Archives For dean moriarty

Reconsidering Jack Kerouac a Half-Century Later

Not many prose writers alive (Céline, Genet, a few others) would dare the freedom and intelligence to trust their own minds, remember they made that jump, not censor it but  write it down and discover its beauty. That’s what I look for in K’s prose. He’s gone very far out in discovering (or remembering, or transcribing) the perfect patterns that his own mind makes, and trusting them, and seeing their importance – to rhythm, to imagery, to the very structure of the “novel.”

– Allen Ginsberg, Village Voice (1958) Continue Reading…

Mark Murphy/ Bop for Kerouac

“I want to be considered a jazz poet . . .” i

Don’t miss Mark Murphy’s 1981 recording “Bop for Kerouac.”ii
Jack loved jazz and wanted to be known as a jazz poet. Highly-acclaimed American jazz vocalist Mark Murphy will take you for a luxurious spin with this beautiful recording, a rich tribute to Kerouac and the music he adored. It’s gorgeous jazz—silky smooth and pure as a pure jazz singer or a pure man jazz poet—and Murphy puts Jack’s writings to splendid use with his eloquent vocals. All you need to do is listen, and he’ll do the rest with his vocalese. If you enjoy good music, and classic Kerouac, you will enjoy this sophisticated recording. As Duke Ellington said, “There are two kinds of music. Good music, and the other kind.”
The record has eight tracks and features Murphy reading from The Subterraneans “ . . . we went to the Red Drum to hear the jazz which that night was Charlie Parker . . . the king and founder of the bop generation . . . ” and On the Road “Dean, ragged in a moth-eaten overcoat he brought specially for the freezing temperatures of the East, walked off alone . . . ,” which are incorporated into tracks three and eight. The track titles might tempt you to indulge: “Be-Bop Lives (Boplicity),” “Goodbye Porkpie Hat,” “Parker’s Mood,” “You Better Go Now,” “You’ve Proven Your Point (Bongo Beep),” “The Bad and the Beautiful,” “Down St. Thomas Way,” and “Ballad of the Sad Young Men.”
Read the linear notes that relate great Beat moments, especially publisher Jay Landesman’s recollection of an encounter Jack had with bandleader Artie Shaw at Birdland while listening to Lester Young. Jack wanted to do his clarinet imitation for Shaw, but Shaw wanted to talk about literature. Did the sad young men have fun? Sure they did.

i Kerouac, Jack. Mexico City Blues. (New York: Grove Press, 1994).
ii Mark Murphy with Richie Cole, “Bop for Kerouac,”1981. CD.

Jack and Frank

“Jack’s ultimate vision of success was himself and Sinatra as drinking buddies singing songs to each other.” [ i]

Jack Kerouac loved Frank Sinatra. The smooth, free-wheeling Frankie, ah, what is it about Frank? The cool, the voice, the ring-a-ding-ding. The swing, the sway, the broads, the babes. The tough guy, the mob, the cigarette, the Jack . . . Daniels. When Frank stayed at the swanky Waldorf Astoria in New York, he always ordered a bottle of Jack, a salami, and loaf of Italian bread. All that and to be backed by the great Basie band, Sinatra: “Put on your Basie boots. . . .” Jack [singing along]: “Put on your happy boots!” [ii] Frank’s music swing-a-ling-lings as Jack’s writing swings the way of giggling-ping.
So what did Frank and Jack have in common: devoted mothers, Catholicism, music, drink, dames, big talent, bad reputations, blue eyes, and plenty of misunderstanding from the general public and press, and that included fist fights and a broken head, cracked ribs, and smashed photographers’ cameras.
Frank grew up in Hoboken, New Jersey, a rough, redbrick port city—waterfront, warehouses, and piers—opposite New York City, with tremendous maritime traffic and the rough and tumble that goes with it, the son of Italian immigrant parents with a tough-guy mother. (Frank shoulda nailed the “I coulda been” Terry Malone role in On the Waterfront. Frank was born for the role, a natural, home-grown choice. And, yes, Jack, Marlon shoulda played Dean; [have a look at the 1957 letter Jack wrote to Marlon asking him to buy the rights to On the Road and make it a film] that would have been terrific, or why not just have Neal play Dean?) Jack grew up in Lowell, Massachusetts, a redbrick Merrimack River city in a Franco-American family with a tough guy, businessman, gambling father. Frank’s pop was a boxer and fireman. Dolly Sinatra, Frank’s mama worked as a midwife, abortionist, and local political operator. Gabrielle Kerouac worked in shoe factories. Both mothers sang to their sons.
Francis Albert and Jean Louis were sensitive boys and short, Frank stood 5’7” and Jack 5’8.” Both had many wives, including the luscious, foul-mouthed Ava Gardner, an “Embraceable You” dream girl—Frank one more than Jack, so what Frank lost in height he made up for in an extra wife; Frank four, Jack three, but who’s counting?
After a short stint, Frank left high school without graduating; he wanted to sing. Jack left Columbia University without graduating; he wanted to write. The mothers backed up the sons.
Frank sat at a desk as a sports reporter for a very, very short time, until the editor threw him out. Frank was in no way qualified for that position, but his mother muscled him in there. Jack worked as a sports reporter for a short time at the Lowell Sun, but he blew it, and Jack’s dad was furious and convinced his son would end up a bum. Jack seemed to confirm that when he landed in jail for accessory to murder, and his pop refused to post bail.
Frank was the “boy singer” with Tommy Dorsey; Jack had a girlfriend who sang with Dorsey. Frank and Jack both listened to Bing “Crooner” Crosby.
“Jack and his friends tried to sing like Sinatra and act like Italian gangsters,“ [iii] but did Sinatra’s friends and mob Pal Joeys try to write like Jack? Jack dreamed of becoming a jazz musician and Frank’s best friend [iv] and riding in chauffeured limos protected by bodyguards. [v] At parties, Jack would sing in a drunken, sad voice [vi] causing a lover to remark that from the ache she gleaned in his voice, perhaps they loved Frank more than each other. [vii]
These words from “I Concentrate on You” almost echo one of Jack’s favorite Shakespearean quotes, “What freezings have I felt, what dark days seen.” Set to Jobim’s magic, it proves irresistible.
Whenever skies look gray to me
and trouble begins to brew
Whenever the winter winds become too strong
I concentrate on you
Cold, gray skies, winter winds, and trouble, what more could a romantic Lowell boy want?
The Chairman of the Board was buried with a flask of Jack Daniels and fans of the King of the Beats pour wine on his grave. One more for the road, Frank, baby, and on the road, Jack, flash. Yes, they could have worked out some road songs together, something New York. [viii]
i Nicosia, Gerald. Memory Babe. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), p. 566.
ii ibid., p. 693.
iii ibid., p. 209.
iv ibid., p. 354.
v ibid., p. 653.
vi ibid., p. 580.
vii ibid., p. 608.
viii Kerouac, Jack. Desolation Angels. (New York: Coward-McCann, 1965), p. 142.

On the Road (2012) on iTunes

On the Road Poster

Last year’s hit Beat movie, On the Road, based upon the novel of the same name by Jack Kerouac, is now available on iTunes. Starring Garrett Hedlund as Dean Moriarty and Sam Riley as Sal Paradise, the movie also features Kristin Stewart, Kirsten Dunst, Viggo Mortensen, and Steve Buscemi. It’s directed by Walter Salles, who previously directed The Motorcycle Diaries. The movie has received mixed reviews and mixed reactions from Beat fans, with the consensus seemingly that the film is enjoyable but is certainly not a classic like the book upon which it’s based.

The Beat Rap Sheet

Beat Generation Newspaper Clipps

But yet, but yet, woe, woe unto those who think that the Beat Generation means crime, delinquency, immorality, amorality … woe unto those who attack it on the grounds that they simply don’t understand history and the yearning of human souls … woe in fact unto those who those who make evil movies about the Beat Generation where innocent housewives are raped by beatniks! … woe unto those who spit on the Beat Generation, the wind’ll blow it back. — Jack Kerouac

The core of the Beat Generation – Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs – have often been castigated as privileged kids who slummed it for kicks, essentially pretending to join a lower-class in order to gain something to complain about in their writing. Yet at the height of their fame, there were many who considered them a genuine threat to the morality of America’s youth.

It is certainly true that Burroughs came from a higher social class, and that all of them were superficially enthralled at times, with the criminal underworld; and each of them gained a criminal record in the course of creating a literary movement that was mired in murder and drug use. Most famously, they explored the seedy Times Square scene, celebrating people like career-criminal, Herbert Huncke. In their books, these people became the downtrodden heroes of the street. Petty crime was celebrated, and drugs venerated as an essential component of being hip and having a good time. As a consequence, the Beats became vilified in the press, and their image forever connected to the criminal.

But they were no angels, that’s for sure. Burroughs, the eldest and purportedly the wisest of the Beats, grew up with a sense of alienation and rejection that caused him to seek people with whom he shared something in common. For him, that was an attachment to the criminal underground that he gleaned through reading. Most notably, he took his inspiration from Jack Black’s You Can’t Win, which portrayed a strong set of ethics as existing among criminals, in stark contrast to the morally corrupt code followed by the law.

