The Only People for Him

In Lionel Trilling's distinction, Jack Kerouac is more than a writer; he has become a "figure" in our culture

THEY say that nothing succeeds like success, but there is one thing that can beat it, at least in arts and entertainment: success followed by self-annihilation. Thus it's slightly surprising that the mass-market rediscovery of Jack Kerouac has taken so long. It's been nearly forty years since the publication of On the Road (1957) hurtled him into instant international fame—household-word fame that he couldn't handle and gradually lost, but not before it cost him his dearest friendships, the fulfillment of his artistic promise, and most of his personal freedom in the twelve years remaining until his alcoholic death, in 1969.

Surprising, but not entirely so. At marketing meetings Kerouac is no doubt pitched as "the James Dean of American Lit.," but the real man and his work don't fit that image, any more than he fit the marketing label "King of the Beats" in the 1950s. His writing—quirky and digressive and not always easy to read, sometimes nearly impenetrable—is more of an acquired taste than publicists might wish. As to the man, he was a handsome guy who took a good photo, but he was not the charismatic figure of his legend; by all accounts he was shy, even insecure, possessed little personal glamour, and wasn't as adventurous as most of his friends. He portrayed himself honestly in his books, even in the most-often-quoted passage in all of his work—the point in On the Road when Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady) meets Carlo Marx (Allen Ginsberg):

A tremendous thing happened when Dean met Carlo Marx. Two keen minds that they are, they took to each other at the drop of a hat. Two piercing eyes glanced into two piercing eyes—the holy con-man with the shining mind, and the sorrowful poetic con-man with the dark mind that is Carlo Marx. From that moment on I saw very little of Dean, and I was a little sorry too. Their energies met head-on, I was a lout compared, I couldn't keep up with them. The whole mad swirl of everything that was to come began then; it would mix up all my friends and all I had left of my family in a big dust cloud over the American Night.... They rushed down the street together, digging everything in the early way they had, which later became so much sadder and perceptive and blank. But then they danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I've been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, 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 yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.....

Those phrases describing "the only people for me" are almost always quoted out of context. In context, one is most struck by the narrator's self-deprecation and alienation, the outsider's yearning, the fact that Kerouac never felt himself to be one of those fantastic beings he admired so deeply. Those who find out about the people who burn, burn, burn from a T-shirt inscription don't know that Sal Paradise (the character based on Kerouac) "shambled" after the "mad ones" who interested him—"a lout compared" who couldn't keep up.

Jack Kerouac But suitable for myth or not, in the marketplace Jack is back, heralded by new editions, products, and events: the two books under discussion here; a movie-in-progress of On the Road, produced by Francis Ford Coppola; museum shows on Beat culture; and even a CD-ROM—which, I should point out, I co-produced with my wife, Kate Bernhardt. Ann Charters, the editor of these two books, was a paid consultant to that CD-ROM project, a venture proposed to me by a multimedia start-up company because I was a fiction writer with an interest in computers and digital media, not because I was a Kerouac fanatic. Indeed, my not being a Kerouac fanatic was one reason I was considered a good choice for the job, and one reason I took it. Having now spent a lot of time looking into his life and career, I can report that I find Jack Kerouac to be a fascinating man, a worthy, though wildly uneven, author, and without question a problematic figure in almost every respect.

KEROUAC was born in 1922 into a French-Canadian working-class family in the mill city of Lowell, Massachusetts, where his first language was a Canadian dialect of French. He didn't speak English until he was six or seven years old. Later in life he would cite the French mold of his mind to account for his literary uniqueness, a claim more credible than many other claims he made about himself. While growing up, he possessed a natural, nearly classical balance of mind and body, and his destiny was influenced by the eventual loss of that balance. A bookish, imaginative boy and a prep-school football star combined, he won a sports scholarship to Columbia University but broke his leg in one of the first games of his freshman year and sat out the rest of the season. The hiatus intensified a latent animosity between Kerouac and the Columbia football coach, and the following year Kerouac, whose leg had fully healed, quit the team. Though it was capricious and at least partly self-imposed, the end of his formal athletic career was nonetheless a crucial factor in Kerouac's destiny, because the inability to use his body in a publicly heroic way robbed him of half his self-definition.

He soon encountered Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs in New York, and mental excitement came to dominate his life. He felt himself to be part of an important artistic vanguard, and to fuel his intense immersions in the twin landscapes of Manhattan and his imagination, he began to take large amounts of Benzedrine, using the typical hipster technique of breaking open over-the-counter nasal inhalers to get at the drug-soaked inserts. While still in his twenties he was hospitalized for serious phlebitis of the legs brought on by that particular substance abuse. Many writers and artists have been addicted to alcohol or drugs, but Kerouac underwent one of the more striking personal deteriorations in the world of American literature, surpassing even the decline of F. Scott Fitzgerald. The person he had been in college was almost unrecognizable in the wreck he was by his early forties.

