahin who, in the end, remain nonetheless misrecognized: a signifier of depth remaining unsounded, a unitary term masking a cultural multiplicity, a fantasy of freedom extrapolated from lives of marginalization.

In works such as On The Road, as well as The Subterraneans (in which he recounts a relationship with a woman whom he idealizes as half African-American, half Native American) and Pic (narrated from the point of view of an African-American child) Kerouac seems to be trying very hard—if naïvely—to reach out across boundaries of race and class, but is finally unable to get beyond his dreams of racial and class identity. Ultimately the effect is double: on one hand Kerouac draws the reader's attention toward the lives of marginalized people, to heterogeneous experience. On the other hand his inability to penetrate the stereotypes that frame his cognition of the marginalized other, his aestheticization of subversion, establishes very constricting limits for the understanding of those lives. In his recognition of the heterogeneity of human experience, Kerouac's road to the postmodern, like much contemporary postmodernism, runs alongside a postcolonial highway, but no junction had been constructed which could make available to him a point of view from the margins themselves. As Catharine Stimpson has written, there is much to learn from what the Beats could not say as well as from what they could: “Yet because of what they could not say or imagine, the Beats also caution us that those regulated by taboos, those whom history tightly nets, must speak for themselves. They must form their own communities of naming, and renaming” (392).

Given his retreat into an increasingly outspoken—even paranoid—right wing stance, it would be easy to dismiss Kerouac entirely as a man who in his youth was blinded by his romanticizing of the other and in his maturity was blinded by his fear of change. This would, however, be to overlook the Kerouac who in his life and writing did, for a while at least, challenge some of the orthodox boundaries constricting the categories of social cognition of his time. As a writer whose enormous influence over a (white? male?) generation extended beyond the literary to popular culture as well, Kerouac displays a combination of insight into the compelling need to break down the hegemonic structures of race and ethnicity and blindness to the lived experience of the marginalized people he looked to as a means of breaking them down. Whether one defines the postmodern with Baudrillard as the era of the depthless simulacra, or with Lyotard as the era of the breakdown of the grand metanarratives and the proliferation of heterogeneous discourse communities, or with Deleuze and Guattari as the era of the deterritorialized nomad, Kerouac's work provides a signpost indicating a route to postmodernity. The construction of a network of such roads allowing America's heterogeneous communities to communicate remains an ongoing project.


  1. While postmodernism has developed somewhat autonomously in the realms of literature and philosophy, Kerouac has been an influence both on the American postmodernist fiction of Thomas Pynchon—who remarks on the “centrifugal lure” of On the Road, “a book I still believe is one of the great American novels” (xvi)—and on the French postmodern philosophical theory of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari (cited below).

  2. In her discussion of gender, postmodernism, and the “pervasive misogyny” of the beats, Ellen Friedman has recently argued that Kerouac and the Beats, alienated from modern culture, looked backward to earlier versions of master narratives rather than forward and beyond them. “The master narratives,” she maintains, “strangely, seem more alive in the beats' work than they do in works of modernity. They are the context of the beats' rebellion. The beats, in their very opposition, legitimate master narratives” (250).

  3. As Dick Hebdige notes in his important study of subcultures, “by the mid-50s a new, younger white audience began to see itself reflected darkly in the dangerous, uneven surfaces of contemporary [African-American] avant-garde, despite the fact that the musicians responsible … deliberately sought to restrict white identification (47).

  4. Seymour Krim commented at the time that these whites, the Beats, were “pick[ing] up not only the fascinating American-Negro rhythm and notes [of jazz] … but the spoken language as well.” They absorbed the “improvisations and verbal inventions of the Negro” and incorporated them “in their language and in their thinking” (39-40).

  5. The Beats, writes Barbara Ehrenreich, “were probably the first group of white Americans to believe that ‘black is beautiful,’ for blacks were, perforce, permanent outsiders, who … creat[ed] their own language and art” (56). As Hebdige remarks, “This unprecedented convergence of black and white, so aggressively, so unashamedly proclaimed, attracted the inevitable controversy” (47).

  6. While I recognize that such a vague and general term is of very limited use, if any, in describing so many different cultural formations, I have used it here in order to understand how it functions in Kerouac's discourse. Kerouac writes, for example, of the fellahin as “the basic primitive … humanity that stretches in a belt around the equatorial belly of the world” from Malaya to India to Arabia to Morocco to Mexico to Polynesia to Thailand and so on (280). In the earliest use of the term I am aware of, Kerouac speaks of the music of the international fellahin as “the world beat” (287).

  7. Although Roediger and Saxton are both discussing the nineteenth century, their general points remain relevant. The most striking example of transracial identification is perhaps John Howard Griffin's Black Like Me, although his transformation was motivated by very different factors. Pop music is, of course, rife with this phenomenon: from Elvis (as Alice Walker's “1955” demonstrates) to Vanilla Ice, the imitation of African-American cultural forms animates the scene. An ironic comment on all this can be heard in Lou Reed's “I Want To Be Black.”

  8. Dick Hebdige, for example, writes of the “breathless panegyrics of Jack Kerouac (who carried the idealization of Negro culture to almost ludicrous extremes in his novels)” (47-48). And Simon Frith dismisses the concept of the White Negro with its valorization of the imputed rebelliousness and natural freedom of the African-American as “weirdly racist” (180).

  9. Pierre Bourdieu asserts that “certain populist exaltations of ‘popular culture’” constitute “the ‘pastorals’ of our epoch.” Bourdieu suggests that such genres

    offer a sham inversion of dominant values and produce the fiction of a unity of the social world, thereby confirming the dominated in their subordination and the dominant in their superordination. As an inverted celebration of the principles that undergird social hierarchies, the pastoral confers on the dominated a nobility based on their adjustment to their condition and on their submission to the established order.

    (Invitation 83)

  10. Such identification with the most dominated social group is an instance of the social dynamic Pierre Bourdieu describes whereby artists and intellectuals who have not found (or perhaps not sought) bourgeois acceptance tend to feel an affinity with other socially marginalized groups whose position is somewhat homologous. While having themselves the more direct connection to the dominant groups which is customary for the producers of “high culture,”

    intellectuals and especially artists may find in the structural homology between the relationship of the dominated classes to the dominant class and the relationship of the dominated fractions [of the dominant classes] to the dominant fractions the basis of felt and sometimes real solidarity with the dominated classes.

    (Distinction 316)

  11. The spontaneous surface and the depth of the real are typically conflated. “Not ‘selectivity’ of expression but following free deviation (association) of mind into limitless blow-on-subject seas of thought,” writes Kerouac. This is the way to “Blow as deep as you want—write as deeply, fish down as far as you want” (“Essentials” 744).

  12. This process is evidently occurring on the literary as well as the popular level. At an early point in the book Sal Paradise—a writer himself—describes a short story by his friend Roland Major—another writer—about two men—presumably “arty types” themselves—who arrive in Denver but, ironically, are disappointed in it since there are arty types there already. “The arty types were all over America, sucking up its blood,” laments Sal (41). Indeed, Sal's reality is often mediated by art: a town is seen as Saroyan's or Wolfe's; people imitate Hemingway and his characters; conversations are lifted from books and movies—The Sun Also Rises (78), Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men (90); being with Terry is described in terms of Joel McCrea and Veronica Lake in Sullivan's Travels and so on.

  13. Orientalist imagery pervades the scene: they approach the bar “through narrow Algerian streets” (286); when it is time to go, they “still wanted to hang around with our lovely girls in this strange Arabian paradise” until Sal finally recalls that he is “in Mexico after all and not in a pornographic hasheesh daydream” (290-291). Although there has been much recent discussion of the term, current debate is still framed by Edward Said's Orientalism.

  14. Gerald Nicosia discusses Kerouac's struggles with sexual identity at various stages in his life, including a “general tolerance … [of] homosexuality as just another interesting lifestyle” (117), his own bisexual experiences (154-155), and, latterly, “a rage against homosexuals” (493).

  15. In One Dimensional man—a work published only slightly later whose title suggests an analogous sounding of depth and depthlessness in contemporary culture—Herbert Marcuse argued that “such modes of protest and transcendence” as the Beat movement “are no longer contradictory to the status quo and no longer negative” (14). In their loss of depth or dimensionality, such apolitical subversives “are no longer images of another way of life but rather freaks or types of the same life, serving as an affirmation rather than negation of the established order” (59).

Works Cited

Baudrillard, Jean. Simulations. New York: Semiotext(e), 1983.

Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Trans. Richard Nice. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1984.

Bourdieu, Pierre, and L. J. D. Wacquant. An Invitatgion to Reflexive Sociology. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1992.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Robert Hurley, Mark Seem, and Helen R. Lane. New York: Viking, 1977.

Ehrenreich, Barbara. The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight from Commitment. Garden City: Anchor-Doubleday, 1983.

Fanon, Frantz. Black Skin, White Masks: The Experiences of a Black Man in a White World. Trans. Charles Lam Marksman. New York: Grove, 1967.

Friedman, Ellen G. “Where Are the Missing Contents? (Post)Modernism, Gender, and the Canon.” PMLA 108 (1993): 240-252.

Frith, Simon. “The Cultural Study of Popular Music.” Cultural Studies. Ed. Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson and Paula Treichler. New York: Routledge, 1992. 174-186.

George, Paul S., and Jerold M. Starr. “Beat Politics: New Left and Hippie Beginnings in the Postwar Counterculture.” Cultural Politics: Radical Movements in Modern History. Ed. Jerold M. Starr. New York: Praeger, 1985.

Gifford, Barry, and Lawrence Lee. Jack's Book: An Oral Biography of Jack Kerouac. New York: St. Martin's, 1978.

Ginsberg, Allen. “Howl.” Collected Poems: 1947-80. New York: Harper and Row, 1984.

Griffin, John Howard. Black Like Me. New York: New American Library, 1976.

Hebdige, Dick. Subculture: The Meaning of Style. London: Methuen, 1979.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke UP, 1991.

Kerouac, Jack. The Dharma Bums. New York: Signet, 1958.

———. “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose.” boundary 2 3.3 (1974/75): 743-745.

———. On the Road. New York: Viking, 1957.

———. Pic. New York: Grove, 1982.

———. The Subterraneans. New York: Grove, 1958.

Krim, Seymour. Views of a Nearsighted Cannoneer. New York: Excelsior, 1961.

Lyotard, Jean-François. The Differend: Phrases in Dispute. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1988.

———. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1984.

Mailer, Norman. “The White Negro.” Advertisements for Myself. New York: G. P. Putnam, 1959.

Marcuse, Herbert. One-Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society. Boston: Beacon, 1964.

Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1992.

Nicosia, Gerald. Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac. Berkeley: U of California P, 1994.

Pynchon, Thomas. Slow Learner. New York: Bantam, 1985.

Roediger, David R. The Wages of Whiteness: The Making of the American Working Class. London: Verso, 1992.

Saxton, Alexander. The Rise and Fall of the White Republic: Class Politics and Mass Culture in Nineteenth Century America. London: Verso, 1990.

Silverman, Kaja. Male Subjectivity at the Margins. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Spengler, Oswald. The Decline of the West. 1918-1922. 2 vols. Trans. Charles Francis Atkinson. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1926.

Stimpson, Catharine R. “The Beat Generation and the Trials of Homosexual Liberation.” Salmagundi 58-59. (1982-1983): 373-392.

Jonathan Paul Eburne (essay date spring 1997)

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SOURCE: “Trafficking in the Void: Burroughs, Kerouac, and the Consumption of Otherness,” in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 43, No. 1, spring, 1997, pp. 53-92.

[In the following essay, Eburne analyzes the wider social implications of the Beat generation by examining subversiveness in The Subterraneans and William S. Burroughs's The Naked Lunch.]

Abjection—at the crossroads of phobia, obsession, and perversion. … In abjection, revolt is completely within being. Within the being of language.

—Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection

Divulging his latest platform as crime-and-commie-busting director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover claimed at the 1960 Republican National Convention that “beatniks” were, alongside communists and liberal “eggheads,” one of the three greatest menaces to U.S. National Security (Morgan 289). Using “beat-nik” rather than “beat” to describe the group of writers, poets, and bohemians known as the Beat Generation, Hoover's semantic slide—or push—seemed to implicate beat “niks” as petty communists who threatened to enervate America's welfare. Both a terrible menace and a crude joke, the Beat Generation elicited similar disdain across a vast cultural front—from Hoover, mainstream culture, and “eggheads” alike.

Notorious for its resistance to conventional sexual and moral practices, the Beats' literary solicitation of breaches and breakdowns within the social fabric garnered obscenity charges for much of their written work. What these charges signified, according to the Supreme Court, was that their work itself was “patently offensive because it affront[ed] contemporary community standards” and that “the material [was] utterly without redeeming social value” (Burroughs, Naked Lunch viii). At issue was the imputation that the Beats radically and deliberately affronted firmly installed notions of decency and thus threatened to undermine the basic integrity of a nation that was already nervous about its internal security.

The broad aim of the following paper will be to examine this subversive element in William Burroughs's Naked Lunch (1959) and Jack Kerouac's The Subterraneans (1958, written in 1952), both of which faced obscenity charges or censorship in some form.1 These two works confront, and seek to disrupt, what their authors considered to be a cultural environment in which individual identity had become inexorably bound up within stifling artistic, societal, and existential norms. Keeping in mind Judith Butler's contention that “identity” itself operates not as a predeterminate ontological category but as a regulatory, and often oppressive, practice of cultural formation, I will argue that the two novels seek to “trouble” such regulatory practices within the context of the postwar U.S.2 By casting the “self”—as the privileged signifier of narrative and cultural identity—into serious contention, they each attempt to drain identity of its fixity as a locus of coercive standards. In doing so, they also attempt to contest the very discursive practices of Cold War-era identity configuration themselves.

What troubles such efforts most immediately, however, is that the very idiom of dissent from these norms was prefabricated by a “liberal” intellegentsia with its own set of governing standards and expectations. Indeed, novels such as Naked Lunch and The Subterraneans were considered “obscene” by many of the “eggheads”—liberal intellectuals, literary critics, and scholars—in whose eyes their dissent was not formulated cogently enough to qualify their writing as truly “radical.” Both grotesque and stylistically discombobulated, this writing seemed so immersed in remonstrating the personal that it fell victim to a damning romance of the apolitical. Writers like Burroughs and Kerouac were little more than incoherent, and therefore obscene in the sense that they merely channeled the confusion of the society that distressed them (Jumonville 191).3 Their confusion deviated distinctly from the more lucidly formulated “pragmatism” of critics like Lionel Trilling, who argued that by introducing “alterity” and “conflict” as incorporable challenges to the mind of the individual, a true radical could be jostled free from the forces of conformity and repression which characterized Cold War normalcy. The Beats, however, scoured city streets in order to find alterity and conflict in the form of a racial, cultural, and ethnic minority, an anthropomorphized strategy of dissent by means of which incorporation and control became a calamitous impossibility.

However, any such means of evacuating a bankrupt subject position by identifying with the “otherness” of the American cultural margins ends up, as Burroughs and Kerouac realize with increasing distress, implicating themselves in the same process of normativity and containment that they attempt to leave behind. Since the identification with “otherness” operates as a power-play relying upon specifically conceived notions of what this “otherness” consists of, it proves to be an elaborate fantasy by which Burroughs and Kerouac themselves end up performing the coercive work of identity configuration. My specific aim in this paper, then, will be to examine how this latter instance of containment comes about and becomes yet another subject position to be evacuated. In other words, I aim to show how “making trouble” for identity becomes a fundamental and deeply complex problem in the two novels, a problem which necessitates not merely a rethinking of “identity” as a discursive concept but, in fact, a radical complication of notions of the process of identity refiguration that would rely upon the commodification of otherness as its fundamental mechanism of change.


“I can feel the heat closing in. …”

—William Burroughs, Naked Lunch

This first line of Naked Lunch leaps out, in medias res, from a hardboiled melodrama which bears an acute sense of imminent constriction. For Burroughs's narrator/protagonist, this encroachment is not merely the legalistic menace of stalking detectives but, more broadly, the tightening grip of an entire network of heirarchized systems of containment and control. In the opening lines of The Subterraneans, Kerouac's narrator/protagonist exposes a similarly constricting (albeit less evidently “political”) web of limitations: his loss of youth, his obfuscatory need for “literary preambles,” and a perplexing trap of self, this being the story of “an unself-confident man, at the same time of an egomaniac” (1). What is most striking about the near-paranoiac sense of confinement and constraint at the opening moments of these novels is precisely their immediacy: the narrational “I” appears as already caught up within such strictures. The novels thus bear the traces of a complex drama of escape—not merely from “the heat” but from a notion of selfhood caught in a network of temporal, spatial, and narrative constraints: aging and the passage of time, the “literary preambles” of style, and the subject positions determined by U.S. culture and national policy in the post-World War II years.

Much of this evacuative work is attempted stylistically. The majority of critical work written about Naked Lunch addresses, in some fashion, Burroughs's full frontal assault on textual “control systems” (see Lydenberg and Ayers). As a brutal subversion of accepted notions of narrative unity, character cohesiveness, and linguistic propriety, Burroughs's writing slashes vertiginously through space and time. Thomas Hill Schaub, among others, reads this radical disruptiveness as a search “for some means of achieving ‘nakedness’ or immediacy without succumbing to the atrophy or imposition of form …” (77). Burroughs's solution is to distill a “language of consciousness” by zooming in on a first-person narrator's subjective relation to experience. Schaub maintains that the authority of Burroughs's work relies in part upon this subjective language's claim to immediacy, its reduction of rhetorical mediation.4 He cites a passage from Naked Lunch's “Atrophied Preface” which appears in the novel's final pages: “… I am a recording instrument. … I do not presume to impose ‘story’ ‘plot’ “‘continuity’. … Insofar as I succeed in Direct recording of certain areas of psychic process I may have limited function. … I am not an entertainer …” (200). While Schaub focuses on Burroughs's claim to impose as little structure and mediation as possible, any claim to “immediacy” here seems to be cut short—not just by the ambiguity of the passage, but by the very positioning of this claim: as an atrophied preface, its presence is suspect. Is this passage itself an attempt to impose structure and continuity by means of explanation? How structured, or how atrophied, is its own value? This suspicion is fed by the narrator's later claim that he has written many prefaces which atrophy and amputate spontaneously (203). As we'll see, the very idea of “stripping down” narrative to a naked prose-consciousness is itself a treacherous process; Schaub's argument that this has to do with immediacy assumes the presence of a subjective logos, some “naked” core of consciousness that can be served up to readers as the “naked lunch” itself.

Such a stripping down, though, is done only at the expense of the speaking subject: as noted above, any claim to immediacy threatens the narrator with the eradication of his authorial function. It is not merely the preface(s) that are at risk of atrophy and amputation, but the narrator—or even the writer—himself. Indeed, in Naked Lunch, the narrational “I”s clash and commingle to such a degree that the didactic voice of “William Burroughs” the author (or author-function), “William Lee” the protagonist/narrator, and the “Master Addict” of the appendix are conflated yet maintain specific relationships to the body of the text. These disjunctions open up a discursive space inside which the constructedness of the so-called narrative “self” can be scrutinized, thrown into disarray, subverted.

This “discursive space” to which I am referring is not a clean, open, locatable area made possible by a simple division of the narration into different voices, each relaying separate and differentiated subjective consciousnesses. Rather, the novel is a total disarray; it is more a recombination, a juxtapositioning of narrative selves than a stripping down to individual consciousness. Indeed, “William Lee” is not only Burroughs's protagonist but his own alter-ego—the name with which he closes many of his letters as well as, in fact, the pseudonym under which he published his first book, Junky, in 1953. Nor is William Lee, within the novel itself, an unflappable narrational presence: the text fades in and out of first-person and third-person narration, just as Lee himself drifts in and out of the book's mosaic fragments. Lee's function as a storyteller is also complicated, threatened by the suspicion that he is expendable. Many passages throughout the novel narrate him rather than vice versa; others are narrated in spite of his absence. Thus, rather than adopting a first-person narrative style as a direct mainline into the “language of consciousness” of the individual subject, Burroughs wreaks havoc upon the possibility of such a subject ever being an embraceable totality.

Kerouac effects a similar breach in the narrative subject's claim to immediacy and presence. As a fictionalized yet thinly veiled autobiographical novel, The Subterraneans unlocks a fictive space in which the primary identifications of the narrative “self” as author (or author-function), narrator, and protagonist are at once advertised and suspended, deferred and yet more or less immediately available.5 Commenting on the stylistic background of the novel, Kerouac writes that “the form is strictly confessional in accordance with the confessional form of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground” (“Letter” 80). But any claim to directness or emotional immediacy that his modeling of Leo Percepied after Dostoyevsky's nameless anti-hero bears is, as in the case of Burroughs's atrophy-prone storytellers, undermined by Kerouac's choice of literary model. Dostoyevsky's speaker is no simple “confessor”; ruthlessly self-effacing, frequently infuriating, never to be fully trusted, his presence in Kerouac's text speaks of more than merely assertion and disclosure.

Percepied's frequent self-depreciating slashes and rebuttals—as well as the shadowy intertextual presence of Dostoyevsky's madman himself—call a significant amount of attention to how much his narration is tied up, reflexive, mediated; this mediation becomes as conspicuous, and as necessary, to Kerouac's prose as the emotional unguardedness of its attempt at spontaneity. And yet, the novel's “spontaneous prose method” has often been read as an attempt to eliminate temporal and emotional distance between the writing of the novel and the experiences it narrates: The Subterraneans was written in three grueling, Benzedrine-compelled days almost immediately after the events described in the novel took place.6 The novel ends, too, narrating its own (fictionalized) conception: Percepied goes home to write “this book.” However, the deeply engaged, intricately entangled narrative that results only serves, conversely, to dramatize the distance between speaking and spoken subjects, a distance which Kerouac realized to be a function of “the limitations of time flying by as our mind flies by with it” (qtd. in Charters 185). Indeed, Kerouac's writing faces the broader problem of control involved in eliminating distance—embedding his narration within the mechanics of representation, the sticky limitations of expression, and the fracturing of the possibility of an omnipotent literary auteur able to convey successfully “the language of consciousness.” Instead of using fast work and fast language as a “way in” to the immediate experience it promises, Kerouac's prose cleaves apart the very fabric of the narrative “self” assumed by such a language's metaphysics of presence to be a coherent possibility.

I have deliberately simplified Schaub's notion of the “language of consciousness's” claim to immediacy here for the sake of highlighting an effect of Burroughs's and Kerouac's writing whereby “the way OUT is the way IN” (Naked Lunch 208). Their attempt to escape temporal and rhetorical limitations by zeroing in on an “immediate” language ironically, and traumatically, necessitates an evacuation of the “self” as a fixed narrational category. As we've seen, though, this effect is itself as much the result of limitation and entanglement as it is of efficient self-evacuation.

Schaub, however, argues otherwise: the conscious move of many post-World War II writers to “subjectivize” the novel was itself a “voice of resistance to general pressures, both popular and critical, for political conformity and controlled, crafted form. The discourse of resistance and reform was no longer dominated by the language of social and economic forces, giving way, instead, to explanatory models based in psychology—to a renewed focus upon the mind” (69). According to Schaub, the first-person affords a means for dramatizing a subjective view of experience, a focus on “the ongoing dialectic of consciousness” (81). Such points-of-view not only relieved the stifling artistic bane of conformity, but also had a more legitimate access to “reality” and “authenticity” within their highly individualized contexts. “The subject” thus became a highly motivated—and, it seems, highly fashionable—literary trope for a postwar novel in search of the voice of subversion “within the postwar discourse of ‘mass society,’ ‘conformity,’ and ‘totalitarianism,’ which governed thinking about society for writer and critic alike in the forties and fifties …” (69).

However, in Naked Lunch and The Subterraneans, this move fails to claim coherence or even authority; rather, the use of a first-person narrator in these two novels serves more to alienate the self from the self than to distance the “rebel” self from postwar society. As Schaub points out, both novels often dramatize the vicissitudes of the subjective voice. However, if the novels in some way approach the naked immediacy of consciousness, they expose a realm so turbulent as to rip apart the subjective voice altogether.

Nonetheless, both novels remain deeply committed to confronting the social and political modalities of the selfhood they subvert: namely, the images of U.S. postwar “normalcy” which privileged a virulently anticommunist white, middle-class, heterosexual male. Burroughs and Kerouac resisted, and attempted to evacuate, this position of artistic and experiential subjectivity which, in their eyes, had become a real drag. This evacuation implicated not merely the existential drudgery that conformity entailed but, in fact, the whole notion of “fitting in” altogether. In the discursive climate of the early postwar years, “fitting in” already carried an onerous amount of ideological baggage. As we will see below, conformity implied complicity with a U.S. social and political orthodoxy intent on stamping out difference and “deviance” by means of the Cold War politics of personal containment.


Little Surrealist sketch. A woman in white uniform with a chrome-plated machine appears in J. E. Hoover's office: “I have come to give Mr. Hoover a sample high colonic wash courtesy of the Fox Massage Studios Inc.” She plants a time bomb up his ass. High up.

—William Burroughs, Letter to Allen Ginsberg, 24 Dec. 1952

Naked Lunch and The Subterraneans nosed their way into the literary market at a period—the Cold War 1950s—in which a remarkably hegemonic cultural and political body had fashioned a narrative of opposing internal and external forces, positioning “us” versus “them.” The national fixation upon internal security, operating not only within U.S. Government policy but, to an unprecedented degree, within the private sector, implemented an alarmingly pervasive political consensus which would define the affairs of the state in “human” terms (Baughman 6). Under this consensus, a mass of “anxieties” drawn from foreign and domestic policy alike—the fear of communism, the Bomb, homosexuality, sexual chaos and moral decrepitude, aliens (foreigners and extraterrestrials)—became condensed with a nightmarish lucidity upon a unifying rhetorical figure: a festering and highly contagious disease which threatened the national “body” with pollution. Andrew Ross aligns the widespread use of such rhetoric

to the chorus of similar hysterical discourses that contributed to the Cold War culture of germophobia, and the many fantasmatic health concerns directly linked to the Cold War—Is Fluoridation a Communist Plot? Is your washroom breeding Bolsheviks? Cold War culture is rich with the demonology of the “alien,” especially in the genre of science fiction film, where a pan-social fear of the Other—communism, feminism and other egalitarianisms foreign to the American social body—is reproduced through images drawn from the popular fringe of biological or genetic engineering gone wrong.