As a boy his parents had sent him off to the Los Alamos Ranch School, where the spoiled sons of America’s elite were toughened up and turned into real men. Burroughs, however, took the chance to experiment with chloral hydrate, a drug which nearly proved fatal, and landed him in hospital. This was also during Prohibition, and he was picked up by the police whilst drunk.Burroughs Kills Wife Newspaper

Burroughs’ psychiatrist, during his early days in New York, referred to his patient in journals as a “gangsterling,” due to the man’s seemingly infantile preoccupation with criminals. Burroughs was fantasizing about robbing Turkish baths and armored trucks, with ludicrously devised plans that would never come to pass.

His real entry to the world of crime came through the friend of a boyfriend, who had a gun he wanted to sell. This was also Burroughs’ first dabbling in hard drugs; along with the gun, came a large quantity of morphine. Burroughs relished the opportunity to sell these items and make shady acquaintances, although he never did sell the gun, and took most of the morphine himself.

The men to whom Burroughs attempted this first arms deal were Phil White and Herbert Huncke. They were experienced criminals and, as Burroughs had hoped, his entry to the underworld. Through these men, Burroughs also met Vickie Russell, “Little Jack” Melody, and Bill Garver, three more criminals who bore striking resemblances to the sort of characters Burroughs adored from You Can’t Win.

When Kerouac and Ginsberg met the man who would become their mentor and friend, he charmed and humbled them with gifts of classic literature. He expanded their minds with poetry and literature and philosophy, and he quoted Shakespeare at length. Yet Burroughs was presently more enamored with pulp crime novels. He was greatly taken by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, whose gritty depictions of urban violence meshed with his own observations.

Like Burroughs, Kerouac and Ginsberg were looking for experiences that they would not find in their coursework at Columbia University. They wanted their minds opened, and in addition to the books Burroughs bestowed upon them, they soon found themselves sampling various illegal substances, and hanging around with criminal types like Huncke. They never delved as deeply as Burroughs, but nonetheless the experiences were formative.

Perhaps the biggest crime in Beat history, and certainly the best documented, was the murder of David Kammerer by Lucien Carr. Carr was a precocious and obnoxious student. He had known Burroughs in Chicago and became friends with Ginsberg in New York. Kammerer, a much older man, whom Burroughs knew from St. Louis, had an infatuation for Carr that caused him to follow the young man around America. It all ended with Carr stabbing Kammerer in self-defense and rolling his body into the Hudson River.

Carr ran to Burroughs for help, and Burroughs told his friend to turn himself in with the support of a good lawyer. Carr then went to Kerouac, who helped him dispose of the remaining evidence. For their troubles, both Kerouac and Burroughs were arrested when Carr eventually followed Burroughs’ advice and turned himself in. Burroughs’ parents, in what was becoming quite a predictable pattern, came to bail him out, while Kerouac languished in jail, having a somewhat less wealthy and forgiving family.

Despite Carr’s protestations, the event was documented or at least referenced throughout Beat history. Most memorably, it was the subject of Kerouac and Burroughs’ chapter-by-chapter collaborative effort, And the Hippos Were Boiled in their Tanks. In Burroughs’ chapters, the influence of his crime fiction reading is far more apparent than elsewhere in his oeuvre.

Kerouac mugshotBurroughs was spiraling into the criminal world. With Phil White he was robbing drunks on the subway who sometimes woke and turned violent. Eventually White was sent down for killing a man with Burroughs’ gun. Fortunately, as it turned out, Burroughs was picked up for forging a prescription, and the judge sent him home to St. Louis, where his parents attempted to keep him out of trouble.

With Burroughs’ departure, the group was falling apart. Critical female Beat, Joan Vollmer, broke down from amphetamine abuse and was taken to Bellevue Mental Hospital, Huncke was arrested for possession and went to prison, and Ginsberg escaped back to his father’s house. Then the arrival of another career criminal came, one who would take Huncke’s place as inspiration to the Beats: Neal Cassady. Besides, between stints in prison, Huncke’s selfish and compulsive criminality was wearing on the patience of everyone, including Ginsberg, whose things he stole and pawned.

Cassady grew up on the streets of Denver. The legends around him are myriad, thanks to Kerouac’s mythologizing, but he appears to have been a legendary car thief and womanizer, who knew how to have a good time. He was first picked up by the police at seven, stole his first car at fourteen, and did six stretches in prison for auto theft by the time he appeared on the Beat scene.

Back in St. Louis, Burroughs met his old friend, Kells Elvins, and together they moved to Texas as farmers. Burroughs attempted to grow opium and marijuana with limited success. He moved from South Texas to East Texas to Louisiana, always in search of the freedom of the frontier, but he never found it. Instead, he was arrested for fornicating by the side of the road, and picked up for riding in a car with a known junky. The police raided his home and found his letters to Ginsberg, containing numerous references to drugs. He was looking at several years in the notorious Angola Prison, so he skipped the border and settled in Mexico City, where the next big Beat crime would occur.

At this time, Ginsberg’s New York apartment was being used by Huncke and Vickie Russell to store stolen goods. Ginsberg became understandably paranoid that the police would raid his apartment, and wanted the goods out. Carr was also furious that his name was included in letters between Ginsberg and Burroughs, as he was now out of prison for the Kammerer murder, and eager to keep his name clean. These letters also contained incriminating references to homosexuality, and so Ginsberg wanted to be rid of them, too.

When Ginsberg enlisted the help of Russell’s boyfriend, Melody, to help move the stolen goods and letters from his apartment, Jack appeared in a stolen car. They loaded it up and headed out, but soon after they were pulled over for making an illegal turn and a high-speed chase occurred. Ginsberg escaped but his letters led the police right to his door, and he was locked up until his father bailed him out.

In Mexico City, Burroughs railed against the tyranny of the American government, and praised the freedom that came with living in Mexico, where the police would leave you alone, and if they did have cause to pick you up, they could easily be bribed. Here he wrote Junky, his first novel. It loosely fictionalized his life as a criminal, from his childhood obsession to his life as an addict.

It was there in 1951 he shot Joan Vollmer, now his common law wife, above the Bounty bar whilst attempting to sell a handgun. Although details have always been disputed, it appears they were playing a game of William Tell and the bullet flew too low.  Burroughs spent thirteen days in jail before his brother arrived and bailed him out. His lawyer managed to bribe the ballistics expert and the witnesses, friends of Burroughs, corroborated his story that it was an accidental discharge. Burroughs was sentenced to probation, which meant checking in at the police station once a week. Instead, he fled to Europe and ended up in Tangier, where he was once again on heroin, and thankful for the lack of police intervention in his life.

The year 1951 also saw the completion of Kerouac’s On the Road, a chronicle of his travels across America and into Mexico. The book was not published for another six years, when Viking Press released it in 1957, and the Beat Generation exploded into infamy.

Public sentiment towards those who now became known as “Beatniks” turned decidedly sour. Kerouac’s use of pseudonyms caused him a spot of trouble, but most of it fell on the head of Neal Cassady, whose sudden fame as Dean Moriarty resulted in his 1958 arrest for marijuana possession. He was sentenced to five years in San Quentin.

Neal Cassady mugshot

Two years earlier, Ginsberg had read his seminal poem, “Howl,” and electrified the poetry community. It was picked up in the same year by Lawrence Ferlinghetti for City Lights Books,’ Pocket Poets Series. In 1957, the same year On the Road sparked a backlash against the Beat youth of America, Shigeyoshi Murao, legendary manager of City Lights, was arrested; more than five hundred copies of Howl and Other Poems were impounded on their way from London. An obscenity trial ensued, and the poem was judged “not obscene.”


Ginsberg shocked the literary community by abandoning San Francisco and moving to Paris, to take residence in what became known as the Beat Hotel. Soon he was living with Burroughs and Gregory Corso, and numerous other artists and writers. It was here that Burroughs’ classic, Naked Lunch, was edited and published, having been written mostly in Tangiers. Published in 1959, the book made its way to the United States slowly, relying on word of mouth. By 1962 it was banned, resulting in the second Beat obscenity trial. This time, however, it took significantly longer to convince the judge, and it was only in 1966 that Naked Lunch could legally be sold in the U.S.

By now the youthful exuberance of the Beats had waned as Burroughs, Ginsberg, and Kerouac mellowed with age. Ginsberg’s championing of various freedoms and support for protests throughout the sixties caused him to continually come face-to-face with the police in America and other countries. In 1965 he was deported from both Cuba and Czechoslovakia because of his homosexuality and perceived trouble-making. After the publication of On the Road, Kerouac became closer to his mother and spent much of his time at home, more or less out of trouble. Even Burroughs, the most criminally-inclined of the Beats, more or less kept out of trouble for his remaining years. He had always sought his own space in life away from the control of police and the government, and aside from continual searches at the airport, he was largely able to avoid the law.




This essay first appeared in Beatdom #12. You can purchase it on Kindle or in paperback.

