Jack Kerouac Kerouac, Jack (Vol. 29) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Jack Kerouac 1922–1969

(Born Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac) American novelist and poet.

Kerouac is best known as the key figure of the artistic and cultural phenomenon of the 1950s known as the Beat Movement. The Beat Movement, which began simultaneously in Greenwich Village and San Francisco, was a reaction against the conservatism in America during the Cold War era. Other key figures in the Beat Movement included Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Neal Cassady, and William Burroughs, all of whom were close friends of Kerouac. Kerouac coined the label "Beat" as an abbreviation of "beatific," and his best known novel, On the Road (1957), is considered the manifesto of the Beat Movement. On the Road depicts the counter-culture lifestyle of the Beats, which was marked by manic travel and experimentation with sex and drugs. While On the Road stunned the public and the literary establishment when it was first published, it is now recognized as an American classic.

Kerouac's early life had a considerable impact on his fiction. His French-Canadian parents, particularly his mother, were devout Catholics, and Kerouac suffered lifelong guilt over the contradictions between his bohemian lifestyle and his own deep-rooted belief in Catholicism. Kerouac was also psychologically scarred by the death of his older brother, who was deemed a near saint by the Kerouac family and their friends. Two of Kerouac's lesser known novels, Doctor Sax (1959) and Visions of Gerard (1963), are viewed by critics as autobiographical works in which Kerouac attempted to exorcise the fear and guilt of his childhood.

Many of the friends Kerouac made during his adult life served as the basis for the characters in his novels. Novelist William Burroughs and poet Allen Ginsberg are portrayed in On the Road as Old Bull Lee and Carlo Marx. Beat poet Gary Snyder inspired Japhy Ryder, the main character in one of Kerouac's better-known novels, The Dharma Bums (1958). But undoubtedly the single most influential personality in Kerouac's circle of friends, and the main character in both On the Road and Visions of Cody (1972), was Neal Cassady. Kerouac saw the energetic, charismatic Cassady as the quintessential Beat figure and the last of a vanishing breed of American Romantic heroes. The female characters in Kerouac's novels are also largely based on the women in Kerouac's life and the lives of his friends. However, women generally assume minor roles in Kerouac's fiction. They are often depicted as the "property" of the male characters, or as purchasable commodities. Tristessa (1960), a novel which has been largely dismissed by critics, is based on Kerouac's relationship with a drug-addicted prostitute in Mexico. Maggie Cassidy (1960) was inspired by Kerouac's long, ill-fated love affair with his high school sweetheart. Tristessa and Maggie Cassidy are Kerouac's only two works in which women are central figures; Kerouac's considerable ambivalence toward women is revealed in both works.

Twenty-seven years after the publication of On the Road, critics are beginning to seriously consider Kerouac's place in con-temporary American fiction. Much of the sensationalism and subjectivity which marked early Kerouac criticism is gone. What has replaced it is traditional, scholarly critical effort. Some recent critical studies show considerable interest in Kerouac's "spontaneous prose" method, which is a variation of the "stream of consciousness" technique utilized by James Joyce. There have also been critical attempts to compare On the Road thematically with such American classics as Huckleberry Finn and The Great Gatsby. And because of his flamboyant and tragic life and career, Kerouac has been the subject of several recent critical biographies. The past speculation of whether Kerouac would merit a permanent place in contemporary American fiction has ended; he is now widely recognized, if begrudgingly by some, as an important contributor to American literature.

(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 5, 14; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed., Vols. 25-28, rev. ed. [obituary]; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 2, 16; and Dictionary of Literary Biography Documentary Series, Vol. 3.)

Robert A. Hipkiss

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The father and mother images in Kerouac indicate a strong fear of the masculine world and a concomitant Oedipal tie to the mother. This repulsion-attraction syndrome has much to do with Kerouac's lifelong preservation of the child's innocent vision as a stay against the sophisticated adult world.

In the 1950s Kerouac was haunted by a recurrent dream of a shrouded stranger tracking him through streets and across the desert. In his Book of Dreams he recounts a dream in which "my Shroud approaches—I know he'll get me … but being a kid I have great potentiality and all the world yet and left to hide in and cover with tracks—Shall I go towards the mysterious old Chalifoux woods beyond where woodstumps I was born in redmorning valleys of life hope?—or sneak back snaky into town?" The Shroud will get him. But before that fatal end, the child in the dream has time to realize the hopes of his birth. The problem is how to do so. He is torn between retreat toward birth and going onward into a corrupt adult existence (sneaking back, snaky, into town). High on marijuana and preoccupied with Buddhist thought, Kerouac had another dream in which his father comes toward him, and in this dream the father is the "Shroudy Traveller." (p. 15)

Kerouac wrote The Town and the City in the following two years, in part to atone for the wayward behavior of his youth and the disappointments he had caused his father when he dropped out of Columbia, went to sea, and refused to take a steady job. His attitude toward his father at the time was sympathetic, the feelings about their misunderstandings largely regretful, as we see them in Kerouac's treatment of Peter Martin's relationship with his father in Town and the City. In the fifties, as Kerouac alternately supported and was supported by his mother and as he kicked around more and more in the hobo-Bohemian world, he thought back over his relationships with [his father] Leo Kerouac and always returned to the same harsh truth—that his father's world would always have rejected him. The anger of that rejection, fed by memories of his father's unsympathetic attitude toward his youthful aspirations and discontents, finally found its way into the much harsher portrait of the father that we find in Vanity of Duluoz, written in the sixties in the last few years of Jack Kerouac's life. (p. 16)

