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77 North Washington Street Douglas Brinkley WHEN the distinguished historian Stephen E. Ambrose -- biographer of Eisenhower and Nixon, chronicler of Lewis and Clark -- needed a replacement for himself as the director of The Eisenhower Center for American Studies, at the University of New Orleans, he chose an energetic young historian whose achievements already resembled the product of several lifetimes. Douglas Brinkley, thirty-three at the time of his selection, in 1994, had produced book-length studies of Theodore Roosevelt, Dean Acheson, James Forrestal, and Jean Monnet, even as he taught at Princeton, Hofstra, and the U.S. Naval Academy. His pace since then has only accelerated. Brinkley serves as a contributing editor to Newsweek, as a poetry commentator for National Public Radio, and as the director of the Rosa Parks and Jimmy Carter Oral History Projects. His newest book is the American Heritage History of the United States, which will be published this month.

Brinkley's contribution to this issue -- a presentation of unpublished selections from Jack Kerouac's letters and notebooks -- reflects yet another facet: his deep interest in American popular culture, and particularly in road literature. Brinkley is immersed in a literary study of road books and is the editor of the letters of the gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson (the first volume of which, The Proud Highway, was published last year). Brinkley sees Kerouac as both struggling victim and prophetic analyst of a modern media culture whose postwar emergence parallels Kerouac's own. "It was Jack Kerouac's great misfortune," Brinkley observes, "to walk into the buzz saw of America's burgeoning celebrity marketplace, which erupted during the Eisenhower era. With On the Road, Kerouac became television's first literary star. Marilyn Monroe could have been speaking for Kerouac when she complained, 'A sex symbol becomes a thing. I hate being a thing.'" Kerouac, of course, could speak for himself, and then some. He wrote to Allen Ginsberg in 1958, "Fame and fortune is a crock in America."

Brinkley is currently preparing a multi-volume edition of Jack Kerouac's notebooks and diaries, a vast trove dating back to the author's early teens. Kerouac discarded nothing, filed everything. "I don't know if it's a curse or a blessing," Brinkley says. Brinkley is also writing a biography of Kerouac, which is planned for publication in 2002.


Photograph by Jeffrey W. Hornstein

Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; November 1998; 77 North Washington Street; Volume 282, No. 5; page 6.

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