Kerouac, Jack 1922–1969
Kerouac was an American novelist and poet. Along with Ginsberg, Burroughs, and others, he was an original member of the group which, in the middle 1940s, became the Beat movement. Kerouac's own work was an effort to "invent a new prose," specifically American, which was to reflect in its spontaneity and formlessness the vastness and beauty of this country. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 5, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 25-28.)
With each passing book Jack Kerouac begins to come down to earth a little more, to reveal what he's made of and allow for some practical judgments. There has been such a gossip campaign about our so-called wild man, the King of the Beats, that ordinarily serious literary people have come to assume a fighting stance (either for or against) that has little to do with Kerouac's actual performance….
[Ray Smith in The Dharma Bums] adds mountain-climbing and meditation to the typical Kerouacian staple of batting madly around the country. In a sense, this book is gentler and less pretentious than both On the Road and The Subterraneans; Kerouac-Smith is in a more thoughtful and introspective mood than previously, and spends much time by himself digging the beauties and possibilities of nature. A genuine pastoral charm can be found in the Bums, and it is quite refreshing until it becomes overdone. But although this new facet of Kerouac's sensitivity has been seized upon by some conventional critics who couldn't see what all the fuss was about before, Kerouac's sensuous response to nature should not be hoisted high as proof that he is a good boy after all, wholesome and bracketable. (p. 359)
The most widely quoted reviews of On The Road compared Kerouac to Thomas Wolfe as a rolling, roaring, all-American type of prose bard. As his writing … tumbles out into book form …, we can see that this original comparison was misleading. Kerouac does not have the classic verbal equipment or majesty of Wolfe at his best, and anyone who goes to his books looking for the same thrilling bombast won't find it. As a handler of words, Kerouac is often careless and slangy, the language often dripping colorlessly into an undifferentiated puddle. And in this latest book we see that the writing is thin as well, with none of the rotundity or resonance that the Wolfe-Whitman comparisons implied.
I think it is illuminating to poke into his actual prose itself because so much hazy misinformation has found its way into the press concerning it. The most interesting writing of Kerouac's three recent books can be found in The Subterraneans, where the sentences are thick, clotted, almost unreadable in their fidelity to what the "I" experiences, down to the most hair-fine detail. I have been told that this is the only one of Kerouac's books that has not been edited; and it shows in the final tediousness of the writing and, more importantly, in the attempt on Kerouac's part to tell all about his painful affair with a young colored girl. It is a strong and vivid piece of writing, one that stays in the mind like a burr, but it also points up the recklessness of his method of composition and, probably, his entire philosophy. This is important, I think, because Kerouac's virtues and excesses are yoked very tightly, almost inseparably, together. (pp. 359-60)
Thus I believe that Kerouac, by throwing over the literary restraints, has succeeded in letting some of the real experience of our decade escape into his pages in crude, free-swinging, even shapeless form. Unlike most...
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of his contemporaries, who haven't been spared a similar life, Kerouac doesn't apologize for his pursuit of pleasure; he refuses to look down on his experience or to measure it against any ideal. He is determined simply to find joy in his life, even at extravagant cost and risk.
What sets Kerouac apart from the "writer writers," and makes his voice carry despite its comparative frailty and childishness, is that he has the courage to put down the unaccustomed rhythm and details of the frantic modern scene exactly the way he's lived it. This may not be a literary achievement which will survive beyond the present. But can we be sure what will? (p. 360)
Seymour Krim, "King of the Beats," in Commonweal (copyright © 1959 Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.; reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), Vol. LXIX, No. 14, January 2, 1959, pp. 359-60.