Readers with a vague romantic notion of Kerouac as an artistic rebel and hitchhiking hero of the open road will be surprised to learn that he had a fragile, tenuous sense of his own identity. One of his most prescient observations about himself comes early in Selected Letters. Kerouac, twenty-one years old, was in a psychiatric unit undergoing observation after refusing to take orders during his brief stint in the Navy—an instance of his lifelong aversion to institutional authority. To his boyhood friend George Apostolos, back in Lowell, he wrote, "It is the price I pay for having a malleable personality. It assumes the necessary shape when in contact with any other personality." Later in life his relationships with Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and Gary Snyder all reflected to some degree his tendency to follow after and try to merge himself with people he admired. Though he chose the "lonesome traveler" life, Kerouac did not like to be alone. Yet nothing he did could repair his essential aloneness. He yearned to publish his first novel, The Town and the City, but after he did so, he wrote in a 1949 letter to the writer Alan Harrington,

I am no longer "beat," I have money, a career. I am more alone than when I "lurked" on Times Square at 4 A.M., or hitch-hiked penniless down the highways of the night. It's strange. And yet I was never a "rebel," only a happy, sheepish imbecile, open-hearted & silly with joys. And so I remain.

MANY aspects of Kerouac's real life were obscured by his fame and are not widely appreciated, including his intellectual seriousness as a young man and his commitment to becoming an influential literary artist. Mark Van Doren, one of his professors at Columbia, noticed Kerouac's literary bent and keen insight into Shakespeare. In fact, it was Van Doren who recommended The Town and the City to the publisher Robert Giroux. Kerouac had written this long, rambling book in the late 1940s, while he was a member of the group that included Burroughs and Ginsberg, but the novel was quite conventional, nearly a homage to the literary hero of his youth, Thomas Wolfe. Even while writing The Town and the City, Kerouac began to lose interest in that sort of literature, and once the 1,000-page manuscript was out of his system, he began to look for a new "method" of writing.

Finding a way to release his authentic voice became the great artistic project of Kerouac's life. In 1945, even before he began the first novel, he wrote to Ginsberg, "Until I find a way to unleash the inner life in an art-method, nothing about me will be clear." It would take Kerouac until the early 1950s to find that method—uncensored, improvisational "spontaneous prose," inspired by his beloved bebop jazz. As he wrote to the critic and editor Malcolm Cowley:

The requirements for prose & verse are the same, i.e. blow—What a man most wishes to hide, revise, and un-say, is precisely what Literature is waiting and bleeding for— ....

Cowley got On the Road published in 1957, but he had been prepared to champion it in 1953. On the Road wasn't published in 1953 simply because Kerouac didn't believe in revision and refused to listen to Cowley's misgivings about the novel's dramatic redundancy and lack of "control." And though Kerouac understood that Cowley was asking him to "get it over the plate," he couldn't respect the advice enough to take it. Ginsberg, who in 1953 was functioning as a literary agent for both Kerouac and William Burroughs, also had misgivings about Kerouac's self-indulgence in the manuscript, and called him a "holy fool" for rejecting editors' opinions and thus keeping his books unpublished. Kerouac was enraged by the criticism, and angrily broke with Ginsberg for a time because of it. But two years later, in May of 1955, Kerouac wrote to Ginsberg,

Well today I wrapped up a 10,000 word short story called "cityCityCITY" and sent it to Cowley asking him to figure someplace to send it and recommend it too if he wants and suddenly in a P S I admitted I'd been a fool early 1953 refusing to publish ON THE ROAD with him. Allen do you realize if I had published then, by now I'd have been in the money all this time, would have traveled to Europe, Tangiers, and maybe India or even China and Japan and would have probably published [the novel Doctor Sax] and also written great new works obtaining from inspirations of travel.... Now I suppose Cowley may laugh at me.... I suppose he figures I'm big underground martyr hero ready to spend life unpublished like Grieg and Tashcaikowsky [sic], crying in the dark.

Had Kerouac been less arrogant with Cowley in 1953, he might have gained more than just traveling money and new experiences. He might have had a different destiny. For we see from his letters that Kerouac's addictive behavior intensified most damagingly during those crucial years of disappointment and rejection, and his social persona became brittle with the defensiveness and guilt that ruined his friendships.

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