Jack Kerouac’s Visions of Gerard
By Kristin McLaughlin
Without Gerard, what would have happened to Ti Jean? – Jack Kerouac
Visions of Gerard is Kerouac’s prolonged meditation on his older, saintly brother Gerard, who died at the age of nine (Jack was four at the time) of rheumatic fever. As the cornerstone of the Dulouz legend, Visions of Gerard, along with Maggie Cassidy and Dr. Sax, deals with Kerouac’s early life in Lowell, Massachusetts. Most biographers agree that though Kerouac left Lowell after high school, he never left it emotionally. That was where his heart remained. In 1963, six years before his death, he said, “I have a recurring dream of simply walking around the deserted twilight streets of Lowell, in the mist, eager to return to every known and fabled corner. A very eerie, recurrent dream, but it always makes me happy when I wake up.”
Kerouac was born in March 1922 at 9 Lupine Road in Centralville, one of Lowell’s neighborhoods on the north side of the Merrimack River. Lowell had its hay-day during the late 19th/early 20th century when the banks of the river were crowded with textile mills. By the time Jack was born, however, Lowell was already declining as the mills began to close.
He was the third child of Leo and Gabrielle Kerouac, both French-Canadian immigrants who had met and married in Nashua, New Hampshire. Leo owned a print shop in Lowell and was “a hearty, outgoing burgher” and Gabrielle, known to everyone as Mémêre, conducted the household in a Quebecois patois known as joual. For one of the most influential American writers of the 20th century, Jack didn’t learn English until he went to school.
Kerouac’s mother played an important – perhaps unhealthily important – role in his life. He told biographer Anne Charters that his mother was the only woman he ever loved. She was devoutly Catholic, and wore religious medals attached to the strap of her slip. After Gerard’s death, she became fiercely protective of Ti Jean (as Jack was known), and that continued throughout his life. While his father seemed indifferent and occasionally hostile to organized religion and its messengers, Mémêre instilled in the Kerouac children a religious sensibility that is apparent in all of Kerouac’s writings. Religion, his mother, and his background as a child of working-class immigrants profoundly affected him, his writing, and his worldview. Though he did a lot of things that could be viewed as the antithesis of those influences, it’s clear in his writing that those influences were always there.
In Visions of Gerard, Kerouac seamlessly blends dream and reality to create a “book of sorrows.” Though evidence suggests that most of the scenes in Visions of Gerard do not stem from Kerouac’s real memories, he manages to meld his few recollections, his dreams and visions, his mother’s romanticized anecdotes and his own imaginings into a tribute to a dying brother. To Jack, Gerard really was angelic.
One story related of Gerard is that he once found a mouse in a trap that was still alive. Horrified that someone would do this to one of God’s creatures, he brought the mouse home, bandaged it up and took care of it. Before long the cat found the mouse and ate it, leaving only the tail behind. Gerard scolded the cat, but not in the mean way you would expect from a child. Instead, Gerard gives the feline a lecture that it shouldn’t harm others. Leo tries to explain to the boy that that happens in life – we eat things that are smaller than us. But Gerard wants none of it. “We’ll never go to Heaven if we go on eating each other and destroying each other like that all the time! – without thinking, without knowing.”
As stated earlier, Gerard died of rheumatic fever, an inflammatory disorder affecting the heart, joints, skin, and nervous system that can develop after a Group A streptococcal infection such as strep throat or scarlet fever. Though he was in a great deal of pain, particularly towards the end of his life, Kerouac does not put the boy’s suffering in the forefront. Gerard, in his saintliness, suffers quietly, without complaint. Despite his own pain, he brings home hungry neighborhood children for Mémêre to feed. “Unceasing compassion flows from Gerard to the world even while he groans in the very middle of his extremity.”
Gerard oversees Jack, wanting him to be good. Kerouac writes of when he stabbed a picture of a murderess on the front page of the newspaper. Gerard scolds him, like he scolded the cat, and together they patched the newspaper back together, so the picture was as good as new. Though Gerard is mostly kind to Ti Jean (except when slaps him for knocking over his erector set), there is competition. Little Jack wonders why Gerard gets fed before he does, and states, “there’s no doubt in my heart that my mother loves Gerard more than she loves me.”
