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 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...
(The entire section is 4,468 words.)