Implicit in Ross's explication of the language of germophobia is the work being done in the Cold War imagination to transform “egalitarianisms” into something “alien”; indeed, what is most interesting in such a transformation is that the most damning aspect of the “Other”—of “It,” “The Thing,” and other manifestations of alien presence—was not its sameness but its seemingly ineluctable difference. As Ross suggests, behind the figuration of this difference was the danger of usurpation, the systematic transformation of “us” into “them” which would, in fact, result in a perverse sort of egalitarianism whereby American self-identity would dissolve. More specifically, it was the fear of infection, of the infiltration of a foreign pollutant into the American social body, which figured as this demonization's fundamental rhetorical anxiety. Such invasive rhetoric was most visible in J. Edgar Hoover's massively publicized agenda as FBI director, which co-opted his antebellum campaign to stamp out “degenerates” for the sake of maintaining U.S. internal security against the “trojan horse of Communism” in the postwar years (Hoover, “How Communists Operate” 30; see also Hoover, “The Communist Threat in the U.S.”). Though more moderate, George Kennan's 1947 article, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” makes a similar move, allegorizing the threatening spread of communism as a contaminating “fluid stream” (575). In face of this spreading ooze of Soviet expansionism, Kennan calls for a form of “containment” which would counterbalance its external threat by means of a reinforcement of the “integral integrity” of the country. It is by strong counterexample, by an American self-enclosure—that is, by “good health”—that the Communist danger could be kept at bay (575).7

The “integral integrity” or American social body at stake in this drama of corrupting influence formed the contrary figure upon which was condensed an equally astounding number of concentric structures of self-enclosure, from the most personal to the most public. Conflating the languages of physical, psychic, and public health with the language of national security, an American “self” was formulated as a dominant subject position designed to withstand the threat of outside pollution. This “self” was compound, a set of varying spatial boundaries and bulwarks, each protecting another's integrity. The versions of subjectivity at stake were liable to change and slide into multiple configurations; depending on the situation, depending on the concurring cultural and political contexts called upon for legitimacy, the “self” at stake could be private, public, national, or all at once.

The master metaphor of this struggle to preserve the “integrity” of the American subject position from the contamination by the Other was the drive to preserve the body from the corrupting influences of “unnatural” bodily acts: the advances of “loose” women, sexual perverts and deviates, and, most emphatically, homosexuals. To engage in such “unnatural” sexual practice was symptomatic of a transgression into pathological deviance. As Elaine Tyler May writes, unfettered female promiscuity figured as the “explosive issue” which plagued male sexual health with venereal diseases (165)—May's term “explosive issue” calling to mind both a Kennan-esque metaphor of communist infection as an “issue” or seminal fluid, as well as the notion of the “bombshell,” the pin-up siren registering atomic destruction in female form.8 An even more explosive issue in the immediate postwar years was the juridical linkage of sexual deviance to political deviance, a move which, Robert Corber attests, “not only politicized the sexual practices of an indeterminate group of gay men and women by linking them directly to the growing crisis over national security, but also coerced heterosexuals into policing their own behavior” (69). This implication of homosexuals as a communist threat to American integrity came scandalously at the heels of a full-blown investigation, launched by Senator Joseph McCarthy and the Senate Appropriations Committee, which sought to confirm allegations that “sexual deviates” were employed by the federal government.9 This infiltration, or, in the Senate's terms, this “pollution” of the federal government (Hoover, too, would revise his own “trojan horse” metaphor to the suggestively phallic “trojan snake” [Hoover, “America” 199]) provoked a metaphor of anal penetration which, in turn, could be co-opted for the purposes of further hystericizing the Communist “pollution” of the United States as a national body (qtd. in D'Emilio 59).

Furthermore both the natal—and thus “natural”—origin of the individual body as well as its most intimate social milieu, the family, was posted as a version of the self similarly at risk on a national level. The family as a state apparatus—an image reiterated not just by the state itself but also by the popular media at least since World War II (see Westbrook)—existed not just as an endangered social unit but as a protective structure that was itself essential to national security.10 Such structural units were considered to be endangered as much from within as from without. Bad parenting, which threatened a family with the lurking danger of an “Oedipal complex”—or what Philip Wylie called “momism”11—risked producing psychologically damaged “mother-lovers” destined to become criminals, drug addicts, or (worst of all) sissies. The latter were especially demonized since, as likely homosexuals, they thus became susceptible to suspicions of communistic subversion as well. Indeed, in his 1944 article entitled “Mothers … Our Only Hope,” J. Edgar Hoover posits “crime” and “perversion” as the consequences of “parental incompetence and neglect” (qtd. in May 74). It thus became the father's role—and the State's—to contain the mother's influence over her children, a further bulwark of internal security (Corber 143-45). This regulatory family structure was crucial to the rearing of “healthy” and “decent” children.

What is interesting here is that, in adopting developmental psychology as a means of describing domestic relations, there arose a widespread clinical prognostication of “deviance”—crime, drugs, perversion, homosexuality—as a psychological sickness. A “maladjusted” child could become Hoover's “degenerate” “afflicted with diseases which only recently have been discussed in public” (Hoover, “Combatting Lawlessness” 270). Psychoanalysts such as Edmund Bergler, too, lumped homosexuals in “among swindlers, pseudologues, forgers, lawbreakers of all sorts, drug purveyors, gamblers, pimps, spies, brothel owners, etc.,” as deviants with fundamental psychological problems (403).12 Once again, we find what Andrew Ross called the “pan-social fear of the Other” condensed onto the figure of disease, this time with the aid and clinical authority of doctors, psychoanalysts, and other “experts.”13

In terms of this vision of the individual American subject as a body perpetually at risk of pollution, the enemies who posed this threat lurked not only outside of the various physical and psychic bulwarks (and fallout shelters) of the U.S. identity-structures, but often from within these boundaries. Yet what this rhetoric of disease (whether mental or physical) and vampiric infiltration provided within the ideology of containment was a way of locating “internal” difference as the result of outside influence. The demonology of the “alien” or “the Thing” as a generalized Other served as a strategy for abjecting integral difference within a U.S. national identity, projecting such difference upon all kinds of shadowy figures of negative influence. Such figures, whether the nuclear warhead or the covert homosexual, were recast in the dominant public eye not merely as “Others” but, it seems, as perversely phallic Others with the ability and will to penetrate into the national fabric and disrupt its integrity. More precisely, such figures became the symbolic repositories of what Julia Kristeva describes as the abject: the fundamental lack (in this case, of health, of normality, of “American-ness”) which is “what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules” (4).14 In the shifting images of personal, familial, and national security, the discourse about such “dejects” of U.S. national culture provided a brilliant strategy for maintaining the rhetoric of containment. The importance of such demonized figures was due not to their fundamental positioning “outside” U.S. culture, but because of the ability of their essential “otherness” to be compounded into an “abject” which could be located as the source of internal differences within the U.S. self.


“I always told you Trilling was a shit.”

—William Burroughs, Letter to Allen Ginsberg, 1956.

Foreshadowing Burroughs's and Kerouac's reactions to this national narrative were the counter-narratives of the “liberal” literary critics of the Cold War period who, though virulently anticommunist as well as homophobic, wished to distance themselves from the conservative preoccupation with rooting out subversives. However, for such intellectuals the conception of a society—and especially of an individual subject position—organized in response to traumatic difference nevertheless remained a key concept in their critical imagination.15 Rather than adhering so rigorously to the importance of the subject's “integral integrity,” though, the Cold War liberals redefined the subject to present a more “realistic” picture of U.S. culture. No longer at constant risk of penetration by an “abject,” the subject became, in a sense, always already polluted by the homeopathic strains of difference; “reality” was the perpetual struggle of the self with this trauma, and thus the “abject” became a fundamental, internal property of this reality.

Though indeed anticommunist, the Cold War intellectuals were emphatically critical of the “conservative” official and popular-media ideas of national security on the home front. The rigorously normative strategies of containment and defense represented, in their eyes, less security than “a shadow-world of political sectarianism and sheer obsession” as well as “an hysteria through which … foreign policy has been frozen into an inflexible rigidity” (Rahv 308). In other words, the conservative compulsion to attack communism on the home front had become a form of mass-manipulation, an ideological “false consciousness” which lured the U.S. population into a state of conformity which could drain individuals of the will to resistance necessary to free democracy. The national fixation with its own health was symptomatic of a broader fascination with the homogenizing appeal of “mass culture.”16 Indeed, the watershed Partisan Review symposium “Our Country and Our Culture” (1952) mobilized the majority of Cold War Intellectuals under Dwight Macdonald's argument that mass culture was the very “spreading ooze” of conformity and commodification which threatened to engulf the possibility of individualism altogether (qtd. in Ross 45). And yet, while Macdonald's “spreading ooze” certainly reiterates the germophobic language of anticommunist hysteria, rhetorically it represented a fear of mind control rather than of a physical penetration and a fear of sameness rather than the fear of “deviance” voiced by pundits such as Hoover and McCarthy.

What was at stake in the liberals' struggle against the “spreading ooze” of conformity was still the individual self which the fixation upon National Security wished to protect. Yet it was a “self” figured differently: on one hand, the language of hegemonic representations of individual subjectivity tended to conflate “self,” “Nation,” and “family” as allegories of each other, condensing geopolitical and psychoanalytical language under the master-signifier of the male body; the Cold War intellectuals, on the other hand, saw the self as an emphatically psychological entity. Indeed, the Cold War liberals mobilized psychic criteria to dramatize the susceptibility of an unconscious, mass-culture-desublimated populace to the deadly “false consciousness” of ideology. Controlled and manipulated by forces of social repression, an individual consciousness would lose its fundamental autonomy and capacity to think, since it no longer had access to “reality.”

The project foreseen by Cold War critics, such as Lionel Trilling, was to devise a critical methodology which could reinstall an essential complexity within the American intellectual milieu, emphasizing the power of “high” (complex) cultural artifacts to offset the dangerous repressions lurking beneath mass culture's simplicity. As he writes in the 1949 preface to The Liberal Imagination, “[t]he job of criticism would seem to be … to recall liberalism to its first essential imagination of variousness and possibility, which implies the awareness of complexity and difficulty” (xv). For Trilling, the Cold War intellectual closest and most influential to the Beats in their early years, “reality,” as the first essential imagination of complexity, gains a transcendental potential for resistance.17 In rendering the struggle against conformity an essentially subjective project, Trilling locates reality in the individual mind's ability to internalize the conflict, or the dialectic, of culture. As he writes in “Reality in America,” the form of culture's existence is

struggle, or at least debate—it is nothing if not a dialectic. And in any culture there are likely to be certain artists who contain a large part of the dialectic within themselves, their meaning and power lying in their contradictions; they contain within themselves, it may be said, the very essence of the culture, and the sign of this is that they do not submit to serve the ends of any one ideological group or tendency.


That Trilling lends to “reality” the power to transcend the ideological constraints of a given historical moment suggests a sublime quality: as simultaneously “really real” and beyond normal (mass) experience, Trilling's dialectical struggle possesses the power to remain precarious, to be an “essential core” which forever resists hardening into ideology.

As a kernel of reality which escapes resolution and thus possesses a destructive power over ideological tendencies, Trilling's “reality” appears, as Slavoj Žižek writes, as the Lacanian “rock upon which every attempt at symbolization stumbles, the hard core which remains the same in all possible worlds” (Žižek 169). Fortunately for Trilling, such a notion of “reality” can never actually be identifiable as an actual material thing; rather “[a]ll its effectivity lies in the distortions it produces in the symbolic universe of the subject: the traumatic event is ultimately just a fantasy-construct filling out a certain void in a symbolic structure and, as such, the retroactive effect of that structure” (Žižek 169). The ability of this version of reality to cause trouble—that is, its sublime power to disrupt totalization—is precisely the concept Trilling is looking for. Indeed, the ability of dialectical reality's “sublime” nature to create distortions in the “symbolic universe” allows Trilling a mechanism for disrupting an American cultural “universe” at risk of stasis. As Žižek suggests, the “void” in the symbolic structure created by the Real fulfills the Cold War liberal fantasy of maintaining an essential complexity within U.S. culture.

Ironically, though, what Daniel O'Hara calls Trilling's “romance of reading” requires a forceful limitation of reality's disruptive potential (O'Hara 70). Ultimately, Trilling must reformulate the sublime effect of culture's dialectic as something assimilable; since he assumes reality to be something containable within literature, its effect must thus be capturable, expressible through writing. Connecting the “trauma” (or “trouble”) of remaining faithful to dialectic with Freud's concept of neurosis as the “conflict” facing “genius,” Trilling argues that neurosis—while indeed essential—is not, in fact, the source of genius at all. Rather, it becomes the material upon which a genius “exercises his powers” (173). What allows the genius to transcend ordinary madness is his ability, through struggle, to gain command over the trauma. In other words, the essential, disruptive nature of traumatic neurosis—its sublime effect—invokes, but must be mastered by, the “power” of genius. This mastery—Trilling even calls it “dominion,” citing Charles Lamb (174)—is a process of colonization which becomes a much different kind of “struggle” essential to his thinking.

I have opened the previous two sections with William Burroughs's opinions of both Trilling and Hoover to show, through his anal-izations of these two figures, how their respective models of identity are interconnected. If, in Burroughs's terms, Hoover's ass—an available synecdoche for the FBI as both the “head” and the “seat” of government (see Edelman 129-37)18—is clinically sodomized by the very fear it systematically locks out and pathologizes (the bomb, subversion, anal penetration), then Trilling's colonization of abjection gets, shall we say, colon-ized. As “a shit,” Trilling becomes the internalized abject which Hoover's time-bomb artificially supplants: Trilling's narratively contained dialectic represents an already digested, internalized “hard kernel,” an abject substance that is the evidence and essence of psychic/cultural production.19 In other words, the liberal response to anticommunist, homophobic, nuclear-age hysteria does not reverse that systematic rejection of invading substances (difference, the abject, disease, trauma), but, rather, positions “difference” as an essential but consumed, digested, and containable abject. But by calling Lionel Trilling “shit,” Burroughs allows me to voice the suspicion (both Burroughs's and my own) that any attempt to contain the “sublime” potency of the abject is destined to fail: it's got to come out sometime.


Of course, it is much easier to look at Burroughs's attack on Trilling as “a shit” simply as a rejection of his criticism. But if my hyperbolic treatment of this attack suggests anything else at all, it is that the Beats did not reject Trilling's insistence upon the sublime effect of “reality” as the shock to the system U.S. culture desperately needed in order to transcend conformity, but found him rather hopelessly constipated. Moving “reality” from the University to the city, and from the mind to the body, as the sites of culture's essential conflict, the Beats developed a much more radical idea of what this reality—and the plural possibility it promised—meant.

Thrown into the context of postwar New York City, what this “reality” came to represent was not simply a deviance from standard cultural formations but a “discovery” of an American racial, ethnic, and cultural underclass who lived in a manner very much at odds with mainstream culture. That is, the Beats encountered a city loaded with all kinds of demographic “others”—down-and-outs, drug addicts, homosexuals, criminals, political subversives, and other such undesirables against whom the National Security State was protecting itself, as well as the jazz legends, hipsters, and African Americans whom the U.S. refused to recognize and had relegated to the ghetto. Such social “dejects” became the Beats' “secret heroes” whose access to social abjection was construed as a privilege which allowed them, it seemed, to contain the dialectic of culture within their minds as something immediate, powerful, and real.20

For Burroughs and Kerouac, the refusal, or inability, of such figures to be assimilated into mainstream culture volunteered them as models of resistance able to disrupt the stylistic and existential rules of white, middle-class America. For the most part, the Beats' desire for the privileged experience such “secret heroes” supposedly possessed played itself out vicariously as a drive to plug into the lifestyles, imitate the speech and music, and inhabit the marginalized cultural realm of such figures.

This desire to identify sinks deeper, though: the desire for otherness figures in their texts not as identification with “secret heroes,” but as identification as “other”—a move which even relies on hegemonic stereotypes of who “dejects” were for the very sake of rejecting societal typecasting. Burroughs thematizes his own homosexuality and drug use; Kerouac writes in On the Road of “wishing I were a Negro” (180). The question of identification becomes, in their work, that of how to gain access to this paradoxically privileged experience of cultural subversion, how to modulate one's own subject position by means of it. One argument shows this romance of abjection playing itself out sexually, as if “the dialectic” experience were physically accessible. As Catharine Stimpson suggests, this took place as a sexual trafficking of “ethnic” women—or in Burroughs's case, of young boys from Tangiers, Mexico, and Peru. As she writes, “If a chick were black, Chicana, Native American, or Mexican, her grooving and swinging were all the more mythic because she was displaying a ‘primitive’ force that all those in flight from bourgeois society so wishfully craved” (379). Stimpson's take is particularly useful here in showing sexual co-optation as a mechanism for meeting a deeper desire to rebel against mainstream conventions. Such sexual appropriation points to a conflation of the “abjecting” effect of racial and ethnic otherness with the human object of desire herself, which charts this appropriation as a fantasy-identification by means of which the object—the “chick” or young boy—becomes the repository of what the subject lacks. This implication within Stimpson's criticism suggests an already deep difficulty, yet it does not fully realize the extraordinary degree of appropriation and romantization involved in this scenario.

Norman Mailer, however, does fully realize—and fully perpetuates—the deep implications of the consumption of otherness. In his 1959 essay “The White Negro,” Mailer's endorsement of the kind of racial cross-dressing suggested by the title posits “race”—figured as blackness—as a metaphor for the abject. In effect, Mailer's essay responds directly to Lionel Trilling's invocation of the sublime effect of “reality” as the way to subvert conformity; the difference is that Mailer—one of the youngest and most “hip” of the Cold War intellectuals—uses the Beats as his medium and blackness as his master trope. Indeed, in “The White Negro,” Catharine Stimpson's explication of the Beats' gender politics modulates to a full-blown narrative of miscegenation:

In such places as Greenwich Village, a ménage-à-trois was completed—the bohemian and the juvenile delinquent came face-to-face with the Negro, and the hipster was a fact in American life. If marijuana was the wedding ring, the child was the language of Hip for its argot gave expression to abstract states of feeling which all could share, at least all who were hip. And in this wedding of the white and the black it was the Negro who brought the cultural dowry.


The “the Negro” occupies the feminine position in this marriage typifies Mailer's double configuration of the black male at once as active—the locus of cultural and sexual potency—and as passive the courted object of desire. Both phallus and lack, the “Negro” appears homosexually available as capital; and yet, what is charging this configuration is not so much homoerotic desire but rather “what the Negro had to offer”: the “cultural dowry” offered in this “wedding.” This dowry—literally the object of exchange in this eroticized instance of homosexual/cross-racial desire appears as some essence intrinsic to race for which blackness is the synecdoche and whose power is the sublime. Moreover, the “sublime” registers as an inflated, accelerated version of Trilling's sublime effect: it has the power not merely to critique society but to evoke total removal of all social restraint. This makes Mailer's White Negro literally a psychopath whose sublime power—repositioned as “hip” and avant-garde—fulfills the role of the specter plaguing the National Security State: psychopath, sexual deviant, juvenile delinquent, drug user (594).

Indeed, for Mailer, the “White Negro” represents not merely a racial cross-identification but a whole reconfiguration of a “new white man” as a sort of bomb-era Nietzschean Dionysus, whereby, in Toni Morrison's words, onto the master trope of blackness is transferred “the power of illicit sexuality, chaos, madness, impropriety, anarchy, strangeness, and helpless, hapless desire” (80-81). The consumption of such romanticized attributes of racial otherness, which Mailer advertises as “Hip” or “Beat,” promises not only self-marginalization from the constraints of “square” mainstream culture but, as Eric Lott notes in his tremendous essay “White Like Me,” caters also to a “dream of freedom and play” beyond the rational constraints of Cold War society (478).21

As we can see, such an example of binarized “cross-identification,” though bound to Trilling's concept of reality, is not “real” at all but relies instead upon deeply mythologized constructions of “otherness” formed directly from the mainstream rhetoric of subjectivity. At the same time, these constructions are made to retain the privileged status of “reality” as well as its apparently sublime power to subvert the “false consciousness” of normalcy. Such disquieting strategies of “self-othering” run into very serious trouble in the mediated narratives of Naked Lunch and The Subterraneans. In these two texts “the void” of Otherness ceases to function merely as a commodity that exists (in the words of bell hooks) “solely to suggest new aesthetic and political directions white folks might move in” (21) and becomes a category as inadequate—and indeed as suspect—as that of the white, middle-class, heterosexual male “self” which Burroughs and Kerouac attempt to deconstruct.


“… break the shell of body.”

—William Burroughs, Naked Lunch

At the obscenity trial for Naked Lunch, Norman Mailer testified (in defense of the novel) that its value springs from its ability to envision a bomb-era “descent into Hell” (qtd. in Lyndenberg 3). Calling Burroughs “essentially a religious writer,” Mailer attempted to get the book out of trouble by underwriting its “obscenity” as allegory, as something assimilable into the national literary imagination (qtd. in Lyndenberg 3). But in terms of its relationship to nationalized as well as “liberal” enforcements of subjectivity, Burroughs's book was not so easily digested. As Lydenberg argues, Naked Lunch adamantly resists such allegorization, stripping down writing to a “naked lunch, a revelation of what is really going on and not an allegorical evasion” (9). Such an argument is especially useful when we understand “naked” to refer to a radical divestment of the moral and rhetorical “dressing” of the National Security State—as well as from Mailer's own dressing up of the novel. However, Lydenberg's further argument, that such nakedness creates “a materiality of absence, a literal mysticism which opens up the possibility of a ‘non-body experience’” (3), disregards the extent to which Naked Lunch not only relies on the body to perform its subversive work, but in fact relies on the very “allegories” of self and subversion—the very tropological system—it wishes to destroy.22

Continuing the character of William Lee from his two earlier and more personal novels, Junky (1953) and Queer (1985, written in 1953), Burroughs retains these two titular identifications as the two societal “Sicknesses,” as he (not uncritically) calls them, which not only act as primary contexts of identification for Lee himself but also enshroud the very writing process of Naked Lunch. As we have seen, the pathologization of drug use and homosexuality took place in the Cold War imagination as patently psychological ailments; ailments which, moreover, represented criminal breaches in the public health. Indeed, Allen Ginsberg himself was institutionalized for psychoanalytical treatment of his homosexuality in 1949. Burroughs met the notion of such a “cure” with ample sarcasm and hostility: “By the way what ever became of Als normality program? … I thought the nut croakers had fucked him up permanent and reconstructed him in their own dreary image” (Letters 115; see also 266, 369-70). His words on psychological treatments for junk addiction, though less charming, are just as harsh: “Morphine addiction is a metabolic illness brought about by the use of morphine. In my opinion psychological treatment is not only useless it is contraindicated” (Naked Lunch 232).23 As this suggests, Burroughs vehemently resisted treating such “illnesses” as psychological, insisting instead that they be viewed as primarily physical, metabolic phenomena.

To do otherwise is to impose psychological tyranny; thus, in Naked Lunch, there are figures such as Dr. Benway, who, though he strikes away concentration camps and mass arrests in the name of democracy, is “a manipulator and coordinator of symbol systems, an expert on all phases of interrogation, brainwashing and control” (21). Benway's philosophy: “He [the subject] must be made to feel that he deserves any treatment he receives because there is something (never specified) horribly wrong with him” (21). As such, the “technological psychiatry” of Naked Lunch erupts in a form of violence that, ultimately, ends up being physical anyway.

Just as his anger at “Als normality program” soon shifts in his letters to a rhetorical arrogation of homosexuality-as-disease for his own satirical purposes, in Naked Lunch, Burroughs transforms what was considered an emphatically mental disease into a physical “sickness.” He retains the National Security trope of homosexuality figured as a physical penetration that would threaten the integrity of the subject with annihilation, breaking up the “shell of body.” This effect whereby “the way OUT is the way IN” (208) requires, as Lee Edelman writes, that homosexuality be figured as sodomy, thus producing this disruptive effect by “Confounding the distinction between coming in and going out, between consumption and expulsion, between the public and the private, and thereby transgressing the definitional boundaries that underwrite social identities …” (Edelman 132). Rather than a “non-body” experience, sodomy figures as a physical disruption that takes over the body and destabilizes it. Thus suspending the biological and social logic of “integral” identity, Burrough's sodomy flies in the face of hegemony, “washing away the human lines” of body, compulsory heterosexuality, family values, and other nationalized metaphors of identity (9-10). Naked Lunch's polymorphous perversity becomes, in fact, the platform of a political party—the Liquefactionists—which embodies decadence in all its senses: “Liquefaction involves protein cleavage and reduction to liquid which is absorbed into someone else's protoplasmic being” (75). Satirizing both Kennan's language and Hoover's, Burroughs's reduction of the human body to liquid and protoplasm offers a hedonistic subversion of the possibility of an “integral” social being.

Similarly, Burroughs retains the pathology of heroin intoxication as a sickness with a similarly profound potential for physical and ontological disruption. Lee describes one such “attack,” which results in a condition whereby: “… no organ is constant as regards wither function or position … sex organs sprout anywhere … rectums open, defecate and close … the entire organism changes color and consistency in split-second adjustments …”(10). An extreme example because it describes the first high after a long withdrawal, this passage nevertheless dramatizes junk's radical subversion of the metaphor of bodily integrity, compounding severe disruption with a kind of drastic, eroticized jouissance as the effects of the same act. Ironically, the “afflicted” member's attack transforms the symptomology of heroin withdrawal—which Burroughs describes in his early work as a transfigurative metabolic craving—into the pathology of intoxication.24 Feeding and hunger, cellular production and consumption, are conflated in Naked Lunch in favor of a different “prescription”: a version of intoxication that rewrites the bodily script as a polymorphous entity.

The “act” which induces such alterations occurs, moreover, as a consumption—that is, as the result of an injection of “the junk virus” which produces an alternate version of experience in which “identity” is not evacuated but rather repossessed. The process of “in/toxication”—the internalization of an abject substance; a pollution conflating desire, pleasure, and violence—occurs not only in the intravenous injection of the needle into the skin but by multiple penetrating instruments (needles, droppers, jagged glass, morphine and heroin in any form, including anal suppositories) into multiple orifices. The performance of a self-othering process as both penetration and consumption reveals its subversive nature—it involves, as does sodomy, breaking into and disrupting the “integral integrity” of the body.