Kerouac's sound starts up in his first novel, The Town and the City, and anyone who grew up with or remembers the sentimental music of the 1930s will recognize what he is doing. The New England nights and days of his childhood and youth are orchestrated with slow violins, to which sound the children whose lives he chronicles are stirred into awareness as the stars dip down and slow breezes sweep along diminishing strings towards soft music on a farther shore. It is the considerable achievement of the novel that Kerouac is able to sustain the note of profound sentimentality his style conveys even as he is tracing, with remorseless intelligence, the downfall of the New England family…. (p. 65)
The jazz is in the continuity in which each episode [in On the Road] tells a separate story—variations on the holiness theme. And it is in the remarkably flexible style as Kerouac improvises within each episode seeking to adjust his sound to the resonance of the given moment. Some moments come through tinged with the earlier Town and City sentimentality. Others rock and sock …, the sentences jerking about like muscles on an overwrought face. Still others are curiously quiescent, calm. And the melody which unifies the whole and lifts the cockeyed star up into the jazz sky is the holiness of life because this for Kerouac is the meaning of words, the inside of his sound…. To read On the Road with attention to the variations Kerouac achieves is to realize something of the very impressive talent for meshing his sound with the strongly-felt rhythms of many and various moments. It is not possible to compare him very closely with other stylists of note because his fiction is the first in which jazz is a dominant influence. (p. 69)
[The Subterraneans] is written with the driving but hungup rhythms of a hurrying man who is also, always, alas, looking back over his shoulder…. A failure of love by reason of deep fissuring guilts emerges from the depths on the rush but not exactly on the wings of Kerouac's spontaneous Bop style. As Percepied says, 'I'm the Bop writer.' As one might expect, the spontaneity falters in a good many pages. Yet I do not doubt that the method does permit Kerouac to tap his imagination in spontaneous ways. Nor do I doubt but that The Subterraneans is his most important novel and a very important one indeed. (pp. 70-1)
The easiest way to approach The Dharma Bums—the truth bums—is to imagine an exceptionally talented musician trying out a new instrument in an interested but nonetheless very tentative way. The instrument is Zen Buddhism, American fashion. The novel is full of hummed songs, muttered chants, self-conversations carried on in railroad yards, on beaches, in groves of trees, in the mountains. The half-embarrassed, half-serious mutterer is Ray Smith, Zen amateur, and the style which Kerouac floats through the novel is part of an obvious attempt to adjust the practices, the flavour, the attitudes of Zen to an American sensibility. (p. 71)
It is … significant that in the opening paragraph [of the novel] Smith travels past the place where the 'king and founder of the Bop generation', the jazzman Charlie Parker, 'went crazy and got well again'. Kerouac might be hinting at the strain of writing eleven books in six years and about the need for a temporary so-long to jazz, hello to Zen. But the hello is most tentative. To put the very best construction on the novel, always advisable when dealing with a versatile writing talent, is to read it as a kind of primer of Zen experience…. [If] the Zen attitude is consistent with Kerouac's own, it is nonetheless apparent that the meditative world in which this attitude is best cultivated hasn't much affinity with his essentially nervous and agile sensibility. Unsustained by the driving intensities which make On the Road and The Subterraneans swing, The Dharma Bums frequently goes flat. There are dull scenes, mechanical passages. If there is one superb mountain-climbing episode, that is less because Zen catches hold for Kerouac, more because the mountain does. Certainly, representation of the final trip to the Northwest, where the protagonist attempts to live in the Zen way on Desolation Peak, is so sketchy as to amount to a default. And it is here that one touches upon Kerouac's limitations.
In The Dharma Bums distinctly and in his other novels in less evident ways, one becomes aware of Kerouac's receptive, his essentially feminine sensibility. Sensibility, I repeat. This receptivity is certainly his main strength as artist, accounting as it does for his capacity to assimilate the rhythms, the sounds, the life-feel of experience into his representation. When Kerouac is at his best he is able to register and project the American resonance with ease and accuracy. But on the related, weaker side of the coin, he has only a limited ability to project this sound up to heights, down to depths. Moments of climax, of revelation, of crisis, the very moments which deserve the fullest representation, frequently receive only sparse representation. The climactic Mexican journey in On the Road suffers from this limitation. Beginning with the madcap afternoon in the Mexican whore house, followed by the night-time sojourn in the jungle, the creation-day morning in the mountains, and subsequent arrival in Mexico City, the hipster Zion, where marihuana cascades like manna into the streets, the entire sequence is as brilliantly conceived as any in recent fiction. But representation in these scenes which show Moriarity's life sweeping up to climax, is sparse, fleeting, even sketchy. No reader will be convinced that Moriarity, the true traveler, has made it to a mountain-peak of our present moment from which creation-day is glimpsed. Nor will any reader be convinced that Ray Smith has gained access to the Zen Way in his mountain fastness.
Yet I do not think that this defect traces so much to want of creative force, though that is what it appears to be, as to Kerouac's almost animal suspicion of the meaning values toward which words tend. When his fictions converge toward meanings something vital in him flinches back. His sound is primarily a life sound, sensitive to the indwelling qualities of things, the life they bear. To be Beat is to be wary of moving such a sound into the meaning clutter. It might become lost, the life. So Kerouac draws back. Which is his limitation.
But also his strength. For in the jazz world of the Bop generation where Charlie Parker is king and founder, Jack Kerouac in a different medium is heir apparent…. [His] emphasis upon a from-under sound made spontaneous by adherence to the jazz principle of improvision is right for our time, I think. The jazz vernacular is just that, a vernacular, and Kerouac has demonstrated that it can be transposed into fiction without serious loss of the spontaneous imaginative freedom which has made it among the most vital of the modern arts.