The Gerard that Jack knows is otherworldly. He falls asleep in class and dreams that the Virgin Mary came to him with a white wagon pulled by two lambs. He tells his little brother about the color of God. He goes to confession where he tells the priest about a little boy whom he pushed when the child accidently knocked over something he was making. The priest asks if the boy was hurt; Gerard says no, “but I hurt his heart.” Near his death Gerard tells Ti Jean, “God put these little things on earth to see if we want to hurt them – those who don’t do it who can, are for his Heaven – those who see they can hurt, and do hurt, they’re not for his Heaven – See?” When the doctor tells the Kerouacs that it is time to call for the priest, the nuns from Gerard’s school come as well, kneeling by his bedside, asking him questions and writing down the boy’s answers. The whole portrayal is of a child who is more than a child –a child who understands something about the world and about Heaven that those around him do not. He tries to explain that “we’re all in Heaven, but we don’t know it.” Kerouac puts the religious theme in the forefront here. All of his novels are religious novels at heart, but in some of them it’s hard to discern.
Then Gerard dies. Jack runs down the street towards his father on his way home, “gleefully…yelling, ‘Gerard est mort! as thou it was some great event…I thought it had something to do with some holy transformation that would make him greater and more Gerard like…so when he wearily just said, ‘I know, Ti Pousse, I know’ I had that same feeling that I have today when I would rush and tell people the good news that Nirvana, Heaven, our salvation is Here and Now, that gloomy reaction of theirs, which I can only attribute to pitiful and so-to-be loved ignorance of mortal brains.”
After his death, the neighborhood women notice that the birds that Gerard had lovingly fed from his windowsill had gone and they did not return. “’They’re gone with him!’ Or, I’d say, ‘It was himself.’”
In 1955, shortly after the famed Six Gallery reading in San Francisco, which featured Allen Ginsberg’s performance of “Howl,” Neal Cassady left Kerouac in charge of his mentally unstable girlfriend of the moment, Natalie Jackson. Jack spent the afternoon trying to calm her manic episode with Buddhist texts, but to no avail. The next day she jumped from the window to her death. Kerouac was very disturbed by this and returned to his sister’s home in Rocky Mount, North Carolina shortly before Christmas. Of course, his mother was there too. The experiences that would fill Kerouac’s future novel, The Dharma Bums, were occurring at this time.
In January 1956, Mémêre left Rocky Mount for New York to attend a funeral. It was then, in the absence of his mother, that Kerouac sat down to write what would become Visions of Gerard. “My sister and her husband weren’t interested. They went to bed and I took over the kitchen, brewed tea and took Benzedrine. It was written by hand on the kitchen table. My sister wouldn’t let me light candles, so I used the kitchen light. You got to live with your family, you know. Mémêre wasn’t there. She went to the funeral of her step-mother in Brooklyn. If she’d been there, I wouldn’t have written it. We’d have talked all night. But that funeral reminded me of funerals, my brother’s funeral…”
At the time of writing Visions of Gerard, Kerouac was in the process of synthesizing his two religions – Catholicism and Buddhism; both are clearly represented in the novel, and Kerouac successfully harmonizes them to present his Catholic sensibility from his recently adopted Buddhist perspective. To say that Kerouac was a devout Catholic is to imply that he was a practicing Catholic, which he was not. But he continued to maintain his belief in Catholicism throughout his life. He was Catholic in his heart, and was devout in his own way. His beliefs at the time of writing the novel can probably be summed in the words he says that Gerard’s “sad eyes first foretold”: “All is well, practice Kindness, Heaven is Nigh.”
It only took Kerouac approximately fifteen days to write Visions of Gerard, though John Kingsland, who read the unedited original draft of Kerouac’s The Town and the City, stated that some of the scenes that were edited out of that first published novel are included in Visions of Gerard. On January 15, 1956, Kerouac wrote to Gary Snyder that the novel was finished. In that letter, he called the work his “best most serious sad and true book yet,” and reiterated this in letters as late as 1961, still two years before its publication. By late 1956, Kerouac had submitted the book to Viking Publishers, where Malcolm Cowley objected to its Buddhist influences; Cowley didn’t see how it related to Jack’s French-Canadian upbringing. In response to requests to revise the novel, Kerouac told his agent, “Visions of Gerard suits me as it stands. As it comes, so it flows, and that’s literature at its purest.” But by 1958, Kerouac was offering to revise the novel and substitute Catholic references for the Buddhist ones if Viking would buy the book. He really wanted the book to be published, mostly to counteract his ever-growing image as an encourager of youthful rebellion. He wrote that Visions of Gerard “is by far the wisest next book for me because of present screaming about my juvenile delinquent viciousness.”
