Kerouac, Jack (Vol. 1)

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Kerouac, Jack 1922–1969

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An American beat novelist, Kerouac was a proponent of the spontaneous method of writing. He is best known for On the Road. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 25-28.)

Probably the foremost prophet of hipsterism is Jack Kerouac, and an item of its holy writ is his novel, On the Road, which was published in the fall of 1957 and received a large measure of critical attention. Such significance as it has surely is that of one pattern of revolt against the "square" world, which may be interpreted either as the world of conformity, or simply the world of rational and responsible living. In the lexicon of Mr. Kerouac,… the two are frequently blurred or fused together…. (p. 134)

On the Road is Kerouac's Hell. Dante once took us on a tour through Hell. The difference is, that Dante knew where he was—Kerouac doesn't. (p. 154)

Edmund Fuller, in his Man in Modern Fiction: Some Minority Opinions on Contemporary American Writing (© 1958 by Edmund Fuller; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1958.

Kerouac's spontaneous bop … "prosody" is not to be confused with top language itself, which has such a limited vocabulary (Basic English is a verbal treasurehouse by comparison) that you couldn't write a note to the milkman in it, much less a novel. Kerouac, however, manages to remain true to the spirit of hipster slang while making forays into enemy territory (i.e., the English language) by his simple inability to express anything in words. The only method he has of describing an object is to summon up the same half-dozen adjectives over and over again: "greatest," "tremendous," "crazy," "mad," "wild," and perhaps one or two others. When it's more than just mad or crazy or wild, it becomes "really mad" or "really crazy" or "really wild." (All quantities in excess of three, incidentally, are subsumed under the rubric "innumerable," a word used innumerable times in On the Road but not so innumerably in The Subterraneans.) The same poverty of resources is apparent in those passages where Kerouac tries to handle a situation involving even slightly complicated feelings. His usual tactic is to run for cover behind cliché and vague signals to the reader…. Kerouac gets into trouble by pursuing "spontaneity." Strictly speaking, spontaneity is a quality of feeling, not of writing: when we call a piece of writing spontaneous, we are registering our impression that the author hit upon the right words without sweating, that no "art" and no calculation entered into the picture, that his feelings seem to have spoken themselves, seem to have sprouted a tongue at the moment of composition. Kerouac apparently thinks that spontaneity is a matter of saying whatever comes into your head, in any order you happen to feel like saying it. It isn't the right words he wants (even if he knows what they might be), but the first words, or at any rate the words that most obviously announce themselves as deriving from emotion rather than cerebration, as coming from "life" rather than "literature," from the guts rather than the brain…. Kerouac's conception of feeling is one that only a solipsist could believe in—and a solipsist, be it noted, is a man who does not relate easily to anything outside himself.

Solipsism is precisely what characterizes Kerouac's fiction. On the Road and The Subterraneans are so patently autobiographical in content that they become almost impossible to discuss as novels; if spontaneity were indeed a matter of destroying the distinction between life and literature, these books would unquestionably be It.

Norman Podhoretz, "The Know-Nothing Bohemians" (1958), in his Doings and Undoings (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1953, 1954, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1963, 1964 by Norman Podhoretz), Farrar, Straus, 1964, pp. 143-58.

[The novels of...

(The entire section contains 2170 words.)

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