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

Kerouac didn't deserve Truman Capote's famous dismissal to the effect that his work wasn't writing but typing—or at least he didn't deserve to have the remark stick the way it has. But clever putdowns tend to stick if there's any truth in them at all, and it's simply true that Kerouac's theory of spontaneous prose is often easier to respect than his practice of it. Kerouac did not believe that just any sort of "automatic" writing was automatically literature. He thought that the making of true spontaneous prose was more difficult and demanding than ordinary writing accomplished through a process of revision. Like a jazz musician or a silk painter, the true spontaneous-prose artist had to be utterly "present" during the act of creation, completely in the moment, and had only one chance to get it right. Kerouac saw writing as a performing art, and a grueling one, requiring arduous compositional marathons and habits of mind cultivated by long practice. Having had his athletic career cut short, he pursued writing in an athletic way, often spending twelve or more hours nonstop at the typewriter, using long rolls of teletype paper so that he could write uninterrupted.

Like any athlete or performer, he would have on days and off days, and the trick was to maximize the on days. Most writers deny that they have ever written a single word in any condition other than stone-cold sobriety. At least some of them are lying. Kerouac always admitted that he wrote while he was high. Selected Letters confirms that he rarely wrote fiction except under the influence of one substance or another—Benzedrine, marijuana, or alcohol in his early years, mostly alcohol later on. For Kerouac, literal intoxication provided both the physical rush that propelled him through his long writing sessions and the freedom from his censorious self—his internalization of his clannish, Old World family and particularly of his mother, the ever-present "Mémère."

Before substance abuse destroyed Kerouac's body, it disfigured his undeniable literary talent by fueling a growing delusion that anything he composed during his orgiastic pleasure trips at the typewriter was worth the attention of the reading public. His writing often gleams with sharp turns of phrase, off-kilter perceptions, and the well-remembered detail of strange adventures, but just as often it devolves into a shaggy-dog story. Since subjecting his work to revision would damage its authenticity, it went out the way it was. Naturally, editors kept rejecting it with lectures about "craft" that infuriated Kerouac, who would then go drink some more and take it out on the typewriter again.

It's particularly ironic, therefore, that the book we know as On the Road, Kerouac's most famous and most accomplished work, wasn't written "spontaneously." Renditions of the Kerouac myth rarely mention that although he did write the original version of On the Road in one burst on his legendary teletype paper rolls, he re-wrote and recast it many times in the seven or eight years before it was published.

KEROUAC couldn't have wished for a better editor than his fiction and letters have now found in Ann Charters, who also published the first—and still the most widely read—biography of him in 1973, only four years after his death. Charters once worked closely with Kerouac, in 1966, when she was preparing the first annotated bibliography of his work. She knows the material as well as anybody, yet she possesses a scholarly detachment that is absent in most Kerouac fans. The Portable Kerouac is without question the single best introduction to his work. For those already familiar with some of Kerouac's books and interested in the man who wrote them, Selected Letters: 1940-1956, arranged chronologically with headnotes by Charters, will be a revelation.

The Portable confers upon Kerouac the literary legitimacy he so craved. (He thought that a Viking Portable edition of his work would be a grand idea, and mentioned it to friends a number of times.) It does not fulfill his ultimate publishing fantasy, however: a uniform edition of all his mature work, to be issued as The Duluoz Legend. That title is drawn from the name Jack Duluoz—Kerouac's preferred pseudonym, though he did not use it in On the Road, The Dharma Bums (1958),or The Subterraneans (1958),his three best-known books. As he wrote in the introduction to Big Sur (1962), "My work comprises one vast book like Proust's except that my remembrances are written on the run instead of afterwards in a sick bed." He says "remembrances" not only to echo Proust but also because early in his career Kerouac had ceased to think of himself as a fiction writer per se. In 1950 he wrote to Neal Cassady, "I have renounced fiction and fear. There is nothing to do but write the truth. There is no other reason to write." Like prose that had been subjected to revision, invented characters and drama seemed inauthentic to Kerouac. And so he wrote what he called "true story novels"—books in which the events had really happened to real people. For legal reasons Kerouac's many publishers insisted on a variety of name changes, along with altered geography and character traits. Thus William Burroughs appears as Old Bull Lee in On the Road, Frank Carmody in The Subterraneans, Bull Hubbard in Desolation Angels (1965), and so on. The real-life events of The Subterraneans occurred in New York, but the book is set in San Francisco.

However, The Portable's bird's-eye view of Kerouac's career belies rather than affirms the claim that he wrote "one vast book." His novels don't even come close to working as a unified project, and the comparison to Proust must be seen as wishful thinking, or grandiose boast, or just plain delusion. Kerouac was simply not disciplined enough to execute the grand scheme of a multi-volume work of fictional memoir that coherently depicted an artist's entire life.