At the same time, though, this penetration into the body is not the sole cause of intoxication's altering effects, but rather the material exchange which catalyses this disruption. As Avital Ronell writes, “drugs” are only a material logos used only to catalyze, and signify, a chemical reaction that occurs inside the body. The injection only serves to activate a pathology that is already rooted in the human cellular structure: “Drugs are excentric. They are animated by an outside already inside. Endorphins relate internal secretion to the external chemical” (Ronell 29). As a pathologized form of bodily communication (between “inside” and “outside”), junk—which Burroughs tropes both as a virus and as a form of textuality25—is, like sodomy, at once a penetration and an internal awakening. This intoxication presents a form of exchange, an intercourse, which changes the body both from within and from without.

But it is not this easy. Such a “way out” of the Cold War self confronts serious limitations in Burroughs's text. As a kind of consumption, sex results not only in the “absorption of liquid” but in the irreversible commodification of the (homo- or hetero-) sexual partner. Indeed, “going all the way” in Naked Lunch means literally killing, using up the sexual “object” in an ultimate ejaculatory moment (see 67-76). Rather than reverting to the homophobic Cold War ideology, imagining death as the end result of desire reveals the complicity of such a commodification of human life with systems of power and control. Desire, always ready to run out of control, threatens to become an automatic mechanism of domination.

The stakes of “junk” consumption, too, run the risk of conflating total excess with the perpetuation of control. As an addictive quantity, heroin is at once eminently consumable and all-consuming—Burroughs portrays it as a commodity of a heirarchized and violently repressive exchange structure. If it does somehow succeed in “evacuating” the self, its seduction of “being other” yields a state of addiction whereby, as Ronell writes, Being itself (Dasein) “has become blind, and puts all possibility into the service of the addiction” (38). Under the specter of addiction, junk's sublime promise of alterity, and thus transcendence, threatens always to end up as automatism, as subservience to an ethic of domination. What is at stake in the commodification of otherness, the trafficking of “ways out,” is a terrifying conflation of power with powerlessness: addiction produces not merely “sick people who cannot act other than they do” (xi), but, more precisely, people who are utterly controlled. Naked Lunch dramatizes how the sublime and the desublimating constantly threaten to merge into one another.26

In order to realize fully the complexity and danger of this slippage, Burroughs extends the conflict outwards, configuring the transitivity of sublimity and addiction as a place he calls “the City of Interzone.” As he writes in letters to Kerouac and Ginsberg in 1955: “The meaning of Interzone, its space-time location is at a point where 3-dimensional fact merges into dreams, and dreams erupt into the real world. In Interzone dreams can kill … and solid objects and persons can be as unreal as dreams” (Letters 300). An ontologically transitive state as well as a city, Interzone creates a site at which Burroughs's “self-othering” problematic becomes racialized. He explains: as a space of racial and national transitivity “Interzone is very much modeled on Tangier in the old international days: it was an Inter-Zone, it was no country” (qtd. in Miles 98). Resisting total identification either as vision of a real city or as an allegory of a mental state, Interzone is neither an inner space nor an outer space. Rather, it is a between space, a crossroads at which textuality, alterity, and identity collide:

The blood and substance of many races, Negro, Polynesian, Mountain Mongol, Desert Nomad, Polyglot Near East, Indian—races as yet unconceived and unborn, combinations not yet realized pass through your body. Migrations, incredible journeys through deserts and jungles and mountains (stasis and death in closed mountain valleys where plants grow out of genitals, vast crustaceans hatch inside and break the shell of body) across the pacific in an outrigger canoe to Easter Island. The Composite City where all human potentials are spread out in a vast silent market. …

. … Cooking smells of all countries hang over the City, a haze of opium, hashish, the resinous red smoke of Yage, smell of the jungle and salt water and the rotting river and dried excrement and sweat and genitals. …

The City is visited by epidemics of violence, and the untended dead are eaten by vultures in the streets. Albinos blink in the sun. Boys sit in trees, languidly masturbate. People eaten by unknown diseases watch the passerby with evil, knowing eyes.


Much like the junk-virus and Burroughs's repathologization of homoerotic desire, this “Composite City” promises a market of human potential where identities—figured as the “blood and substance” of “race”—can be trafficked like opiates. The sublime quality of Trilling's “plural possibility” is offered in a vast carnal buffet of alterity, wherein “abject” identities are consumed, sacrificed, and used up. At the same time, while it would be inaccurate to conflate Interzone with junk and sodomy as direct allegories of each other, they each furiously insist that the consumption of otherness is not a simple capitalist exchange; rather it is a fantasy whose transitivity engenders confusion, violent conflict, and illness.

Burroughs suspends moral judgment of the commodification of otherness as a “starting point for white self-criticism” by representing racial cross-identification as an addiction: he terms it in the language of need, a consuming need that requires identification—“wouldn't you?” he asks in the introduction. “Yes, you would,” is the imposed, unspoken, response, his one absolute. For Burroughs, the state of being addicted to cross-identification is also a sickness, a virus, indicating its violence not only to the subjective carrier, but to those he comes in contact with, a violence at every intersection.

The injection/intersection point does not generate space of freedom and play immune to the violence of repressive cultural formations or of rebellions against them. The potentially deadly dream-state is, at best, a space of potential, fantasized play, the space of distant masturbation, of spectacle rather than true intercourse. This interzone, neither fully formed nor immaterial, is a crossroads whereby the attractions, the addictions, of either side of the binary are traffickable as commodities—indeed, the perfect commodities, since they require no advertising in order to be ferreted out by desperate consumers—but only at the price of deferral, violence, and the endless craving of metabolic addition.


“I would have preferred the happy man to the unhappy poems he's left us.”

—Jack Kerouac, The Subterraneans

In Kerouac's more intimate and sentimental novel, The Subterraneans, Interzone's potentially deadly dream-state of endless deferral becomes instead an emotional crossroads which compounds loss, paranoia, obsession, and the lingering emotions of a relationship gone hopelessly awry. This traumatic juncture haunts the entire novel, since The Subterraneans consistently wrestles with failure and breakup; indeed, as a narrative of the broken love affair between Leo Percepied and Mardou Fox, a part-Cherokee, part-African American woman ten years his junior, the novel is less about a romance than about its failure. And as a broken-up book itself, it becomes increasingly aware of the breakdown of “romance” as a cultural and literary apparatus, the failure of the romance of abjection.

The Subterraneans, then, seems less directly concerned with consuming “otherness” for the sake of self-evacuation than with managing the interpersonal and narrative consequences of such a Romance of dissent. As if realizing the inadequacies of a Maileresque project—a project which includes several of Kerouac's earlier novels28The Subterraneans struggles to configure the relationship between Percepied and Fox in a way that doesn't merely involve “sucking her dry” of her othering power. Likewise, the “self” Kerouac wishes to evacuate here isn't merely the Maileresque “white man disillusioned” of On the Road, fleeing from the constraints of Cold War expectations. Rather, the trap of “self” in The Subterraneans expands beyond these constraints to include the sexually appropriative “White Negro” rebellion against them as well. Such reflexivity confounds the efficiency of the latter's romance of the racial sublime and, simultaneously, lodges their relationship at a perpetual scene of anxiety.

Ineffably confused as to what to do with his feelings of desire and sexuality towards Mardou other than being “crudely malely sexual” (3), Percepied interrogates his own motives for attraction: is his love for Mardou merely a romance of the other's abject power? This conster-nation and ambiguity toward the sources of his own desire plays itself out repeatedly in scenes of paradox and conflict wherein Percepied seems unable to come to grips with the possibility of racial and gender difference, whether to embrace it or to eradicate it. First making, then abnegating, horrified confessions of “male self-contained doubts” about Mardou and “doubts about her race,” Percepied asks himself if the reason for his attraction to her is, conversely, because of her race, because of her exotic otherness (43-46).

This anxiety in the face of the inevitable specter of difference continues to manifest itself throughout the novel; even in one of the most secure moments of their relationship, it arises as a paranoid attempt to deny their racial difference altogether. Kerouac tells of “my fear of communicating WHITE images to her in our telepathies for fear she'll be (in her fun) reminded of our racial difference, at that time making me feel guilty” (70). This guilt over racial difference, it seems, represents less Percepied's reluctance to dissolve a fantasy identification with blackness than it does his compulsion to perform for Mardou's love. Unlike Burroughs, who deploys “race” to connote difference, Kerouac struggles with an inability to conceptualize race as anything but difference, in a situation—the intimacies of telepathy and love—where the two people are presumably bound by similarity.

However, by casting Mardou as at risk of being “reminded” of difference, when it is Percepied himself who seems unable to forget it, the passage suggests that something further is in play. What seems to be Percepied's own fear of judgment retroactively casts Mardou as his judge, thus re-igniting the problem of agency and appropriation that the novel otherwise tries to leave behind: the question is not only about who is judging whom, but about who is narrating whom. This crisis in textual power arises as an immediate concern over how to “tell” Mardou: “But now let me tell Mardou herself (difficult to make a real confession and show what happened when you're such an egomaniac all you can do is take off on big paragraphs about minor details about yourself and the big soul details about others go sitting and waiting)” (3-4). Implicit in this struggle to sort out who should or should not be narrated lurks a deceptively forceful clash of complex subjectivities. Though he berates his own self-absorption, the very process of writing out an evacuation of this selfishness still amounts, narratively, to self-absorption. Moreover, lingering within this admonishment of his own selfishness is an indicative, albeit tender-hearted, trace of the romance of abjection as the “way out.” As he comes to grips with the differences between representation and forms of narrative domination, Kerouac seems to trip over his own internalized romances in an effort to avoid them—as with Naked Lunch, the attempt to evacuate a bankrupt subject-position becomes a further bind.

This kind of conflict occurs with greater severity once Percepied's initial attempts to deny difference fail, and he resorts to imposing textual control over the language which structures his relationship with Mardou. The explosion of contradictory exchanges resulting from this struggle with control and failure occurs not only within Kerouac's narrative discourse, but also at the intersections of this voice and Mardou's “own” words. The clash is twofold: it involves both Percepied's persistent drive to fashion his relationship into a mythological binary, as well as the secondary clash of subjectivities in which Mardou rejects this essentializing and deeply normative structuration. The normative value of such myths reverberates throughout the whole series of imposed configurations in which Percepied and Mardou are cast, respectively, as “jazz poet” and “child of bop,” phallus and womb, tower and well, and Adam and Eve—constructions whose motives swing back and forth between tenderness and panic, between desire and fear. Again, Percepied is critically aware of the artificial nature of such “big abstract constructions” (16) and attributes his tendency as a writer to “erect” these constructions as “the stupid neurotic nervousness of the phallic type, forever conscious of his phallus, his tower, of women as wells” (9). Yet these images, compounded by the gender-, race- and ethnicity-related power differential implicit in their polarity, recur throughout the novel as the conceptual apparatus for dealing with the difference that Kerouac cannot seem to avoid.

The result is a changing series of constructions all reiterating the same theme. Relegated to “womb” and “well,” Mardou is allegorized as an orifice whose primitive and generative nature is corroborated by her mythologization as Even, and made doubly disturbing by its racial and ethnic overtones of darkness and indigenousness. At the same time, this synecdochal orifice is invested with the abject power of the sublime: Mardou becomes the object upon whom Percepied projects not only the vitality and darkness of “bop” but a deep fear of being consumed and used up. At once beautiful and fearful. Mardou-as-womb suggests the power both to rebirth and to destroy. Like Burroughs's orifice, where identity becomes amorphous and volatile, Kerouac's neurotic figuration of Mardou as womb and as well hovers between the primordinacy of birth and the destructiveness of a vagina dentata.29 This representation figures most paranoically in a passage where, borrowing roles from Tennessee Williams's “Desire and the Black Masseur,” Mardou becomes “the big buck nigger Turkish bath attendant, and I the little fag who's broken to bits in the love affair and carried to the bay in a burlap bag, there to be distributed piece by piece and broken bone by bone to the fish” (Subterraneans 49).30 Percepied's fear of being used up by Mardou—of being chewed up and devoured by the vagina dentata—represents the flip side of the romance of blackness which seems most actively at work in Kerouac's acceptance of its promise of rebirth and self-evacuation in the first place. Furthermore, the terminologies at work in this example from Williams are charged with particular Cold War resonances: as we saw earlier, the “fag” dominated by a “phallic” maternal, or pre-oedipal, presence (Mardou-as-womb) was a favored iteration both of psychoanalysis in general, and of Hoover-era “experts” in particular; furthermore, “nigger” carries in this context an indelible brand of racism which simultaneously bows its head to the power-play at work in Williams's story. That Kerouac would position Percepied and Mardou in this manner not only suggests a deep anxiety over his own sexuality and desire, but intensifies the volatile ambiguity with which their relationship is represented.

Whether neurotic, well-intended, or self-pitying, such binary constructions are each painfully invalidated, either by the self-conscious paranoia and hyperbolic hatefulness of Percepied's language or by Mardou's “own” resistance to them. In another—though presumably tender—instance, Percepied tells Mardou: “‘because as part Negro somehow you are the first, the essential woman, and therefore the most, most originally most fully affectionate and maternal’—there now is the chagrin too, some lost American addition and mood with it—‘Eden's in Africa,’ I'd added one time—” (94). In response to which Mardou later adds, in a parenthetical aside: “‘Look man,’ she'd said only a week before when I'd suddenly started talking about Adam and Eve and referred to her as Eve, the woman who by her beauty is able to make the man do anything, ‘don't call me Eve’” (109). Mardou's blunt censure of this romanticized notion is, to some extent, echoed by the narration's own self-destructive reflexivity. Indeed, Percepied seems aware that his association is a loaded one; for in calling Mardou “Eve” he knows he is engendering it with “some lost American addition and mood,” by means of which Mardou is transmutted from lover to allegory. Mardou's aspersion is, furthermore, surrounded by the narrator's own reasons for the objectionability of the myth. He revises the “story” of Adam and Eve to fit this awareness: in the second passage what is of concern is not Eve's “original” nature but, again, her “sublime” power to manipulate and use up Adam. The breakdown of this myth is compound: effected most explicitly by Mardou, its artifices are also disclosed by Percepied's self-reflexive narration.

The disintegration of such essentialist myths in which women are symbolized as wells—or, as Mardou later argues, as prizes—do not only occur within this double context of dialogic confrontation, but also in the inability of the relationship to remain a private binary. Again dramatizing the possibility that their relationship may not just be about love but about Percepied's desire for self-evacuation, the novel's binarisms tend to evolve into threesomes. Indeed, throughout the text their relationship is framed as a shifting love-triangle, whereby Percepied's relationship with Mardou exists only in oppositional exchange with a third party.

Such imaginary triadic constructions—and Kerouac, each time, struggles in his indirect discourse with the suspicion that they are constructions—engender a homosocial rivalry between Percepied and a shifting series of male characters, even by the rumor and possibility of Percepied's own homosexuality.31 Most significantly, though, it is a young poet, Yuri Gligoric, who becomes Percepied's final obsession and thus the third-party rival whom he continually fantasizes to be sleeping with Mardou. The novel ends with a contemplation of this triadic obsession:

… I curled her on my lap, and she talked about the war between men—“They have a war, to them a woman is a prize. …”

“Yeah,” I say, sad, “but I should have paid more attention to the old junkey nevertheless, who said there's a lover on every corner—they're all the same, boy, don't get hung-up on one.”

“It isn't true, it isn't true, that's just what Yuri wants is for you to go down to Dante's now and the two of you'll laugh and talk me over and agree that women are good lays and there are a lot of them.—I think you're like me—you want one love-like, men have the essence in the woman, there's an essence” (“Yes,” I thought, “there's an essence and that is your womb”) “and the man has it in his hand, but rushes off to build big constructions.” (I'd just read her the first few pages of Finnegan's Wake and explained them and where Finnegan is always putting up “buildung supra buildung supra buildung” on the banks of the Liffey—dung!)

. … And I go home having lost her love.

And write this book.


Mardou's rejection of being trafficked as bounty in the war between men finally shuts down the long series of romances which have appropriated her as symbolic property. Appealing to essentialism as a version of reality preferable to Percepied's “big constructions,” Mardou attempts to focus Percepied's attention back on their relationship and to dislodge it from the coercive identifications his narrative attempts to impose.

Though it concludes with Mardou's resistance to commodification as a “prize,” this very resistance raises yet a further question: does “this book” itself become another construction, another monument of “the war between [white] men,” another figuration of Mardou as sublime object? Mardou's suspicion seems to introduce the question of how much her influence—her own voice and the way she resists symbolization throughout the text—is itself a textual consumption of her “sublime” ability to disrupt it. Does Kerouac use her merely in order to break up the unity of his prose and “make trouble” for his sense of identity as a nonconformist writer of “bop prosody”? Even if, as I suggested earlier, Mardou figures as an “ideal ego” and not as a mere object of consumption, she still serves narratively as the “object” to his “subject,” and her “voice” could seem to serve as the petit objet a of identification which Kerouac ultimately covets, the “sublime object” which breaks up totality and escapes symbolization. In a refrain of his intimations of rebirth through Mardou's sublime womb, Kerouac appears to ponder this latter possibility when he cites Joyce's revision of the Bildungsroman of personal development as “buildung supra buildung” (111). In this final image, juxtaposing textuality, construction, and dung, he questions the tractability of any such project of containment and control: is he just another Trilling, using Mardou to access a textual sublime is he, too, in Burroughs's words, merely “a shit”?

Kerouac's project diverges significantly from Trilling's, though. The Subterraneans is charged with a traumatic awareness of its own failure, acting out and disinheriting a vast array of identity strategies, myths, and structures whose coerciveness and propensity for damage become glaringly apparent. And unlike Trilling's idea of the “conflicted” artist who contains the dialectical essence of culture in his mind, Kerouac/Percepied cannot master that conflict, either in his head or in his prose: Percepied's relationship with Mardou disintegrates alongside the mythologies used to frame it.

Though it dramatizes Kerouac's discovery of the emotional violence and breakup forever imminent in imposed configurations of identity, the “failed romance” of The Subterraneans engenders a self-destructive poetics that does not, however, court the righteous possibility of “self-deconstruction” by castrating its own phallic tower of typological constructions. Gerald Nicosia writes that Kerouac somehow turns loss into gain through art, that “this book” feeds upon the sadness within it and assimilates the tragic outcome as an element of the master-narrative the book itself represents (446-50). However, the narrative control over events Nicosia implies is only ever lost, never gained: Kerouac is neither completely able to escape his own entangled illusions nor to identify with Mardou's “language of bop.” I am tempted, for sentimental reasons, to say that there lies in the structural dynamics of The Subterraneans an internalization of Mardou's subjective influence—that ultimately, the novel works as a true romance in a more spiritual sense by showing Kerouac to “really understand” Mardou's take on their relationship. Any such self-righteousness, though, is inevitably disqualified; the damage is done. The Subterraneans, like Naked Lunch, represents a crisis, a trafficking of the interzone between the traumatic inadequacy of identity impositions and the harsh narrative and emotional violence that comes in realizing this inadequacy.

The possibility that this latter notion of a “textual sublime”—which Kerouac broaches in order to transcend the constraints he seems unable to escape otherwise—would also play itself out as a commodification of otherness seems to have been lurking all along. Like Burroughs, who constructs a sublime, orifice-like textual space as an alternative to the limitations of Cold War existence, Kerouac attempts to co-opt Mardou's voice in order to sever—or at least to mediate—his ambivalent position “within” and “without” the dominant U.S. culture. Such an ambivalence, suggested in On the Road by Kerouac's use of the “Interstate” to allow him to leave and return home, cannot fully evolve into a space free of cultural determination without the disruption the sublime entails. As we've seen, though, in both Kerouac's and Burroughs's cases this very promise lands them in a further bind, a place no longer “on the road” or a utopian “outside,” but at a crossroads.

And despite Trilling's claims to the contrary, such a crossroads does not proffer transcendence. Burroughs and Kerouac do indeed “make trouble” for dominant Cold War constructions of “self”—that is, their attempts to forge a notion of identity, or at least subjectivity, as a volatile site of contested meanings were indeed disruptive—but the effectiveness of “trouble” must also take into account whom one makes trouble for. The “sublime” performs useful work in Burroughs's and Kerouac's fiction insofar as its power to disrupt is used to keep meanings and identities in a state of flux and contestation—that is, when it works toward the acceptance and generation of difference. However, implicit in locating the sublime as an inherent property of another person's being is a power-play which brings this very work of contestation and flux to a crashing halt. As Timothy Engström writes, “the subversive thrill of undermining identities with the help of the sublime may be itself the repetition—by inversion—of a rather classical philosophical project: to establish identities” (201). The risk of such an inversion, in the case of Naked Lunch and The Subterraneans, is of accidentally performing the containment work of the Cold War.

And yet, I have argued that Burroughs and Kerouac both become painfully aware of this inversion, aware that, as Lee Edelman writes, “producing different notions of subjectivity is not the same thing as occupying a different position as a subject” (111). In order to read their fiction outside of the repressive forces of consumption and containment that lurk within it, we must read the use of the sublime in a way that foregrounds its tendency to be the stumbling point of representation, a tendency which best expresses frustration rather than mastery or control. The rhetorical deployment of sublimity we've witnessed in Naked Lunch and The Subterraneans is most useful in its capacity to mediate relationships which, as Engstroöm argues, “reside for some time in an awkward orbit around the normalcy of any given narrative …” (196). As something always unassimilable into the narrative of mainstream culture, the sublime can be liberating if activated as a way of mediating the unknown and generating a familiarity with difference. Burroughs's and Kerouac's “interzones,” however, gain their volatility and propensity for violence at the moment when they try to “score”—and become addicted to—the myth of someone else's intransigence, and thus refuse to accept its conceptual value as something that cannot be fully abstracted as a commodified racial, ethnic, or gendered attribute. Such a transaction results in an inability to vacate the confines of the subject position with which they are most critically at odds, an inability which leaves indelible traces of an inherited rhetorical agenda of coercion and containment. Ill at ease with either situation, and thus neither ever truly “in” nor ever truly “out,” Kerouac and Burroughs find themselves instead—to use the Cold War idiom—painfully “out in the cold.”


  1. Burroughs's Naked Lunch faced a long series of obscenity trials and potential censorship. For the minutes of the final trial, see “Attourney General vs. A Book Named ‘Naked Lunch’” in Naked Lunch. Similarly, Jack Kerouac's The Subterraneans was rejected by American publishers for six years and faced obscenity charges in Italy. See Creeley 80-83.

  2. In loosely applying Butler's concept of “trouble” to signify not merely subversion of gender identity, but a subversion of “identity” as a much wider cultural practice of signification, I wish especially to focus attention on her observation that in “trouble” the rebellion and the reprimand are caught up in the same terms (vii). Though I use it to intend the subversion of a hegemonically supported subject position and not a dominated one, this observation is especially true in the case of the Beats.

  3. For another treatment of the Beats' critical reception by Cold War-era intellectuals such as Irving Howe, Lionel Trilling, and Leslie Fielder, see Corber.

  4. Robin Lydenberg forwards a similar reading when she writes, “… Burroughs is determined to create a language in Naked Lunch which will approach the literal, the concrete, the ‘real,’ which will dethrone allegory, metaphor, and symbol” (11). Though Lydenberg admits that Burroughs was aware that “there is no such thing as purely literal, scientific, or factual language,” like Schaub, she insists that Burroughs was attempting, in effect, to eliminate the “middleman” of rhetoric from his prose.

  5. The shallowly concealed autobiographical sources of Kerouac's novels were so directly translated into pseudonyms that, although the character names differ from one book to another, the characters referred to are the same. The standard biographical sketch in the Penguin editions of Kerouac's work states that he considered his books to each form part of “one enormous comedy” which he called the Duluoz Legend. “In my old age,” he wrote in the frontispiece to On the Road, “I intended to collect all my work and re-insert my pantheon of uniform names, leave the long shelf full of books, and die happy.”

  6. See Nicosia 445 and Charters 185. For a treatment of Kerouac's “spontaneous prose method,” see Dardess, who also reprints Kerouac's own “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose” (1957) and “Belief & Technique for Modern Prose” (1959) at the end of his article.

  7. The term “integral integrity” is borrowed from Kennan's discussion of the “X article” in his memoirs, cited in Ross 46. For a brief but illuminating treatment of Kennan's take on Communism and methods for its containment, see Nadel.

  8. May writes that the term “bombshell” was given new significance in World War II, when fighter pilots would name bombers and adorn them with provocative images; moreover, the Bikini Island tests further literalized this image when a bomb, outfitted with a picture of Rita Hayworth clad in what would soon be known as the bikini bathing suit, was dropped on the atoll.

  9. What sealed the conflation of sexual deviance and Communism was not merely a workaday conservative homophobia but, as Corber argues, the alarming “discovery” that sexual deviates could pass for straight employees (62).

  10. Clifford Clark argues that the ideology of the suburban ranch home of the 1940s and 50s literally buttressed the Cold War crusades to halt the spread of communism as well as to stamp out germs with antibiotics; each, he writes, derived from the same impulse: a “one-dimensional frame of mind that stressed the possibility of creating the perfect society” (171).

  11. Wylie pathologizes “mom”—a hard-drinking, sexless, overbearing maternal figure—as the castrating mother who overpowers, who “rapes” American men of their “urges and adventures” and instills the conformist morals which Wylie calls a “cancer of the soul” (8); “Mom,” in other words, becomes the historical embodiment of the symptoms of infantile neurosis.

  12. For a nuanced overview of developments in the psychoanalytic theories of homosexuality in this period, see Lewes.

  13. Even when the Kinsey Report of 1947 argued that the sexual identities of “normal” men were more fluid, and subject to same-sex experimentation, than had previously been known, this only served to heighten anxiety over a breakdown of male moral integrity and infiltration of homosexuals in the ranks (Corber 63-64).

  14. Not surprisingly, the terms Kristeva uses to describe the deject are, once again, much like those Kennan ascribes to Soviet power. “For the space that engrosses the deject, the excluded, is never one, nor homogeneous, nor totalizable, but essentially divisible, foldable, and catastrophic. … the deject never stops demarcating his [sic] universe whose fluid confines—for they are constituted of a non-object, the abject—constantly question his solidity …” (8).

  15. For one of the most comprehensive histories and analyses of the Cold War liberal intellectuals, see Jumonville. Ross, Schaub, and Corber also provide good treatments of this group.

  16. The observation that Hoover and his FBI “G-Men” were deeply embedded in the mass media as celebrity figures corroborates their interconnectedness. Indeed, the heavily endorsed ideals of bodily health and “family values”—coupled with the aggressive consumerism of the middle class household—were precisely the ideals of normativity and inflexible mediocrity that the majority of Cold War liberals feared might wipe out individuality altogether.

