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.

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.