Although Kerouac's art is limited, I am convinced that his sound is more nearly in the American grain than that of any writer since Fitzgerald. The efforts of his outcast protagonists to get life into their lives seem more closely related to our actual moment than those of any since Jay Gatsby, similar across worlds of difference, tried to shoot the North American moon. Gatsby failed and finished like a sad swan, floating dead on the surface of a pool. And Kerouac's protagonists fail too…. Fitzgerald's efforts got lost in the personal, national, and international chaos from which he summoned Gatsby into presence. But it was only after his energies lost coherence that Fitzgerald woke up in the ruins of that dark midnight of the soul where it is always three o'clock in the morning. Kerouac starts in with the dark midnight and it is his effort to bring his protagonists through the jazz of that night, naked, into something like a new day. He fails too. The moment, NOW, which is the only promised land, shrugs off [his protagonists] Moriarity, Percepied, and Smith, shrugs off Kerouac too. Outcasts they began and end as outcasts. But very distinctly Kerouac's protagonists press more sharply close to the truth about our present moment than have fictional protagonists for many years. And that's a help. And very distinctly he has created new ground of possibility for fiction to stand upon with renewed life. And that's a help. (pp. 71-4)
Warren Tallman, "Kerouac's Sound," in The Tamarack Review, No. 11, Spring, 1959, pp. 58-74.
[Central] to Beat writers, though little noticed, is the desperate flight from lower middle class life and its culture of anxiety. The unredeemable horrors of petit bourgeois meanness and restriction combine, as also in Céline's Death on the Installment Plan, with dissociated child fantasy, savage forbodings, and strange moments of tenderness. This characterizes most of the Beat confessions. Kerouac's lyrical-ruminative documentaries of his anxious wanderjahrs—On the Road (1958), The Dharma Bums (1959), the travel sketches not masquerading as fiction such as The Lonesome Traveller (1960) and his later imitations of his earlier work (such as Big Sur)—depend essentially on the softness of the child in flight from a petty order. This is not only the guilty-ecstatic adolescent romanticism and its poignant muddle (and its artistic correlative of the inability to realize character and scene other than in ragged detail and forced private mood—in the Thomas Wolfe manner) but the yearning for the return to innocence, both of the self and the American order. Identifying his wanderings with the quest for freedom, from that of Zen monks and American hobos through the prophetic outcasts ("Jesus was a strange hobo who walked on water"), hardly modifies the personal pathos.
Kerouac touches at moments on the existential intensity and profundity of the traditional wanderer: the defiant separateness, the sharp moral comment of a life denuded of surplus, the suspension of time by those wedded to motion, and the outcast's brilliant perceptions of most of what passes for humane order and meaning. But childishness usually takes over. On looking at the lights in the night, Kerouac comments: "I wish I was a little child in a crib in a little ranch style sweet house." In similar forlorn need, and incisive prose, he describes "kid dreams," juvenile ideas and adolescent tastes. As he notes of his "gang" of rather over-aged "boys," "We sorta wander around like children." The ideal is to return to "the happy life of childhood again." The style corresponds, with inflated and run-on sentences (perhaps an attempt to give a literally breathless heightening) and cute expletives ("comfy," "heavenly," "raving great," "glady," and the catatonic "Wow!"). The insights show similar quality, it being a great revelation of Kerouac that everybody walks around with a "dirty behind," or that most people are "crazy," or that buddies are "great," or that America is a "nutty" place. Of course there is a rather burbling charm about intensifying the commonplace, such as eating a hot dog or hungering for home. LIFE is unalterably "sad" or "fun," we are regularly told. Recurrent paranoid episodes, the guilty sexual fears, the eager and then disillusioned identifications with more manly or purposive buddies, and a constant anxious inadequacy block any more incisive ordering of experience. Yet intermittently Kerouac's kid-world, as heightened by a series of trips across America in the late 40s and middle 50s, opens into some suggestive responsiveness of a rebel on the road, junior division.
Kerouac's aesthetic, if such we can call a widespread quasi-art ideology of salvational self-expression, claims rebellion against intellectualized literature and thought. This generally comes out as free-associational confession but also, as with Ginsberg, includes efforts to "spiritualize" the flight from American lower middle class sensibility. While the material of On the Road mostly consists of some of the history of the coterie which became publicly identified as the Beat Generation, the novel attempts something more. Focusing on a touchingly flamboyant psychopath, Dean Moriarity (the late Neal Cassidy), it presents him as profound wanderer and "HOLY GOOF," the wild pilgrim. To achieve romantic apotheosis in an otherwise blandly repressive society, Kerouac exalts a delinquent intensity, an amoral posture and personality without much specific content. Awe, more adolescent than sacred, covers "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 roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes 'Awww!'"