  17. Trilling was beginning his tenure as one of the U.S.'s most influential intellectuals while Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg were students at Columbia University, where Trilling taught. Ginsberg was one of Trilling's prize students in the period when Trilling was publishing the essays which make up The Liberal Imagination; it is in the same period that Ginsberg was sharing an apartment near Columbia with Kerouac and Burroughs. See Schumacher 24-26.

  18. In his chapter on sodomy and the U.S. government, Edelman begins by collapsing Washington, D.C., as “head” and as “seat” in order to dramatize the interrelations of “the body's politics” and “the body politic” that take place in the discourse of sodomy.

  19. Kristeva makes explicit the connection between excrement and the (Hoover-esque) fear of pollution by societal abjects. She writes, “Excrement and its equivalents (decay, infection, disease, corpse, etc.) stand for the danger to identity that comes from without: the ego threatened by the non-ego, society threatened by outside, life by death” (71).

  20. In particular, bebop, and especially Charlie Parker, epitomized such a subcultural position fundamentally at odds with the mainstream. As Erenberg argues, the sound and form of bebop seemed to fuse the subversive with the sublime, creating a sound that was at once beautiful, powerful, and dangerous. Injecting a radical instability within the jazz form, Parker's bebop not only expressed the traumatic but strove quite literally to put the listener on edge—bebop restlessly courted the unexpected (238). Bebop, like Parker's troubled genius itself, thus seemed to possess the sublime power of Kristevan “dejection” both stylistically and substantively; the medium certainly contained within it the abject's disruption of rules and borders.

  21. Lott argues that the white “self” relies upon the racial “other” as a medium through whom he organizes his desire, pointing out that the “freedom and play” fantasized in this scenario is not merely pleasure but the more disturbing jouissance of abjection.

  22. As I argue above, Burroughs's attempt to “strip down” prose to its naked immediacy cannot function as an actual evacuation of formalistic, allegorical, or symbolic systems, but rather, as he writes himself: “Abstract concepts, bare as algebra, narrow down to a black turd or a pair of aging cajones …” (Naked Lunch 203). The crass physicality, in other words, is ineluctable.

  23. For a brief but nuanced discussion of Burroughs's “opinion,” see Ronnel 54.

  24. More accurately, Burroughs explains the conflation of “kick” and withdrawal in Junky as a dialectic: “Junk sickness is the reverse side of junk kick. The kick of junk is that you have to have it. Junkies run on junk time and junk metabolism. They are subject to junk climate. They are warmed and chilled by junk. The kick of junk is living under junk conditions. You cannot escape from junk sickness any more than you can escape from junk kick after a shot” (97).

  25. For the “junk-virus,” see Naked Lunch 15. For the textuality of junk, see most explicitly Junky xvi (as “information”) and 112 and 122 (as bodily “inscription”); also, the abbreviation for morphine sulphate (M.S.) is the same for manuscript—and morphine prescriptions are troped in Burroughs's jive as “scripts.”

  26. Edelman shows how the popular discourse surrounding AIDS connects addiction (to “drugs”) and gay male sexuality “not only as practices through which the body suffers ‘improper’ penetration, but also, and more significantly, as practices that signify the renunciation of self-mastery and control” (257 n.). The question of whether this renunciation of self-mastery is active (and thereby, it would seem, controllable) or passive/coerced is precisely the issue at stake in Burroughs's text.

  27. Though it is modeled on Tangiers, this passage is rewritten from a July 1953 letter to Ginsberg from and about Peru—a further testament to the interstitial nature of Interzone. For the original passage, see Letters 182-83.

  28. As Catharine Stimpson has pointed out, throughout much of Kerouac's fiction “ethnic chicks” figure more as commodities for sexual and ethnic consumption than as active subjects themselves (48 n.; see also Kerouac, On the Road 84).

  29. Kerouac corroborates this latter image in racialized descriptions of Mardou's actual vagina in which he expresses, then repudiates, his initial fear of it tearing off his penis (76).

  30. In Williams's story, the quiet, effeminate Anthony Burns satisfies a long-repressed masochistic desire by offering himself to brutal “massages” and, as the ultimate act of willful submission, has the black masseur eat his body and dump his bones in the bay. Kerouac's addition of “big buck nigger” and “fag” to the telling of the story seem to play (in a way which is either contemptuously straightforward or cynical) upon Williams's curious reversal (or perversion) of the racialized master-slave narrative, which, by satisfying Burns's desire to be consumed, evolves “perfection” through “torture.”

  31. Though overtly homophobic (see 101), Percepied figures his relationship with Mardou as a homosexual one and, elsewhere in the text, spends a night with some other men looking at gay pornography (38). Moreover, the notion that Percepied is his own rival emphasizes the self-defeating effects of his perpetual misrepresentation of Mardou.

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———. “How Communists Operate.” U. S. News and World Report 11 Aug. 1950: 30-33.

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Ann Douglas (essay date winter 2000)

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SOURCE: “‘Telepathic Shock and Meaning Excitement’: Kerouac's Poetics of Intimacy,” in College Literature, Vol. 27, No. 1, winter, 2000, pp. 8-21.

[In the following essay, Douglas examines the reactions Kerouac elicited from the readers of his fictional autobiographies.]

Explaining the special nature of his friendship with Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg said that early in their relationship he realized that, “If I actually confessed the secret tendencies of my soul, he would understand nakedly who I was” (Watson 1995, 37). I think a number of Kerouac's readers even today feel the same way. I, for one, seem to know Kerouac better, he's dearer to me, than all but a few people in my actual life, and the extended confessions he called his “true—story novels” tell me that I am somehow just as important to him.

Every writer enters into a relationship with his reader, offering at the outset a kind of contract that lets the reader know what she must give to live inside this book, and what she will get in return. But few writers try to tell their readers everything that ever happened to them as Kerouac does over the many volumes of the “Duluoz legend”; few writers deliver the magical intensity of intimacy that Dr. Sax,On the Road,Visions of Cody,Visions of Gerard,Maggie Cassidy, and Big Sur bring. Kerouac's ambition was as modest as it was grandiose, as slight as it was large. For every long shot in his “bookmovies,” those moments when people “recede in the plain til you see their specks dispersing” (1991, 156), there's a closeup. “See close, my face now,” Kerouac writes in Dr. Sax, “in the window of the Sarah Avenue house,” “a little kid with blue eyes,” munching on a Mackintosh apple (1977, 82). Kerouac never wants to move out of our sight or reach. “He flew low,” Victor-Levy Beaulieu has written, and near, very near (1975, 165).

Kerouac said he wrote for “companionship,” recounting what he read on “the face of the person who opened the door,” out of compassion for “someone going beyond the streetlamp into the dark” (quoted in Nicosia 1983, 345, 231). Pledging himself to “100% personal honesty” (Charters 1995a, 356), Kerouac makes the reader his confidant, taking her into his most private thoughts and experiences, into areas which the world sometimes seems to prohibit us from sharing with anyone—our feelings about our bodies, our self-imagings, the moods that inspire and afflict our need to believe. He meant the reading of his books to break a taboo, for himself and his readers. The things a man wishes to unsay, he remarked, are precisely what American literature is “awaiting and bleeding for.” “I have renounced fiction and fear,” he wrote Neal Cassady on December 28, 1950 (Charters 1995a, 248).

After telling us the story of his relationship with the Mexican drug addict, Tristessa, Kerouac closes his narrative by saying, “I'll write long sad tales about people in the legend of my life—this part is my part of the movie, let's hear yours” (1992, 96). There's no period in the text, no punctuation at all, after “yours.” The story is left unfinished, open, like the last bar of Charlie Parker's version of “Embraceable You,” encouraging the reader to come into the same bar of music, to put her image into the same frame with his, her breath taking up where his left off. At this moment, you're all he has, and maybe at this moment he's all you have, or need.

So, Kerouac, for some of us, becomes almost synonymous with our private lives, the secret culture of our inmost thoughts and affections, the legend as well as the history of our existence. I know that for me, he's inextricably bound up with the circumstances of my life at the time I first read On the Road in 1958 when I was sixteen. Howl, too, circulated at the boarding school I attended, part of an underground of forbidden literature that included Forever Amber and Pierre Louys's Aphrodite. Though we barely understood Ginsberg's homosexual allusions, we could aspire to being “the best minds” of our generation, and I thought I knew what it might mean to be “destroyed by madness.”

On the Road was different. Unlike Howl, or The Subterraneans and Visions of Cody, later books by Kerouac published without editorial revision, there was little in it that my mother would have censored. In fact, when I persuaded her to read On the Road decades later, what bothered her was not so much the sexual promiscuity or the drug-taking of its characters—although, of course, she noted them—but its heartwrenching sadness. To her surprise, she'd fallen in love with Kerouac's sweetness and wit, and the fact that, as she told me, “It's the saddest book I ever read,” affected her like a misfortune befalling a brilliant but improvident friend. She sensed that what was unusual and perhaps forbidden here was Kerouac's emotional expressiveness, his willingness to travel so far with so little luggage, so few judgments as ballast or currency, making himself helpless before the transience of experience, helpless as an agent and individual, though not as an artist. “Don't you know what's so utterly sad about the past?” Kenny Wood asks Peter Martin in The Town and the City. “It has no future. The things that come afterward have all been discredited” (Kerouac 1978, 110).

Back in 1959, On the Road told me and my friends, all young women from the upper-middle classes reared in privileged, densely settled, even stratified regions of the United States, that we were part of a continent rather than a country, a kind of fabulous terra incognita not fully detailed on any map, shading on one side into a colder, mysterious northern land and on the other into a more tropical and seductive climate. In Kerouac's novel, the continent had been strangely emptied out of the people usually caught on camera, yet it was filled with other people, people in motion, of various races and ethnicities, speaking many tongues, migrating from one place to another as seasonal laborers, wandering around as hobos and hitchhikers, meeting each other in brief but somehow lasting encounters. On the Road told me that being an American meant being “somebody else, some stranger … [whose] whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost” (1991, 17).

Decades later, in the mid-1970s, I began teaching Kerouac in courses at Columbia University. Around the same time, I met and fell in love with Jay Fellows, a man for whom On the Road had also been a revelation, who saw himself as Kerouac's twin. He wasn't altogether mistaken. Like Jack, he was dazzlingly good-looking, intelligent, and athletic, and he, too, had played (in the same position) on the Horace Mann football team; he, too, made up in speed and tenacity what he lacked in sheer size. He, too, was written up in the city papers; he, too, went on to Columbia, only to leave the glories of football for the ecstatic struggles of authorship. Though he was never famous as Jack was, he, too, became a cult figure to a small circle of friends and acquaintances before he published his first book; his books, too, were language experiments drenched in past-ness, and they, too, met with little comprehension. His relationship with his mother, like Jack's with Memere, was all-absorbing in ways that precluded certain kinds of adult experience. He, too, drank himself to death in a fury of helpless disappointment when he was only a few years older than Jack had been at the time of his death.

At Jay's memorial service at St. Mark's Church in the Village, where the fortieth anniversary reading of On the Road took place this past September, I read Lucien Carr's words about Jack's end. Jack was “a man on the run,” “ruining [his] soul,” Carr says. Then he asks, “What can a man do for his brother? What can a man do for love?” “Nothing,” he answers. “Nothing” (Gifford and Lee 1978, 319). I don't believe this story of Kerouac's influence is entirely exceptional, and I can't think of another writer whose books get so intensely entangled with the lives and psyches of his readers.

In Life on the Screen, a study of virtual reality and on-line culture, the critic Sherry Turkle makes the point that even very young computer users can distinguish the hyperreality of on-line life from the reality of the off-screen world. To them, the on-line world feels “conscious,” that is, capable of multiple activities, but not “alive”; it doesn't provide bodies with real skin (1996, 84). It's an important distinction, one that serves to delimit what is represented from what is experienced, but Kerouac's effort as an author was, I think, precisely to erase it, to use the “spontaneous prose” of “personal secret idea words” (Charters 1995b, 484) to make the world his pages chronicle as real as bodies with real skin, creating what he called “real unreality” (Charters 1992, 221), a world rapturous and magical, as obstreperous, funny, hopeful, and infinitely forlorn as our own bodies—those unmalleable masses of matter that are, willy-nilly, our only representatives in the world. Train, dress, and carry it a s you may, your body tells anyone who cares to read more about yourself than you would willingly tell anyone, including yourself.

It is the body's open secrets, its status as obstacle and door to salvation, that Kerouac fashioned a new prose style to tell—what it felt like to be “Home at Christmas” as a small boy going to sleep on a winter night in Lowell, seeing a “great bulging star white as ice beating in the dark field of heaven,” hearing the appletree outside his window “cracking black limbs in frost,” smelling the “softcoal heat of the furnace in the cellar,” knowing the bird outside was sleeping “with his muffly feathers inward” (Charters 1995b, 49). Later, in Big Sur, we learn what it was to be a grown, though not grownup, man struggling with the devils of alcoholism, flagging creativity, and spiritual despair, “a bentback mudman monster groaning underground in hot steaming mud pulling a long hot burden nowhere,” slipping back into formlessness as another death approaches, “nature giving us birth and eating us back” (Kerouac 1981a, 8).

In a bad moment recounted in Big Sur, Kerouac opens Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson and instantly finds himself “in an entirely perfect world again” (1981a, 86). For inveterate readers like Kerouac, like myself, reading can be an experience of total self-sufficiency; he called it “absorbing” rather than reading a book. We have what we always wanted—ourselves, accompanied by no rivals, no parents or peers, bothered, in fact, by no people at all except those our imaginations choose to invest with reality. It's just us, at last, and a complete world, one mysteriously landscaped, as the world outside seldom is, to our deepest needs.

Yet, there's another, very different experience found in reading Kerouac. Despite the culture of intimacy he creates, Kerouac tells us again and again that his writing reflects, as “literature should,” “real life in this real world” (1981b, 10). In Vanity of Duluoz, he explains that his novels form a “contemporary history record [of] what really happened and what people really thought” (1994, 190). Kerouac's editor and biographer Ann Charters has reminded us of what meticulous and extensive records Kerouac kept of his career and his times; he meant his work to be in some sense verifiable. Seymour Krim, still among Kerouac's most insightful critics, thought he had left “the most authentic prose record” available of the “screwy, neo-adolescent” post-WWII era (1965, xxv). Kerouac is an historian as well as a novelist and an autobiographer; that's what the phrase “true story novel” is meant to tell us. I like the phrase “auto-history”1 for Kerouac's project as well; it swerves away from the objective/subjective, world/self dyad, suggesting an investigation of the private self through its historical era and vice-versa. Kerouac's style, that explosive, tender, confessional vehicle of what he called “telepathic shock and meaning excitement” (Charters 1995b, 484), was devised, in other words, as part of his effort to read, not just himself or Neal Cassady or Memere, but the larger life of his times.

Like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Kerouac had an infallible eye for the cultural detail that served as a harbinger of important social change. He noted the white T-shirt Marlon Brando wore in A Streetcar Named Desire and the new masculine image it represented (Charters 1995b, 560). Perhaps more surprisingly, in Vanity of Duluoz, published in the late 1960s just before the first personal computers were being marketed, he anticipated the deconstructionist doubts such technology would cast on the traditional understanding of authorship. People might think, as one recent letter writer had, that he didn't write his own books, that there was no “Jack Kerouac” at all, that his words “just suddenly appeared on a computer” somewhere. To Kerouac this sophistry was of a piece with a new popular phrase, one he detested, “you're putting me on,” which seemed to rest on the assumption that everyone was more or less lying more or less all the time, that there were no such things as truth and falsehood or an authentic self (1994, 13, 14). Kerouac doesn't use the term, of course, but, in fact, he's describing the “postmodern” perspective and era, whose beginnings historians and theoreticians today date to the same years, the early 1960s, that Kerouac was alluding to.2

It's not that Kerouac was sure that there was an authentic self. Indeed, his work is a sometimes agonized exploration of precisely this question: what, if anything, keeps the self consistent from moment to moment? Who provides the continuity for his “bookmovie?” He openly wonders if the man writing Big Sur can be the same person who wrote On the Road a decade earlier. The Beat movement took place on the cusp of postmodernity; it's the negotiating ground, the borderland between modernity and postmodernity, and Kerouac knew it. But he couldn't start a book from the assumption that there was no self, answerable in some way to the God in whom he never stopped believing. For Kerouac, the fact that God is outnumbered or forgotten doesn't mean that God isn't still present; a belief betrayed is not the same thing as a belief abandoned. Kerouac's refusal of editing or revision, his injunction to “make the mind the slave of the tongue” (Charters 1995b, 11), presupposes at the very least that there is a story to be told, a story that insists on being told, even if there is no truth to find.

I believe that Kerouac's style is the most important innovation in American prose since Hemingway's very different stylistic breakthrough twenty-five years earlier. As Hemingway's prose was a response to the new technological and metaphysical realities ushered in by World War I, so Kerouac's “spontaneous prose” reflected the realities of a very different but equally influential wartime period, that of WWII and the Cold War that quickly succeeded it. Such a response, whether one is speaking of Hemingway or Kerouac is, of course, not an altogether conscious process. It's rather a matter of the pressures at work on the writer at a given time, and the acuity, originality, and depth of the resources he brings to meet them. It has more to do with alchemy than politics.

Kerouac's ethos of openness, his insistence that he comes before us totally unarmed, unprepared, and unguarded, ready to keep absolutely nothing back, makes the most sense when we realize that he was writing at a time when national preparedness, particularly military preparedness, took on proportions unprecedented in Western history. In the wake of Hiroshima, as hostilities between the United States and the Soviet Union, its recent ally, intensified into a staged battle between the putative forces of good and evil, the bomb was defined as “the property of the American people” (Isaacson and Thomas 1986, 321)3; extraordinary measures were taken to see that the “secret” of its composition was kept. Knowledge was tightly compartmentalized; each person working on the bomb was to know only what he needed to know for his particular job. The prerogative of the big picture, the overview, belonged to a tiny elite, increasingly immune from scrutiny or interference.4

Various top-secret state documents of the day promulgated the doctrine of “plausible deniability”; the covert actions of the CIA, itself new in 1947, its assassination plots and “roll back” strategies, were to be conducted in such a way that no one in the top echelons of the U.S. government could be held accountable if they were exposed.5 Knowledge was viewed for the first time, not as the result of discovery and collaboration, of tapping into a free flowing source that predated and exceeded the individual mind, but as a commodity owned by a particular set of minds in a particular nation. Knowledge couldn't travel; it could only be stolen and smuggled across enemy lines.6 The category of “classified information” covered ever-greater portions of the national experience; borders were appearing in new places, policed as never before.

Everyone was under surveillance by someone, it seemed, by neighbors and fellow citizens, if not the FBI. Under President Truman's Loyalty Program, thousands of people were compelled to tell their stories to their employers or even the House Committee on Un-American Activities, to confess and renounce their leftist pasts and “choose the West,” in Dwight Macdonald's phrase, or suffer the consequences (1958, 197-201).7 The writer Mary McCarthy referred to such well-rehearsed confessions, Cold War melodramas prepackaged to yield a predictable denouement, as “sensational fact-fictions,” a genre in which lies and truth could no longer be distinguished from one another (1961, 75-76).

It was in this atmosphere that Kerouac wrote his “true-story novels,” a term that could serve as a critical revision of McCarthy's “sensational fact-fictions.” In the age that invented the idea of classified information, Kerouac's effort was to declassify the secrets of the human body and soul; A100% “personal honesty” countered “plausible deniability,” improvisation replaced planning, fluidity defied compartmentalization, and magic supplanted mystification. In Kerouac's work, choices arise only not to be made.

The apparent formlessness that attends Kerouac's narratives, the absence of conventional plotting that made the critic Norman Podhoretz fume in 1958 that there was “no dramatic reason” for anything that happened in Kerouac's fiction (1958, 315), was in part a response to a world in which there seemed to be too many reasons for things to happen as they did, in which events felt predetermined and over determined, in which cues to the unexpected were no longer heard. Drama means that something doesn't happen because something else does. In its crudest form, the girl tied to the railroad tracks isn't run over by the train because her lover arrives just in time to cut her free; drama presupposes alternatives and a choice between them. Whether the agent is represented as God or human resourcefulness or happenstance, one side wins and the other loses. Drama is about control threatened and regained; it's part of the special effects of power. Kerouac, however, meant to slip the leash of the preconditioned and overcon trolled. As Mardou Fox asks in The Subterraneans, “what's in store for me in the direction I don't take?, [1] (Kerouac 1981c, 30)—a question that refuses the distinction between offstage and onstage on which drama depends.

The America Kerouac describes in The Subterraneans is full of the ghosts of prior, displaced inhabitants; they signal the directions the nation itself did not take that nonetheless still lie open, waiting to be reimagined. As Mardou tells Leo about her life, he sees her Native American ancestors, “wraiths of humanity treading lightly the surface of the ground so deeply suppurated with the stock of their suffering you have only to dig a foot down to find a baby's hand” (1981c, 28-29). Mardou's ancestors, of whom she is not at this moment talking or thinking, bleed into her narrative, recoloring its figures, shifting its key; to Leo, she is not one person but many The unknown is as real as the known; what has not happened, what has not been told, isn't obliterated by what has. In a similar fashion, the “clash of the streets beyond the window's bare soft sill,, (1981c, 28) provides the soundtrack to Mardou's narrative; the presumably unrelated activities and noises of outside filter inside, into the room in whi ch the lovers are sitting—words themselves exist in close proximity to the sounds that predate, accompany and succeed their formulations.

From the opening page of The Subterraneans, Kerouac has been pulling the reader inside the story as well. “I must explain,” he says to the reader, how he was feeling when he was introduced to Mardou; farther “confessions must be made” about his “lecherous propensities” (1981c, 3,5). On yet another track of the multiple mix that is his narrative, Kerouac is hypothesizing our responses as extensions and alternatives to his own; he feels us out there transforming and modifying what he's telling us. We are the future of the text, a future just becoming visible in its present, as surely as Mardou's ancestors are the past into which its present disappears. Kerouac's presentation of his sexuality follows the same logic; the love story of Leo and Mardou is interrupted, overlaid with a secondary tale about Leo's confused overtures to the successful, homosexual author Axial Lavalina. Yet neither the biographical Kerouac or his fictive stand-in here are homosexual or even bisexual in any conventional sense. It's rather that Kerouac won't ever shut off an alternative script-inevitably the contours of his homosexual impulses surface through the heterosexual patterns that in actual fact dominate them.

Nor will Kerouac choose between apparently conflicting temporal modes or points of view. Telling us about the day, a few months prior to the writing of the story, on which he first met Mardou as he was walking down the street with Larry O'Hara, he places us at the same time at the moment of writing, as he sits in the “sadglint of my wallroom,” listening to Sarah Vaughan on the radio (1981c, 3). Destabilizing the self, unmooring the story, as Kerouac does here, is to maximize his own vulnerability, but as Charlie Parker liked to tell other musicians, if you “act just a little bit foolish and let yourself go, better ideas will come [to you]” (Reisner 1991, 187). Embarrassment and failure may attend a readiness to loose the self from its conventional frame, yet to entertain alternative selves, to go out of character, letting accident usurp the role of decision, putting the guest in the chair of the host, the child in the place usually reserved for the adult, is the key to the kind of art that both Kerouac and Parker sought to create; an art in which anarchic simultaneity rather than sequence is the principle of order, a narrative leaching over borders, dissolving compartmental walls, reversing outsides and insides, and returning us to a state of mental and physical flux. Differentiation here is but one of the forms that undifferentiation takes.8

It is important in this context that Kerouac was not a native English speaker. He was raised speaking the local French-Canadian dialect joual, the largely working class and oral idiom he continued to use with his mother throughout his life. In a 1950 letter, he explained to a French-Canadian reviewer that “All my knowledge rests in my ‘French-Canadianness’ and nowhere else. … I never spoke English before I was six or seven. … The reason I handle English words so easily is because it is not my own language. I refashion it to fit French images. Do you see that?” (Charters 1995a, 229). Linguistically, Kerouac always led a double life; the idiom of his novels was American English but his imagination was joual. His writing is less a translation of his native tongue into English than a relexification of English; he de-anglicizes it, undoing the routinization process that created Standard English and condemned all its variants as the idiom of the illiterate.9

Kerouac's dual language track, the balance he struck between the written text and an earlier oral performance, also had echoes in the wider life of his times. The Cold War era was the period that saw the liberation of the nations of Africa and Asia from colonial rule; it marked the start of the socalled post-colonial era in which we live today, and which the new academic field of Post-colonial Studies is designed to elucidate. Post-colonial theory tells us that one people has been subjugated but not entirely erased by another, that one language has been empowered over another without being able to eradicate it. The critic Chantal Zabus, writing about the imposition of English as the official language for the parts of West Africa formerly under British rule, says that the native's original, unwritten “source” language presses as a palimpsest behind the “target” or official, acquired, imperial language in which he writes, reshaping and reinterpreting it for its own ends (1995, 314-18). The English spoken in West Africa, in other words, refuses to exorcize its ghostly African predecessor; in our post-colonial era, Anglo-English proper has been transformed by its own alternative lives, whether it be the English spoken in Africa or India or Ireland.

Like the native West African dialects, like the Celtic and Breton tongues of his distant forefathers, the joual that haunts and reshapes Kerouac's American English is also in some sense a “colonial” language; it, too, is the idiom of a people defeated in war, left behind by modernization, a people who claim their identity not on the strength of the battles they have won or the land they rule but solely on the strength of the language they speak. The battle was lost, the land is gone, only the language remains, a language now carrying more history than conventional meaning knows how to accommodate.10 Kerouac's fabled memory was essentially a genealogical one; it was his task, as Victor-Levy Beaulieu puts it, “to keep the minutes for collectivities in the process of disappearing” (1975, 167-68). Kerouac's readers fall in love with him in part because he positions himself so openly and nakedly as a lover, the acolyte, and historiographer of the otherwise forgotten. To leave this life without recording the things only he remembered would have been for Kerouac the unpardonable sin.