Review: One and Only: The Untold Story of On the Road

by Michael Hendrick

One and Only: The Untold Story of On The Road, may have played more to the heart had it been sub-titled The Untold Story of the Desolation Angels.  Published in November 2011, the volume is mainly comprised of Gerald Nicosia’s interviews with Lu Anne Henderson, former girlfriend of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady and first ex-wife of Cassady. Henderson, in On The Road, is referred to as ‘Marylou’.

Although not a character in the latter, her words paint, in the end, a portrait of the desolation of Jack and Neal, both driven to desperate distraction and depression by the roles and expectations foisted upon them in the former novel.  Also, through her words, we see how integral Lu Anne became in the formation of the Beat Generation; that she was not just another pert piece of jailbait Neal was known to chase.

We learn that Jack and Neal did not like each other.  Not many liked Neal, which can be blamed on fear, jealousy, or the thought of a natural born con dropped into the middle of a group of Columbia students.  Neal bared his heart and soul to Lu Anne; so did Jack. The two men came to know each other, not through interacting, but through what Lu Anne told one about the other, in the times they were alone together.  She loved them both and her love shone bright enough for them to see what was good, what brilliance burst from the other man. They became fast friends when Lu Anne introduced soul to soul; before that, they had trouble even having a simple conversation with each other.

On The Road presented Jack with a variety of psychic challenges from the constant worry and waiting for the publisher to accept it, to guilt-ridden doubt about how his friends would perceive the characters he forged from their earthly essences, to living up to being the character of ‘Sal Paradise’ – who with Neal as ‘Dean Moriarty’, gave a new sort of maverick hero to a strange new generation. This generation embraced, emulated, imitated and intoxicated itself into an active cerebral state where freedom of choice in our own fate and existence became true options by following the example of the rebel heroes. Mass emulation forced Jack and Neal into roles they had long outgrown. Not only that, Jack exaggerated and changed facts, so they had to live up to caricatures of themselves. In the meantime, their real blood spilled on the tracks.

Cassady, found himself stuck in Moriarty’s shoes ad infinutum, always ‘on,’ always the superhuman clown who was expected to perform constantly. A cross-over character used by Tom Wolfe, Cassady is seen as the man with the plan in The Electric Koolaid Acid Test, introduced in white tee and doing his famous hammer toss. Lu Anne never saw the hammer toss, although she had heard much of it, secondhand. When Neal finally talked about it, it was in shame, as he had painted himself into a predictable corner. In the beginning he felt obliged to live up to the image Kerouac had created and it had slowly turned into a sideshow, the hammer being the most obvious prop. Now he felt like a performing monkey. “I put on my act at six o’clock and eight o’clock,” he says, in Lu Anne’s best memory.


She is like a hip, sexy Dorothy, pulling back the curtains and revealing the Wizard(s)…Her lesson being pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. She knew the real men behind the curtain before the curtain cloaked them in myth and fable. Much of what she tells seems revelatory – but only in the context of how Kerouac tweaked real life into typed adventures. Jack and Neal – Men, not Gods – acted like most men do. If Neal had five dollars in his pocket, it was his five dollars. The Beats were not as communal a society as we would like to recall them as being. They were real people. They were selfish sometimes.

During the early 1950s Jack was in a state of high anxiety concerning his future, and the high expectations that went along with the hopeful success of his book, which he had started writing in 1948. Although, in legend, he is said to have written it all in one three-week stint,  he actually typed up the book on the infamous reel of teletype paper in 1951, culled from the notebooks that Jack always carried in his shirt pocket.  It was during the creative process of compiling these notes that Neal abandoned him and Lu Anne in San Francisco in 1949. Added to the frustration of butting heads with his publisher and trying to create a new style of prose, the rejection by Neal (who drove Jack and Lu Anne across the country, only to leave them stranded in the middle of the city with no cash while he returned to live with then-wife, Carolyn) seemed to set Jack off into a spiral of depression from which he would never fully recover. While most of the literary world and readers did not see this, Lu Anne did.

Lu Anne’s lot was not an easy one, either; bouts with irritable bowel syndrome eventually led to dependence on medications and ultimately to morphine and heroin addiction. While she outlived the pair of men, her lot was not easy. In the 1980s, she eventually returned to Denver, where she initially met Neal when she was fifteen years old, and cleaned up. Conducted in 1978, before her death from cancer in 2006, the transcription of the interview runs to some 34,000 words. We are also presented with 55 archival photographs of Lu Anne, Jack, Neal, Allen Ginsberg, Al Hinkle, and other Beat figures, some of which have never been seen before this printing by Viva Editions.

In many ways, it is more sobering than most volumes on Beat history. One telling incident is hopelessness concealed in the question Neal asked Lu Anne, when he finally went quiet and quit acting, “Where do we go from here, Babe?”

Death Within a Chrysalis

by Nick Meador

At the turn of the 1960s, Jack Kerouac found himself in a profound state of limbo, the climax of an existential crisis that predated his life as a published author. He had been looking for an “answer” to his problems since his early twenties,[1] yet for a variety of reasons his dilemma remained unresolved. Then a 35-year-old Jack became famous in an instant when On the Road was published in the fall of 1957, and this led to the total disruption of his already chaotic life. Normally the restless man would alternate between living at his mother’s East Coast home (which at the time was either in Orlando, Florida, or Northport, Long Island, New York) and a few faraway destinations, most often Mexico City or the San Francisco Bay Area. But suddenly his world became very claustrophobic, as he was pushed into the role of a counter-culture celebrity despite the fact that very few were giving him credit as a legitimate author of American literature.

In his 1962 novel Big Sur, Kerouac reflects on the period: “…I’ve been driven mad for three years by endless telegrams, phonecalls, requests, mail, visitors, reporters, snoopers…”[2] Kerouac wrote that book in October 1961 by fictionalizing events that had happened mainly in the summer of 1960—a trip from New York to California, visiting San Francisco, Big Sur, and San Jose. It was his first lengthy trip in three years, and Big Sur was the first book he completed since writing The Dharma Bums in November 1957. Kerouac’s plan was to pass the summer in solitude so that he could recover his mental balance while checking the publisher galleys for his Book of Dreams.[3] Lawrence Ferlinghetti, whose budding City Lights imprint would be publishing the dream book that year, told Kerouac to stay at his cabin in Bixby Canyon, on the Pacific Coast south of Monterrey (technically just north of Big Sur).

On the surface, Big Sur is a record of Kerouac’s battle with “delirium tremens,” the term Jack and the Beats used to describe the peculiar kind of madness that results from severe and prolonged alcohol abuse. Kerouac had long dealt with a drinking problem, and even by age 26 it occurred to him that he should cut back. On March 22, 1948, he wrote in his journal, “I started drinking at eighteen but that’s after eight years of occasional boozing, I can’t physically take it any more, nor mentally. It was at the age of eighteen, too, when melancholy and indecision first came over me—there’s a fair connection there.”[4] Yet his alcoholism reached new extremes after the publication of On the Road. In addition to losing his treasured privacy, Jack was also shocked by Neal Cassady’s arrest for possession of marijuana in 1958, for which Neal served two years in a California prison.[5] After this, despite the fact that Kerouac had purchased their house with royalty money from On the Road, Jack’s mother Gabrielle (also known as “mémêre,” Québécois for “grandma”[6]) banished from their home both Allen Ginsberg (because of his Judaism, homosexuality, and radical poetry) and the drugs Jack commonly used like Benzedrine and marijuana.

But Kerouac didn’t refrain from drug use altogether. In the period surrounding both the events depicted in Big Sur and the writing and editing of the book, Jack actively experimented with certain psychedelic substances that hadn’t yet made a large impression on the American culture: mescaline, ayahuasca, and psilocybin mushrooms. At the start of Big Sur, he mentions some of these substances in a slightly negative manner, as if to suggest that they had worsened his overall mental condition: “. . . ‘One fast move or I’m gone,’ I realize, gone the way of the last three years of drunken hopelessness which is a physical and spiritual and metaphysical hopelessness you cant learn in school no matter how many books on existentialism or pessimism you read, or how many jugs of vision-producing Ayahuasca you drink, or Mescaline take, or Peyote goop up with–––That feeling when you wake up with the delirium tremens with the fear of eerie death dripping from your ears…”[7]

However, this can’t be the whole story, since Kerouac’s letters offer an entirely different view on his psychonautic exploration during this time. Jack first tried mescaline—the psychoactive compound also found naturally in the peyote cactus—in October 1959,[8] and he was apparently most open about it with Ginsberg, to whom he wrote the following on June 20, 1960: “When on mescaline [last fall] I was so bloody high I saw that all our ideas about a ‘beatific’ new gang of worldpeople, and about instantaneous truth being the last truth. etc. etc. I saw them as all perfectly correct and prophesied, as never on drinking or sober I saw it—Like an Angel looking back on life sees that every moment fell right into place and each had flowery meaning…”[9] This kind of clarity must have been cherished by a guy who saw his life as a long chain of rambling misadventures. Kerouac was even moved to create a 5,000-word “Mescaline Report” in order to document his hallucinations and revelations. He said he intended to take mescaline monthly, and he couldn’t wait to test out LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide). In the same letter Kerouac mentioned his intention to flee New York, shortly before Ferlinghetti suggested that Jack use his cabin as an escape. The actual trip did last about two months, from mid-July to mid-September 1960.