THOUGH Kerouac always retained the ambition to work with the large canvas of America as a whole, he was a thoroughly apolitical person. His model of social reality was the family—his literal family, with whom he lived at least half of every year, or various substitutes for it. Over and over in his letters we see him fantasizing about some communal venture with his friends, some way of creating a new familial situation for himself, though he walked out of two marriages because he found them confining. He repeatedly proposed the idea of a working farm or ranch to Neal and Carolyn Cassady, and in 1956, when Buddhism was his passion and the poet Gary Snyder was his friend, the two men talked about founding a monastery, or "zendo," where American "bhikkus" (wandering monks) could stay—conversations dramatized in the novel The Dharma Bums. But these were always esoteric collectives in Kerouac's mind—families as clannish as his real family, havens for the initiated, not brotherhoods open to just anyone. Kerouac deplored it when the life led by Snyder and friends in California's Marin County in the mid-1950s, a life rhapsodized in The Dharma Bums, became the mass phenomenon of the counterculture in the 1960s.

And Kerouac was most certainly not ready to meet society as a whole when it turned collectively to peer at him. After wishing so hard for fame, and enduring nearly a decade of publishers' rejections, he became famous overnight on September 5, 1957, when Gilbert Millstein, of The New York Times, greeted On the Road with a rave review. A "major novel," Millstein called it, "the most beautifully executed, the clearest and most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as 'beat,' and whose principal avatar he is." Millstein predicted Kerouac's place in literary history by writing, "Just as, more than any other novel of the Twenties, The Sun Also Rises came to be regarded as the testament of the Lost Generation, so it seems certain that On the Road will come to be known as that of the Beat Generation."

Millstein had previously given attention to Beat writing in The New York Times, and he was known to be sympathetic. Few other reviews of On the Road welcomed it in such glowing terms. Indeed, a few days later the Sunday New York Times ran another review of the novel, by David Dempsey, that took a much different tone. Dempsey acknowledged that the book was good storytelling, but he was scandalized by Kerouac's failure to take a moral position on the drug use, casual sex, and general outlaw attitude of the marginal characters depicted in the book. Some reviewers compared the novel favorably to the work of well-known writers as disparate as Wolfe, Whitman, and Henry Miller, but many commentators thought it encouraged corrupt, depraved behavior among the restless young.

Kerouac always embodied profound contradictions, and his sense of his own work was no exception. He knew perfectly well that On the Road's subject matter—the underground life of hip wanderers—would be its appeal to the public, but he seems not to have anticipated any moral controversy, or that the mass media would seize upon him personally as "King of the Beats." In terms of personal morality, Kerouac was a rather old-fashioned man who loved wine, women, and song, and sometimes carried prayer cards in his wallet. He knew he was the hitchhiking stranger looking into middle-class homes lit by blue TV light, yet he was deeply sentimental about family, and somehow failed to grasp just how far his daily life had drifted from typical middle-class American experience.

The public controversy boosted book sales even as it turned Kerouac's fame into infamy, and soon he had become the last thing he was prepared to be: the public spokesman for the Beat Generation. As an artist, he didn't want to be part of a mass phenomenon—he wanted to be special. He wanted to be seen as a great writer, not as the cartoon embodiment of a rebel generation out for kicks, though he fed that image with cocky behavior and drinking binges. He wasn't king of anything, and he knew it, but he didn't know how to say no to all the people who wanted to get drunk or stoned or into bed with the hippest writer around, the one-man wild party. Perhaps worst of all, Kerouac was not prepared to see the literary establishment echo the fear and ridicule of the popular press; most highbrow journals dismissed both his prose and his subject matter, dashing his dream of legitimized artistic glory.

The Portable and Selected Letters show that had Kerouac possessed more self-confidence and character, had he not been so terribly weak in the flesh, he might have left behind an unassailably great body of work. Without question he had the mysterious combination of qualities it takes to make an important writer. He was enormously, and strangely, talented. He wrote the original draft of On the Road in a week, The Dharma Bums in twelve days, The Subterraneans in three —that last an achievement that staggered even Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, themselves no strangers to orgiastic writing sessions. His gushed, spouted, roman-candle novels have reached many people and been admired for many years.

But like good intentions, being talented and even reaching many people aren't everything. F. Scott Fitzgerald, to take that example again, was a far more disciplined artist than Kerouac, infinitely more confident of himself in general society, yet he was gone at the age of forty-four, three years shy of Kerouac's ripe old forty-seven. If you really want to write, or to create any art, booze and dope will mess you up, though they might provide energy and inspiration at first. Running from your own identity will mess you up too, as will the attempt to meld yourself with every strong personality you encounter—another problem Fitzgerald and Kerouac shared. In the end, no matter how we read Jack Kerouac's work, we read his life as a cautionary tale.

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