The lover's stance, however, is always a complex one. As Roland Barthes describes it in A Lover's Discourse, love is about giving up control, being compelled or seduced to trust something or someone not ourselves because we believe, if only for a moment, that the rewards of such exposure justify the risk. But once we tell a third party about our experience of love, Barthes says, as sooner or later we inevitably do, we begin to betray it, because in any narrative we fashion, we ourselves, not the beloved, emerge in some guise as the hero; it is well-nigh impossible to tell a story without putting oneself in charge. Kerouac, too, knew that narratives are always involved with authority, with self-promotion. “It's difficult to make a real confession,” he tells the reader early in The Subterraneans, “when you're such an egomaniac all you can do is take off on long paragraphs about minor details about yourself” (1981c, 5). He can't narrate the story of this love affair without getting involved in big “word constructions” that “betray” it (1981c, 13). Kerouac can't escape his own narrative authority, but he can attempt to diminish it more radically than any writer had yet been able to do. “I always wanted to write a book to defend someone [else],” he says in Desolation Angels, “because to defend myself [is] an indefensible trip” (1980, 364). In all his books, he keeps handing narrative authority over to someone or something else, even as he explores his own reactions to the process.

Kerouac's most charmed, most perfect narratives are, I think, the Lowell novels about his pre-English, joual-speaking childhood, stories in which his brother Gerard and his parents are at least as important as he is. As Joan Acucello has noted, the memoir of childhood gains its enchantment, its special poetry of disinterestedness, from the fact that its premises were set by others (1997, 6). The kingdom of childhood is a magical one precisely because little anxiety need be expended on borders and boundaries—they are not choices, but givens, even absolutes, to be reinvented and transformed by the imagination, not challenged by the mind. “Isn't it true,” Kerouac asks in On the Road, “that you start your life a sweet child believing in everything under your father's roof?” The day comes, however, when that certainty no longer holds, when you know that you are running the show, if only because it is painfully clear that no one else is. Then, Kerouac says, “you go shuddering through nightmare life” (1991, 105).

Kerouac put off this nightmare as long as he possibly could. The first books that cover his post-childhood years, novels largely written in the early to mid-1950s, are complex acts of homage focused on someone not himself—on Dean/Cody or Japhy Ryder or Mardou or Tristessa. “I was a lout compared, I couldn't keep up with them,” Sal remarks in On the Road, contrasting himself with Dean Moriarity and Carlo Marx; they “danced down the street like dingledodies, and I shambled after, as I've been doing all my life after people who interest me” (1991, 7,8). They set the terms of the story, he doesn't. But in the books that Kerouac wrote in the late 1950s and 1960s, Desolation Angels,Big Sur,Vanity of Duluoz and Satori in Paris, the authority of others has failed. The only person's wake in which he now finds himself is his own, and the rage and pain of these books reveal the depths of the disorientation this entailed. “No characters,” is the way he describes his time alone on Desolation Peak in Desolation Angels, just “myself … face to face with … Hateful … me” (1980, 4) Kerouac unable to relocate himself in the multiple orbits of others, in an expanding universe of untried alternatives, is a writer almost unable to write. “I'm sick of words,” he tells us in Desolation Angels (1980, 5); “I hate to write,” he bursts out in Big Sur (1981a, 41).

Kerouac has grown angry with his readers; they too have come to represent the forces of constraint rather than the possibilities of expansion. The reader no longer echoes and varies the author's existence, but checks and misunderstands it. He's writing in the flatter, deader style of Vanity of Duluoz, he tells us, because he's learned that no one understood the enchanted bravura style of the books he valued most. There's just Stella left to listen, the “dear wifey” to whom he addresses Vanity of Duluoz. He ends by telling her to forget the story he's just told: “Go to sleep. Tomorrow's another day.” Nothing really matters, he says, but his need for the next drink of wine (1994, 268).

While I would never claim that Vanity of Duluoz, much less Satori in Paris, are comparable as artistic achievements to Dr. Sax or Visions of Cody, for me, they complete rather than betray the Duluoz legend, and I think it's in part because, though Kerouac claims to place no hopes in me, his reader, I as his reader am still part of the story. If the reader is now one of the bad guys, so to speak, so is he, and he is telling her why she, and he, have failed, detailing and exposing the paucity of his invention as fully as he once displayed its plenitude. F. Scott Fitzgerald remarked that while his friend and rival Ernest Hemingway stood for “the authority of success,” he represented “the authority of failure,” and this authority, the authority, one might say, of non-authority, seems the logical goal of Kerouac's project, a project in which every presence was always shaded by a host of absences. Besides, what other writer has told his reader what it feels like to fail without trying to convert artistic bankruptcy into narcissistic gold, without using his failure as a fresh opportunity to showcase the resources he can still bring to bear on its explication? No, Kerouac is writing here because he has to, because the only promise he has found he can honor is his pledge to keep his files, and his reader, up to date, to tell the true story of what he saw and how he saw it to the bitter end. This was all, he said, he'd ever had to offer, and if impoverishment was where he was, impoverishment laid bare would be what the reader got.

In a late, enraged essay titled “After Me the Deluge,” published posthumously in 1969 in The Los Angeles Times, after ranting against his putative heirs, the hippies, beatniks, and anti-war protesters of the day, Kerouac suddenly realizes that they, too, are “inconsolable orphans,” “all so lonered.” Then he turns to the reader and asks, “Ever look closely at anybody and see that particularized patience all their own, eyes hid, waiting with lips sewn down for time to pass, for something to succeed, for the long night of life to take them in its arms and say, ‘Ah, Cherubim, this silly, stupid business … What is it, existence?’” (Charters 1995b, 578). Don't look around to see who he's talking to—it's you. It's your turn, to take up the tale, to put your image in the same frame with his, your breath picking up where his left off.


  1. John Lucaks used the term to define Dwight Macdonald's projected, never completed autobiography (see Wreszin 1994,473).

  2. The most influential attempts to date to define the postmodern era have been Harvey (1990), Huyssen (1986), and Jameson (1991).

  3. The words are those of Truman's Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal quoted in Isaacson and Thomas (1986,321).

  4. For the history of nuclear secrecy see Boyer (1994). On the elite's monopoly of knowledge in the Cold War era see Mills (1956).

  5. For the CIA and the doctrine of plausible deniability see Grose (1994) and Thomas (1995).

  6. On the new status of knowledge in the post-WWII era see Lyotard (1984, xxiii-6).

  7. For domestic surveillance see Whitfield (1991).

  8. I am indebted, in my analysis of Kerouac's style to Tallman (1960, 153-69), still the best single essay on the subject.

  9. See Williams (1966, 214-19) for an influential discussion of the imposition of Standard English.

  10. See During (1987, 32-47).

Works Cited

Acucello, Joan. 1997. “Leaps and Bounds.” New York Times Book Review, 19 January, 6.

Beaulieu, Victor-Levy. 1975. Jack Kerouac: A Chicken Essay. Trans. Sheila Fischman. Toronto: Coach House Press.

Boyer, Paul M. 1994. By the Bomb's Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age. 1985. Reprint. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Charters, Ann, ed. 1992. The Beat Reader. New York: Penguin Books.

———, ed. 1995a. The Letters of Jack Kerouac 1940-1956. New York: Viking.

———, ed. 1995b. The Portable Jack Kerouac. New York: Viking.

During, Simon. 1987. “Postmodernism or Postcolonialism Today.” Textual Practice 1:32-47.

Gifford, Barry, and Lawrence Lee. 1978. Jack's Book. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Grose, Peter. 1994. Gentlemen Spy: The Life of Allen Dulles. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Harvey, David. 1990. The Condition of Postmodernity: An Inquiry Into the Origins of Cultural Change. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell.

Huyssen, Andreas. 1986. After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Isaacson, Walter, and Evan Thomas. 1986. The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made: Acheson, Bohler, Harriman, Kennan, Lovett, McCloy. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Jameson, Frederic. 1991. Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press.

Kerouac, Jack. 1977. Dr. Sax: Faust Part Three. 1959. Reprint. New York: Grove Press.

———. 1978. The Town and the City. 1950. Reprint. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

———. 1980. Desolation Angels. 1965. Reprint. New York: Perigee Books.

———. 1981a. Big Sur. 1962. Reprint. New York: McGraw Hill.

———. 1981b. Satori in Paris. 1966. Reprint. New York: Grove Press.

———. 1981c. The Subterraneans. 1958 Reprint. New York: Grove Press.

———. 1991. On the Road. 1957. Reprint. New York: Penguin Books.

———. 1992. Tristessa. 1960. Reprint. New York: Penguin.

———. 1994. Vanity of Duluoz: An Adventurous Education 1935-1946. 1968. Reprint. New York: Penguin Books.

Krim, Seymour. 1965. Introduction to Desolation Angels, by Jack Kerouac. New York: Coward-McCann.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. 1984. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Macdonald, Dwight. 1958. “I Choose the West.” In Memoirs of a Revolutionist. 1957. Reprint. New York: Meridian Books.

McCarthy, Mary. 1961. On the Contrary. New York: Farrar, Straus.

Mills, C. Wright. 1956. The Power Elite. New York: Oxford University Press.

Nicosia, Gerald. 1983. Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac. New York: Grove Press.

Podhoretz, Norman. 1958. “The Know-Nothing Bohemians.” Partisan Review (Spring): 315.

Reisner, Robert, ed. 1991. Bird: The Legend of Charlie Parker. 1962. Reprint. New York: DaCapo Press.

Tallman, Warren. 1960. “Kerouac's Sound.” Evergreen Review 4:153-69.

Thomas, Evan. 1995. The Very Best Men: Four Who Dared: The Early Years of the CIA. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Turkle, Sherry. 1996. Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Watson, Steven. 1995. The Birth of the Beat Generation: Visionaries, Rebels and Hipsters. New York: Pantheon.

Whitfield, Stephen. 1991. The Culture of the Cold War. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Williams, Raymond. 1966. The Long Revolution. Rev. ed. New York: Harper.

Wreszin, Michael. 1994. A Rebel in Defense of Tradition: The Life and Politics of Dwight Macdonald. New York: Basic Books.

Zabus, Chantal. 1995. “Relexification.” In The Post-colonial Studies Reader, ed. Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin. New York: Routledge.

Nancy McCampbell Grace (essay date winter 2000)

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SOURCE: “A White Man in Love: A Study of Race, Gender, and Ethnicity in Jack Kerouac's Maggie Cassidy, The Subterraneans, and Tristessa,” in College Literature, Vol. 27, No. 1, winter, 2000, pp. 39-62.

[In the following essay, Grace analyzes the significance of race in Kerouac's stories about romantic relationships.]

Jack Kerouac is generally not thought of as a writer of love stories, his name more readily evoking images of jazz, poetry, Buddhism, the boy gang, and cars zooming along the omnipresent road. But a considerable portion of his Duluoz legend is devoted to representations of women he loved. Maggie Cassidy, written in 1953, introduced the portrait of Mary Carney, an Irish girl who was his high school sweetheart. Later that same year he used The Subterraneans to record his brief but intense relationship with Alene Lee, an African-American woman whom he renamed Mardou Fox for purposes of publication. In 1955-56, he wrote Tristessa, a reflection upon Esperanza Tercerero, an Aztec-Hispanic morphine addict. Significantly, their stories are not road stories. All are set in spaces defined by corporation limits and the walls of tenement houses and Beat pads. Safe within domestic spheres and linguistic artifice, Kerouac dared to do what he dared not do elsewhere: masquerade as a dark female, the ultimate white male experimentation with forms of identity challenging the regulatory character of self as cultural formation.

This focus on color should not surprise readers of the Duluoz legend. As Kerouac wrote in Lonesome Traveler (1989, 39), the African-American was “the essential American.” In many respects, Kerouac's fascination with race and ethnicity, conjoined with gender and class codes, addresses what Toni Morrison describes in Playing in the Dark (1993) as the white writer's expression of his/her dream through the presence of the black character. According to Morrison, the white writer throughout American literary history has used the story of the “Africanist presence,” a black person as bound and/or rejected, to reflect on humanity, specifically the risky venture of exploring one's own body in the guise of the sexuality, vulnerability, and anarchy of the other” (1993, 53). Kerouac engaged in this process through ficto-autobiography—repetitively confessing and reconstructing his own history through the imaginative rendering of memory.

In the love stories, this attention to color works not only to accentuate the black presence but also to conflate racial categories so that Kerouac's creation of dark characters not explicitly black, such as Maggie and Tristessa, encodes a subtext of “otherness” that speaks of the black experience as well as that of other marginalized groups. These forms complicate the story of race in America, demarcating and blurring boundaries of human cast and producing imbrications that defy our efforts to separate them. By so doing, the darkness of the Kerouacian female and her allegorical Africanist heritage become the allegory of Kerouac's own condition as a marginalized male, a masculine hybrid.

It's critical that we not lose sight of Kerouac's hybrid status. The commercialization of his image, especially his recent elevation to white-collar advertising icon, has all but erased his history as the French-speaking son of working class, French-Canadian Catholics in ethnically diverse Lowell, Massachusetts. But it's a history that bequeathed him a complicated identity, one which transformed his own Caucasian heritage into something of a sinister monolith, a force to be feared and shunned but nonetheless revered.

“White” has never been essentialist. It is an unstable historical and social category characterized by particular groups moving in and out of its boundaries through the vagaries of legal codification.1 In the Lowell of Kerouac's youth, French-Canadians were more privileged than some who could not have the same “purity” of lineage. It was a heritage Kerouac remained proud of all his life. But French Canadians were also considered by many to be stupid and lazy. As a result, they bore the brunt of a prejudice that labeled them les blancs negres (Nicosia 1983, 15).2 Complicating matters, Kerouac claimed Irish and Native-American descent, an ancestral mix that, whether actual or a product of family lore, aligned him with peoples long denied personhood. Kerouac then grew up an ambivalent amalgamation, the maligned and homeless “Canuck,” a hybrid of hybrids.

It is this identity, a paradoxically unstable and rigid formation, that to a great extent propels the movement of his love stories. His engagement with the Africanist presence fuels the project of self-construction, drawing upon a host of linguistic strategies to flesh out a consciousness that expresses distrust of all color markers, especially the label “white male.” In particular, we find those strategies that Toni Morrison identifies: economy of stereotype, metonymic displacement, metaphysical condensation, fetishization of race, dehistoricizing allegory, and patterns of disjointed, repetitive language (1993, 67-69). All converge in images of the conflicted white man in love with the dark woman.

To portray this female, Kerouac relied upon three character types: the white goddess, the fellaheen, and the grotesque. The goddess appears as the “White American Woman,” or “The Good Blonde” as he named her in a short story of the same title. She is the foundational block of his protean self, that which he must deify, reify, and vilify as he wrestles with identity. Pure and beautiful, a trophy wife or girlfriend signifying economic, social, and spiritual success, the White American Woman is the converse of the blemishes and orifices of the (dis)functioning sexual and social body, negating the mid-twentieth century American fear of corruption represented by loose and domineering women, homosexuals, blacks, and other “deviants.” Her powers are illusionary, however. A pastiche of religious iconography and Hollywood celluloid, she reflects the antithetical cultural paradigms with which he existed: the pure asexuality of the Virgin Mary merged with the more open and attainable sexuality of the female movie star.

Kerouac juxtaposed the White American Woman with the fellaheen, or “wailing humanity” as he called them in On the Road (1979, 280). The fellaheen is a subset of the primitive, a category to which Western culture has historically relegated blacks, women, and the feminine. Presented discursively, the body of the primitive, particularly the female, is often constructed as over-sexed, devious, diseased, irrational, voiceless, fit only to breed or labor. This is the subjected body, created through systemic practices of violence and ideology. In this respect, Kerouac's attraction to it replicates a Western pattern of using the primitive body to encode desires that we seek to repress, to sustain practices of domination and subordination. Specifically, Kerouac used the fellaheen to negotiate what he understood as the natural and supernatural. The interplay is complicated, the female fellaheen becoming the earthly substance with which, and the surface upon which, his narrators recognize their own flawed character. This includes their inability to actualize personal and cultural definitions of self as well as their attempts to resolve perceived disjunctions between hegemonic cultural practices and the nature of self, spirit, and world.

These images are conjoined with a pattern of structures known as grotesque realism, a social and literary phenomenon rooted in European folk culture. As a bodily category, the grotesque embraces the despised, exoticized, irregular, and incomplete. It also defines the body as a site of ideological codification. As Mikhael Bakhtin argues in Rabelais and His World, grotesque realism of the Renaissance period is identified with the “low” culture of carnival, comedy, and social rebellion and conceives of the body not as an individual unit but as a social body. Drawing upon metaphysical condensation to destroy the human oppressor, it blends with the world, animals, and objects, stressing the human mouth and the lower body parts which are open to the outside and undermine body/world dualism (1984, 27, 317). Later during the Romantic period, the grotesque as a literary phenomenon viewed the world as alien and terrifying. Reconciliation with the body occurred in a “subjective, lyric, or even mystic sphere” (1984, 39) stressing the triumph of the individual. Kerouac had a deeply felt propensity for both forms, perhaps a legacy of his Catholic Breton heritage nurtured through folk customs in French-speaking Lowell.

The grotesque, in combination with the fellaheen and the White American Woman, provides an ideal mechanism to create indeterminacy, open-endedness, counter-identification, and disidentification—all key elements in Kerouac's love stories. As the remainder of this discussion demonstrates, his ficto-autobiography, focused on the generating power of the dark female, adjusts the belief that he extolled white masculinity at the full expense of women and minority males. While his prose tends to commodify people of color and white women, it is simply too easy to label him racist and misogynist. The Duluoz legend presents a much more complex mapping of the human project.


Maggie Cassidy is the story of Kerouac's high school romance with a 17-year-old, working class, Irish girl. Told through the tightly woven perspectives of three Jacks (16, 20, and 32 years old), the book chronicles his courtship of Maggie from 1939, his last year at Lowell High where he is a star athlete, to 1943, the year he ships out as a merchant marine. Kerouac's Maggie is his first and purest love, a variant of the white goddess. While their story features no fellaheen women per se, his account of the relationship establishes imaginative patterns of the fellaheen and the grotesque that lay the groundwork for Mardou Fox, and Tristessa. Maggie Cassidy also exemplifies his ability to control the discipline of ficto-autobiography to such an extent that his conclusions about the social conditions of America surpass as authentic transformative rhetoric those of The Subterraneans and Tristessa. The book argues that those who refuse to defy the cultural formations of identity participate in the dehumanization of themselves and others.

In the first several chapters, Maggie, whom he meets on New Years Eve 1938, emerges as the sublime antithesis of young Jack's “Canuck half-Indian” gawkishness (1993,30). Orchestrating the majestic language of romance, Jack presents a Janist-faced Maggie surviving in his memory as saint-like whiteness and ancient female darkness. He venerates her god-like whiteness, but it is her freckled ethnic body, her dark agrarian Irish ancestry which Jack believes he shares, that allows him freer play. Imagining himself inside her darkness, he discovers the possibility of potentialities which he expresses as a Whitmanesque catalogue of masculine roles. Some beautiful, some ugly, all the selves that he desires and despises—“her brother, husband, lover, raper, owner, friend, father, son, grabber, kisser, keener, swain, sneaker-upper, sleeper-with, feeler, railroad brakeman in red house”—he maps out on the dark interior of her body (1993, 77). This darkness, evoking the primitive exotic, is a force of beauty and elegance for Jack, the promise of self-knowledge and self-definition, a sign of maturity and manhood.

But the image of classic beauty quickly breaks down. Jack revises his initial impression of Maggie, remembering that she had appeared “small, thin, dark, unsubstantial” (1993, 36), thereby creating a desexualized female body, somewhat like, but a distorted form of, the saintly white body. The shape of sex, which threatens classical perfection, gives way to the body of the child. This manipulation has disturbing connotations (hints of the pedophile), especially because Maggie is so clearly a sexual being who attracts Jack just when he his own sexuality is awakening. The image of the child-like dwarf may well reflect Jack's deflated sense of himself projected onto Maggie, a device to bond them in memory. It may also act as a barrier to protect them, at least in Jack's mind, from sexuality, the full expression of which was thwarted by pervasive courtship customs of the day and the doctrine of Irish and French-Canadian Catholicism, both of which conflate sex and love, allowing limited expression of love and dema nding sexual abstience by “good” girls and respect for this abstinence by “good” boys.

Consequently, the only recourse Jack and Maggie have when they begin to date is to neck and pet, integral components of the dating system when Kerouac was a teenager (Bailey 1998, 81). But their behavior is by no means chaste. Their response to the body and to the social codes controlling that body suggests a subterranean system defying mainstream tenets of identity. They practice a strange kissing ritual that involves chewing on each other, interchanging spittle, and sustaining the kiss until their muscles cramp and their lips crack and bleed (Kerouac 1993, 37). This grotesque image records an act of cannibalism, the acting out of the stereotypic “black” (i.e., sexual, sinful, immoral, lower class) to counter the “white” (i.e., nonsexual, good, moral, middle-class), a socially acceptable way of having sex and not having sex.

Jack notes that neither he nor Maggie know why they do this, although they've heard that other teens do the same. He also speculates that the kisses are fueled by a “gigantic sexual drive” as well as “the fear of the world” (1993, 37). His hypothesis, a product of maturity and hindsight, is astute. When sex is subsumed by the romantic concept of love as holy, as it is for Jack and Maggie, when religious rites and class consciousness codify sex, we render the body something to be feared, especially the sexually awakening body. The world itself, which is their future represented through the body, also becomes an object of fear. Disfiguring the lover's perfect, untouchable mouth, consuming bits of each other, the young couple symbolically, and largely unwittingly, negate the culturally mandated restrictions of gender and sex roles, the isolation and impotence that accompany such restrictions. In other words, they coax each other into the world.

For Maggie, this means pleading with Jack to marry her and live with her in Lowell, a request that is not unreasonable. Maggie, who failed to complete junior high, has few opportunities other than that faced by generations of poor Irish girls: marry and have children, a condition upon which her own success as a woman depends. A part of Jack desperately wants to accept this future. Maggie's darkness, like the brown fellaheen glow that he associates with Lowell and uses as a watercolor wash throughout the book, is the aura of his ethnicity and working class identity that he values and seeks to preserve. In this respect, his feelings are not unlike those of many ethnic individuals, whose intense desire to retain the heritage of family and country is buttressed by the fear of the larger “foreign” world in which the vulnerable ethnic group exists as a subpart, a component that faces diminution or obliteration through Americanization.

But Jack also associates marriage to Maggie with personal and cultural stagnation. If he marries her, he loses his childhood, family security, status as a star athlete, and freedom to hang out with his gang and to date other girls. Then, too, remaining in Lowell negates the middle-class aspirations of his parents, who, like millions of working class Americans, plan a better life for their son, including the furthering of his education. Maggie's darkness, akin to the Lowell tenements stained with ethnicity and working class identity, threatens this future. Paradoxically, then, Maggie comes to signify the absence of movement, of progress, of becoming.

As Maggie's world rushes in on him, Jack seeks to seal off the orifice through which it pulses, transforming her saintly darkness into the bestial grotesque: “a little darklashed lowered disbelief and nay, loose ugly grin of self-satisfied womanly idiocy-flesh, curl of travesty-cruelty” (1993, 92-93). He contemplates “ripping her mouth out,” that is, denying her the world and life and then of murdering her which he admits wanting to do. But Jack can't kill Maggie. Hatred is converted into tenderness, which opens the door to the life-affirming, lower stratum of society, enabling him to both affirm Maggie's goodness and nullify her presence through imaginative reflection on their love. Conflating the temporality of his 16-year-old memory with the present, the narrator constructs a visionary tableau conjoining Christ's feet nailed to the cross and those of poor fellaheen workers who stand with one foot on the other to keep warm” (1993, 41). This double image transmutes into Maggie and Jack himself. Ecce homo! Ma ggie, Jack, and the fellaheen become the grotesqueness of Jesus, his mutilated body, destroyed by human sin, embracing the depravity (grotesqueness) of the human condition and the potentiality (perfection) of redemption. Maggie, the horrific female, is subsumed into the gentle masculinity of the crucified Christ. This configuration is not the strict social life of the Renaissance grotesque as Bakhtin presents it but a rendering of the grotesque as a generative form pulling the supernatural down into the natural realm.

The passage positions Kerouac as a self-perceived outcast who cannot participate in the American dream of economic plenty, someone so marginalized, and fatalistically so, that he huddles outside the economic spectrum. This is a terribly bleak vision of the immigrant future and a sharp criticism of American political and economic beliefs. It also prompts us to question the processes by which a culture stratifies itself, certain subsets nurturing amongst other subsets feelings of inferiority through institutional practices (such as church doctrine) to maintain the hierarchy However, legitimate as it may be, Jack's critique of American culture is somewhat disingenuous. Unlike the fellaheen, he has chosen to opt out of the dominant culture and can move back into it whenever he desires, a pattern in Kerouac's fiction for which he is legitimately criticized. Ironically, he is his most vocal critic, his narrators chastising themselves for lacking the strength to live as a fellaheen. But despite such self-awareness, he affirms his and his nation's own whiteness, i.e., the freedom to move at will, each time he rejects the fellaheen, which must be denied if others are to survive.

To this point, Maggie Cassidy reflects the narrator's polarized consciousness: his desire to distinguish himself as a white male from all other human beings and his need to eschew belief in the supremacy of the white male. However, the novel argues that both are possible, and may even work in concert, because of the African presence. This dynamic is revealed in the book's most dramatic episode, the 30-yard dash that Jack runs against an African-American male from nearby Worcester North High School. Significantly, the meet appears in the text soon after Jack contemplates killing Maggie. Social codes and his feelings for her prohibit direct attack, so he must find a surrogate whipping boy. The young man is John Henry Lewis, a name that evokes the fellaheen railroad worker of folk legend, John Henry. Throughout most of the episode, however, he is called “the Negro” or “the colored boy.”

The track episode appears to be an amalgamation of two high school meets in which Kerouac participated in January 1939. The Lowell team competed against Worcester North on January 14. Kerouac set the pace for a team victory by winning the 30-yard dash, but he did not compete against an African-American runner. No African-Americans attended Worcester North at the time, and Kerouac's opponents in the dash were white students from Lowell. The second event, Lowell v. Worcester Commerce, was held on January 7 in Lowell. The Commerce team, which beat Lowell, included one African-American, Matthew Jenkins, a junior who ran the 30-yard dash, soundly beating Kerouac who placed third.3 These events as Kerouac restructured them transform his defeat by an African-American into a victory signifying personal and cultural aggrandizement. Understandings of manhood, success, acceptance, and the future are all worked out by demonizing, glorifying, and humanizing this young black runner.

