November 3, 1998
In his introduction to The Atlantic's November cover story -- a series of never-before-published excerpts from the diaries and letters of Jack Kerouac -- the historian Douglas Brinkley quotes a letter Kerouac wrote in 1964 to Nando Pivano, an Italian translator who had asked permission to include Kerouac's work in an anthology of American "Beat" poetry. Kerouac refused, replying to Pivano:
What these bozos [Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso] and their friends are up to now is simply the last act in their original adoption and betrayal of any truly "beat" credo. 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 [Jean] Genet and [William] 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.It is well known, of course, that Kerouac distanced himself from his former Beat comrades Ginsberg and Burroughs after the publication of his novel On the Road (1957) and the intense media attention that he and other Beat writers received. What these excerpts from his diaries and letters reveal -- among many other things -- is just how isolated Kerouac felt he was by the mid to late 1960s (he died at age forty-seven, in 1969), and how he never gave up on his literary ambition, despite having fallen into the shadows after burning so brightly in the late 1950s and early 1960s. What Kerouac's later detachment suggests about his relationship to the original "Beat movement," and about his place in American literature, is no doubt a subject for debate. (In fact, we've created a special conference in Post & Riposte so that readers can do just that.) Was Kerouac a victim of fashion and America's post-war, mass-media celebrity culture? Was he a great but largely misunderstood writer?
In addition to the excerpts from the Kerouac archive (which will be available here on the Web for the month of November), we've also posted a number of pieces from The Atlantic's archive: an autobiographical story by Kerouac, titled "In the Ring" (March, 1968), in which Kerouac recalls childhood memories of a boxer he names Roland Bouthelier; an article by Allen Ginsberg, titled "The Great Marijuana Hoax: First Manifesto to End the Bringdown" (November, 1966), in which this godfather of the counterculture explains his position on the legal aspects, the myths, and the experience of marijuana; and a piece by William S. Burroughs, titled "The Last Words of Dutch Schultz" (June, 1969), which sketches out the story of the Jewish gangster in the form of a prospectus for a film script. (These three pieces will be available for the month of November only.) In addition, we're providing three reviews from The Atlantic: "Ladder to Nirvana," an October, 1957, review of Kerouac's On the Road, by Phoebe-Lou Adams; "The Only People For Him," Ralph Lombreglia's August, 1996, review of The Portable Kerouac and Selected Letters; and "A Modern Whitman," a 1984 review of Ginsberg's collected poems, by James Atlas.
Unlike many contemporary reviewers, Adams caught the spirit of Kerouac's novel and praised it for its energy and stylistic merits, even if she did have her reservations. "Dope, liquor, girls, jazz, and fast cars, in that order, are Dean's ladder to nirvana," Adams wrote, "and so much time is spent on them that it is hard to keep track of any larger pattern behind all the scuttling about." Nevertheless, she went on,
the novel contains a great deal of excellent writing. Mr. Kerouac has a distinctive style, part severe simplicity, part hep-cat jargon, part baroque fireworks. He uses each of these elements with a sure touch, works innumerable combinations and contrasts with them, and never slackens the speed of his narrative, which proceeds, like Dean at the wheel, at a steady hundred and ten miles an hour.Or, as Ralph Lombreglia put it in 1996:
It's been nearly forty years since the publication of On the Road hurtled [Kerouac] 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.It's as though On the Road -- with its high-speed moving picture of the post-war American margins -- bled over the line between fiction and reality. Now, Kerouac's letters and diaries will give us added insight into the writer, and all-too human being, whose life blew right past us.
Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.