After returning from California, Kerouac had the opportunity to try ayahuasca on October 7, 1960.[10] Ginsberg had just visited South America and brought back some of the liquid preparation, also known as “yagé” (pronounced “yah-hey,” but they usually misspelled it as “yage”). William S. Burroughs had done the same in the early 1950s, as documented in his fictionalized letters titled “In Search of Yage” (written in ’53 but not published until ’63). Those are presented along with correspondence and journals by Burroughs and Ginsberg in the 2006 book The Yage Letters Redux, originally published in slimmer form as The Yage Letters in 1963. While it wasn’t published in Burroughs’ work, he actually identified the genus of ayahuasca’s key ingredients in June 1953, before anyone from Western civilization had done so publicly.[11]

Kerouac seems to have tasted the real thing, since, according to Ginsberg (writing during the event), Jack remarked, “This is one of the most sublime or tender or lovely moments of all our lives together . . .”[12] That’s not to say the experience was only positive. In June 1963 Jack reflected to Allen that, when he would wander into Manhattan for drinking binges, “I come back [to Long Island] with visions of horror as bad as Ayahuasca vision on the neanderthal million years in caves, the gruesomeness of life!”[13]

In January 1961, a few months after Kerouac’s ayahuasca trip, he ingested capsules containing the extract of what he called “Sacred Mushrooms,”[14] a nickname for psilocybin.[15] Ginsberg had recently visited Timothy Leary at Harvard to participate in Leary’s soon-to-be-controversial psychedelic studies. According to Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain’s book Acid Dreams, when Ginsberg called Kerouac during his psilocybin trial to announce that he was God and demand that Jack come try the mushrooms immediately, Jack replied, “I can’t leave my mother.”[16] Ginsberg brought the capsules back to New York to distribute to various people, and Kerouac went to Allen’s Manhattan apartment to try them for himself.

Kerouac’s reaction to this experience is recorded in a letter he sent to Timothy Leary later that month (which, for unknown reasons, was omitted from Kerouac’s Selected Letters, 1957-1969, the second volume of correspondence edited by Ann Charters). Jack wrote, “Mainly I felt like a floating [Genghis] Kahn on a magic carpet with my interesting lieutenants and gods… some ancient feeling about old geheuls [sic] in the grass, and temples, exactly also like the sensation I got drunk on pulque[17] floating in the Xochimilco gardens on barges laden with flowers and singers… some old Golden Age dream of man, very nice.”[18]

Kerouac’s final experiment of this period came in December 1961 (as least, according to the published literature). It’s fairly evident that on this occasion Kerouac ingested actual dried psilocybin mushrooms instead of capsules. He wrote to Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky (Ginsberg’s lover) that he had just finished transferring the Big Sur manuscript from the teletype roll to standard pages, “all done in ecstasy, in fact (with bennies [Benzedrine])—Also ate 12 SMushrooms in one afternoon and wanted to send telegram to Winston Churchill something about an old Baron crying for his hounds in his ‘weird weild weir,’ thinking, on psilocybin, one baron to another he’d understand—”[19]

During the writing of Big Sur, some of these psychedelic experiences crept into the book despite Kerouac’s initial statement about “metaphysical hopelessness.” Upon awaking from a bizarre dream sequence, “Jack Duluoz” (Kerouac’s fictional projection of himself) reflects on the “millionpieced mental explosions that I remember I thought were so wonderful when I’d first seen them on Peotl and Mescaline…broken in pieces some of them big orchestral and then rainbow explosions of sound and sight mixed.”[20] The “peotl” (or “peyotl,” the indigenous spellings of “peyote”) cactus has long been consumed by tribes in northern Mexico and the American southwest for the mescaline it contains.[21] Kerouac first encountered peyote eight years before his trip to Bixby Canyon, while living with Burroughs in Mexico City in 1952. The two embarked on a fruitful series of peyote trials that Kerouac described in his letters to friends back in the United States.

On March 12 of that year, Jack wrote to John Clellon Holmes about what was possibly his first full-on psychedelic experience, conveying “the wild visions of musical pure truth I got on peotl (talk about your Technicolor visions!)…”[22] Shortly thereafter, on June 5, Kerouac wrote again to Holmes, telling of the time when a few “young American hipsters” gave him and Burroughs some peyote, after which the duo walked around Mexico City at night. In a park Jack found himself “wanting to sit in the grass and stay near the ground all night by moonlight, with the lights of the show and the houses all flashing, flashing in my eyeballs…”[23]

This letter is important for another reason; in it Jack explains the thrill of writing with his new “sketching” style, an early conception of what he would later call “spontaneous prose.” Late in October 1951, Kerouac’s friend Ed White had suggested that Jack try to write as though he was painting a scene.[24] Kerouac told Holmes he was “beginning to discover…something beyond the novel and beyond the arbitrary confines of the story . . . into the realms of revealed Picture . . . revealed whatever . . . revealed prose . . . wild form, man, wild form. Wild form’s the only form holds what I have to say—my mind is exploding to say something about every image and every memory in—I have now an irrational lust to set down everything I know—in narrowing circles…”[25]

The strong parallel between the “rainbow explosions” Kerouac saw on mescaline and peyote, and the feeling that he was “exploding” to describe his thoughts about reality, suggests that Jack’s psychedelic exploration in 1952 had a decisive influence on what would become his trademark prose style.

Kerouac’s first efforts to develop his sketching method resulted in Visions of Cody, written in 1951 and ’52. He further honed the style with Doctor Sax and, in early ‘53, Maggie Cassidy. But in the fall of ‘53, Kerouac wrote The Subterraneans, which was the closest to a prequel of Big Sur that Jack composed during this period when he “discovered” spontaneous prose. It was not only a stylistic precedent, but also a thematic one—specifically the themes of self-sabotaged relationships, nervous breakdowns, and creeping insanity. In both novels Kerouac focuses largely on his own life and “internal monologue” instead of employing a “hero” like Cassady (called “Dean Moriarty” or “Cody Pomeray” in Kerouac’s novels) or Gary Snyder (“Japhy Ryder” of The Dharma Bums) to carry the story. As Kerouac writes halfway through Big Sur, “I’m beginning to go seriously crazy, just like Subterranean Irene went crazy…”[26] This is actually a cryptic clue in which he’s evoking “Mardou Fox” of Subterraneans, the love interest of protagonist “Leo Percepied” (another name for “Jack Duluoz”). “Mardou’s” real name was Alene Lee, but Jack referred to her as “Irene May” in Book of Dreams.

Once again, Big Sur generally depicts Kerouac’s brush with “insanity” as stemming from his alcoholism. There’s hardly a time in the book when “Duluoz” is not holding a bottle of whiskey or wine. But as the story progresses, some of the descriptions seem to fall way outside the scope of what alcohol can do to a person’s mind and one’s perception of reality. For instance, when Jack’s friends try to get him to eat some food, he can’t take more than a bite. He’s too paranoid that they’re trying to poison him, and he’s too distracted by his mental aberrations. “Masks explode before my eyes when I close them, when I look at the moon it waves, moves, when I look at my hands and feet they creep–––Everything is moving, the porch is moving like ooze and mud, the chair trembles under me.”[27] Notice again the mention of “explosions.” Or examine the aforementioned dream sequence, in which Jack sees numerous “Vulture People” copulating in a trash dump. “Their faces are leprous thick with soft yeast but painted with makeup…yellow pizza puke faces, disgusting us…we’ll be taken to the Underground Slimes to walk neck deep in steaming mucks pulling huge groaning wheels (among small forked snakes) so the devil with the long ears can mine his Purple Magenta Square Stone that is the secret of all this Kingdom–––“[28]

Even a glance at Book of Dreams makes it obvious that Kerouac frequently had extraordinary night-visions. But such passages really bring to mind a few specific things: the psychedelic experience, existentialist literature, and the rare cases in which the two are combined. Though Kerouac more often talked of his fondness for Dostoevsky than for later existentialists, Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1938 novel Nausea (not published in English until 1949[29]) is an indubitable precursor to Big Sur. Nausea contains a first-person journal-style account by a French man named Roquentin, who unexpectedly becomes overtaken by mortal horror and bodily uneasiness. As Roquentin says early in the novel, “Then the Nausea seized me, I dropped to a seat, I no longer knew where I was; I saw the colours spin slowly around me, I wanted to vomit. And since that time, the Nausea has not left me, it holds me.”[30]

There’s a deeper connection between the two novels as well. In his 2002 book Breaking Open the Head, Daniel Pinchbeck reports that Sartre tried mescaline in 1935 as a research subject in Paris. Pinchbeck writes that “long after the physical effect of the drug had worn off, Sartre found himself plunged into a lingering nightmare of psychotic dread and paranoia; shoes threatened to turn into insects, stone walls seethed with monsters.”[31] Pinchbeck infers that this influenced the writing of Nausea—but he thought Sartre’s affliction lasted about a week. Actually Sartre experienced hallucinations of shellfish (usually lobsters, but he also called them crabs) for years, according to a 2009 book of conversations between Jean-Paul and John Gerassi, whose parents were close friends with Sartre. Gerassi quotes Sartre saying, “Yeah, after I took mescaline I started seeing crabs around me all the time. They followed me in the streets, into class… I would wake up in the morning and say, ‘Good morning, my little ones, how did you sleep?’” [32]

In 1954, thanks to Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, the Western world became much more aware of the potential promise of mescaline as a visionary aid. But interspersed with descriptions of his wondrous hallucinations, Huxley cautioned not to place too much expectation on mescaline for spiritual enlightenment.[33] Still, the book was extremely influential in the literary world, and it paved the way for the psychedelic uprising that Leary and others would lead in the 1960s.