Jack fears being beaten by a black man, an event that would signal Jack's inferiority. He also wants desperately to protect his white city from invasion by the black foreigner, likening himself and Lewis to “warriors of two nations.” To this end, his father encourages him. Emil Duluoz calls Lewis a “bastard” and denigrates him with racial stereotypes—“they're supposed to run like damn streaks! the antelopes of Africa!,” instilling in Jack the mandate that he must beat back the terrifying presence of the dark continent, prove his manhood, and by implication legitimize his birthright as Emil's son and an American. Jack participates in this thinking, imagining Lewis as a grotesque lion with a reptilian head and “venom tiger eyes” (1993, 97, 101).

The race itself is a Homeric feat. Like Ulysses, Jack wins with physical skill and cunning. He beats the gun, just barely and legally (he believes) and just enough to fly past Lewis. As he does, he takes ownership of him, thinking of him as “my Negro, my Jim,” an act of psychological enslavement created by fear of the black other. As slave master, he beats “his Negro,” he recalls, not with muscle (or the body) but with the mind (the not-body) (1993, 103), emerging as a world conqueror, even surpassing, as his father tells him, the triumphs of another black man and national hero, Olympic gold-medallist Jesse Owens (1993, 111).

The process obliterates the life-threatening grotesque, maintains the status quo, and glorifies individual achievement. As the African presence, Lewis embodies the enslavement and degradation from which Jack must run if he is to escape Lowell. Then too, as the grotesque as cultural symbol, Lewis personifies the threat of anarchy, the destruction of the known social order, and the immanent breakdown of the separation of the individual (white) ego from the body of low (black) culture. A subpart of this dynamic also amplifies sexuality, the competition metaphorically suggesting that white male conquest of the white woman, that is, Jack's power over Maggie, is propped up by his conquest of the black man.

But the narrative resists the false ideology of separating the body from the world. Although Jack says that he legally beats the gun, a reader might suspect that the white youth had an unfair advantage. We also know that Maggie does not witness the race; she's across town at a dance with another man. Without her presence and knowledge of his victory, Jack's defeat of Lewis fails to defeat Maggie. In addition, the implied narrator denies racial essentialism, acknowledging that his youthful concept of race has been fed in part by the “circuses and unclean magazines” (1993, 98) of popular culture. “[Y]our exotic is just a farmer,” the older, wiser narrator tells his younger self, “he goes to church … has a father, brothers as well as you …” (1993, 103).

If the book were to stop here, we could declare that the African presence as literary device envisions the real lives of African-Americans. It doesn't, however. The narrator returns John Henry Lewis to the status of a channel for self-expression, likening the runner's physical gestures to those of early bop musicians. Lewis becomes the older Kerouac's personal iconography, the embodiment of revolutionary, hip, and ultra-modern art. The image of creativity, rebellion, and heroism in the face of social denigration is more positive than that of the slave, but it is still romantic racism dehumanizing Lewis. As such, it illustrates what Morrison sees in the tortured conclusion of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the simulation and description of the parasitical nature of white freedom (57).

Kerouac sustains his literary meditation on white and black in the remainder of the novel through memories of the disintegration of Jack's relationship with Maggie. Three key scenes emerge: Jack's 17th-birthday party, the Horace Mann prom, and the couple's last meeting in 1943. Elements of the grotesque dominate each, but it is the birthday party that incorporates the carnival aspect of the grotesque as one of the most powerful critiques of dehumanization. A form of spectacle commemorating official celebratory days, carnival sits on the border between art and life and is shaped by patterns of play, such as laughter, clowns and fools, equalization, and temporary liberation from prevailing truth and established order (Bakhtin 1984, 7). The party, taking place on March 12, the cusp of winter/death and spring/life, encompasses all of these. There's game playing, gift giving, drinking, sexual foreplay, and the raucous sounds of French joual mixing with English. Everyone is in high spirits except Jack who cannot accept Maggie's flirting with his friends and father. He becomes a jealous anti-clown, his illusions—personal, social, and relationally bound—barring him from renewing life with Maggie through spectacle.

To illuminate the process, Kerouac used phenomena in his own life, two newspaper photographs documenting his party exposing them as devices by which culture constructs restrictive templates of self identity. The camera, as Kerouac shows us, is used to manipulate a reality grounded not in objectivity or an a priori essence but in the narratives we use to make meaning—and thus the self. Aware of this, Jack refuses to smile for the camera, but the resultant images are no less false. In The Lowell Sun, he looks like “a moronic … unnamably abnormal beast of a boy” surrounded by family members sentimentally arranged to protect him. In The Evening Leader, he stares at the world like a “Greek athlete hero with curly black locks, ivory white face” (1993, 142). Neither is an impartial reflection of reality nor a purely subjective impression of reality. Both represent a self based on a complex tapestry of public discourses prescribing masculinity, each reflecting identities recognizable to Jack. Together they speak to the fluid and fragmentary nature of subjectivity.

Upon seeing the photos, Jack prefers classical beauty to the grotesque because it better suits his dream of wealth and fame. But he also senses that the classic image is falsely grounded in ego and isolation, thereby prohibiting him from enjoying life-affirming carnival and acting like his pal Iddyboy, another French-Canadian youth who without Jack's dreams of masculine greatness punctuates the party with a cry of “lifeloving girlhugging fence-crashing hungry satisfaction …” (1993, 143). Iddyboy's outburst is a trademark signal of Kerouac's affinity for the fellaheen. It compels him to seek time and again those who defy the determinacy of a future structured through economic success, family, and dour regimentation—those with “the biggest laugh” he'd ever heard. Carnival, after all, doesn't happen just once; it must be ritually repeated.

Awareness is no guarantee of action, however, and Jack's failure to embrace carnival signals his decision to leave Lowell and Maggie to seek his future at the Horace Mann School where he's to play football and prepare to enter Columbia. His first night in the city, he contemplates what he calls his “post-Iddyboy” future, an idiomatic expression for post-grotesque, post-ethnic, and post-Maggie. He sees himself as an “American Super Dream Winner, Go Getter, Wheel,” wearing a snow-white scarf, conversing in white dialogue balloons, and married to a sexy blonde of “starry perfection.” The whiteness of American masculinity and superiority introduces his ultimate fantasy: his desire to rewrite the history of two dark worlds—Africa and Spain (1993, 166-68). It's not by chance that his vision unites sexual and economic success and dominance over the African. In the American imagination, these are necessary for freedom and selfhood, concepts built upon the systemic and institutionalized belief in the inferiority of women and people of color, especially African-Americans. But it is also significant that Kerouac places himself in a cartoonish, Hollywood scenario, thereby sustaining his critique of the dream as shallow and artificial.

The conclusion of the book relentlessly pursues the shattering of American whiteness. The process is set in motion when Jack invites Maggie to his spring prom. Kerouac's telling of the event accurately portrays the commodity driven character of middle-class dating in the late thirties and early forties. He bluntly recounts that wealthy white fathers buy the accoutrements of beauty so their white daughters can be “purchased,” or dated, by white men (1993, 180). Maggie and Jack, described as darker-skinned, contrast sharply with the sophisticated city couples whose class is encoded in color: masculine whiteness by the urbane language of Horace Mann's Jewish crowd, feminine whiteness by powder and jewels. Plainly, Jack and Maggie are out of their league, and, equally as plain, the whiteness of Jack's chosen world is false.

The text fails to present a meta-discursive analysis of how language perpetuates patterns of domination, but the brief linking of whiteness and Jews suggests that Jewish whiteness is a construction like other forms of race and that Jack harbors feelings of inferiority and resentment toward Jews. The text also hints that Jack's own non-whiteness, a bright red face created by his egotistical misuse of a sun-lamp, may be false as well, a sign that he remains ambivalent about both his white and non-white identities.

Unable to fully use his own body to confront oppressive cultural formations of identity. Jack claims Maggie's naturally tawny body as the symbol of social and racial inequity. As Jack explains in perhaps the book's most perceptive passage, Maggie can't compete with the Horace Mann women because the interplay of class and color keeps her from knowing “it was done or how to do it or how to know [emphasis mine]” (1993, 180). Forms and practices of knowledge are denied her. The union of class, race, and ethnicity creates a glittery white costume masking natural “blemishes and freckles” (1993, 180) and exists as the pinnacle of a human hierarchy only because others are denied access through disadvantage and ignorance, falsely led to believe that their economic and racial/ethnic identity imply innate moral deficiency and personal failure. Whiteness becomes a class charade; race is nothing more than class in fancy dress.

Maggie intuits this and urges Jack to return to Lowell. But her speech, less that of a working-class Irish girl than it is Kerouac's own language, is laced with a rush of lyrical images and elliptical syntax characteristic of Jack's self-reflexivity. Appropriating her mouth, creating her voice, he prophesies his own future: “O Jacky come home have Christmases with me”; if not, “[y]ou'll burn yourself out like a moth jumping in a locomotive boiler looking for light” (1993, 184). The warning goes unheeded. As the narrative advances three years, we learn that Jack has left school, is working in a Lowell parking garage while waiting to ship out with the merchant marines, and has become mean-spirited. He meets Maggie and tries to have sex with her, but he's too drunk to perform. The scene, a pathetic reversal of the earlier one in which he imagined her body as a fecund text from which he can become everyman, signals the falsity of his decision to privilege the white, middle-class, masculine world. He is left bere ft. Life, the dark woman, laughs at him and walks away.


Despite the grim conclusion of Maggie Cassidy, Kerouac held onto the possibility of finding the dark woman. Rather than succumb to the role of passive, cynical spectator, he retained a more romantic belief in the power of self-agency and the dream of a classless America. In The Subterraneans and Tristessa, this vision is strengthened as the white American woman fades into the background, replaced by the fellaheen woman and race mixing. This focus is especially noteworthy considering that Kerouac wrote both books in the early fifties, a time when anti-miscegenation laws still existed in more than fifteen states. Even California, the setting for The Subterraneans, had not overturned its law until 1948 and upheld a firm invisible social code against interracial relationships, as did the rest of the country.

The Subterraneans is a gnarled and naked confessional centered on the intersection of race, class, and personal autonomy. It is more complex and self-aware than Tristessa, a short, bifurcated story favoring elliptical lyricism rather than self-reflection. But both share themes and formal structures, including first-person narrators who are again thinly veiled avatars of Kerouac, now a middle-aged writer riddled with self-loathing and disenchanted with the narrow-mindedness of white, middle-class, post-war America. Each narrator appears plagued with “sin,” and while the specific sin remains unclear, it is evident that each believes his gender, race, and ethnicity to have left him much for which to atone. He is faced with a choice: elect a life of hatred and self-disgust or act to redeem himself and his nation. Each chooses the latter, acting on the critique of American culture that is the legacy of Maggie Cassidy by taking to the road in search of a new home and a new woman.

Leo Percipied settles with Mardou in the Beat underground of San Francisco; Jack Duluoz meets Tristessa in the slums of Mexico City. As the stories unfold, the fellaheen woman becomes the conduit through which the narrators find respite from obligation, regimentation, routinization, and inequality, acting as a metaphor for democracy, offering the gift of personal and social progress though the image of the embracing lovers. Love is not enough, however, to transform both the narrator and America. Leo and Jack cannot move beyond the nuanced consciousness with which Jack Duluoz concludes Maggie Cassidy, and they ultimately disconnect from the embrace to reestablish the supremacy of the white male and his predominance as a writer, in the process acting out Kerouac's understanding of the self as both fluid and centered.

Initially, Mardou and Tristessa represent the covenant of social regeneration through the social body, acquiring this power through membership in the “low” culture of the grotesque. Ostracized from family and friends, rejected as inferior because of their race and sex, they live on the borderland with deviants, clowns, and the unwanted. Their very bodies are the badge of membership. Mardou's is black and small, wracked by drug and alcohol use, psychic breakdown, male violence, and sexual excess. Tristessa's is even more distorted. Her Aztec ancestry is the brown veneer for a sarcophagus of rotting flesh housing the bones of a woman so addicted to morphine she can barely walk or talk. Their faces are dark flat screens upon which Jack and Leo envision a panorama of fellaheen images signifying equality and freedom.

Both women project a freakish quality, and a reader may have difficulty thinking of them as “grotesque” without substituting the term “freak.” This slip is not inappropriate. “Freak” has a contemporary social dimension relevant to Kerouac's use of the grotesque. The tradition of the freak as monster has a long history in European culture, but freakishness, radically democratic and open to individualistic self-appropriations of class, race, ethnicity gender, and sexuality, is a distinctly U.S. style of social dissent, manifesting itself most distinctly in the fifties as the Beat underground and then finding full form in the 1960's (Russo 1994, 75). This tradition of freak encompasses both the “freak of nature” and the “freak of culture.” Mardou and Tristessa are born to the narrator as “freaks of nature,” physically different from what he has known. Because they are part of the Beat culture (“beat” as Herbert Hunke used it, meaning “beaten down,” and “beat” as Kerouac defined it, signifying “beatific”), they are also “freaks of culture,” lonely, despised, and misunderstood by a society that denies them a legitimate place at its table. Relegated to the periphery, their beauty and humanity are visible to only a few truth seekers, in particular, the Kerouacian narrator who thrills at the sight of “actual” freaks, women unlike any other he has every seen, envisioning himself as them or in solidarity with them. Through their excesses—their criminal behavior, sexual promiscuity, flips, vulnerable child-like bodies, even the strangeness of Mardou's intelligence—Kerouac builds the body of his own mind, one so “criminal” that he cannot reveal it except through feminine masquerade.

Of the two, Mardou is the more complex and therefore her role as grotesque social body more complicated. Intelligent, well read, independent, perceptive, feisty, and physically strong, she is as tangible as Leo, and he respects her as much as he does his male friends and heroes who have suffered and endured. He perceives her as a redeemer, a young, “cool,” black subterranean symbolizing his entry into San Francisco's intellectual, jazz-oriented avant garde. This “coolness” is a modern version of the stereotype of black women as exotics: Mardou as a beautiful yet distorted female blends elements of the masculine and feminine, the forbidden and the desired, into an exciting curiosity. When he begins to date her, possessing her body and appropriating her “otherness,” he joins a younger, hipper group, shedding a self that he defines as aging and isolated; a dumb “Canuck” who can barely control the English language, his sexuality, or his huge ego; a marginalized ethnic racist with no self confidence. In this resp ect, Leo fetishizes Mardou's blackness, not in the sense defined by rigorous psychoanalytic theory but rather as a magical device that will transfigure him into his vision of the essential American.

As much as he would like to decenter whiteness and replace it with blackness, however, he remains a white male seeing others from this standpoint. His entry into the hip underground is conditioned by at least a slim tether connecting him to the white world of his ethnicity and the fantasy of the White American Woman. From the moment he meets Mardou, he whitens her. She reminds him of a white girl he knew in high school and about whom he had sexual fantasies. He also finds charming her new bop generation language which he describes as part “Negro highclass,” part white, educated, beautiful rich girl language (Kerouac 1958, 10). This speech, also fetishized in her tiny, crooked front teeth through which she makes a “gleeful little shniffle” (1958, 37), establishes Mardou's race and sex as a magical bridge of carnivalesque rebirth between white and black cultures.

Consistent with this connection is the code whereby he enters the underground: he must establish himself as a sexually dominant white male. He first competes for Mardou with two white male friends, Julian Alexander (Kerouac's friend Lucian Carr) and Adam Moorad (the poet Allen Ginsberg). If he wins her love, he has defeated them (1958, 19). Second, he competes with a black male, effecting a defeat as grand as young Jack Duluoz's defeat of John Henry Lewis and Jesse Owens—he beats the black bop genius Charlie “Bird” Parker. Leo achieves victory through parasitic subordination and humiliation of the black man, remembering Parker “distinctly digging Mardou several times” (1958, 19) at a club where they go to see him perform. Leo notes that Bird's look is not challenging, but the explanation implies that in his own mind a battle has taken place, and the white man has won, wresting away the black man's property: the body and love of a black woman. Leo, however, can't live as this kind of oppressor. Highly conscious of America's history of racial conflict—and of his own uneasy position as a white man in a racially divided society, he experiences racial guilt which he struggles to placate. Quickly erasing his domination of Bird, he images him as a gentle god with the power to foretell the demise of Leo's relationship with Mardou (1958, 20). While still a dehumanizing act (Bird as god is just as much a mechanism for Leo's new identity as is Bird the defeated lover), the image assuages racial guilt and restores to Bird a kind of power that the latter denied him.

Leo is well aware that by dating Mardou he breaks a social taboo, one so powerful that even some of his hip friends, such as Adam, choose not to violate it. The consequences are high. White America has long perpetuated potent romantic narratives founded on racial prejudice, and Leo has a great deal invested in such narratives. If he marries Mardou, his dream of living the Faulknerian life of a great white gentleman writer in the South will be destroyed. So will the romance of his own family. His mother, to whom he is deeply attached and for whom he feels responsible, will reject a black Cherokee daughter-in-law (1958, 62). So too will his sister and her Southern husband, with whom Leo may have to live. Unable to give up these particular dreams, he is, nevertheless, brave enough to break the taboo in part because of the benefits accrued by being with Mardou. Not inconsequentially, one of these is the opportunity to deal with his “race problems.” In this respect, Kerouac's use of Mardou's body, the physical signifier of the human creation of (dis)privilege, functions as an intimation of human regeneration and social progress, a personal example of the larger civil rights movement gaining momentum in the fifties. His acceptance of her body, which an apartheid-based society has designated grotesque, as well as all else that constitutes her, professes faith in the human power to overcome prejudice and recognize our common human face.

Most dramatic is the way Leo deals with his fear that blacks are sexual mutants, manipulating the grotesque image of the regenerating social body to illustrate its more modern alienating form. For example, he imagines that her genitals are “a black thing … hanging” (1958, 63), a grotesque illusion with its hint of the hermaphrodite that repulses him. He confesses his fear, and although his articulation of it brings her pain (and, admittedly, to many readers as well), the risk pays off. She allows him to examine her, and by challenging the stereotype, they destroy the myth of black biological inferiority, concluding that black women are not pernicious (1958, 63). Unfortunately, Kerouac fails to treat black males the same. Those few who appear in the narrative are described as sexual perverts who expose themselves to Mardou (1958, 45-46). These images remain unexamined, standing as a grave injustice to black men in general and underscoring the cultural practice of hiding prejudice in the guise of “unbiased” reporting of someone else's experiences. But to his credit, Leo remains sensitive to Mardou's race-based experiences, enabling her to teach him about the perverse webbing that binds gender, skin privilege, and social codes of behavior.

Unbeknownst to Mardou, however, Leo also relies upon her body, voice, and personal history to achieve a complex dissolution of his consciousness producing a fusion with all life forms and a sermon on the condition of the American fellaheen. Reporting stories Mardou has told him about her past, he creates sub-narratives tightly woven throughout the central narrative of their affair. The sub-narratives are composed of Mardou's quoted speech, Leo's third-person paraphrases, and his own rhapsodic improvisational monologue. At times, the voice he creates for her is distinctly Kerouacian. As in Maggie Cassidy, Kerouac makes little effort to distinguish the vocabulary and syntax of the female from his own. For instance, when Mardou wonders why anyone would want to harm her, it is unquestionably Leo's (or Kerouac's) poetic voice shaping this fear: “I quaked when the giver creamed, when my father screamed, my mother dreamed—I started small and ballooned up and now I'm big and a naked child again and only to cry and fear” (36). This is not to negate Mardou's feelings of vulnerability. Rather it underscores the tendency of the narrative to displace the dark female with the narrator's own psychological state. This predisposition produces a doubling effect, confirmed when Leo realizes that he and Mardou are so alike that she is his sister (1958, 71).

Critical to this process is Leo's understanding that since Mardou never knew her parents she grew up with “no belief and … no place to get it from” (Kerouac 1958, 22). Mardou, however, projects beliefs with each word she speaks, so it is not difficult to infer what Leo has done: interpret her past to license himself to write his own version of her history. Her oppression and liberation become his, and he is free to play with them at will. His imaginative encounter with her body comprises a metaphysical journey highlighting the impermanence of self and other. This theme dominates the narrative. Mardou as individual gives way to Mardou as racial and historical concept, warping into Mardou as surrogate male of color and then Mardou as white male Canuck Leo. The result is what Toni Morrison calls dehistoricizing allegory: the civilizing process as vast and indefinite, something “taking place across an unspecified infinite amount of time” (1958, 68) thus excluding history, both personal and cultural, as a process of becoming.

Two passages illustrate this most clearly, both relying upon forms of the Romantic grotesque locating regeneration in a space both private and sublime. In the first, Leo focuses on Mardou's accounts of her history and suffering. As he listens, her contorted frame grows into “the background for thoughts about the Negroes and Indians and America in general but with all the overtones of ‘new generation’ and other historical concerns” (Kerouac 1958, 27). Situating the hipsters of the fifties against the huge canvas of the oppression of people of color in the United States, he contemplates the significance of the new underground and his own place in it. Mardou dissolves into the panorama of the American West, framing Leo's vision of the horror of white America's destruction of its own dark people, the nameless “wraiths of humanity treading lightly the surface of the ground so deeply suppurated with the stock of their suffering you only have to dig a foot down to find a baby's hand” (1958, 29). Pulling himself out of the reverie, he refocuses on the immediacy of her small body, the momentary destruction of time and space, through vicarious terror and redemption, bringing them closer together.

Leo depends upon this process which we see again when he retells Mardou's story about a shop where she encounters a man in a wheel chair surrounded by animals. The story delineates the life-affirming grotesque transformation down into the not human and the subsequent generation up into the spiritus mundi. Most of the passage appears as choppy verbatim quoting of Mardou, the twisted language an analogue of her physical and psychic grotesqueness. Punctuating the narrative are long asides in which Leo improvises upon the story. The first parenthetical contains a magical point of liminality portending a mystical denouement: Mardou passes through a doorway into a room filled with caged birds. She wants to stand in the cool green jungle of the story and communicate with the birds through their “birdy terror, the electric spasms of their … squawk, lawk, leek” (Kerouac 1958, 40-41). Mardou's proximity to their life-filled mouths prepares her to talk with the man, which facilitates her connection to the ethereal expanse of human wisdom. At this point, she ceases to exist as an individual for Leo who in response spins out a rhapsodic vision of her as a holy Negro Joan of Arc, who on a fine Easter day, the promise of resurrection in the air, mutates into the city of San Francisco, its history and multi-cultural citizenry. Her blackness, and thus her martyrdom, becomes a mystical force balanced with the whiteness of the city. Together, they empower Leo to call forth the specter of her father, a fellaheen shadow of himself (1958, 44). The possibility of social reformation, the destruction of the barrier between Leo and the world of the oppressed, the eradication of his and his nation's racial guilt, becomes actualized truth for him.

Two years later, living in Mexico City and writing Tristessa, Kerouac remained transfixed with this concept of truth. It is not insignificant that the narrative, highly confessional with little plot or character development, is set outside the United States in a place where racial distinctions appear less prevalent. Jack's Mexico City is the heart of fellaheen country, a land cut off from the social hierarchy dominating the United States. In On the Road, he calls Mexico the place where we “will finally learn ourselves” (1979, 280), and in Tristessa, one of those lessons seems to be that since America has failed its own people a classless society is possible only where the illusions of black and white blend and are negated by brown.

Tristessa, presented as the brown fusion of Maggie and Mardou, the amalgamation of Billie Holliday, Ava Gardner, and the Viennese actress Louise Rainer (Kerouac 1960, 8), embodies this exotic ideal, which is rooted in the grotesque negation of the pristine and sanitized. Everywhere he looks, Jack sees the despised and deviant. All live on the streets or in tiny, filthy rooms. Tristessa's home is no different. It's littered with garbage and inhabited by her pimp El Indio, her sick sister, a dove on the mantelpiece, a cat, a hen, a rooster, and a howling Chihuahua “pooch bitch” (1960, 14). The mouth and the genitals form the center of this grotesque world. The kitten mews and pees; the dove makes leery human teeth-grins; the dog yelps in heat; the cock screeches; the sister moans and vomits; El Indio jabs needles into gaping holes in his arms; and Tristessa pleads for sex. It is a hellish zone into which the refuse of the “straight” world has been poured, and Tristessa's body is the dark hole around which the debris swirls, including Jack himself. Jack gives himself up to the dark vortex, believing that in the very pit of human misery there resides the truest form of human life. At first, he perceives it as a “golden movie” of his own creation, an illusion of no substance. But by giving himself up to it, accepting its “inside-outness,” he opens the way for rebirth through the destruction of illusion. Participation in the social world is possible because he can imagine Tristessa's hellish room not simply as dark, desperate, and evil but tinted with Rabelasian comedy, especially self mockery and animal/human transfusion.

The latter is expressed most consistently through Jack's association of Tristessa with the kitten in her room whose tiny, flea-bitten body encapsulates her goodness and suffering. As Jack thinks about and cares for the kitten, he does the same for Tristessa. The boundaries between her body and the kitten's vanish, the distance between Jack and Tristessa melts away. But he also mocks himself as a clown whose silly earnestness and naivete convince him to make friends with all these creatures with whom Tristessa lives. He negates his own high-mindedness in a comic scene in which Tristessa's rooster and hen are metamorphosed into a cartoonish human couple, Mr. and Mrs. Gazookas. The “Mr.” chuckles and yells; the “Mrs.” wears an adjustable hat draped over her beak (Kerouac 1960, 20). In both cases, animal, woman, and man become consubstantial, the shade of death mutating into birth. Life and joy pour in.

These visions hold all that the Kerouacian narrator has searched for, but couldn't find, in other places and with other women, and in one of Kerouac's most exalted examples of grotesque metamorphosis, Tristessa transcends them all, rivaling Christ himself. Struggling to make Jack understand that she prefers friendship to money, she pantomimes sex by crudely pumping her loins in the air. The act is a sign of sterility, a sad reminder that the only love she has known is that of a man who “give[s] it to her in the bed” (Kerouac 1960, 53). But as Jack watches, her pathetic gesture emerges as an image of the Annunciation. Standing with her legs spread, her vagina covered by her skirt but implicitly open to the world, Tristessa extends herself to the spirit of life which fills her being and radiates out from the crown of her head in the shape of innumerable hands (1960, 57). At that moment, she is a bodhisattva and an angel.