The fireworks hardly light up the intellectual and social vagueness, any more than do the temporary Buddhist trappings put on in Dharma Bums. There the hero-narrator is the outdoors American boy turned contemplative, with Japhy (Gary Snyder) providing Kerouac's pattern for a religious-therapeutic summer in the mountains and woods. The mystagoguery, and an excess of reportage on fatuous Bohemianism in the Bay Area, muddle an interesting larger theme—a call for a style of "rucksack wanderers," "Dharma bums," American Don Quixotes of tenderness who refuse to be imprisoned in a system of pointless work, forced consumption, and control by the "Master Switch" in a wired-up civilization. That moving ideal is still with us, still a leading edge of the "youth culture" in its perceptive disaffiliation and poignant vagary.
The interest of Kerouac's writings is mostly documentary. Sometimes they give apt details, hardly ever developed, about the American scene, when not obscured by "real straight talk about souls." (pp. 160-62)
On the Road ends with a frenzied journey in Mexico with glimpses of what is taken to be a more real and primordial life; Dharma Bums ends with the trip down Desolation Mountain with glimpses of what is taken to be a primal therapy and spiritual transformation. Somewhere on those journeys, the author hopes, he has rediscovered life as it has eternally been, and will be again after the "Apocalypse" willful and arbitrary and mad American civilization is inevitably creating.
In spite of the childishness of much of the writing and thinking, Kerouac's yearning flights show us something about the American scene of the time with its harshly alienating places and lavishly fraudulent order and forlornly dissociated young. The "road is life," we are told with typical sententiousness and repetition of an old American metaphor, but it leads to both a vaguely visionary sense of a different life, "the ragged and ecstatic joy of pure being," and a "senseless nightmare road," in which even an inadequate sensibility recognizes our existential failures and foresees the collapse of the old culture. (pp. 162-63)
The soft rebellion in sensibility of a Kerouac, the All-American boy as Beat cynosure of the spiritual vagrant, melts away. Jack Kerouac went on in the 60s to mere idiosyncratic legendizing of himself (books about his own ancestry and dreams) and further pathetic withdrawal. The literature, like the figure, seems mostly symptomatic. (p. 163)
Kingsley Widmer, "The Beat in the Rise of the Populist Culture," in The Fifties: Fiction, Poetry, Drama, edited by Warren French (copyright © 1970 by Warren French), Everett/Edwards, Inc., 1970, pp. 155-73.
Kerouac was the first writer I ever met who heard his own writing, who listened to his own sentences as if they were musical, rhythmical constructions, and who could follow the sequence of sentences that make up the paragraph as if he were listening to a little jazz riff….
[He] would model sentences on the choruses, on the particular squiggly little "dadadadadadaduhdada"—"As I was goin' walkin' down to Larimar" of "Lester Leaps In" is "dadada dadadada dadada, dadadadadadada dadada, dadadadada dada dadada, dadaadadaydyadadda." So it was a definite rhythmical squiggle that he was hearing when he was writing his prose sentences, a funny body rhythm, a breathing rhythm and a speech rhythm that he was conscious of writing when he was writing prose. So he added a dimension to prose which most prosateurs have not yet actually discovered exists or is necessary for epic or historical prose.
Kerouac got to be a great poet on that basis, 'cause he could hear American speech, and he could hear it in musical sequence. (p. 152)
Allen Ginsberg, "Kerouac" (originally a lecture delivered at Kent State University on April 6, 1971), in his Allen Verbatim: Lectures on Poetry, Politics, Consciousness, edited by Gordon Ball, (copyright © 1974 by Allen Ginsberg; with permission of McGraw Hill Book Co.), McGraw-Hill, 1974, pp. 151-60.