So it’s a bit surprising that someone in Kerouac’s position, writing a book like Big Sur in 1961, wouldn’t emphasize psychedelics more or even try to work them into the plot, if only through a flashback or some similar device. Not only did he largely leave them out of the book, but he even downplayed the way they had guided his own “mysticism”—something that, in retrospect, is clearly evident in books like On the Road (published in 1957), The Dharma Bums (1958), and Visions of Gerard (1963). Kerouac even amended the line about “the mad ones” early in Road that would become his most famous quote, and—perhaps not unexpectedly—the final wording seems influenced by his 1952 peyote experiments. In the 1951 “scroll” version (not published until 2007) it read “burn, burn, burn like roman candles across the night.”[34] But in the 1957 version, the line went “burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop…”[35]

It all seems even more suspicious after learning that mescaline actually renewed Jack’s faith in his unique prose style in 1959, just as peyote seems to have inspired the style initially in 1952. Soon after taking mescaline, Kerouac told Ginsberg that during the trip he’d had “the sensational revelation that I’ve been on the right track with spontaneous never-touch-up poetry of immediate report…”[36] Kerouac’s “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose” held that writing should be “confessional,” “always honest,” and—the part most tied up with myths about Kerouac—have “no revisions.”[37] We’ve already seen one case where Kerouac revised a work that he claimed to be an entirely spontaneous composition. So one can’t help but wonder—was Kerouac being as honest as he claimed in his prose theory? To begin to understand that, we must descend into Jack’s past.

In the spring of 1943, Kerouac enlisted in the Navy with the intention of serving the U.S. as a pilot in the growing European conflict. However, he failed the pilot exam and ended up in boot camp in Rhode Island.[38] When he refused to participate in the drills one day, he was taken to the Navy’s psychiatric hospital for observation and was soon diagnosed with “dementia praecox,”[39] which today would be called “schizophrenia.”[40] But Jack’s symptoms are more important than the term applied to them, and in his letters to friends he didn’t seem too worried about what he called the “irregularity” of his mind. Writing to childhood friend G.J. Apostolos, Kerouac explained that he had a “normal” side (embodied in G.J.) that loved sports, drinking, and sex—and a “schizoid” side (embodied in another Lowell friend, Sebastian Sampas) marked by introversion, alienation, and eccentricity. But there are hints that this “schizoid” side was actually closer to the core of Jack’s true self, whereas the “normal” side may have been a show he put on to survive with schoolmates, family, and society. “It is the price I pay for having a malleable personality,” Jack wrote from the Navy hospital. “It assumes the necessary shape when in contact with any other personality.”[41]

Had Jack grown up in the second half of the 20th century, he probably would have been diagnosed with “schizoid personality disorder” or “schizotypal personality disorder”—which are both considered “schizophrenia spectrum” conditions. The “schizoid” label corresponds to a preference for solitude, a lack of close relationships outside one’s immediate family, and an inability to express emotions.[42] “Schizotypal” refers to these characteristics, but the person must also exhibit delusions, peculiar beliefs and superstitions, paranoia, and other similar traits.[43]

This was a different time, and Kerouac’s condition was never fully understood by the people in his life. Yet if we’re going to comprehend what happened to him, we have to keep in mind that he undoubtedly fit the “schizotypal” diagnostic criteria. A series of letters that Kerouac wrote to Cassady around New Year’s 1951 help explain why.

When Kerouac was only four years old, a tragedy occurred that would affect him for the rest of his life. His older brother Gerard died of rheumatic fever in 1926 at the age of nine,[44] and throughout life Jack harbored two “peculiar beliefs” that stemmed from Gerard’s passing. One was that he believed his brother Gerard was a saint, an angel, and even Jesus; the other was that he felt responsible—and, therefore, guilty—for Gerard’s death.[45] In the letters, Kerouac claims to remember the events of 1926, despite his young age at the time. Not only that, but he says he remembers his own birth in March 1922. But Kerouac also seems conflicted. He admits to Cassady that some of his “memories” are based on family pictures, and says that he “wouldn’t be able to tell you this now, if everyone [in my family] hadn’t told me a thousand times, and each time I don’t believe it, because I don’t remember a thing…”[46]

More importantly, Kerouac says that he considered dreams and memories to be equivalent. He thought a person’s dreams came “from that part of his brain which has stored up a subconscious vision of an actual experience.”[47] This is basically a Freudian theory of dream analysis, which holds that the elements of conscious experience are repressed into the subconscious mind and then become dream content, sometimes expressing hidden (unconscious) wishes or desires. So when Jack had a dream of himself as a one-year-old baby, he regarded it as a playback of his own memory—though he had no conscious recollection of that time apart from the dream.

In addition to equating dream and memory, Kerouac also believed that “dream and vision are intertwinable with reality and prophecy.”[48] In other words, when the young Jack became aware of Gerard’s inevitable death, that in his mind (even his adult mind) seemed to have been a prophecy of Gerard’s death—which implied that young Jack had actually caused Gerard’s death. It wasn’t just Jack’s awareness of Gerard’s condition that created the guilt, but actually an incident that happened shortly before Gerard passed. Kerouac thought he remembered carelessly knocking down Gerard’s erector set, which inspired Gerard to slap his face and yell harsh words. Burroughs helped Kerouac sort out these memories in 1945, figuring, as Kerouac put it in the letter to Cassady, “that I resented the slap in the face and wished Gerard would die, and he died a few days later.”[49]

But Kerouac still seems confused, because a part of him remembered not really understanding what it meant when he found out Gerard was dead. He says he never cried, probably because he thought (in accordance with Catholic doctrine) that Gerard was at peace in Heaven. As Kerouac put it in 1951, “I knew, as I have never known since, that death does no harm…”[50] One paradox inherent in Catholicism is that the Church instills adherents with a severe horror of death, while simultaneously asking them to believe in a Biblical afterlife. Jack apparently felt fearless again after trying mescaline, which is a common reaction to the psychedelic experience. As he wrote to Ginsberg in October 1959, “I now no longer sad about sadness of birth-and-death scene because all that I had divined about the truth…was SEEN not just divined or known—”[51]

There’s a reason for Kerouac’s confusion: it seems that most of his “memories” from before the age of six are based on stories told to him by his parents, largely his mother.[52] In the letters, Kerouac carefully points out which details are from his own vague memory (e.g., not knowing why his family cried about Gerard), and which are details that his mother vehemently defended as true despite Jack’s inability to remember them. In 1945 Kerouac even told his sister that, in his words, “…I feel as though I don’t have a mind or will of my own.”[53] Therefore, Burroughs was helping Jack decipher mostly Gabrielle’s memories—memories that Jack assumed to be true because, according to his worldview, memories were equivalent to reality. Actually memory is very fallible, partly because every individual perceives the world in a slightly different manner.

Gabrielle’s version of reality was that Gerard had always acted kind and saintly toward Jack—but Jack became jealous of all the attention given to the sickly Gerard, and resented Gerard’s vengeful slap. But Kerouac notes that his mother suffered a “nervous breakdown” when Gerard died, during which all her teeth fell out.[54] He writes to Cassady, “The sight of this holy child slowly dying might have affected her mind at the time, and her stories about him may today be exaggerated…”[55] Yet he considered similar stories from his father and other relatives to be “verification” of Gabrielle’s version. Kerouac was even informed that a priest, neighbors, and business associates “spoke in the same way about Gerard: to the effect that he was the strangest, most angelic gentle child they had ever known.” But Pauline Coffey, a former neighbor of the Kerouac family, had a different impression of Gerard: “There was nothing exceptional about him. He was like any other kid—it was the mother—if you’ve ever lost a child, you would understand.”[56]

When Kerouac reflected on these memories five years after his “confession” to Cassady, while writing Visions of Gerard in January 1956, he omitted all his own personal doubts and stuck to his family’s Myth of Gerard. Charters’ biography offers a perceptive analysis of that novel: “Mémêre’s stories about Gerard were the framework for Jack’s narrative… The world of his experience and the world of his imagination came together in Visions of Gerard as in no other book in the Duluoz Legend.”[57] One of Gabrielle’s stories was key in establishing Gerard as a “saint.” As Kerouac tells it in the novel, Gerard fell asleep in class at their Catholic school and dreamt that the Virgin Mary took him away to Heaven in a “snow-white cart drawn by two lambs, and as he sits in it two white pigeons settle on each of his shoulders…”[58] When Gerard’s teacher woke him, he announced that he had seen the Virgin, and “we’re all in Heaven–––but we dont know it!” Since this was in December 1925, about seven months before Gerard died, it’s implied that the dream was premonition of Gerard’s imminent passing, as well as his Heavenly designation as a saint.