This passage, typical of Kerouac's maneuvering of the female body throughout his fiction, illustrates his inability to sustain the earthly exuberance of the Renaissance grotesque and his tendency toward the Romantic lyricism of spiritual fulfillment. Pulled by the forces of a Catholic mentality and his study of Buddhism, his narratives resist the physicality of the body, and thus his own humanity. Of special repugnance is his sexuality which for both Jack and Leo is a prehistoric, masculine menace to themselves and others. The tendency to seek escape from the body and sexuality is channeled primarily through images of Mardou and Tristessa as the Virgin Mary. The dark woman is elevated into the realm of classical perfection where she exists as the very source of the mysterium tremendum, the pure and suffering Stabat Mater weeping at the sight of her crucified son. But this same fantasy also magnifies and sustains her grotesqueness. Even in virginal glory, Tristessa and Mardou remain pastiches of female ideals holding within themselves the destruction of the sublime. Their otherness, as black and Mexican, drug addict and psychotic, as womb and vagina, is so antithetical to the classic, asexual female iconography of the Virgin Mary that the narrator is repulsed by them. The fantasy of the Madonna imparts but momentary salvation, and he is left imprisoned and isolated, cut off from any woman with whom he can establish community.

The fragility of Kerouac's connection to the social body of equality is underscored by his manipulation of Tristessa's behavior after her apotheosis. At this point, she declares them nothing, pointing a finger at Jack and saying “you.” Kerouac records a phonetic representation of her Hispanic accent that renders “you” as “Jew.” In other words, you/Jew who are outcast, you/Jew who are despised, you/Jew who are condemned to wander the earth in search of a home. Jack faces himself as the dark-skinned Jew and sees “two empty phantoms of light … ghosts in old haunted-house stories … white and not-there” (1960, 57). This white nothingness is a specter of self-negation, the emptiness of not only the calm Buddhist mind but also the white Catholic self who fears damnation and annihilation. In this sense, Tristessa becomes an extension of Jack's psyche, an expression of his abjection, his self-loathing, and his condemnation of American culture.

Such darkness cannot long withstand the light of day. In both books, the blurring of the body politic, the fluidity and fragmentation of the grotesque, the possibility of equality and democracy itself, terrify the narrators, threatening their desire for a unified self and the cultural milieu in which that self exits. The white, masculine writer faces extinction if he sustains identification with the freak and female. The dark female must be obliterated if the narrators are to be reborn and to survive.

In The Subterraneans, Leo begins the process by returning Mardou to that which he had initially feared: the evil black female. Leo knows it's wrong, but he can't stop himself from thinking of her as a “Negress” thief, a sexual deviant bent on destroying all men (Kerouac 1958, 104). The sad irony here, which Kerouac recognizes, is that Leo's identity as a white male depends upon the demonization of the black woman. As long as she remains human, he remains enslaved. His fear of her, which he correlates with emasculinization, is so exaggerated that at one point he compares them to characters in Tennessee Williams's “Desire and the Black Masseur,” a grisly story about race and sadomasochism. Leo identifies with Anthony Burns, the white, child-like homosexual in the story who, as a way of atoning for feelings of inferiority and racial guilt, becomes erotically addicted to beatings by a nameless Negro masseur, who harbors free-floating hatred of all whites. The masseur, whom Leo likens to Mardou, finally kills Burns, eats his flesh, and then drops a bag filled with his bones into a lake (1958, 68). The significance of this allusion cannot be underestimated. Leo, by transforming Mardou into a nameless, faceless, black man of unrestrained brutality, eradicates all that is real and good about her, exposing his deep fear that white heterosexual masculinity will be annihilated through intimacy with a black woman. He will die if he does not subdue this dark “unnatural” presence, if he cannot find a way to return to the asexual and isolating world of white masculine work (1958, 57).

The destruction of Mardou as an object of love is completed in the comic pushcart episode which begins with a nightmare Leo has in which Mardou cuckolds him with his friend Yuri Gligoric (the poet Gregory Corso). In the dream, the whole world, including the living and the dead (Kerouac 1958, 85), surrounds their bed where Leo lies naked, stinking fish heads besieging him and gigantic big blue flies biting him. Yuri and Mardou make love, and Leo wakes up just as he hits Mardou and tackles Yuri. The images of alienating grotesqueness, especially his battering of Mardou, foreshadow the night when Yuri steals a pushcart, uses it to taxi them home, and leaves it in front of Adam's apartment. Comedy quickly erupts. Adam and Leo overreact, lecturing each other in self-impressed style on the morality of the act, and slapstick breaks out as they throw their keys at each other. But in this case, comedy does not produce social transformation. The dream and the pushcart theft trigger in Leo deep feelings of jealousy His fear, an extension of his fantasy that Mardou is a sexually perverted destroyer of white men, compels him to push her away He unjustly blames her femaleness and blackness for his own inadequacies, until she and Yuri finally “make it together,” the coupling of their bodies signifying the final betrayal. When Leo learns about the cuckolding, his own body becomes terrifying: “the lower part of my stomach sagged into my pants or loins and the body experienced a sensation of deep melting down—going into some soft somewhere, nowhere—” (1958, 148). Mardou's body of betrayal renders Leo's own body a parallel grotesque and their relationship impossible.

In Tristessa, Jack's relationship with the fellaheen woman is doomed long before he ever meets her. Metaphorically, the text suggests that democracy and self improvement cannot be achieved in a place apart. The farther one goes from the social body of one's origin, the farther one gets from meaningful progress, certainly from the symbolic fecundity of love. Tristessa's sordid history; especially the abuse of her body, signifies that she is incapable of loving any one. Jack has no control over her addiction which destroys her mind to the point where he likens her to an Aztec witch threatening to kill him. His deification of her and his belief that he loves her are worthless anodynes, and as she becomes more maniacal, her body begins to implode. In Part 1, she has convulsions, and in Part 2, her entire body particularly the lower stratum, becomes ghastly: her arms covered with cysts and one leg completely paralyzed (Kerouac 1960, 65). She eventually collapses, her head crashing against the ground, blood trickling out of her nose and mouth. The head, carrying the essential grotesque orifice of the mouth, moves downward past the womb and anus to the very ground from which the body springs.

The collapse is unquestionably a symptom of the physical death that she carries within her body. Symbolically, this linking of life and death signals the Renaissance rejuvenation of the social body and/or the Romantic transcendence of the individual into the sublime. Jack now rejects both. Tristessa doesn't literally die, but he manipulates her body so that in a metaphoric sense she does die, or more accurately, he kills her. First, he observes that Tristessa “has no body at all, it is utterly lost in its skimpy dress.” Then he reports that Tristessa declares that she doesn't want love (Kerouac 1960, 91). The combination of his vision and Tristessa's words effectively negates her presence. Orifices through which the world can enter the body no longer exist, since the narrator has obliterated the body through his presentation of it. Jack cuts himself off from the social body promising redemption, freedom, equality and communal acceptance.

Jack and Leo finalize their escape from the redemptive body of the female by transforming themselves into a grotesque. Each becomes a freak of the freaks, a paranoid and hypermasculinized buffoon who abuses and abandons his love, condemning himself as unworthy and berating himself for not loving them enough. Returning to self-loathing and passivity, he falls into the role of a spectator watching his own orchestration of his own destruction. The pattern is introduced in Maggie Cassidy when Jack as a callous merchant seaman attempts to force sex on Maggie who rejects him. It is extended in The Subterraneans and Tristessa as the narrator is rejected by the freaks themselves, who in turn, pursue and torment him: Mardou and Yuri have an affair, and Mardou chooses independence over Leo. Tristessa also rejects Jack for another addict, choosing impotence and drugs over love.

But unlike Maggie Cassidy, which leaves Jack with only his own disgusting behavior, The Subterraneans and Tristessa present the narrator's freakishness as a self-constructed device for change and growth. Each concludes with the narrator newly formed as an agent of creation: Leo goes home to write the story of his love for Mardou, and Jack heads to Sicily and Arles to rewrite the legend of his life. Both are left alone in the freak show audience where they view the female as a celluloid sideshow, the illusion of freedom and equality which they look upon with a certain degree of sadness and guilt and then discard. With relief, the white male narrator takes off his mask as woman of color and exposes the face of a new man. With all its blotches and blemishes, inadequacies and infirmities, it's by no means perfect. But it's all he has. And it's enough with which to write a book.


  1. For example, the 1705 Virginia “act concerning servants and slaves” stated that no negroes, mulattos and Indians or other infidels or jews, Moors, Mahometans or other infidels shall, at any time, purchase any christian servant, nor any other except of their own complexion” (Rothenberg 1998, 102). In 1938, the Louisiana State Supreme Court ruled that “Negro” was the only definition of color and that Filipinos were not colored but white (Fuchs 1990, 140).A much less visible form of the mercurial definition of “white” appears in A1 Hinkle's account of finding Allen Ginsberg a job on the railroad in San Francisco in 1952: “They wouldn't hire Allen as a brakeman at that time because they wouldn't hire any Jews as brakemen. At that time there was, actually, in the union, a clause that you had to be white—and that [didn't] include Jews, too” (Gifford and Lee 1994, 165). For a comprehensive discussion of the legal construction of race, consult Lopez (1996).

  2. In correspondence with me, Gerald Nicosia explained his sources for this: When I did my interviews in Lowell in 1977-1978, many of the French Canadians and others told me of the pejorative use of the term “les blancs negres” to refer to French Canadians, though I gathered the term was more in use early in the century, when the French Canadian ghettos were more clearly defined. … Part of that came from the fact that the French did not generally push their kids academically, toward college, etc., as the Greeks and Irish did, but took the lowest-paying, backbreaking jobs, like blacks in other big cities. Also, some of the French neighborhoods really were run-down, trashy tenements, which could easily suggest an inner-city ghetto. On top of that, many of the French had language problems, … and I was told that French people would often be teased about their inability to pronounce the word “three,” (t'ree). (Nicosia 1998)

  3. Evidence indicating that these are the two meets includes Kerouac's specific reference to Worcester North as the team against which young Jack's team was competing and his use of “WC” for the race results as reported by The Lowell Sun reporter. See The Lowell Sun (1939a, 13), and (1939b, 15). Information about the Worcester North in-door track team came from Lynn Couture, library media specialist at Worcester North High School, and from Northern Lights, the Worcester North High School yearbook (1939). I obtained information on Matthew Jenkins with the assistance of Theresa Davitt, Worcester Historical Museum librarian, who consulted Caduceus, the Worcester Commerce yearbooks (1938-40), as well as The Commerce Mercury (November 10, 1938, and January 13, 1939).

Works Cited

Bailey, Beth L. 1998. From Front Porch to Back Seat: Courtship in Twentieth-Century America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. 1984. Rabelais and His World. Trans. Helene Iswolsky. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Fuchs, Lawrence H. 1990. The American Kaleidoscope: Race, Ethnicity and the Civic Culture. Hanover: University Press of New England.

Gifford, Barry, and Lawrence Lee. 1994. Jack's Book: An Oral Biography of Jack Kerouac. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Kerouac, Jack. 1958. The Subterraneans. New York: Grove Press.

———. 1960. Tristessa. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co.

———. 1979. On the Road: Text and Criticism. Ed. Scott Donaldson. New York: Penguin Books.

———. 1989. Lonesome Traveler. New York: Grove Press.

———. 1993. Maggie Cassidy. New York: Penguin Books.

———. 1994. The Good Blonde and Other Stories. San Francisco: Grey Fox Press.

Lopez, Ian F. Haney 1996. White by Law: The Legal Construction of Race. New York: New York University Press.

Lowell Sun. 1939a. 9 January, 13.

———. 1939b. 16 January, 15.

Morrison, Toni. 1993. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. New York: Random House Books.

Nicosia, Gerald. 1994. Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac. Berkeley: University of California Press.

———. 1998. “Re: Kerouac Questions.” Personal e-mail. 10 April.

Rothenberg, Paula, ed. 1998. Race, Class, and Gender in the United States: An Integrated Study. 4th ed. New York: St. Martin's Press.

Russo, Mary. 1994. The Female Grotesque: Risk, Excess and Modernity. New York: Routledge.

Williams, Tennessee. 1985. “Desire and the Black Masseur.” Tennessee Williams Collected Stories. New York: Ballantine Books.

Rod Phillips (essay date 2000)

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SOURCE: “‘My Virtuous Desert’: Kerouac's Dharma Bums,” in “Forest Beatniks” and “Urban Thoreaus”: Gary Snyder, Jack Kerouac, Lew Welch, and Michael McClure, Peter Lang, 2000, pp. 49-69.

[In the following essay, Phillips discusses Kerouac's works concerning the natural world, particularly The Dharma Bums.]

“[M]y companion and I, for I sometimes have a companion, take pleasure in fancying ourselves knights of a new, or rather an old, order—not Equestrians or Chevaliers, not Ritters or Riders, but Walkers, a still more ancient and honorable class, I trust. The chivalric and heroic spirit which once belonged to the Rider seems now to reside in, or perchance to have subsided into, the Walker,—not the Knight, but Walker, Errant. He is a sort of fourth estate, outside of Church and State and People.”

Henry David Thoreau, “Walking” (1851)

As the jacket notes from a recent edition of Jack Kerouac's 1958 novel, The Dharma Bums, indicate, the fast paced, jazz and drug inspired action of his 1957 triumph On the Road casts a long shadow on the writer's subsequent works:

[B]y the man who launched the hippie world, the daddy of the swinging psychedelic generation, JACK KEROUAC author of ON THE ROAD

Here are the orgiastic sexual sprees, the cool jazz bouts, the poetry love-ins, and the marathon binges of the kids who are hooked on Sensation and looking for the high—


Too often, readers of Kerouac's fiction—from high school freshmen to established critics—have viewed his later novels as mere footnotes to a single great work: echoes of the now familiar (and often sensationalized) Beat generation mentality which drove Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty to crisscross the continent, in an attempt to escape or subvert what they saw as a false and restrictive American society through drugs and alcohol, fast cars and free love. The frenetic action of Kerouac's novel On the Road, and the firestorm of media attention the book received, rocketed the writer to fame; unfortunately, however, it also left him with a sensationalized critical and historical reputation which he neither wanted or deserved, as “the daddy of the swinging psychedelic generation.”1

Such a reading of Kerouac's fiction is a tremendous oversimplification, of course; there is much more to Jack Kerouac than meets the eyes of those readers who only venture as far as On the Road will take them. The “Duluoz Legend,” as Kerouac came to call the body of fiction which chronicled his real life experiences, contains a variety of responses to American life which have gone unnoticed by critics because of their overemphasis on the author's role as progenitor of the “psychedelic generation.” One such area long neglected by critical attention is Kerouac's extensive treatment of the subject of nature in such works as Lonesome Traveler (1960), Desolation Angels (1965), Big Sur (1962) and most importantly, The Dharma Bums (1958).

Each of these works deal, at least in part, with the period in the mid 1950's when Kerouac was most concerned with the natural world. Kerouac's slim, critically neglected, volume of travel sketches and essays, Lonesome Traveler, contains his beautifully detailed portrait of his job as a brakeman on California's railroads in the early fifties, “The Railroad Earth,” a sketch filled with glowing descriptions of the California countryside. The collection also contains his autobiographical sketch “Alone on a Mountaintop,” which details the author's daily existence as a fire tower lookout in the Washington Cascade mountain range during the summer of 1956. The opening chapters of Desolation Angels deal fictionally with the same period, and contain a number of wildly beautiful, sublime descriptions of the mountain landscape written in the long, flowing, jazz-like cadences that readers of On the Road would recognize as Kerouac's characteristic spontaneous prose style.

But it is in Kerouac's earlier Dharma Bums (1958) that the writer's talents in describing the landscape are most fully realized, and it is in this novel that his attitudes towards nature are best articulated; more importantly, perhaps more than any other novel of the period, Kerouac's Dharma Bums prefigures the awakening ecological consciousness of 1960's America. Just as On The Road and the earlier The Town and the City (1950) established him as the forerunner of counterculture Beat writers such as Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, Dharma Bums establishes Kerouac in a much older tradition of writers who had looked to the natural world for the raw material of their art. It is absolutely fitting that Kerouac be recognized for helping to establish a new and truly different literary direction in American literature by fostering the Beat movement. But it is equally fitting that he be placed among other American writers, in a tradition spanning from Henry David Thoreau up through Gary Snyder, who have concerned themselves with finding meaning in nature.

Kerouac's broad reading of earlier writers who dealt with the natural world has been well documented. His biographer, Ann Charters, notes a lifelong fascination with the dean of American nature writers, Henry David Thoreau. Kerouac was well versed in the earlier writer's work, and returned to it often throughout his life; but the author's high regard for his predecessor went beyond a simple admiration for Thoreau's writing. Often in conversation Kerouac voiced a desire to emulate the earlier writer's famous experiment at Walden Pond (Charters 21, 200-201). Such an identification with Thoreau's life and work is understandable—especially given the many surface similarities between the lives of the two authors. Both men were of French-Canadian descent (although Kerouac's ethnicity was much more pronounced than Thoreau's), and more importantly, the two shared the same home region. Kerouac was born hearing what he later referred to as the “roars of Merrimac” (Dr. Sax 17). His home town, Lowell, Massachusetts, is less than twenty miles from Thoreau's cabin at Walden Pond, and one hears in Kerouac's Lowell novels (Dr. Sax (1959), Visions of Gerard (1963), and Maggie Cassidy (1959)) the echoes of many familiar places described in Thoreau's work.

In the introductory vitae which serves as the preface to his 1960 collection of travel sketches, Lonesome Traveler, Kerouac further identifies himself with a tradition of American literature which, like Thoreau, suggests a closer link to nature: that of the hobo or traveling adventurer.2 In a list of his life's most important events, he reports that he “… read [the] life of Jack London at 18 and decided to also be an adventurer, a lonesome traveler” (v). Later in an essay in the same collection, entitled “The Vanishing American Hobo,” Kerouac identifies himself as a type of literary hobo—a traveling artist for whom the craft of writing provides a modicum of security: “I myself was a hobo but only of sorts, as you see, because I knew someday my literary efforts would be rewarded by social protection—I was not a real hobo with no hope ever except that secret eternal hope you get sleeping in empty boxcars …” (173). Later, in an effort to lend dignity to what he sees as the American artist / hobo's “idealistic lope to freedom” (172), Kerouac recalls other American writers whom he places in this “lonesome traveler” category:

Benjamin Franklin was like a hobo in Pennsylvania; he walked through Philly with three big rolls under his arms and a Massachusetts halfpenny on his hat.—John Muir was a hobo who went off into the mountains with only a pocketful of dried bread, which he soaked in creeks.

Did Walt Whitman terrify the children of Louisiana when he walked the open road?


Kerouac ends his introduction to Lonesome Traveler with a final wish for an end to his restless travels on the road, and a return to a Walden Pond of his own. He list his “final plans” as simply: “Hermitage in the woods, quiet writing of old age, mellow hopes of Paradise … (vi). The author was of course unaware, as he wrote these words in 1960, that his most idyllic days of “quiet writing” away from civilization were already behind him. He had come as close to realizing his life-long Thoreauvian fantasy as he ever would during the year-long period from August 1955 to September 1956—the period chronicled by Kerouac in Dharma Bums.

Like many of his novels, Dharma Bums is a thinly veiled roman-a-clef constructed around actual people and events in Kerouac's life. Set mainly in the San Francisco area in the mid 1950's, the novel's cast of characters is a who's who of what later came to be called the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance. The action of the novel centers around protagonist Ray Smith (Kerouac's fictional personae), a poet of sorts who travels West to live with his old friend Alvah Goldbook (Allen Ginsberg). Early in the novel, Smith encounters the poet / Buddhist scholar / outdoorsman Japhy Ryder (Gary Snyder), who quickly becomes one of the book's central figures. Playing more minor roles in the story are Beat era luminaries Warren Coughlin (Philip Whalen), Rheinhold Cacoethes (Kenneth Rexroth), Ike O'Shay (Michael McClure), Arthur Whane (Alan Watts), Francis DaPavia (Philip Lamantia), Henry Morley (John Montgomery), and Smith's old friend from his days on the road, Cody Pomeray (Neal Cassady).

It is largely through the character of Japhy Ryder that Ray Smith is introduced to nature, and from the beginning of the novel Smith's treatment of Ryder is that of a revered teacher. Ryder is first described as “the number one Dharma Bum of them all” (10)—the term referring to a spiritual pilgrim who travels the world searching for the dharma, or the ultimate truth. Smith's first view of Japhy, as he strides through Berkeley with a rucksack on his back, is that of a city-dwelling woodsman—a type he would later refer to in The Subterraneans as “urban Thoreaus” (15). His appearance as Smith first sees him on the street with his knapsack is more characteristic of a mountain climber than a graduate student studying Oriental languages at Berkeley. From the outset, Japhy is seen in terms of his outdoor heritage, “a woods boy, an axman, farmer, interested in animals and Indian lore … ” (10).

As John Tytell has noted, Japhy Ryder seems to represent “a fulfilled version of Dean Moriarty” (170). Ryder does share a number of similarities with Kerouac's hero from On the Road. Both characters are energetic, exuberant, working class heroes—seemingly irresistible to women and full of wonder at the possibilities that life presents. But while Dean Moriarty continually expresses a desire to become a writer and put his life into some kind of order, his restless nature won't allow him to do more than dart from one dangerous and chaotic situation to another. Japhy Ryder, in contrast, is much more serious and dedicated about his life's ambitions. Possessing the balance and sincerity which Moriarty lacks, Japhy is portrayed as a diligent scholar of Eastern languages, Buddhism, and American Indian culture, a hard working writer and translator, and unlike Moriarty, a solid and dependable friend (Tytell 170-71).

Beyond these initial contrasts which Tytell suggests, however, there exists a much more fundamental difference between the two characters. By replacing Dean Moriarty with Japhy Ryder as the central hero of his fiction, Kerouac moves away from the fast-paced, urban way of life which Dean Moriarty represents, and embraces the much more balanced, nature-centered world of Ryder. Contemplation, for a time, replaces aimless movement and the empty quest for new experience. In announcing that “Japhy Ryder is a great new hero of American culture” (28), Kerouac signals a change from the souped-up automobile to the simple backpack, a sharp turn off the road and onto the mountain hiking trail.

Ray Smith's attendance at a San Francisco poetry reading featuring Alvah Goldbook and Ryder provides him with his first glimpse of Japhy as a creative artist. The poems he reads, with their sources in the natural world, make a strong impression on Smith and provide the would-be poet with an inkling of the power of nature as subject matter. Although the “Gallery Six” reading described in Dharma Bums is actually the now famous Six Gallery reading of October 1955—the event made famous by Ginsberg's first reading of “Howl”—Kerouac chooses to underplay Alvah Goldbook's magnum opus “Wail.” Noting that he found several of the evening's readers to be “either too dainty in their aestheticism, or too hysterically cynical to hope for anything, or too abstract and indoorsy” (14), Smith instead focuses at length on Ryder's unique poetry and its sources in nature, Native American and Eastern philosophy, and anarchist politics.3 On the night which marks the birth of the “San Francisco poetry renaissance”—a night which a stunning number of literary breakthroughs4, it is clearly the earth-centered poetry of Japhy Ryder which Smith finds the most compelling.

As Japhy befriends Smith and takes him under his guidance, the two begin to plan Smith's first real encounter with the wilderness: an expedition to climb Mt. Matterhorn in the California Sierras. As the trip begins, Kerouac invokes the images of a number of “oldtime American heroes,” establishing Japhy (and less directly, himself) in the lineage of great outdoorsmen and nature writers of the past. “You know old John Muir used to go up into these mountains where we're going …” Japhy tells Smith (30-31).5

Watching in obvious admiration as his new friend climb towards the summit, Kerouac broadens his list of Japhy's models: “[H]is heroes are John Muir and Han Shan and Shih-te and Li Po and John Burroughs and Paul Bunyan and Kropotkin” (44). With this passage, Kerouac makes clear just how diverse the influences on Japhy and his view of nature have been. In addition to the two Americans on the list—writer and California wilderness advocate John Muir and nature essayist John Burroughs—Kerouac cites a trio of Chinese T'ang dynasty poets as well as Peter Kropotkin, the Russian biologist and author of Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, a classic of anarchist thought. Filling out the list is Paul Bunyan, the mythical lumberjack hero of the American forest. The forces represented by these figures—myth, science, anarchism, Buddhism and Taoism, all linked by a reverence for nature—combine to make up the burgeoning ecological consciousness displayed by Japhy Ryder.

The climb up Mt. Matterhorn continues, with Japhy, as usual, in the role of teacher and Smith as apprentice. “Japhy, I'm glad I met you,” Smith tells his new companion during their morning hike, “I'm gonna learn all about how to pack rucksacks and what to do and hide in these mountains when I'm sick of civilization” (45). Impressed with his new friend's willingness to hike long distances and his ready grasp of Buddhist philosophy, Ryder tells Smith at the end of their first long day's climb:

There's nothing wrong with you Ray, your only trouble is you never learned to get out to spots like this, you've let the world drown you in its horseshit and you've been vexed …


Smith apparently takes Ryder's observations to heart, and as he drifts off to sleep on his first night in the mountains he muses on the shortfalls of his life of “drinking and disappointment” removed from nature. In a crucial turning point in the novel, Smith vows to himself to follow the course offered by Japhy and “begin a new life,” one in which he will “tramp with a rucksack and make it the pure way” (62). The night's sleep which follows Smith's decision is a serene one, filled with “pure cold dreams like ice water, happy dreams, no nightmares” (62).

The next morning—the day of the final assault on the Mt. Matterhorn summit—brings a sense of rebirth and rejuvenation to Smith. “I felt like I did when I was a boy and it was time to get up and go play all day Saturday, in overalls,” he says. But the day that awaits Smith, Ryder, and Henry Morley6, the third member of the climbing party, is far from Smith's initial vision of it as child's play. The final climb to the summit is an exhausting and dangerous one. Similar in tone to Thoreau's description of his experiences atop Mt. Ktaadn in Maine Woods, Kerouac's description of the mountain's landscape is a dark and foreboding one. As Japhy and Smith struggle towards the summit after leaving an exhausted Morley behind, Smith is struck for the first time by both the danger of his predicament and the sublimity of his surroundings. The sheer vastness of the view when Smith looks back down the mountain brings to mind “a terrifying elevator” (81), and the “happy dreams” of the previous night's romantic vision of a life in harmony with nature are now dramatically reversed as Smith's fears keep him from gaining the summit. As darkness begins to fall, the terrified Smith lags behind Japhy and gives up on reaching the mountain's peak. Completely paralyzed with fear, all he can do is cling to a level spot in the mountain face and scream “This is too high!” as his friend climbs successfully to the top.

