JACK KEROUAC is hardly an unfamiliar literary figure. In his lifetime he published seventeen books; several others have been published since his death. His best-known book, On the Road, has been translated into a score of languages. Kerouac has also been the subject of a number of biographies. The Portable Jack Kerouac and the first volume of Selected Letters, both edited by Ann Charters, were published in 1995. Also in 1995 a major scholarly conference devoted to Kerouac was held at New York University, signaling his full ascension to academic respectability. Kerouac's words and image appear in advertisements for cars and clothing. As the novelist William S. Burroughs observed, "Kerouac opened a million coffee bars and sold a million pairs of Levi's to both sexes."
But if Kerouac is not unfamiliar, he may nevertheless be underknown. Much of what he wrote has never been published. Indeed, much of what he wrote has been seen and read by only a handful of people. These unpublished materials, including letters, notebooks, and a voluminous diary that he started at the age of fourteen, are lodged in a bank vault in Kerouac's home town, Lowell, Massachusetts. In recent years the Kerouac estate has authorized the publication of a small portion of these writings. Now the great bulk of them has been turned over to the historian Douglas Brinkley. Brinkley plans during the next several years to produce, for Viking Press, a multi-volume edition of the Kerouac diaries and, based in part on this unpublished material, a new biography of Kerouac. With the excerpts and commentary that follow, Brinkley presents a preview of what the Kerouac archives offer—new insights into Kerouac's method of writing, his politics, his friendships, and the deepest preoccupations of a man who was, to say the least, deeply preoccupied.
by Douglas Brinkley
BORN on March 12, 1922, the youngest of three children in a French-Canadian family that had established itself in Lowell, Massachusetts, Jack Kerouac was by the age of ten already aiming to become a writer. His father ran a print shop and published a local newsletter called The Spotlight. Young Jack learned about layout at an early age in an atmosphere made intoxicating by the smell of printer's ink. Before long he began writing and producing his own sports sheet, which he sold to friends and acquaintances in Lowell. He attended both Catholic and public schools, and won athletic scholarships to the Horace Mann prep school (in New York) and then to Columbia University. In New York he fell in with fellow literary-icons-to-be Allen Ginsberg, the poet, and William S. Burroughs, the novelist. A broken leg hobbled his college football career, and Kerouac quit Columbia in his sophomore year, eventually joining the merchant marine and then the Navy (from which he was discharged). Thus began the restless wandering that would characterize both his legacy and his life.
To Kerouac, "Beat"—a shorthand term for "beatitude" and the idea that the downtrodden are saintly—was not about politics but about spirituality and art. The thirty published and unpublished books he wrote from 1941 to 1969 include Kerouac's thirteen-volume, more or less autobiographical "Legend of Duluoz"—a study of a particular lifetime, his own, in the manner of Honoré de Balzac's Human Comedy or Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past.
Kerouac set out to become the quintessential literary myth-maker of postwar America, creating his "Legend of Duluoz" by spinning poetic tall tales about his adventures. "I promise I shall never give up, and that I'll die yelling and laughing," Kerouac wrote in his diary in 1949. "And that until then I'll rush around this world I insist is holy and pull at everyone's lapel and make them confess to me and to all." At a time when Norman Mailer was playing sociologist by studying "White Negro" hipsters, Kerouac sought to depict his fascinatingly inchoate friend Neal Cassady as the modern-day equivalent of the Wild West legends Jim Bridger, Pecos Bill, and Jesse James. Like the Lowell boy he never quite ceased to be, Kerouac saw football players and range-worn cowboys as the paragons of the true America; his diaries teem with references to "folk heroes" and praise for Zane Grey's honest drifters, Herman Melville's confidence men, and Babe Ruth's feats on the diamond and in the barroom. Kerouac brought Cassady into the American mythical pantheon as "that mad Ahab at the wheel," compelling others to join his roaring drive across Walt Whitman's patchwork Promised Land.
While gathering material for On the Road, criss-crossing America, Kerouac stopped in the eastern Montana town of Miles City. Soon Kerouac had one of his many epiphanies. "In a drugstore window I saw a book on sale—so beautiful!" he wrote in his diary. "'Yellowstone Red,' a story of a man in the early days of the valley, & his tribulations & triumphs. Is this not better reading in Miles City than the Iliad?—their own epic?" Kerouac was intent on creating his own Yellowstone Red story—but in a modern context, where existential jazz players and lost highway speedsters would be celebrated as the new vagabond saints.