Kerouac didn’t doubt that such a thing happened, which in his mind would have meant that Gerard literally met the Virgin Mary. That’s partly because Kerouac himself remembers experiencing holy visions as a child. He tells Cassady that his life “is filled with superstitions,” and in the Catholic Church “much mysticism is sown broadspread from its ritual mysteries…”[59] Jack then tells of “the statue of St. Therese, whose head is often seen turning by madtranced watchers; whose head I myself saw turning, head-of-stone.” But biographer Paul Maher Jr. explains that Catholic school classes of that time viewed a motion picture in which the statue’s head was made to turn with trick photography.[60] Whether or not the kids were told that it was an illusion, the point—just as with other religious indoctrination—was to convince them that it was actually possible. In that sort of fundamentalist Catholic environment—made even more severe by the delusions of his grieving and mentally unstable mother, who built up the Myth of Gerard to keep Jack in a state of constant inferiority­ and thereby manipulate him like a marionette—it appears that Kerouac felt extreme pressure to have mystical beliefs, superstitions, visions, and fears.

All of this must be taken into account when reading Big Sur, especially the segment towards the end when “Jack Duluoz” experiences visions of a cross. Kerouac writes, “For a moment I see blue Heaven and the Virgin’s white veil…by God I am being taken away my body starts dying and swooning out to the Cross standing in a luminous area of the darkness…”[61] Of course, this is reported during the peak of Jack’s nervous breakdown, when he also allegedly hears voices speaking an indistinguishable language in his ear, senses a flying saucer searching for him in the trees, and mistakes a sleeping young boy for an evil warlock.

Just before then Jack had become increasingly disoriented, repeatedly saying or thinking, “I can’t understand what’s going on–––“[62] He says he wishes that Cassady were around to explain everything in a way that made sense. Actually this is the role that Gabrielle played in Jack’s life more often than anyone else. Just as Jack trusted mémêre’s version of the past, he also trusted her to interpret current events. And during Jack’s three-year imprisonment with his mother from late 1957 to early 1960, their “reality” consisted largely of fear over a supposedly imminent “Communist” uprising—a fear fueled by government officials and compliant mass media during the height of the Cold War. When “Duluoz’s” friends try to feed him in Big Sur, he thinks, “…this secret poisoning society, I know, it’s because I’m a Catholic, it’s a big anti-Catholic scheme, it’s Communists destroying everybody…in the morning you no longer have the same mind–––the drug is invented by Airapatianz, it’s the brainwash drug…”[63]

In reality Kerouac was recalling his experience with Leary’s psilocybin mushroom capsules, which he describes—along with a reference to the “Dear Coach” letter—in his 12/28/1961 missive to Ginsberg: “I incidentally wrote Timothy Leary…that I think this is the Siberian sacred mushroom used by Brainwash-inventor Airapantianz to empty American soldier prisoners in Korean brainwash program—Because if you become so emptied you don’t even care if you’re Kerouac or Ginsberg or Orlovsky, and what that meant to you before, then you’re ready to become anything at all, for any reason, even perhaps an assasin [sic]?”[64]

Unfortunately Kerouac projected any suspicion and anger he felt towards his mother onto other people, whether it was his late brother Gerard or father Leo, living individuals like Ginsberg or Kerouac’s first two wives (Edie Parker and Joan Haverty), or more hypothetical groups (in Kerouac’s immediate experience, that is) like “the Communists.” After mentioning the apparent brainwash potential in the letter to Leary after his January 1961 psilocybin trial, Kerouac wrote that he spent “3 days and 3 nights” talking with his mother while, it seemed to him, the mushrooms were still affecting his mind. The result, in his words: “I learned I loved her more than I thought.”[65] Somehow Kerouac didn’t connect his concerns about brainwash potential with the effect that Mémêre was having on him. One can find examples of these mental slips involving his mother scattered throughout the “Duluoz Legend.”

Later in the letter, Jack included a statement that helps to answer the question of why he would downplay psychedelics in his fiction and public statements. As he told Leary, “It was a definite Satori. Full of psychic clairvoyance (but you must remember that this is not half as good as the peaceful ecstacy [sic] of simple Samadhi trance as I described that in Dharma Bums).” Kerouac intended for The Dharma Bums to be read as a resolution to the existential conflict so visible in earlier books like On the Road and The Subterraneans. He also hoped for it to be a life manual for anyone in a similar situation, because in the mid- to late-1950s he viewed Buddhism as “the answer.” In other words, Kerouac perceived the potential rise of psychedelic drugs in the 1960s as a threat to the usefulness of his own body of work. In turn, his disparagement of psychedelics—and his silence (outside of private letters) about their potential advantages—was propaganda for the Duluoz Legend.

In fact, Kerouac found little use for Buddhism in his personal life by the start of the Big Sur period. His devout Catholic family had been fighting him about it for years. And as he told Carolyn Cassady after writing Big Sur—specifically referring to the end of the book, which describes his mental breakdown—“I realized all my Buddhism had been words—comforting words, indeed—“[66] Despite that, he still made Desolation Angels a sort of sequel to Dharma Bums a few years later, keeping much of the Buddhist terminology in place.

But there was a more personal element to Jack’s spurning of psychedelics. As his own descriptions of chemical experiments attest, psychedelic substances can provide the very sort of “visions” (i.e., hallucinations) that were so cherished in the fundamentalist Catholic worldview. According to the “mysticism” that Jack knew as a child, visionary ability was even a primary criterion for becoming a “saint” (like Kerouac’s beloved St. Therese) or an “angel.” Therefore, if it became public knowledge—or if his mother found out—that his visions didn’t always happen spontaneously, then it would harm his attempts to live up to the Myth of Gerard, the larger-than-life standards that Jack’s mother had held for him since before he could remember. This is likely the reason why, after giving Ginsberg his “Mescaline Report” in early 1960, Jack wrote to Allen from Chicago (en route to San Francisco and Bixby Canyon), “Hold the Mescaline Notes till I get back in Fall—Don’t give em to my mother.”[67] It’s probably also the reason why that “Mescaline Report” has apparently vanished from existence (though it might be in his archives in Lowell, MA, or at the Berg Collection in the New York City Public Library).

This differs substantially from the idea espoused by many of Kerouac’s biographers, who took a line of recorded conversation in the “Dear Coach” letter (“walking on water wasn’t built in a day”) as a sign that Jack saw very limited value in psychedelics. As it turns out, Kerouac’s literary treatment of psychedelics is one of many routes to a rude awakening about the Duluoz Legend, showing that it’s far less “objectively” true than commonly thought. In Big Sur, Kerouac wanted the cause of his mental breakdown to be alcoholism fueled by fame and “mortal existence,” not a spiritual awakening (or re-awakening) inspired by psychedelics, and definitely not his “tyrannical…mother’s sway over me” (as he referred to it once in The Subterraneans [68]). Furthermore, he wanted the cure to be “Christ,” “God,” the “Cross,” and his mother. As Kerouac writes on the last page, “My mother’ll be waiting for me glad–––“[69]

We can deduce all of this by looking at Kerouac’s October 1961 letter to Ferlinghetti, whom Jack actually visited again in San Francisco before returning to the East Coast in September 1960. As Kerouac writes, “…I was going to have lots more at the ‘end’ when I come to your house 706 but suddenly saw the novel should end at the cabin…”[70] So Big Sur ends the way it does because of a literary decision that Kerouac made, not necessarily because it depicts the way the events “objectively” happened.

Kerouac wasn’t only deceiving his readership; he was deceiving himself. His unwillingness—or, since it’s time we start taking his “dementia praecox” diagnosis more seriously, his inability to revise his view of reality and existence according to his own subjective life experience led to his early death in 1969. Just as a butterfly transforms from a caterpillar, he could have emerged from his chrysalis a twice-born being. The story behind Big Sur shows that Kerouac had the opportunity to progress through his existential crisis and live an entirely new life of liberation and prosperity. But his loss need not be our own.

[1] Kerouac, Jack. Windblown World. Ed. by Douglas Brinkley. New York: Penguin Books, 2004. pp. 61-66.

[2] Kerouac, Jack. Big Sur. 1962. New York: Penguin Books, 1992. p. 4.

[3] Kerouac, Jack. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. Ed. by Ann Charters. 1999. New York: Penguin Books, 2000. pp. 296-297.

[4] Kerouac, J. Windblown World. p. 62.

[5] Charters, Ann. Kerouac: A Biography. 1973. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987. pp. 303-304.

[6] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. From footnote #1 by Ann Charters. p. 164.

[7] Kerouac, J. Big Sur. pp. 7-8. Long ellipsis was in original; short ellipsis is mine.

[8] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. pp. 252-253.

[9] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 292.

[10] Maher Jr., Paul. Kerouac: His Life and Work. 2004. Lanham, MD: Taylor Trade Publishing, 2007. p. 414.

[11] Burroughs, William S. and Allen Ginsberg. The Yage Letters Redux. 1963. San Francisco: City Lights, 2006. From the introduction by Oliver Harris. pp. xx-xxii.

