Kerouac, Jack 1922–1969
An American Beat novelist, Kerouac advocated a method of spontaneous writing allegedly derived from James Joyce. Kerouac was also a student of Zen. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 25-28.)
Such Zen as Kerouac picked up makes him realize, it seems, the cosmic importance of the primal elements of life: not food, clothing, shelter, sex (here [in The Dharma Bums] Kerouac's alter ego Ray Smith is less trammelled than the Zen saint, Japhy) … but a melodious phrase, a woodland bird, a rock formation, a mountain silence. Call him anti-social, infantilely regressive, a lily of the field, a sluggard grasshopper … Kerouac, with his Thoreau and Whitman genes tingling in his protoplasm, brings back in transfigured form the very thing he is taught to adjure, the very thing conventional writers have exploited beyond measure: the world of physical sensation, of touchable and seeable matter. A tree, a rock, a cloud … as Carson McCullers once indicated in a short story … these be the things. And Kerouac enfleshes the words.
Why, then, do they persecute Kerouac, these critics? Children will be children, but will not leaders come from children? They persecute Kerouac because his fictional characters do not attend Sunday School and because his stories do not have a beginning, a middle, and an end….
One presumes that the heaven set against this kind of "limbo" is the kingdom of taste, of tone, of proper form adumbrated on earth by Henry James and guarded carefully by a Petrine censor ancestor alike of the neo-Victorian moralists and the "How to Write Better" school of Rudolf Flesch. In such a resting place, free livers daring to indulge in sloth or easy virtue will suffer didactically for it, however late, and no prose will be spontaneous. Nor will birds sing.
But let us concede, for argument's sake, Kerouac to have the virtue of his defects. Do his stories, particularly The Dharma Bums, bear re-reading, when Whitman and Thoreau are available in expensive reprints? Will he endure, or may even the interdiction of his inquisitors not be strong enough to preserve him? For the present, it seems as if they do and he will. There is always the chance that a greater one will arise, however, and hymn the Open Road, the Zen way, the offbeat reply to modern decadence more melodiously, more maturely, more stalwartly, more morally, more achitectonically.
Samuel I. Bellman, "On the Mountain," in Chicago Review, Winter-Spring, 1959, pp. 68-72.
Just as Fenimore Cooper seemed unable to stop defining and thereby explaining his forest hero, Natty Bumppo (called, in various novels, Leatherstocking, Deerslayer, Hawkeye, Long Rifle, etc.), Kerouac seems equally determined to define the sensibility of the members of his own subgeneration in as many ways as he possibly can. We knew them under such guises as the Beat Generation, the Subterraneans, the Dharma Bums; and now we see them as Desolation Angels, sadly pursuing their empty futilities, grimacing with unfelt cheerfulness as they move from self-defeat to self-defeat….
Desolation Angels also explains perhaps better than the other Kerouac novels what the place of religion may have been in the Beat mystique. The "upside down" vision of the sometimes-Buddhist narrator, whose greatest hero is Jesus, demands our close attention while it also gives us sharp insights into the classic Salinger tales. The Beat theme of insanity is explored at length too, and one can only conclude that Kerouac, for all his little-boy attitudes and repetitiousness, has a great deal to say about the time when he and his cohorts should have been coming of age.
Samuel I. Bellman, "A Fevered Snowflake," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1965 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), June 12, 1965, p. 47.
In so many ways there is something essentially American about...
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