The book, along with Big Sur, was eventually bought in January 1962 by Farrar, Straus and Cudahy for a $10,000 advance. When it was sold, Kerouac’s editor promised not to make changes to it, but it’s unclear if any changes were made between its original writing, which was done in pencil, and its final, published version. In December 1962, he wrote to his friend Philip Whalen, “I’m proofreading Visions of Gerard…[it] will be published by Fall 1963 and will be ignored I guess, or called pretentious, but who cares…” Who cares? Jack certainly did. For all the coolness of that statement, Kerouac was crushed by negative reviews, which typically not only ripped his books to shreds, but Kerouac as a person.
Visions of Gerard wasn’t exactly ignored, but the reviews were very bad indeed. The New York Herald Tribune stated that it was, “a text very much like everything else [Kerouac] has published in the past five years: slapdash, grossly sentimental, often pridefully ‘sincere’ that you can’t help question the value of sincerity itself…In someone else’s hands, it could have been moving. Even in Kerouac’s own hands, it could have been good, if only he had made writerly demands of himself. As it stands, though, it just amounts to 152 more pages of self-indulgence.” The review in the New York Times wasn’t any better: “…the clangor we hear far too often is the narrator’s jaunty, garrulous hipster yawping, and before its implacable onslaught all feeling disintegrates. It is not enough to say that the style does not evoke or intensify the emotion. It betrays and debases it. The dead boy deserved better of his eulogist.” Biographer Gerard Nicosia states that “critics seemed to be stirring for new lefthanded and underhanded ways of putting [Kerouac] down.” This further fueled Kerouac’s downward spiral – now he was not only the cause of juvenile delinquency, but he was desecrating his brother’s memory and exploiting his death.
In an October 1963 letter to friend and fellow writer John Clellon Holmes, Kerouac states, “everybody’s become so mean, so sinister, so hypocritical I can’t believe it. So I turn to drink like a lost maniac…They make me feel like never writing another word again.” So much for not caring. Kerouac’s entire identity was as a writer, and all he desired professionally was to be taken seriously. Since the publication of On the Road, he had been physically declining largely due to the notoriety it brought him. He was so self-conscious, and the press had turned him into everything he wasn’t, and didn’t want to be.
Visions of Gerard is almost a prolonged religious homily to his brother, who in his mind – and the mind of his mother – was a saint. But while this novel does have an overarching religious sensibility to it, it is a very sad tale. Jack was absolutely devoted to his brother – he worshipped him and emulated him in a way probably most boys would look up to an older brother. “For the first four years of my life, while he lived, I was not Ti Jean Dulouz, I was Gerard, the world was his face, the flower of his face, the pale stooped disposition, the heartbreakingness and the holiness.” He was extremely jealous of Gerard’s friends, and when they would come to visit the bed-ridden boy, Jack would complain to Mémêre and she would send the boys away, saying that Gerard belonged to Jack. Losing his brother appears to have been very traumatic for Kerouac – he grew frightened of the dark and often wondered how he could get into heaven to be reunited with his beloved brother. For a short time after his brother’s death, Jack even thought Gerard would return in some resurrected form, “huge and all-powerful and renewed.”
