Life & Liberty: Jack Kerouac, American
When I pass to and fro, different latitudes, different seasons, beholding the crowds of the great cities, New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Chicago, St. Louis, San Francisco, New Orleans, Baltimore—when I mix with these interminable swarms of alert, turbulent, good-natured, independent citizens, mechanicks, clerks, young persons—at the idea of this mass of men, so fresh and free, so loving and so proud, a singular awe falls upon me. I feel, with dejection and amazement, that among our geniuses and talented writers or speakers, few or none have yet really spoken to this people, created a single image-making work for them, or absorb'd the central spirit and the idiosyncrasies which are theirs—and which, thus, in highest ranges, so far remain entirely uncelebrated, unexpress'd.
—Walt Whitman, Democratic Vistas, 1871
Whitman's despair was premature and perhaps unfounded—for 16 years earlier he had published an earthy, rapturous book of poems titled Leaves of Grass that was to serve as a touchstone for all who wished to explore the American soul. And just 14 years after the elegiac Democratic Vistas, Mark Twain set a runaway slave named Jim and a runaway boy named Huck Finn on a raft down the Mississippi River, creating an enormously resonant image that has since served generations of American writers (and filmmakers): the journey in search of freedom—and its frequent consequence, self-discovery—played out against the backdrop of this vast and wondrous continent.
But Walt Whitman's lament was a common refrain in the 19th century. It sprung from the conviction, ragged today but still right, that there was a distinct American character: open, raw, free, democratic, exuberant, virile. And just as the colonies had declared political independence from Europe, with her accursed monarchies, despotisms, and aristocracies, so too should the American writer reject the chains and shackles of the Old World. New England clergyman William Ellery Channing admonished his countrymen: "It were better to have no literature, than form ourselves unresistingly on a foreign one.…A country, like an individual, has dignity and power only in proportion as it is self-formed."
All of which brings us to yet another decennial observance. Not, this time, of some epic battle or ephemeral peace treaty. Rather, this year we commemorate a book and an author who answered Old Whitman's fervent prayers. For 1987 marks the 30th anniversary of the publication of Jack Kerouac's novel On the Road, perhaps the most ecstatic celebration of America ever written.
Kerouac's life is happy proof that the writer need not be an effete observer of life; he can live it with gusto. Born in 1922 into a devoutly Catholic French-Canadian family in the grimy old mill town of Lowell, Massachusetts, young Jack's boyhood was devoted to that venerable trio—football, girls, and writing.
Yet this dashing, hard-drinking football star adopted early in life a starkly simple, childlike moral philosophy from his saintly older brother Ti Gerard, who died at age nine: "Never hurt any living being, all living beings whether it's just a little cat or squirrel or whatever, all are going to heaven straight into God's snowy arms so never hurt anything and if you see anybody hurt anything stop them as best you can." Now this might sound mawkish or wimpy, even to the modem Phil Donahue man, but to Kerouac it was no joke. He remained, till his dying day, that holy incongruity: a rugged pacifist.
Jack the nonviolent running back set off, football scholarship in hand, for Columbia University, where a broken leg promptly ended his athletic career. So he resolved, instead, to become "a great writer like Thomas Wolfe," and he soon fell in with a crowd of defiantly unkempt poets and wildmen who were to turn the staid, musty literary world on its ear.
Kerouac and his new friends, most notably the poet Allen Ginsberg, called themselves "Beats." San Francisco "humorist" Herb Caen renamed them "beatniks," a term the passionately anticommunist Kerouac disavowed for its Soviet-stooge connotations. But the moniker caught on, fanned by sensationalist news coverage, and by the mid-'50s a new ha-ha cultural stock figure was born—the Beatnik, a sullen, goateed artiste with a black beret and a spacey girlfriend who recites, in monotone, bad poetry blaming Dad and Mom for the atom bomb.
That image was a lie, lived only by the fools who gather like June bugs whenever the fickle spotlight of the media illumines the latest Movement of the Day. Kerouac took pains to distance himself from the faddists—a difficult task, since the precise meaning of Beat was always unclear. Some claimed that it meant liberation from the conformity and cultural straitjacket of the postwar era; others took it as affirmation of the wisdom of bums and hobos and other "beat down" rascals. The Catholic Kerouac sometimes asserted that Beat was the shortened form of beatitude, a state of blessed happiness and cheerful acceptance of earthly suffering.
Whatever definition one prefers, the transcendent goal of the Beat movement was to revive American literature by infusing it with the rambunctious spirit that is peculiar to this land. Their model was Whitman; their method, an obsessively personal prose and poetry that was proudly, ebulliently native American. As Kerouac later wrote: "Like my grandfather America was invested with wild self-believing individuality and this had begun to disappear around the end of World War II with so many great guys dead…when suddenly it began to emerge again, the hipsters began to appear gliding around saying, 'Crazy, man.'"
The Beats called their method of writing "spontaneous bop prosody." The critic Seymour Krim describes it well:
"The bulk of highbrow young writers Kerouac's own age were strangling themselves, he believed, with grueling and ultrasober notions of 'wit,' 'tension,' 'density,' and 'complexity' in writing.…All this seemed falsely over-intellectual and forced to Kerouac and his band of guerrillas. Writing, they thought, loses all of its value to the individual if it has to be put through such a grotesquely convoluted process.…Thus Kerouac's 'rhythm writing'—no censoring, no rationalizing, no tampering with the flow—was a most dramatic counterpart to the kind of statically intellectual work he felt was slowing down the literary scene. He wanted to tear open all the vents of being and let the actual thought at the moment it was conceived drop upon the page without apology."