[Kerouac's novels], taken together, exemplify a change of consciousness so subversive to prevailing American values and institutions and so attractive, at least within a decade, to millions of Americans that all defenders of the Establishment felt compelled to shout them out of existence. Kerouac's novels are more readily summarized than Ginsberg's poetry or the Beats' innovations in life styles, but all three manifest a rebellion against the Establishment—the goals and habits of middle-class America…. (p. 435)
On the Road, written in 1951 concerning events of the preceding four years, superficially appears to be much as the book's cover brazenly proclaims, a "wild Odyssey of two dropouts who swing across America wrecking and rioting—making it with sex, jazz, and drink as they Make the Scene."… It all seemed to be an unrestrained Whitmanesque celebration of the open road, that peculiarly American joy in moving for its own sake: "I didn't know where all this was leading," Sal once confessed: "I didn't care."…
The ambiguity of the enterprise, however, crept out almost immediately and persistently reappeared throughout the book. Sal's friends "rushed down the street together, digging everything in the early way they had, which later become so much sadder and perceptive and blank."… The innocent early pleasure repeatedly confronted the meaninglessness of such a life. Compulsively rushing across the continent, Sal could not avoid an impasse: "Here I was at the end of America—no more land—and now there was nowhere to go but back."… The trip always turned into a bummer. The somber warning of Carlo Marx (i.e., Allen Ginsberg) kept returning to haunt them: "Now I'm not trying to take your hincty sweets from you, but it seems to me that the time has come to decide what you are and what you're going to do…. The days of wrath are yet to come. The balloon won't sustain you much longer. And not only that but it's an abstract balloon."… (pp. 435-36)
Their dilemma [was] how to find the good life without falling into a whirlwind of movement…. (pp. 436-37)
On the Road, it seems to me, is not all what it first appeared to be. Rather, it is a metaphor exposing the pointlessness of American enchantment with a kind of progress that involves constant, compulsive movement, occasionally spiced with wistful notions of relaxing and enjoying life…. Having failed to understand what On the Road was saying, most Americans could scarcely be expected to follow Kerouac in his next novels. After On the Road Kerouac's audience quickly dwindled to those who were actually or potentially beat. (p. 437)
The Subterraneans picked up where On the Road left off…. The author-narrator, no longer celebrating the open road, has become desperately self-conscious and writes for therapy. The result is little more fulfilling than had been tripping On the Road. Compulsive movement had only been internalized. The sole gain appeared to be that, finally, Sal-Leo [the protagonist] recognized that compulsion, rather than movement, was the barrier to existential meaning. (pp. 437-38)
Kerouac's protagonist was now ready for beatness. In Timothy Leary's terms, Sal had dropped out, Leo had tuned in, and Ray Smith in The Dharma Bums proceeded to turn on. The unpretentious pseudonym suggested the loss of self-consciousness and his potential as Everyman…. [The characters] and their friends, mainly non-students in Berkeley, had a mission: ebulliently witnessing a new consciousness. (pp. 438-39)
J. Meredith Neil, "1955: The Beginnings of Our Times," in South Atlantic Quarterly (reprinted by permission of the Publisher; copyright 1974 by Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina), Vol. 73, No. 4, Autumn, 1974, pp. 428-44.∗
[Doctor Sax] was Kerouac's favourite book: it's easy to see why. It was much abused by the critics: it's easy to see why. Now, twenty years after its appearance in the United States, and a generation after it was written, a canonical book, this hash-brown study of the demons and angels of adolescence achieves hardback publication in Britain. For Kerouac Doctor Sax was a myth of puberty, the second chapter after Dreams of Gerard in the vast envisaged "Legend of Duluoz", the mythification of the author's life….
A literary nomad needs an origin and a promised land. Kerouac was multiply exiled: pelagic in the city the smalltown boy from Lowell, Massachusetts, where he was one of the Francophone expatriate community from Quebec, land of exiles (as it seemed then) looking back to a lost Brittany, land of miracles. It is a good pedigree for nostalgia.
Ti-Jean Kerouac's childhood was seemingly uneventful: the family moved from Pawtucketville to Centralville; meals, illnesses, devotions, baseball and ice-hockey, companions, a death, a flood. But "I was a scared kid"; there is a furious fantasy life; fumy horrors distilled from Street and Smith pulps stalk the dingy alleys. Reorganized by hindsight, they are rock gothic, Firbankian werewolves: Emilia St Claire, Boaz the Butler, Amadeus Baroque. Among them moves silently Dr Sax—who has somehow acquired the physical attributes of William Burroughs—much more than a lonely child's invisible playmate: the pilgrim of a cabalistic quest, possessor of a great secret—"He knew something that no other man knew; a something reptilian; pray, was he a man?"…
But Lowell takes its place with Winesburg, Ohio and Hannibal, Missouri in that child's America of fixed habitations, as opposed to Greyhound America, Route 66 or the Mississippi. How much the reader shares Kerouac's enjoyment depends on how he feels about the prose….
In the book's first paragraph Kerouac exhorts himself to "describe the wrinkly tar of this sidewalk … don't stop to think of words when you do stop, just stop to think of this picture better—and let your mind off yourself in the work". It is a naive prescription, and not one he had the least intention of fulfilling; but as long as he keeps the tar in focus, he carries the reader along.
Eric Korn, "Off the Road," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1977; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3919, April 22, 1977, p. 477.