Discussion Topics

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How does Jack Kerouac’s evocation of “the road” differ from Whitman’s of “the open road”?

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In what ways did On the Road anticipate the cultural preoccupations of the 1960’s?

Were the most important literary influences on Kerouac traditional ones or writers of his time?

What did Kerouac learn from the people he called “bums”?

How does Kerouac convey the character of Dean Moriarty in On the Road? What traits in this character, based on his friend Neal Cassady, did he most admire?

Other literary forms

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In addition to his novels, Jack Kerouac (KEHR-uh-wak) published Mexico City Blues (1959), a poetry collection intended to imitate the techniques of jazz soloists. Several poetry collections were published posthumously, including Scattered Poems (1971), Old Angel Midnight (1976), Book of Blues (1995), and Book of Haikus (2003). Book of Sketches, prose poems Kerouac wrote in 1952 and 1953, was published in 2006. His nonfiction prose includes The Scripture of the Golden Eternity (1960), a homemade sutra written to Gary Snyder; Book of Dreams (1961, revised 2001), brief narratives recording his dreams; and travel sketches in Lonesome Traveler (1960) and the somewhat fictionalized Satori in Paris (1966). Good Blonde, and Others (1993) gathers a number of his previously uncollected writings. Atop an Underwood: Early Stories and Writings (1999) includes more than sixty previously unpublished early works. Two volumes of Kerouac’s correspondence, Selected Letters, 1940-1956 and Selected Letters, 1957-1969, edited by Ann Charters, were published in 1995 and 1999, respectively, and Windblown World: The Journals of Jack Kerouac, 1947-1954, edited by Douglas Brinkley, was published in 2004.

Achievements

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When On the Road was published in 1957, many critics initially condemned Jack Kerouac as an incoherent, unstructured, and unsound writer and the prophet of a meaningless movement. Since then, Kerouac’s books and life have continued to draw interest, and in the twenty-first century his works have found a wide audience, especially among young readers. Some of the qualities for which he has been criticized—wildness, sensationalism, idiosyncratic form, unconventional enthusiasms—have been sources of charm for other commentators. Kerouac’s writings have been described on one hand as pessimistic and bizarre and on the other hand as optimistic and fresh.

Prior to Kerouac’s public emergence as the emblem of the Beat movement, however, Robert Giroux at Harcourt Brace accepted his first novel, The Town and the City, in 1949, and the eminent editor Malcolm Cowley introduced On the Road to the Viking Press in 1953 after it had been turned down by Ace, Harcourt Brace, and Little, Brown. The respectability that On the Road has gained is evidenced by the novel’s appearance in excerpt form in The Norton Anthology of American Literature, its publication as a casebook in the Viking Critical Library series, and its centrality to the five Road novels (with The Dharma Bums, The Subterraneans, Tristessa, and Lonesome Traveler) issued by the Library of America in 2008.

Kerouac’s unofficial and unwanted title of King of the Beats brought him a great deal of the publicity he shunned, while reflecting the myths and legend about him that have continued to grow in the decades after his death. As with other aspects of Kerouac’s life and works, there was little agreement about what a “beat” was. Amid the various accounts of the origin of the term, Kerouac is said to have told John Clellon Holmes, “You know, this is really a beat generation,” possibly using the slang meaning beaten down or exhausted. For Kerouac, who is often credited with the invention of the term, “beat” could also mean “beatific”—holy and compassionate—but in different contexts, he offered complementary ideas about what the term might mean. Interviewed by Mike Wallace on television, Kerouac declared that the Beats did not fear death and that they wanted to lose themselves as Christ had advised. In Pageant magazine, he wrote that the Beats believed that honesty and freedom would lead to a vision of a God of Ecstasy. In a public forum, Kerouac declared that America was changing for the better and warned those who wanted to spit on the Beat generation that the wind would blow the spit back on them. Mass-media writers and a shallow television series developed the image of the bearded “beatnik” who wore sweatshirts and jeans, played bongo drums, never bathed, and used the word “like” as a ubiquitous conjunction. Even though these stereotyped beatniks were a far cry from the intellectual, artistically inclined, creative Beats, they became associated with them in the public eye.

Although Kerouac’s public image endangered his critical reception, by the late twentieth century serious critics recognized him as a powerful and talented writer. His work, in accordance with his intentions, can be seen as a kind of personal narrative cycle written with, as Allen Ginsberg put it in the dedication to Howl (1956), “spontaneous bop prosody”—each novel a separate chapter in what Kerouac thought of as “The Duluoz Legend,” the term he used to describe his long fiction in a letter to Cowley as On the Road neared publication, and which he regarded from the 1950’s as his “continual lifework.”

Bibliography

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Amburn, Ellis. Subterranean Kerouac: The Hidden Life of Jack Kerouac. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998. A fascinating biography by one of Kerouac’s editors, showing how his ambivalent feelings about his sexuality influenced his work. Includes detailed notes and bibliography.

Amram, David. OffBeat: Collaborating with Kerouac. Thunder’s Mouth, 2002. This memoir by a member of the Beat circle sheds a friendly light on Kerouac. An engaging account of a fascinating generation.

Cassady, Carolyn. Heart Beat: My Life with Jack and Neal. Berkeley, Calif.: Creative Arts, 1976. Chronicles Cassady’s relationship with Kerouac from 1952 through 1953 and the ménage à trois between the Cassadys and Kerouac. Reprinted here are letters of Allen Ginsberg, Kerouac, Neal Cassady, and Carolyn Cassady.

Cassady, Carolyn. Off the Road: My Years with Cassady, Kerouac, and Ginsberg. New York: William Morrow, 1990. A personal account, with many anecdotes and recollections written from Carolyn Cassady’s perspective. Important for its inside view of the Beat movement.

Charters, Ann. Kerouac. 1974. Reprint. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987. A sympathetic biographical interpretation of his life and work.

Clark, Tom. Kerouac’s Last Word: Jack Kerouac in Escapade. Sudbury, Mass.: Water Row Press, 1986. A somewhat expressionistic interpretation, but good analytical material. With a supplement of three articles by Kerouac.

French, Warren G. Jack Kerouac. Boston: Twayne, 1986. A standard biography from Twayne’s United States Authors series.

Giamo, Ben. Kerouac, the Word and the Way: Prose Artist as Spiritual Quester. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2000. A study of the Beat poet’s Catholicism-infused Buddhism and his search for enlightenment.

Johnson, Joyce. Minor Characters. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983. An account of Kerouac’s life from a very involved, close perspective.

Knight, Arthur, and Kit Knight, eds. Kerouac and the Beats: A Primary Sourcebook. New York: Paragon House, 1988. A useful resource.

Lardas, John. The Bop Apocalypse: The Religious Visions of Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001. A study of the spiritualism of the Beats.

McNally, Dennis. Desolate Angel: Jack Kerouac, the Beat Generation, and America. New York: Random House, 1979. A well-researched and generally sensitive biography which uses the materials of Kerouac’s own books as well as comments by his friends to present Kerouac’s life.

Nicosia, Gerald. Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac. New York: Grove Press, 1983. A comprehensive, biographical account of Kerouac’s life. Highly regarded for background information on Kerouac and the process of his writing.

Turner, Steve. Angelheaded Hipster: A Life of Jack Kerouac. New York: Viking, 1996. Not as authoritative as Amburn, but copiously illustrated and with anecdotes that help illuminate the novels.

Tytell, John. Naked Angels: The Lives and Literature of the Beat Generation. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1976. An excellent appraisal of Kerouac’s writing in the context of his cultural milieu.

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Critical Essays