[12] Maher Jr., P. Ibid. p. 415. Ellipsis was in original.

[13] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 419.

[14] In both the second volume of Selected Letters and Kerouac: A Biography, Charters writes erroneously that Kerouac took LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) in January 1961. In the biography she also mistakenly states that Kerouac went to Cambridge, Mass., to see Leary.

[15] “Psilocybin Mushrooms.” Erowid. Accessed on 6/4/2011.

[16] Lee, Martin A. and Bruce Shlain. Acid Dreams: The Complete Social History of LSD: the CIA, the Sixties, and Beyond. 1985. New York: Grove Press, 1992. pp. 78-82. Note: they mistook Northport as being in Massachusetts, instead of Long Island, New York.

[17] An alcoholic Mexican drink made of fermented agave. See: “The Spirits of Maguey” by Fire Erowid. Erowid. Nov 2004. Accessed on 6/14/2011.

[18] Kerouac, Jack. “Dear Coach: Jack Kerouac to Timothy Leary.” Acid Dreams Document Gallery. Website for the book Acid Dreams by Martin A. Lee and Bruce Shlain. Ellipses were in original. Accessed on 3/3/2011.

[19] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 363. I added “Benzedrine” in brackets.

[20] Kerouac, J. Big Sur. p. 211.

[21] “Peyote.” Erowid. Accessed on 6/6/2011.

[22] Kerouac, Jack. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. Ed. by Ann Charters. 1995. New York: Penguin Books, 1996. p. 336.

[23] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. pp. 368-369.

[24] Charters, A. Ibid. pp. 139-140.

[25] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 371. Long ellipses were in book; short ellipsis is mine.

[26] Kerouac, J. Big Sur. p. 156.

[27] Kerouac, J. Big Sur. p. 200.

[28] Kerouac, J. Big Sur. pp. 208-210.

[29] “Nausea.” Wikipedia. Accessed on 6/6/2011.

[30] Sartre, Jean-Paul. Nausea. 1938. New York: New Directions, 1964. p. 18-19.

[31] Pinchbeck, Daniel. Breaking Open the Head. New York: Broadway Books, 2002. p. 122.

[32] Allen-Mills, Tony. “Mescaline left Jean-Paul Sartre in the grip of lobster madness.” The Sunday Times of London. 11/22/2009. Ellipsis was in original. Accessed on 10/31/2010.

[33] Huxley, Aldous. The Doors of Perception & Heaven and Hell. New York: Perennial, 2004. p. 41.

[34] Kerouac, Jack. On the Road: The Original Scroll. New York: Viking, 2007. p. 113.

[35] Kerouac, Jack. On the Road. 1957. New York: Penguin Books, 1991. pp. 5-6.

[36] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 363. pp. 252-253.

[37] Kerouac, Jack. Essentials of Spontaneous Prose.” The Portable Beat Reader. Ed. by Ann Charters. New York: Viking, 1992. pp. 57-59. Italics were in original.

[38] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. From editor’s note by Charters. p. 49.

[39] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 56. This citation also goes with “irregularity” quote below.

[40] Korn, Martin L. “Historical Roots of Schizophrenia.” Medscape. Undated. Accessed on 6/9/2011.

[41] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. pp. 61-63.

[42] “Schizoid personality disorder.” BehaveNet. Undated. Accessed on 6/9/2011.

[43] “Schizotypal personality disorder.” BehaveNet. Undated. Accessed on 6/9/2011.

[44] Maher Jr., P. Ibid. pp. 18-20.

[45] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. pp. 246-263, 282.

[46] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 261.

[47] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. pp. 267-268.

[48] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 269.

[49] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 259. Also, p. 87.

[50] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 272.

[51] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 252.

[52] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 249. He writes, “Six years later…I looked about for the first time and realized I was in a world and not just myself.”

[53] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 88.

[54] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 258.

[55] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 253.

[56] Motier, Donald. Gerard: The Influence of Jack Kerouac’s Brother on His Life and Writing. Harrisburg, PA: Beaulieu Street Press, 1991. pp. 4-5. Quoted from Kerouac: His Life and Work by Paul Maher, Jr. p. 19.

[57] Charters, A. Ibid. pp. 254-255.

[58] Kerouac, Jack. Visions of Gerard. 1963. New York: Penguin Books, 1991. pp. 51-55.

[59] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1940-1956. p. 270

[60] Maher Jr., P. Ibid. pp. 22-24.

[61] Kerouac, J. Big Sur. pp. 204-206.

[62] Kerouac, J. Big Sur. pp. 155-159.

[63] Kerouac, J. Big Sur. p. 203.

[64] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 363.

[65] Kerouac, J. “Dear Coach: Jack Kerouac to Timothy Leary.”

[66] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 353.

[67] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 299.

[68] Kerouac, Jack. The Subterraneans. 1958. New York: Grove Press, 1994. p. 47.

[69] Kerouac, J. Big Sur. p. 216.

[70] Kerouac, J. Selected Letters, 1957-1969. p. 358.

Carolyn Cassady – Neal, Me and Jack makes three

By Spencer Kansa

In 1951, Jack Kerouac began work on a roman a clef whose breathless prose would help define an era and seduce generations to come, On the Road. Based on his road trip adventures from the previous decade, Kerouac drew upon his battered notebooks and unique recall to get it all down. Typing on a continuous roll of teletype paper, his stream of consciousness spilled out in one long inspired flow and soon a soulful vision of America arose from its pages.

Reflecting a romantic flipside of American society, its story is told through the impassioned narration of Kerouac’s alter-ego, Sal Paradise, who embarks on a spiritual quest across America, searching for the divine and finding it in the places he haunts, jazz music he eulogises, and people he touches souls with. A post-War gathering of malcontents lusting for life, mystical illumination, love and meaning amidst the crass materialism, sterile conformity and atom bombs.

Feted on its release six years later, the book’s success created a literary legend out of Kerouac, and immortalised his best boon buddy Neal Cassady, the dynamic inspiration behind the novels freewheeling hero, Dean Moriarty.

In 1990, Cassady’s widow Carolyn set down her own inside take on the Kerouac and Cassady mythos in her highly acclaimed autobiography Off the Road. In her role as a defender of their legacy, she has railed for years against what she sees as the inaccurate and shoddy mistreatment of Kerouac and Cassady’s lives by unscrupulous Hollywood filmmakers and screenwriters, whom she charges have too often reduced them to little more than glorified juvenile delinquents.

Excerpted from a series of interviews that were conducted at her apartment in Belsize Park, London, between February and May of 1998, the following segment focuses on Carolyn’s romances with the two charismatic soul brothers, and lifts the veil on their complex sexual psyches.

So let me get this straight, you weren’t physically attracted to Neal but you were to Jack. You loved them both but you werent in love romantically is that right?

Well there were times with Jack that I was, but I knew there was no point because there was Neal but yes. I don’t know what was going on with Jack ha ha. Neal could be romantic when it suited him but it wasn’t much for me except when he was trying to get back into my good graces ha ha then he could turn it on ha ha ha. That’s what got all the other girls.

But it seems incomprehensible that you and Neal got married and yet you werent physically attracted.

No, but as I said the reason I thought he was the one, aside from the karmic thing, was because he didn’t make passes. He was the only man I’d run into who didn’t have one thing in mind. So I thought this must be serious ha ha. That and he acknowledged that I had a mind. Course he knew what he was doing, he’d psyched me out immediately. He knew that wasn’t the way to come on.

You wouldnt have had any truck with that.

No, he could tell I must have gone through that and so he made a different approach and it worked ha ha, and then he was sorry ha ha ha. It worked too well ha ha. Whereas Jack would make passes at you and he wouldn’t mean to actually, the chemistry was there but there wasn’t any chemistry with Neal.

Well you seduced Jack the first time didnt you?

Not really, I just let it happen that’s all. We avoided each other like crazy because we had felt it in Denver and he said ‘too bad’ and it was discouraged because we were principled and nothing more was done about it. In those days we didn’t carry on. Now its ‘go ahead and seduce her’ ha ha, ‘why bother stopping it?’ But in those days we had principles so nothing was done. So eventually, what with the scene with Neal, I just thought ‘might as well let it happen.’

Thats quite a delicious feeling anyway isnt it, having that sexual frisson in the air and not acting upon it?

Oh well yeah it’s nice to be admired and wanted sort of, but I’d rather not ha ha ha. You can’t go on with it, you can’t do anything about it, but it did make us closer. I think I said in the book in those days the man had to make the first move and I also knew that Neal would get over it ha ha ha. But had it been anyone but Neal we wouldn’t have resisted. But the things Neal wrote in those letters about what I did with Jack aren’t true, they’re from jealousy. Yet the whole world’s gonna think they are. It’s one of those things you have to put up with. It’s difficult to read those letters. In some ways it’s my word against his.

You particularly weren’t happy with the way the director John Byrum depicted the love triangle between you Neal and Jack in the film Heartbeat were you?