Smith's fearful reactions to the harsh realities of the mountain wilderness bear a striking similarity to Thoreau's on Mt. Ktaadn. Faced for the first time with the raw wilderness of Ktaadn, he felt “the presence of a force not bound to be kind to man” (645), and was forced into a critical moment of reevaluation of his place in the natural world. For Thoreau, this first real exposure to wilderness led him to question his earlier views of the natural world as false and contrived—the product of genteel museum observation rather than first-hand experience: “What is it to be admitted to a museum, to see a myriad of particular things, compared with being shown some star's surface, some hard matter in its home!”:

I stand in awe of my body, this matter to which I am bound has become so strange to me. I fear not spirits, ghosts, of which I am one,—that my body might,—but I fear bodies, I tremble to meet them. What is this Titan that has possession of me? Talk of mysteries!—Think of our life in nature,—daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it,—rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! the solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? Where are we?


Similarly, Smith faces a moment of horrified anguish at the frightening realities of nature which now face him as he cowers on the steep mountainside—a moment in which he too reevaluates humanity's role in the universe, as he thinks:

“Oh what a life this is, why do we have to be born in the first place, and only so we can have our poor gentle flesh laid out to such impossible horrors as huge mountains and rock and empty space,” and with horror I remembered the famous Zen saying, “When you get to the top of a mountain, keep climbing.” The saying made my hair stand on end; it had been such cute poetry sitting on Alvah's straw mats. Now it was enough to make my heart pound and my heart bleed for being born at all.


In both passages the speakers move from a state of romantic innocence concerning nature to a terrified and uncomfortable vision of its reality. As the old, comforting sources for a beneficent model of nature fall away (Thoreau's museum observation, and Smith's “cute poetry”), they are replaced by the “hard matter” which now shapes their view of the world (Thoreau's “rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks!” and Smith's “huge mountains and rocks and empty space”).

Nineteenth century wilderness advocate John Muir, a writer well known to Snyder, Welch and others in Beat circles (and one who is mentioned with reverence several times in Kerouac's novel), told of a similar moment of crisis while mountain climbing in his 1894 classic The Mountains of California. Muir's essay “A Near View of the High Sierra” describes a dangerous predicament the author faced while mountain climbing in the same region that Kerouac and Snyder ventured into more than a half century later. Having climbed as far as he could up a steep rock face, Muir found himself trapped, “with arms outspread, clinging close to the face of the rock, unable to move hand or foot either up or down” (51). “My doom appeared fixed,” he wrote. “I must fall” (52).

But Muir's fear of death by falling passes in an instant, as an unexplainable force restores his abilities and seems to grant him a “new sense” of his own competence and well being:

But this terrible eclipse lasted only a moment, when life blazed forth again with preternatural clearness. I seemed suddenly to become possessed of a new sense. The other self, bygone experiences, Instinct, or Guardian Angel—call it what you will—came forward and assumed control. Then my trembling muscles became firm again, every rift and flaw in the rock was seen as through a microscope, and my limbs moved with a positiveness and precision with which I seemed to have nothing at all to do. Had I been borne aloft upon wings, my deliverance could not have been more complete.


Likewise, Smith's dark and frightening view of nature is short-lived, as a vision of Japhy Ryder coming back down from the mountain's summit provides the frightened climber with his own “new sense”—a moment of Zen satori or sudden enlightenment which seems to reassure him of his abilities and of the beneficence of nature. As Smith looks up at Japhy's triumphant running descent of the Matterhorn, he realizes, “in one insane second” that his fears of the natural world had been unfounded:

. … in that flash I realized it's impossible to fall off mountains you fool and with a yodel of my own I suddenly got up and began running down the mountain after him doing exactly the same huge leaps, …


The moment is one of great importance for Smith; unsuccessful in his first try at mountain climbing, he has still learned from Japhy what he calls “the final lesson of them all, you can't fall off a mountain” (69). While he has not triumphed over the mountain, as he set out to do at the beginning of the climb, Smith has faced, and vanquished, his own fears concerning nature. “I felt really proud,” Smith says of the experience a short time later, “I was a Tiger” (69).

The descriptions of nature which follow Smith's satori on Mt. Matterhorn are among the most beautiful in Dharma Bums. With Smith's fears behind him, the hard-edged, foreboding landscape of the morning's climb takes on an almost supernatural beauty as the climbers descend in the moonlight through what Smith calls an “elfin paradise of shadow and moon” (91).

On returning home, Smith finds that his chronic phlebitis (a health condition which in real life plagued Kerouac for years) was suddenly gone: “I had worked the blood clots right out of existence,” Smith says, “I felt very happy” (75). The healing powers of nature manifested here point to an essential theme in Dharma Bums: the contrast between the unhealthy “drinking and disappointment” of life in urban America and the “new life” of health, spiritual wholeness, and beauty to be found in nature. Again and again, Kerouac invokes the nineteenth century Romantic imagery of the city as the place of drunkenness, sexual perversion, ill health, and insanity,8 while portraying the natural world as the locale of health, chastity, clear-headed and productive meditation, and sanity.

Such a dichotomy between the “evils” of the city and “virtues” of nature could hardly be called original in Kerouac's day. It is the same force which pushed Fenimore Cooper's Natty Bumppo across the prairie in the early nineteenth century, the same force which led Henry Thoreau to begin his twenty-two month experiment at Walden Pond in 1845, the same force which drove Ernest Hemingway's Nick Adams to the banks of the Big Two-Hearted in the years following the First World War. But for Kerouac, this dichotomy meant much more than merely paying lip service to a time-worn Romantic convention; it represented a very real personal struggle for his own physical and mental health. Alcohol and other drugs such as Benzedrine and Morphine had presented a problem for Kerouac throughout much of his career—a problem which only seemed to grow worse with the sudden fame which followed the publication of On The Road. Written in 1957, in the midst of the author's newfound celebrity and the increased dependence on alcohol which accompanied it, Dharma Bums chronicles a time less than two years earlier when nature had actually presented a healthy alternative to the heavy drinking which was beginning to take control of Kerouac's life.

Perhaps the most clear cut example of this dichotomy of good and evil represented by wilderness and urban landscapes comes in Kerouac's description of an “insane day” spent by Smith in the border town of Juarez, Mexico. Following an ecstatic night of camping alone in the remote white-sand desert outside of town, Smith stashes his pack and hikes into Juarez to roam the Indian markets and visit the Church of Mary Guadaloupe. But the day quickly takes on a more decadent tone, as Smith begins to fall prey to the temptations the town has to offer. After an afternoon of “a few too many to drink” in the local taverns, he falls in with “a bunch of evil Mexican Apaches” for a “long evil afternoon smoking marijuana” (122-23).9 Smith's new companions pilfer items from his bag, and one of them, a young homosexual, falls in love with Smith. Uncomfortable with the situation, he leaves, remembering the “perfect white sand gulch” of his campsite. Smith's admirer, however, follows him relentlessly through the streets of Juarez as he attempts to elude him.

Finally breaking away from his pursuer at the border, a clear line between Smith's old life and the “new life” that lay before him, he leaves behind what he calls the “evil city,” noting with relief that “I had my virtuous desert waiting for me” (123). As he heads back over the border to his camp, Smith reflects on the newfound sense of freedom and security in nature which he has learned from Japhy—the freedom to “cast off the evils of the world and the city,” he writes, “just as long as I had a decent pack on my back” (157).

Kerouac's prescription for physical, spiritual, and mental well being is not limited to his protagonist, however; early on in the novel it is clear that what is good for a troubled individual also the right medicine for a troubled American society. Japhy Ryder, spurred by reading Walt Whitman's lines about the role of the bard being “to cheer up slaves and horrify foreign despots,” presents the beginnings of his prophetic vision of “a great rucksack revolution,” leading away from American consumerism and towards a happier, more ecologically centered future. Ryder envisions:

… a world full of rucksack wanderers, Dharma Bums refusing to subscribe to the general demand that they consume production and therefore have to work for the privilege of consuming, all that stuff they really don't want anyway such as refrigerators, TV sets, cars, at least new fancy cars, certain hair oils and deodorants and general junk you always see a week later in the junk anyway, all of them imprisoned in a system of work, produce, consume, work produce, consume, …


Passages such as this one point to an awakening ecological consciousness in Kerouac's writing, one which while in an early stage of development, is still a powerful force in the novel. Almost always, these premonitions of the ecological awareness which would follow a decade later are voiced by Japhy Ryder—the fictional counterpart of Gary Snyder. Coming as it did, a year before the publication of Snyder's first collection of poems, Riprap, Kerouac's Dharma Bums provided readers with their first encounter with many of the ideas put forth in Snyder's later work.11

Many of these views come to light in the section of Dharma Bums dealing with a hiking trip in the Mt. Tamalpais region taken by Smith and Ryder just before Japhy is set to depart for extended Buddhist study in Japan. The trip follows a wild, three day, going away party for Japhy—a party which leaves both hikers feeling spent and depressed. As usual, however, the wilderness provides the needed cure for what ails them; as they set out, Ryder comments on his feeling of relief at escaping from the excesses of the party and returning to nature: “Goddammit it feels good to get away from dissipation and go in the woods” (157). Smith's remarks on leaving the revelry behind display a similar sentiment; “It was going to be a great day,” he says as the two set off on their hike. “We were back in our element: trails” (157).

The final hiking trip provides a time for reflection and looking ahead for the two friends, and in their remarks there is a strong sense of prophecy—both about Kerouac and Snyder's future careers and America's changing attitudes about nature spurred by a new understanding of Eastern philosophy. “East'll meet West anyway,” Japhy predicts, as the Buddhist-inspired rucksack revolution spurred on by the nascent Beat Movement results in “millions of guys all over the world with rucksacks on their backs … bringing the word down to everybody” (203).

Already seeming to possess the bioregional focus characteristic of much of Gary Snyder's later work, Japhy refers to the California landscape as a place whose borders are geological and spiritual rather than political, calling it the “Pacific coast mountain and ocean land” and “the future home of the Dharma-body” (157). Ryder is even more explicit about his tribal vision of the future, as he and Smith pause to admire the California horizon—a future in which their “fine free-wheeling tribe” can inhabit the hills of California, living simply and following the enlightened path of Buddhism (201).

Ryder also lays out for Smith his future plans for a body of poetry quite unlike anything which has come before it in American literature—with sources in nature, history, the sciences, Eastern thought, and ecology—a long poem called “Rivers and Mountains without End.”12 While Japhy's plans for his own life seem clear-cut (and surprisingly accurate when one examines the later career of Gary Snyder), he remains uncertain about the long-term effects that his actions, and those of his fellow dharma bums, may have on society. Yet he remains optimistic about the consequences of his life's convictions, telling Smith, “I know somethin good's gonna come out of all this” (165). The “somethin good” Japhy points to is a distant goal, involving the replacement of post-war America's booming and wasteful capitalism with a more biocentered view of life.

Following the hiking trip, Japhy sets sail for his long period of Buddhist study in a Japanese monastery, having arranged for Smith to take over his old job as a seasonal fire lookout in the Washington Cascades. “As though Japhy's finger were pointing me the way,” Smith begins the trip north to his new job (170). His reaction to the landscape of the Pacific Northwest as he travels up the coast is described in some of the novel's most lyrical passages, and rates, in Kerouac's own view, as some of the best writing of his career (Nicosia 564). His description of the coast near Seattle, like much of the description which makes up the final section of the book, is seen in terms of Japhy's vision, and is often juxtaposed with Smith's recollections of his friend and teacher: “‘And this is Japhy's lake, and these are Japhy's mountains,’ I thought, and wished Japhy were here to see me do everything he wanted me to do” (180).

With little to do during his time as a fire lookout, Smith finds ample time for meditation, and while the final section of the novel, with its highly personal and impressionistic qualities, is somewhat ambiguous concerning the exact nature of Smith's mystical enlightenment, it is clear that the natural world is its source. At times, Smith's enlightenment seems closely related to the Zen Buddhist concept of enlightenment through “do nothing”—the emptying of the mind in an effort to return to one's original nature: “I didn't know anything any more, I didn't care, and it didn't matter, and suddenly I felt really free,” Smith says after long days meditating in the mountain landscape (188-89). But immediately following this statement, Kerouac invokes a traditional Christian symbol of salvation and regeneration as he witnesses a rainbow from his cabin window:

What is a rainbow, Lord?
                                        A hoop
          For the lonely.


This struggle between Kerouac's Catholic upbringing and his strong interest and devotion to Buddhism was a internal battle which the author waged for much of his adult life, and one which can been traced throughout his work. Attempts to reconcile the conflict between the two religious traditions are found often in Kerouac's writing—attempts which all too often failed to produce a satisfying synthesis. In a poem from the late fifties entitled “My Views on Religion,” Kerouac tries to envision a theology which can account for both religions, yet a hierarchical order imposed in the final lines of the poem seems to place Buddhism above Christianity:

Buddha is God, the Father of Jesus Christ
                              AND GOD IS GOD

(Pomes All Sizes 102)

Yet at other times, Kerouac depicted his devotion to Buddhism as secondary to his Christian beliefs—as if Buddhism and other form of Eastern philosophy had been a phase in his search for meaning which had passed. In the opening pages of Dharma Bums, Kerouac's protagonist Smith, recalls the period chronicled in the novel as the high point in his belief in Buddhism, but notes that “[s]ince then I've become a little hypocritical about my lip service [to Buddhism] and a little tired and cynical” (5).

This tension between Buddhism and Christianity has long been noted in Kerouac's writing, but what separates Kerouac's religious vision in Dharma Bums from that of many of his other works is its source in the natural world. Whatever religious tradition Ray Smith subscribes to—the homocentric worldview offered by Christian Catholicism, the more biocentric teachings of Buddhism, or some highly individualized synthesis of the two—it is clear that the raw material for his enlightenment, as well as the symbols he chooses to describe it, come from the natural setting around Mt. Desolation. Near the end of his two-month stay on the mountain, Smith describes the effects his experience in terms of metamorphosis, as he recalls:

Sixty sunsets had I seen revolve on that perpendicular hill. The vision of the freedom of eternity was mine forever. The chipmunk ran into the rocks and a butterfly came out. It was as simple as that.


It seems appropriate that the final vision that Smith should have while on the mountain would be of Japhy Ryder, the teacher that made his journey possible. Facing the end of his summer job in the mountains, and the inevitable “sadness of coming back to the cities” with “all that humanity of bars and burlesque shows and gritty love, all upside down in the void” (191), Smith conjures up the protecting image of his fellow rucksack wanderer Japhy—a final symbol of the health, salvation, and beauty to be found in nature—yelling “Go away, thieves of the mind!” (243).

Reassured by this vision of his mentor and friend, Smith heads down the mountain, “on down the trail back to this world” (192). Before departing, however, Smith offers a prayer to his surroundings as Japhy had taught him to do:

… as I was hiking down the mountain with my pack I turned and knelt on the trail and said “Thank you, shack.” Then I added “Blah,” with a little grin, because I knew that shack and that mountain would understand what that meant, and turned and went on down the trail back to this world.


As Gerald Nicosia has noted, the final seemingly nonsensical remark “Blah” offered to the landscape indicates just how personal the connection between Smith and the mountain has become. The bond transcends language and becomes one of direct communication between man and nature (563).

Kerouac's own journey “back down the trail to this world” after the period captured in Dharma Bums was permanent; never again after his rapid rise to fame following the 1957 publication of On the Road would he venture out into the wild for any extended period of time. Gary Snyder's seven year absence from the U.S. while he studied in a Japanese monastery may have been a factor. Without his hiking companion and mentor present, Kerouac may simply have lost interest in the outdoors.

Kerouac's biographers have noted an increased problem with alcohol and other drug use on the writer's part during the months following publication of On the Road, a problem which may also account for this change away from the more nature-centered mode of existence described in Dharma Bums (Nicosia 557-58). The temporary respite from the bottle offered by the natural world during this period in Kerouac's career may not have been sufficient, as the pressures brought on by his new-found fame mounted.

Kerouac's own writings may suggest yet another possible reason for the author's turn away from the natural world. In his essay, “The Vanishing American Hobo,” published in 1960 as the final piece in Lonesome Traveler, the writer talks about his own life as a traveling hobo, and notes that “The American hobo has a hard time hoboing nowadays due to the increase in police surveillance of highways, railroad yards, sea shores, river bottoms, embankments and the thousand-and-one hiding holes of the industrial night” (172). The essay laments the passing of “a definite special footwalking freedom going back to the days of Jim Bridger and Johnny Appleseed,” caused, according to Kerouac, by an increasingly intrusive urban society, and a rapidly growing police state, determined to inflict itself on those who would find sanctuary in the wilderness. Wherever the modern hobo travels, Kerouac notes, he is likely to encounter:

Great sinister tax-paid police cars (1960 models with humorless searchlights) are likely to bear down at any moment on the hobo in his idealistic lope to freedom and the hills of holy silence and holy privacy.


And then adding further:

In America camping is considered a healthy sport for Boy Scouts but a crime for mature men who have made it their vacation.—Poverty is considered a virtue among the monks of civilized nations—in America you spend the night in the calaboose if you're caught short without your vagrancy change. …


Instead of the “rucksack revolution” which the author had prophesied in 1958's Dharma Bums, a revolution which he hoped would bring American youth back into nature by the thousands, the first year of the new decade is marked from Kerouac's perspective as a final closing of the hobo's frontier, and the end of American wilderness as a Romantic sanctuary from the forces of urban civilization: “There's something strange going on,” he notes, “you can't even be alone any more in the primitive wilderness” (182). The author's only solution is grim acceptance:

As far as I'm concerned the only thing to do is to sit in a room and get drunk and give up your hoboing and your camping ambitions because there ain't a sheriff or a fire warden in any of the new fifty states who will let you cook a little meal over some burning sticks in the tule break or the hidden valley or anyplace anymore because he has nothing to do but pick on what he sees out there on the landscape moving independently of the gasoline power army police station.


The writer's final word on the subject is a bleak one; even the new state of Alaska, admitted to the union that year, is in Kerouac's view tarnished by its contact with the burgeoning police state. Faced with such overwhelming resistance, Kerouac's tone is one of utter resignation to his fate: “I have no ax to grind: I'm simply going to another world” (182).

The essay ends with a further reversal of the Romantic vision of the hobo's open road. Driven from their traditional haunts in the hobo jungles of the American countryside, the once-great legions of traveling hobos in the tradition of Whitman and Muir are reduced to a life of urban poverty as “the poor bum of the skid row” (183). The once romantic hobo has been reduced to simple homelessness and poverty. “There he sits in the doorway, back to the wall, head down,” Kerouac writes, describing this new urban variation of the hobo, who sits waiting “for the wheels of the city to roll,” but still longs for “the emerald mountains beyond the city” (183). But the powerful one sentence paragraph which ends the essay (and this collection of travel sketches) makes it clear that for Kerouac a life lived on the trail in “the emerald mountains beyond the city” was fast becoming an unobtainable dream—a dream spoiled by what he saw as the intervention of the “evil city” into the “virtuous desert.” Bitterly, he concludes:

“The woods are full of wardens”.


Less threatening, but equally disturbing for Kerouac, was the rapid extinction of the hobo's way of life as interstate superhighways criss-crossed the nation, and the middle class automobile vacation usurped the traveling hobo's right to the open road. In his 1962 novel, Big Sur, Kerouac notes that “things have changed in America, you can't get a ride anymore” when hitchhiking (44). In place of the free spirited, hitchhiking protagonist of Dharma Bums, Ray Smith, Big Sur offers the grimly cynical Jack Duluoz, who bemoans what he sees as the crass commercialization and rampant sterilization of the outdoors. Standing by the roadside, rucksack in hand, Duluoz muses on the situation of the middle class fathers who drive the family station wagons which pass him by:

But the P.T.A. has prevailed over every one of his desires by now, 1960's, it's no time for him to yearn for the Big Two Hearted River and the old sloppy pants and the string of fish in the tent, or the woodfire with bourbon at night—It's time for motels, roadside driveins, bringing napkins to the gang in the car, having the car washed before the return trip—And if he thinks he wants to explore any of the silent secret roads of America it's no go, the lady in the sneering dark glasses has now become the navigator and she sits there sneering over her previously printed blue-lined roadmap distributed by happy executives in neckties to the vacationists of America who would also wear neckties (after having come along so far) but the vacation fashion is sports shirts, long visored hats, dark glasses, pressed slacks and baby's first shoes dipped in gold dangling from the dashboard.


In the decade of the sixties, the commercialization of nature and governmental encroachment into the wilderness, similar to the kind Kerouac alludes to in “The Vanishing American Hobo,” and Big Sur would become key concerns among many American nature writers and wilderness advocates such as Gary Snyder, and especially, Edward Abbey.13 Late in his career, in his 1965 novel, Desolation Angels, Kerouac offers what may be his final statement on the fallen and compromised condition of the American wilderness. With a bitterness which outstrips even Abbey's Desert Solitaire (1968), Kerouac describes an Eden despoiled by the combined forces of government and industry:

As far as I can see and as I am concerned, this so-called Forest Service is nothing but a front, on the one hand a vague Totalitarian government effort to restrict the use of the forest to people, telling them they cant [sic] camp here or piss there, it's illegal to do this and you're allowed to do that, in the Immemorial Wilderness of Tao and the Golden Age and the Milleniums of Man—secondly it's a front for the lumber interests, the net result of the whole thing being, what with Scott Paper Tissue and such companies logging out these woods year after year with the “cooperation” of the Forest Service which boasts so proudly of the number of board feet in the whole Forest (as if I owned an inch of board altho I cant [sic] piss here or camp there) result, net, is people all over the world wiping their ass with the beautiful trees—…


Whether Kerouac's alienation from the natural world in the final years of his life was actually due to the incursion of the growing forces of commercialization and governmental authority into the wilderness, as he indicates in his later writings, or was due to other factors, such as his growing problem with alcohol, or a shift back to Catholicism from Buddhism, is uncertain. But what is clear is that for a brief period in the artist's career during the mid-1950's, nature did matter to Jack Kerouac and it occupied a central place in his fiction.

The Dharma Bums was a dramatic departure from Kerouac's major work, On the Road, but in many ways the novel's major themes are the same as the earlier book's: a quest for freedom, a quest for the self, and a search for new (and sometimes old) alternatives in post-war America. It is appropriate that Gary Snyder, the real-life counterpart of Kerouac's “great new hero of American culture” Japhy Ryder, should have the last word in this matter: “In a way,” he says, “the Beat Generation was a gathering together of all the available models and myths of freedom in America that had existed heretofore, namely Whitman, John Muir, Thoreau, and the American bum” (quoted in McLeod 491). The Dharma Bums represents Jack Kerouac's effort to place himself in this lineage, and to enter into one of the oldest of these “models and myths” in American literature: that of the writer's quest for meaning in the natural world.


  1. Late in his career, Kerouac wrote disdainfully about the excesses of the 60s counterculture in his essay “Man, Am I the Grandaddy-O of the Hippies.” The essay is reprinted, under the title “What Am I Thinking About” in Kerouac's posthumous collection The Good Blonde & Others.

  2. At least one other critic has noted the importance of the hobo in Kerouac's fiction. See Frederick Feied's No Pie in the Sky: The Hobo as American Cultural Hero in the Works of Jack London, John Dos Passos, and Jack Kerouac. New York: Citadel Press, 1964. Unfortunately, Feied does not deal with any of Kerouac's hobo sketches from Lonesome Traveler however; he limits his chapter-length discussion of Kerouac to On The Road and Dharma Bums.

  3. The poetry which Kerouac refers to here can be found in Snyder's Myths & Texts. See section 2 of “Logging,” 3-4.

  4. Among these important “firsts” at the Six Gallery Reading: Ginsberg's first reading of “Howl,” and the first public reading by Michael McClure, Philip Whalen, or Gary Snyder.

  5. Similarly, on a hiking excursion later in the novel, Ryder tells Smith “Jack London used to walk this trail” (211).

  6. Henry Morley's character is based on California poet, author and wilderness advocate John Montgomery (1919-1992), whose recollections of his days with Kerouac are contained in his books: Kerouac West Coast: A Bohemian Pilot Detailed Navigational Instructions (Fels & Firn Press 1976), Kerouac at the “Wild Boar” (Fels & Firn Press 1986), and The Kerouac We Knew (Fels & Firn Press 1987).

  7. Gary Snyder also deals with this passage from Muir, by setting the earlier author's prose into lines of poetry. See “John Muir on Mt. Ritter” (section 8 of “Burning”) in Myths & Texts, 43-44.

  8. See, for example, Ray Smith's description of the paranoia and subsequent suicide of Cody Pomeray's girlfriend Rosie in Chapter 15 of Dharma Bums, a turning point which spurs Smith “to hit the road and get out of that city of ignorance which is the modern city” (113).

  9. Despite the great emphasis placed on the subject in the novel's early reviews in the popular press, this is one of the few instances in which illicit drug use is mentioned in the novel.

  10. As Professor Yoshinobu Hakutani has kindly pointed out to me, Japhy Ryder, who earlier in the same section quotes Walt Whitman's statement about the work of the poet being to “Cheer up slaves, and horrify foreign despots …,” also seems to pay homage to Whitman in this rejection of postwar American consumerism. See Canto 2 of “Song of Myself” in which Whitman writes: “Houses and rooms are full of perfumes, the shelves are crowded with perfumes, / I breathe the fragrance myself and know it and like it, / The distillation would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let it” (188-89).

  11. In fact, Kerouac's Dharma Bums contains several early fragments of Gary Snyder's then unpublished poetry and translations, including portions of “Migration of Birds” (165) and his translation of Han Shan's “Clambering Up Cold Mountain Path” (20).

  12. Gary Snyder, Japhy's real life counterpart, pursued this epoch poem for nearly three decades, publishing sections from it on several occasions during his career before finally releasing the finished work in 1996. See: Six Sections from Mountains and Rivers without End (Four Seasons Foundation 1965) and Mountains and Rivers Without End (Counterpoint 1996).

  13. See Abbey's chapter “The Heat of Noon: Rock and Tree and Cloud” in Desert Solitaire (1968), in which he argues “[T]he wilderness should be preserved for political reasons. We may need it someday not only as a refuge from excessive industrialism but also as a refuge from authoritarian government” (130). For Abbey's comments on the commercialization of nature via the family automobile vacation, see his chapter “Polemic: Industrial Tourism and the National Parks,” also in Desert Solitaire.


Jack Kerouac Long Fiction Analysis


Kerouac, Jack (Vol. 1)