Kerouac's prose, as you can imagine, is manic, frantic, joyously uninhibited. The purpose of his writing was to squeeze his soul out onto each page, to give voice to "the unspeakable visions of the individual." The result is long hyper-energetic sentence-paragraphs that carry the reader like a runaway train:
"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 and in the middle you see the blue center light pop and everybody goes, 'Awww!'"
The mad yellow roman candle who inspired that ejaculation was Kerouac's pal Neal Cassady, a strapping Kirk Douglas look-alike who seemed to the Beats to be some sort of cowboy apotheosis: born in the back seat of a jalopy in Salt Lake City, Cassady dazzled his friends with his expansive and generous nature, hell-bent lifestyle, voracious appetite for conversation, and prodigious sexual feats, leading Kerouac to immortalize him as the character Dean Moriarty in On the Road.
Has there ever been a character as breathless as Dean Moriarty? He enters the bookish New York world of Kerouac alter ego Sal Paradise on page one, fresh out of reform school, babbling nonstop about Nietzsche and fast cars and the meaning of life, and leads Paradise and his friends on a series of wild cross-continental trips. Moriarty's reckless enthusiasm for life infects Paradise with the wanderlust, not as an expression of aimlessness but because there's just so damn much to see and feel in this country.
What is mundane and dreary to so many sad folks is, to Moriarty and his pupil Paradise, pure joy. A trip to the corner store becomes occasion for epiphany, a revelation of how rich and sweet our lives can be. Paradise walks into a Nebraska diner, haggard and hungry, and meets euphoria:
"I heard a great laugh, the greatest laugh in the world, and here came this rawhide old-timer Nebraska farmer with a bunch of other boys into the diner; you could hear his raspy cries clear across the plains, across the whole gray world of that day. Everybody else laughed with him. He didn't have a care in the world and had the hugest regard for everybody. I said to myself, Wham, listen to that man laugh. That's the West, here I am in the West.…It was the spirit of the West sitting right next to me. I wished I knew his whole raw life and what the hell he'd been doing all these years besides laughing and yelling like that. Whooee, I told my soul."
That passage is typical of the book—a yelping, loving ode to America. The cowboy deity Moriarty enters Paradise's gray world, helps him to dig the spirit of the West, then takes his leave, walking, alone, into the dark American night. (In a later book, Visions of Cody, Kerouac's canonization of Cassady is fully realized.)
Kerouac wrote On the Road on Benzedrine and booze over a three-week period in 1951. It was rejected by publisher after publisher, until in 1957 Viking took a chance on the now-despondent, penniless King of the Beats. The day after its publication, the New York Times featured an effusive review by Gilbert Millstein, calling the book's appearance "a historic occasion." Fame and, for a time, fortune, followed.
On the Road, together with Allen Ginsberg's poem "Howl," was a stunning reassertion of the raw and revolutionary character of American literature. Many of the day's finest young writers, like Norman Mailer, recognized kindred spirits and rallied round the Beats. But the establishment mounted a counterattack.
'That's not writing," whined Truman Capote of Kerouac's work, "that's typing." Harsher still was the egregious Norman Podhoretz, now editor of the grim right-wing monthly Commentary, then an avowed social-climbing literary critic. In a venomous 1958 essay in Esquire, Podhoretz measured the Beats with ludicrous overstatement: "We are witnessing a revolt of all the forces hostile to civilization itself—a movement of brute stupidity that is trying to take over the country." (This little essay, in addition to warning "the guardians of our civilization" that the Beat barbarians were at the door, included nasty and pretentious attacks on James Dean and Elvis Presley.)
And what if the Beats had taken over the country? Most shunned politics, unlike their patron saint Whitman, who began his career as a militantly free-trade newspaper editorialist allied with the laissez-faire wing of the Jacksonian movement, the Loco Focos. But to the Beats, politics was just so…soulless. The duty of the public man, after all, is to put reins on wild, self-believing individuals. There is no room in the Young Socialist League or the College Republicans for the Ti Gerards or the Dean Moriartys of this world.
Kerouac's faith reposed not in political hacks but in his beloved America, the land from which he had drawn his voice. Writer Jack McClintock sketches the gentle patriotism of a man supposedly "hostile to civilization itself':
"Kerouac told us once of a party of Ken Kesey's in New York, at which Ginsberg came up and wrapped Jack's shoulders with an American flag—with obvious satiric intent.
"'So I took it [he showed how he took it, and the movements were tender] and I folded it up the way you're supposed to, and I put it on the back of the sofa. The flag is not a rag.'"
A couple of years after that party, on October 21, 1969, Jack Kerouac died. The pressures of sudden fame had sapped his spirit and driven him off the road long ago. By the end of his life he was a bloated alcoholic, living in Florida with his wife and adoring mother.
Kerouac had published 19 books, relaying with varying degrees of success the unspeakable visions of one individual. His finest book, On the Road, has taken its place with The Great Gatsby, Huck Finn, and a handful of others in the canon of great American novels. Kerouac's body lies in a small Catholic cemetery in Lowell. His epitaph reads, "He Honored Life," and he did.
Bill Kauffman is Washington Editor of REASON.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Life & Liberty: Jack Kerouac, American".