Kerouac, Jack 1922–1969
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 Jack Kerouac,] in which he has increasingly developed the trick of impersonating spontaneity by bombarding the reader with a mass of deliberately confused impressions, depend on a naked and unashamed plea for "love," understanding, fellowship, and are read and enjoyed only because this pleading so answers to our psychological interest in fiction that we indulge Kerouac without knowing why we do. Nothing human is now alien to us; after all, the fellow's problem could be our problem! It is ridiculous that novels can now be sent off as quickly as they are written and published immediately afterwards in order to satisfy the hopped-up taste of people who, when they open a novel, want to feel that they are not missing a thing. The sluttishness of a society whose mass ideal seems to be unlimited consumption of all possible goods and services is the reason for the "success" of writers whose literary strategy is to paint America as an unlimited supply of sex, travel, liquor—and lonely yearners.
Alfred Kazin, "The Alone Generation," in Harper's, October, 1959, pp. 127-31.
If, in the 1960's, there is still a special something called the Beat Generation, and if it is still to be thought of as contributing to recent fiction, then one name especially, that of Jack Kerouac, must be taken as representative of its nature and work…. The Beats would not so much destroy society and its values as simply disaffiliate, and, once free, begin a quest for some reality, but one governed only by individual existence. It is in this search that the fiction of Jack Kerouac makes an intelligible place for itself in recent American writing…. The religious overtones of certain beat writing, including Kerouac's own, is genuine, not affected. The Beat Generation would settle finally for nothing less than the whole soul: whoever is not with them is against them….
The form to which Kerouac has committed himself is personal narrative, one scribbled down without correction and at high speed in a quest for the same spontaneity of expression in letters as in living. His is an affirmative attitude in which wonder and delight take the largest place, but a wonder and delight always in himself, his adventures, and his friends. Too often, perhaps, the result has been a collapse into literary sentiment or authorial self-indulgence carried to a tiresome length. At his worst he is a bore…. He writes too much about too little and is too easily enamored of his friends, his style, and his life. We get tired of his special admiration….
Rhapsody, however, is the indispensable second world of Jack Kerouac. His child-men will never have a growing-up, but they will survive in their Beatness and celebrate that which has granted them survival. They are victims, sufferers from the angular world of the squares….
Kerouac's fiction shares with much other modern writing a relapse into the world of subjective and qualitative time…. If Kerouac is an irrationalist, it is less because he opposes reason with some other faculty than because he would feel reason, given its mechanistic concept of time, to be denying itself any chance of seeing life truly. An hour is really a cluster of events, but our time-bound apprehension mistakes mensuration for reality. The latter is in events alone, and we have no choice but to base our action on immediate apprehension or intuition of events…. Kerouac founds his style upon the substance of experience, that which stands under it and constitutes its reality. Like the Zen devotee he has sometimes thought himself to be, the Beat artist seeks to clear away the debris of convention, to discover anew the reality which pattern has come to obfuscate, and so recapture the living process of art itself.
Bernard Duffey, "The Three Worlds of Jack Kerouac," in Recent American Fiction, edited by Joseph J. Waldmeir, Houghton Mifflin, 1963, pp. 175-84.
Kerouac's use of the [hobo] theme dramatized the sense of alienation of large numbers of his contemporaries. For although hoboes of the type he describes were few in number, their presence attested to the existence of a condition that was fairly widespread. They reflected a growing uneasiness in America, a gnawing sense that all was not well in the richest land in the world. Their frantic flights across country, their rootless and disaffected behavior, but above all their profound sense of disaffiliation, testified to a growing spirit of discontent. In going on the road they gave expression, in the clearest and most direct way possible, to all the repressed longings and vague dissatisfactions abroad in the populace at large.
But although Kerouac's hoboes are the forerunners of a growing movement of protest, they do not look on themselves as part of any organized effort, and the political mode is no longer the means by which that protest finds expression…. Kerouac's hoboes see society as a mad house from which escape is essential …
For Kerouac's hoboes the very act of going on the road amounts to a kind of protest, inasmuch as it represents a symbolic turning of one's back on society as constituted…. In both On The Road and The Dharma Bums this fugue, or flight, is portrayed on the realistic level as an attempt to escape from an intolerable personal or social situation, and on the symbolic level as a search for values or for inner light and understanding, a search for the road, the way to spiritual truth, in short, a search for God.
Frederick Feied, in his No Pie in the Sky: The Hobo as American Culture Hero, Citadel Press, 1964, pp. 57-61.
Now dead, Kerouac was the victim of his own restless urgings and of the deep-seated alienation he felt from the culture that created him and from the counterculture he helped create. His death, which came in the fall of 1969 wrote a sort of full stop to the Beat episode. (p. 5)
It is difficult, separated as we are by time and temper from that period, to convey the liberating effect that On the Road had on young people all over America. There was a sort of instantaneous flash of recognition that seemed to send thousands of them out into the streets, proclaiming that Kerouac had written their story, that On the Road was their book. There was such community of feeling in this response that critics began to speak with some certainty, though without much respect, of Kerouac's as the new literary generation.
Their lack of respect was probably due less to the work produced by Kerouac and his friends than to their public performances. Whether at readings, on panels, or in front of television cameras, they could always be depended upon to shock some and dismay many more. There was a sort of programmatic ruthlessness to their impudence. It was as though they had put aside any notion of revolting against the establishment and had decided merely to thumb their noses at it. (pp. 6-7)
Living on the run, writing in a rush wherever he paused to catch his breath, Kerouac passed six years [1951–57] in a kind of blur of raw experience in which time and place seem to merge. It is no wonder that the novels that came out of this period are written in the tumbled, explosive style they are. Had he not developed rationale for Spontaneous Prose, circumstances of those years on the road would probably have forced him to write exactly as he did. He was fond of claiming a continuity for his novels and once (1962) went so far as to say, "My work comprises one vast book like Proust's except that my remembrances are written on the run instead of afterwards in a sickbed." This may have been how he saw his work—and given the autobiographical nature of his writing, he could hardly see it any other way—but with the time that has passed and the subsequent novels that have appeared, it may help us to make better sense of his work if we look at it not as "one enormous comedy," as he called it, but as two.
There are the "road novels," first of all, those that in the manner of On the Road describe his travels and encounters with friends and fascinating strangers along the way and were written practically simultaneously with his experience of it all. And then, there are the "Lowell novels," the remembrances of his boyhood and youth that center, of course, in Lowell, Massachusetts, where he grew up. There are no separate phases to describe in the writing of these novels. Doctor Sax, Maggie Cassidy, and Visions of Gerard, the three Lowell novels that were written during this six-year creation burst, were shuffled in among the rest, composed in the same hectic circumstances. Yet they are distinctly different in tone and quality from the road novels; the writing in them is softer, elegiac in tone and less precisely detailed than in the road novels. And in general, the Lowell novels are not nearly as good. They lack excitement, drive, intensity, focus—all the finest qualities of Kerouac's writing; by comparison they seem verbose, somewhat bombastic, and sentimental. (pp. 77-8)
Bruce Cook, in his The Beat Generation (reprinted by permission of Charles Scribner's Sons from The Beat Generation by Bruce Cook; © 1971 Bruce Cook), Scribner's, 1971.