Neighborhood playmates of Gerard remember him as a normal, but sickly, kid and suggest that Kerouac largely embellished the story of his brother’s holiness. In fact, in a letter to his sister, Caroline in 1945, Kerouac admitted all he remembered of Gerard was the slap over the erector set. The myth of Gerard was most likely encouraged and reinforced by Mémêre and greatly merged with the French tradition of child-saints. It is legitimate to wonder how much Gerard’s death – and his doting mother’s reaction to it – influenced Kerouac later in life. In the same letter to Caroline, he admits feeling guilty about Gerard and that he may have been responsible for the death. But imagine Jack’s position: as a child he believed his brother was favored over him, his parents view the boy as a saint. Gerard’s piety was used as a standard against which Kerouac often measured his own life, and he failed miserably against that standard. Gerard’s death has come to be seen by researchers as a potential source of Kerouac’s torments and turmoil, and Visions of Gerard has been described as being “told from the standpoint of a man looking from the dark torrents of a raging river at an unattainable peaceful shore.” But though the boy’s death was clearly a tragedy, and served as a source of terrible guilt and anguish for Kerouac – and perhaps even was the original catalyst that eventually led to his alcoholism and death, we are also faced with the question of whether, had Gerard lived instead, Kerouac would have ever become a writer in the first place. As Kerouac asks in the novel, what would have happened to Jack without Gerard?
“The whole reason why I ever wrote at all and drew breath to bite in vain with pen and ink…because of Gerard, the idealism, Gerard the religious hero – Écrivez pour l’amour de son mort.”
 Kerouac, Jack. Visions of Gerard. New York: Penguin Group, 1991. 5.
 “Book News from Farrar, Straus, & Cudahy, Inc.” Empty Phatoms: Interviews and Encounters with Jack Kerouac. Ed. Paul Maher, Jr. New York: Thurder’s Mouth Press, 2005. 223
 Gifford, Barry and Lawrence Lee. Jack’s Book: An Oral Biography of Jack Kerouac. NY: St. Martin’s Press. 1978. 4.
 Kerouac, Jack. Letter to Gary Snyder. 15 January 1956. Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters 1940-1956. Ed. Anne Charters. New York: Penguin Group, 1995. 358-359.
 Kerouac, Jack. Visions of Gerard. New York: Penguin Group, 1991. 11.
 Ibid., 70.
 Ibid., 71.
 Kerouac, Jack. Visions of Gerard. New York: Penguin Group, 1991. 36.
 Ibid., 104.
 Ibid., 54.
 Ibid., 109-110.
 Ibid., 117
 Charters, Anne. Kerouac: A Biography. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1973. 252.
 Kerouac, Jack. Visions of Gerard. New York: Penguin Group, 1991. 6.
 Nicosia, Gerard. Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac. Berkley: University of California Press, 1983. 500
 Kerouac, Jack. Letter to Gary Snyder. 15 January 1956. Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters 1940-1956. Ed. Anne Charters. New York: Penguin Group, 1995. 358-359.
 Kerouac, Jack. Letter to Sterling Lord. 7 October 1956. Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters 1940-1956. Ed. Anne Charters. New York: Penguin Group, 1995. 589.
 Kerouac, Jack. Letter to Sterling Lord. 29 November 1958. Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters 1957-1969. Ed. Anne Charters. New York: Viking Press, 1999. 169.
 Kerouac, Jack. Letter to Philip Whalen. 13 December 1962. Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters 1957-1969. Ed. Anne Charters. New York: Viking Press, 1999. 353.
 Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters 1957-1969. Ed. Anne Charters. New York: Viking Press, 1999. 370.
 Maloff, Saul. “A Yawping at the Grave.” New York Times. 8 September 1963.
 Nicosia, Gerard. Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac. Berkley: University of California Press, 1983. 648
 Kerouac, Jack. Letter to John Clellon Holmes. 5 October 1963. Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters 1957-1969. Ed. Anne Charters. New York: Viking Press, 1999. 370.
 Kerouac, Jack. Visions of Gerard. New York: Penguin Group, 1991. 2.
 Kerouac, Jack. Visions of Gerard. New York: Penguin Group, 1991. 109.
 Kerouac, Jack. Letter to Caroline Kerouac Blake. 14 March 1945. Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters 1940-1956. Ed. Anne Charters. New York: Penguin Group, 1995. 87.
 Simpson, Emily Patricia. “Religious Turmoil: The Conflict Between Buddhism and Catholicism in Jack Kerouac’s Life and Writing.” MA Thesis. North Carolina State University, 2003. 28.
 Kerouac, Jack. Visions of Gerard. New York: Penguin Group, 1991. 112.