[His father's death in 1946] left Jack feeling rootless. The father and mother had moved from Lowell to Ozone Park in 1943, and now the head of the family was dead. The gap between them in life became unbreachable in death. At the end of Town and the City, as Peter Martin arranges a blanket around his dying father, George Martin's last words are, "That's right, my poor little boy." In saying this the dying George seems to recognize that the young man, barely twenty-one, is not yet ready to go it alone. In Maggie Cassidy … Emil Duluoz, the father, says he is disappointed that he and his son have not been closer this year but, "ah dammit son it's a terrible thing not being able to help you but you do understand don't you God's left us all alone in our skins to fare better or worse—hah?" In Visions of Cody Kerouac remembers "the brown nights and my father ignoring me again as I now ignore my own boy—and have to, as he had to—."… In this statement it appears as though Jack is accepting the necessity of growing up privately within our own skins, the essential isolation of each individual life and its own individualized pattern of growth, but it is far more an attempt at acceptance than an actuality. (pp. 16-17)

In Visions of Gerard the father, Emil Duluoz, is an energetic man with a sense of the wrongness of things but unable to do anything about it. In Doctor Sax Jack dreams of him as "a man in a straw hat hurrying in a redbrick alley of Eternity,"… and in the 103rd Chorus of Mexico City Blues … Kerouac describes his father with his "straw hat, newspaper in pocket, / Liquor in the breath, barber shopshines, /… the image of Ignorant Man / Hurrying to his destiny which is Death / … in downtown Lowell / walking like a cardboard cut / across the lost lights…." The father is ignorant, empty, as lost in his way as the son is in his. The father escaped knowing the meaninglessness of his existence, however, by playing the game American society plays, the competitive game of business and money-grubbing, "lost in the eye to eye the game of men in America."… (pp. 17-18)

The competitive nature of his father's world is most upsetting to the young man…. In football and earlier while running track, Kerouac's Peter Martin had learned the sadness of victory in the "new dark knowledge he now half-understood—that to triumph was also to wreak havoc."… To what end the competitive struggle? Is it worth the cost in the suffering inflicted? These questions are suggested time and again in Kerouac's work. (p. 18)

To keep the adult world at bay, Kerouac retreated into childhood and sought protection from his father's Shroud by holding tight to the apron of Memère, his mother…. The mother-figure in Kerouac's stories is the symbol of life, forgiveness, and love just as the father is the specter of death and calloused striving. (pp. 18-19)

In the 237th Chorus of Mexico City Blues the author calls his mother "la terre," and says that ideal mothers like his own and Damema, mother of Buddha, obey their pure and free impulses and are champions of birth. In other words they are solidly in contact with their instincts and, being creators themselves, they respect creativity in all forms. They are, then, the ideal helpmates to the romantic, creative artists.

When Kerouac looked up his family's coat of arms in the British Museum he found the family motto: "Love, work and suffer."… Memère accepted this dictum not so much because she was a Kerouac but because she was a devout Catholic, so much so that her son says of her in Desolation Angels that in a previous lifetime she must surely have been a Head Nun. Memère is in good company. Kerouac places her faith and understanding beside those of Mozart and Blaise Pascal, who knew that man is on earth to suffer and that his vain attempts to know ideologically what is right and necessary to make a Heaven on earth are foolish, prideful sins, doomed only to make...

(The entire section is 2639 words.)

John Tytell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

More than fifteen years after its publication, On the Road still has a large and growing audience. For many, it was the book that most motivated dissatisfaction with the atmosphere of unquestioning acceptance that stifled the fifties; remarkably, despite the passage of time and its relative unpopularity among older university instructors, its audience grows, and young people especially gravitate to a force in it that seems to be propelled by the material itself, almost as if its author did not exist as an outside agency of creation.

On the Road was unprecedented both formally and thematically, but most of all in depicting an underground subculture that departed entirely from the...

(The entire section is 2012 words.)

Tim Hunt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In spite of its reputation, On the Road is best understood as a skillfully managed traditional novel. Both the manuscript history and the text itself make it clear that Kerouac's most famous book is a good deal more challenging and intricate, if less innovative, than has been generally believed. Even though the particular version that led to On the Road as published was drafted in about three weeks of typing onto a continuous roll of paper, at that point Kerouac had been working on versions of the book for two and a half years…. (p. 1)

Kerouac's later claims that he did not revise are not accurate reflections of his practice or even his theory. He revised carefully both On the...

(The entire section is 4552 words.)

Gary Lindberg

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sal Paradise, the narrator of Jack Kerouac's On the Road (1957), sees the book's central character, Dean Moriarty, as a hero in a variety of American styles—the spirit of the West, the energetic mover and doer, the cowboy, the Whitman-like enthusiast, "that mad Ahab at the wheel" compelling others at hissing, incredible speeds across the country. But the subsuming model for the Cassady legend is of the American hero as a confidence man…. (p. 266)

In Sal's usage, "con-man" is a phrase of admiration—"the holy con-man with the shining mind," "a great amorous soul such as only a con-man can have"—and the novel explores the meaning and value of a confidence man in modern American life....

(The entire section is 1047 words.)

Small Press Review

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Dear Carolyn, Letters to Carolyn Cassady] spans the decade from 1952 to 1962. The first letter, June 3, 1952, sings the praises of the cheap life in Mexico, and is loaded with amazing prices for luxuries like Filet Mignon and full of advice for Carolyn about her relationship with the man Kerouac helped make a legend…. The final letter is full of writing, his writing, Neal's writing, and laden with the disgust and discouragement that came of what he calls "being insulted by critics" and written off by his family. It contains the defiant bragadoccio with which he countered despair: "… I have written the greatest prose in America since Melville, and the greatest English prose since Joyce and William...

(The entire section is 251 words.)