The protagonists of On the Road—Cassady as Dean Moriarty and Kerouac himself as Sal Paradise—were intended as the automobile-age equivalents of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. "Beyond the glittery street was darkness and beyond the darkness the West," Kerouac wrote. "I had to go." Kerouac saw himself as the F. Scott Fitzgerald of the avant-garde circus that was the Beat culture, populated by whores, swindlers, hipsters, horn players, hobos, and charlatans. Oddly, though, Kerouac, owing to a childhood car accident in Vermont, was afraid of cars. "[I] don't know how to drive," he admitted, "just typewrite."
Given his infatuation with the spontaneity of jazz, it is not surprising that Kerouac preferred the image of a natural-born, wild-eyed Rimbaud-like genius to that of a careful cobbler of words such as John O'Hara. But Kerouac was a fastidious, old-fashioned craftsman. For every day he spent "on the road" during his lifetime, gathering material, he toiled for a month in solitude—sketching, polishing, and typing his various novels, prayers, poems, and reflections.
Often in the midst of writing Kerouac would take breaks and draw pietàs in his diaries, accompanied by psalms asking the Lamb of God to fill every sinner's heart. As even casual readers know, Kerouac was drawn to both Western and Eastern religious traditions, and his meditations are pervasive in his work. During the 1950s, when he was composing Wake Up, his biography of the Buddha, and Some of the Dharma, Kerouac spent months in libraries poring over Buddhist writings. He inspired Allen Ginsberg to embrace Buddhism; Ginsberg went on to become a founder of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, at the Naropa Institute (the only accredited Buddhist college in the United States). Kerouac's faith in the idea of the holy outcast, which animated his vision of Neal Cassady in On the Road and of Gary Snyder in The Dharma Bums, has found resonance across generations. Characteristically, Kerouac was deeply irritated by the spread of a pop Buddhism for which he was in part responsible.
Kerouac eventually sought to pull away from his Beat friends. "Allen never loses track of me even when I try to hide," he complained before his second book, On the Road, was published. Ginsberg may have reveled in New York fame, but the shy Kerouac instead became more introspective and more inclined to spend time with his mother, Gabrielle, a dominant influence in his life. Gabrielle proved reluctant even to allow Ginsberg into the house. In fact, at one point she sent Ginsberg a letter threatening to report him to the FBI for engaging in anti-American activities. She also wrote angry letters to William S. Burroughs. "My God!" Burroughs concluded. "She really has him sewed up like an incision."
Just how disenchanted Kerouac eventually became with Ginsberg (as he became to a lesser extent with Burroughs) can be seen in a decision he made in 1964 when he was broke and couldn't afford to put a headstone on his sister Nin's grave in Orlando: he turned down an invitation to appear in a film with Ginsberg for which he would have been paid $3,000. Similarly, when Nanda Pivano, an Italian translator of American literature, wrote Kerouac asking permission to include him in a Beat poetry anthology, Kerouac refused. "What these bozos and their friends are up to now is simply the last act in their original adoption and betrayal of any truly 'beat' credo," he wrote. "Now that we're all getting to be middleaged I can see that they're just frustrated hysterical provocateurs and attention-seekers with nothing on their mind but rancor towards 'America' and the life of ordinary people. They have never written about ordinary people with any love, you may have noticed. I still admire them of course, for their technical excellence as poets, as I admire Genet and Burroughs for their technical excellence as prose writers, but all four of them belong to the 'keep-me-out-of-the-picture' department and that's the way I want it from now on." As the 1960s progressed, Kerouac could not understand how Ginsberg could flash the peace sign and pronounce the imminent "fall of America" while ignoring, as Kerouac saw it, mass murders by China's Mao Zedong, a brute worse than Stalin. "Genet and Burroughs do not offend half as much, because they are metaphysically hopeless," Kerouac continued in his letter to Pivano, "but Ginsberg and [the poet Gregory] Corso are ignorant enough to be metaphysically healthy and want to use art as a racket."
In February of 1968 Kerouac received the news that Neal Cassady had died, just short of his forty-second birthday, alongside some railroad tracks near San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Kerouac himself would be dead within two years, at forty-seven, of complications resulting from alcoholism. In the aftermath of the publication of On the Road, and the onslaught of fame, Kerouac had written to Cassady to report, "Everything exploded." It was an apt assessment.
The excerpts from the Kerouac archive were available online for the month of November, 1998, only.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to email@example.com.