No, and I told him ‘you’ve ruined my life, all you seem to do is let me hang around and watch you make a movie and tape my mouth shut’ and I did except for one time, and he did this three times in three scenes, where Jack and I are canoodling and Neal is out playing ball with the kids or something. Three times this scene. So after the first one Sissy Spacek and I were at the station wagon going to the next location and I said to her ‘y’know I promised not to say anything, but that was the hardest scene I have had to watch y’know, Jack and I loved Neal, we would never have done anything like that in front of him. The lack of humanity, as well as the showing off’ and she said ‘oh my God’ and burst into tears, and she had to do it two more times and it was that kind of thing, ‘whose turn is it tonight fellas?’ Because we didn’t admit it to ourselves much less anybody else, we were ashamed of it. So Jack and I never looked at each other when Neal was in the house because we cared for him. But the consciousness of people today is ’well it was a three-way…’

A ménage a trios!

Which it was! But it was certainly not acknowledged or discussed at all.

No, it wasnt like a Jules et Jim scenario.

Of course not ha ha. Actually Byrum had just seen Jules et Jim actually and this was what he wanted to do, in fact they almost made the T-shirts ‘Jules and Jim go to North Beach’ ha ha ha. I said ‘look it’s been done and it’s been done well, you can’t possibly do that, why not do my book?’

Speaking of movies, I always thought the person who shouldve played Neal years ago was Paul Newman – whenever I watch him playing Fast Eddie in The Hustler I always think of Neal.

Yeah, I think that’s more like Neal than anybody else. Newman’s handsomer but it’s the right blue eyes and the smile that would have been nice back then.

But also in Visions of Cody, that Denver pool scene always reminds me of that film.

Well I think they had thought of it as well ha ha, so I hear.

There’s a picture in your book where Neals tossing the hammer, and in profile he really looks like Paul Newman.

Yeah, well of course he had this broken nose but he had those bright blue eyes, that’s what’s so accurate. And Jack too had bright blue eyes.

But that rarely comes across because most of the photographs of him are in black and white. To have blue eyes with black hair, thats a great combination.

Oh my, a fatal combination ha ha ha. In fact there are few actors that have that combination. But Jack was swarthier and more handsome, more like a Clark Gable, he was fleshier is what I mean, had those fleshier cheeks. And he was a little ruddier than Neal who was quite pale.

Jack and Neal look very contemporary looking dont they, in the way that James Dean still does?

Well they never grew their hair ha ha ha. The one thing they did is have their hair cut, which is contemporary now. Now that men have started cutting their hair again and pulling their pony tails back. But the most popular picture of Jack is the one where he’s just come out of the shower, where his hair’s all messed up and that’s the one they used over and over. After that of course he just got drunker and drunker, but when I knew him he never had a hair out of place. He always had a comb. Boy he was always so finicky about his hair ha ha ha.

Well it was his crowning glory.

Right. It’s a shame because I like long hair and beards but Neal abhorred them. I’ve got a picture of him where he shaved his head. He came back from New York and got stoned and shaved it all off. I know about the beards because he had very sensitive skin and wouldn’t shave. Jack would be unshaven of course if he was drinking or they were working on the railroads. But I don’t think Jack ever grew a beard or a moustache or anything, he wasn’t very vain really. But it was an awfully quiet period for men in terms of being colourful. It was still very muscle-bound. Jack was more sort of agile but his muscle had turned to flab by the time I knew him. He wasn’t doing any exercise ha ha.

Jack is also often accused of suffering from a Madonna/Whore complex.

Mmm.. that turns out to assess him ha ha. Well I saw a lot of examples of that in Tristessa, because she’s a whore. But the thing that seriously impressed me reading it over was how vividly he describes his surroundings, no matter how miserable he is, every puddle, every crummy everything he gets down. It just makes such a vivid impression on his mind so you’re drawn into that horrible, creepy place but he doesn’t judge either his surroundings or these dreadful people that’s he’s involved with. Absolutely no judgment at all. But you see that he has loved this woman and he respected all women because of the Madonna thing. Also I was thinking about the tenderness, he was such a sensitive, tender hearted person and the compassion he felt for her is amazing, and he never says anything that isn’t admiring. He gives you clues that she must’ve been ghastly, but to him she’s the Madonna thing. Course they never did sleep together but his attitude towards whores was – and I think that’s why the only time he enjoyed sex – if at all – may have been because he rationalised the fact that they wanted it and they were asking for it and they were earning a living.

So he was helping them ha ha ha.

Justifying it yes. So he was just doing them a favour ha ha. So that way I think he could probably relax more.

Maybe because he figured that they were bad girls and so he could do bad things with a bad girl.

Well something like that, although I don’t think he ever thought anyone was bad. Even though he tells you about these men’s lives and things, he never judges or condemns them. Of course all the time I’m reading it and he describes this rooftop room I’m thinking ‘my God that’s where he wanted me to come!’ I mean he was trying to persuade me to join him. Oh I’m glad I didn’t go ha ha. But as Luanne (Henderson, Neal’s first wife) said ‘you never felt as though Jack was completely participating in the (sex) act’ ha ha. Part of that was he was always the observer no matter where he was, even when he was involved he wasn’t ever totally involved, he never surrendered. He couldn’t because he was just totally wrapped up in himself and in writing, that’s all he did. And in one letter he wrote to me he said “no woman owns me – not even you who should” and I always knew that of course. There was no way that he could ever be a husband, and I had to let him be completely free. I mean he lived in his head all the time. Yet he always wanted a home and a family. It was still a dream that he never lost, but it was all in his head!

There is a difference between loving somebody and being in love isnt there?

Yes I certainly know and with Neal I loved him but I wasn’t in love.

But the way you describe him, he is physically attractive.

Yes, but see I was a sexual cripple in that department too so that made a difference, but the chemistry wasn’t there with Neal, but I admired him artistically and aesthetically.

Like you would in an art class.

Right. I’m really sensitive to physical things but there’s been chemistry without that, it has nothing to do with aesthetics, there’s some sort of strange attraction we can’t explain and we call it chemistry.

But with Jack you were in love?

Yeah he knew and I knew. I loved him lots and lots. But that didn’t diminish my love for Neal, he knew I loved Neal, as he did, and that was important for him. That’s why he felt so safe too and why he could be more himself with me and Neal cos for one thing we weren’t asking him for anything. He knew I was safe and wasn’t gonna make demands or ask to marry him or anything. So that the best thing you could do was listen to him and that was fun. I loved hearing him talk and figure things out, and of course we exchanged ideas, but he didn’t have to approve of my opinion. But I don’t think he could ever surrender which is what you sort of have to do if you’re going to mate with someone. So we were very close and compatible, but I always felt that he was a separate entity, that I’d always be an outsider, an appendage. But also Jack talked about sex a lot and wanted Neal to write him about sex and he puts a lot in his books and I’m sure he thought about it a lot, but actually it probably was that sin thing at the back of his mind that he couldn’t really enjoy it or participate in it.

Thats what I meant about being with the prostitutes, it’s easier for him because for these women – sin is their business.

Yes, it’s easier, right. He could rationalise that, whereas with respectable women, I don’t know how he did it ha ha ha. But it wasn’t on his mind all the time either as it was with Neal. I think Jack mentioned sex so much because it was such a problem, such a dilemma and a guilt thing. He was always asking God “why did you create us just to die” ha ha ha. Y’know that was his problem. His God was not a loving father but the horrible judge.

The fire and brimstone type.

Yes. That you were born a miserable rotten worm and were never gonna get any better.

So thats why he embraced Buddhism.

Yes, but see that is a snare, a delusion, because of course he wasn’t a Buddhist. I’m sure that he loved all the imagery and what not, but the thing that caught him was that all this was nothing ha ha ha. So all his sensory stimulus, that he was so guilty of, the Buddhists said ‘it’s empty, it’s nothing’ so that became his reassurance. ‘It doesn’t even matter anyway and then were all gonna die’ but he never got that quite together because Buddha doesn’t believe in death so that for a Catholic was strange. But it gave him this out. This ‘oh well it doesn’t matter.’ Of course he didn’t follow anything else in the Buddhist tradition but that load of old escapism was very appealing to him. He certainly wouldn’t say he was a Buddhist at all, but he and Ginsberg were good at pronouncing all the names and getting the concepts ha ha.

They read the books ha ha.

Yes, ha ha. They read the books but didn’t quite get the message.

Author’s Bio:

Spencer Kansa has written for a variety of publications including Hustler, Mojo, Erotic Review, and The NME. His interviews with William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Paul Bowles and Herbert Huncke feature in Joe Ambrose’s book Chelsea Hotel, Manhattan (Headpress). He is the author of Wormwood Star, a biography of the American artist and occult icon, Marjorie Cameron (Mandrake of Oxford). His novel, Zoning, will soon be published by City of Recovery Press.  For more info:


Literature and the art of self-realisation

by Cila Warncke

To arrive where you are

To get where you are not

You must go by the way wherein there is no ecstasy

…In order to arrive at what you are not

You must go through the way in which you are not

And what you do not know

Is the only thing you know

And what you own

Is what you don’t own

And where you are

Is where you are not.

– T.S. Elliot

I was lucky. By the time I discovered that personal autonomy is one of those American tropes that gets full lip-service but absolutely no practical respect (see also: “all men are created equal” and separation of church and state), I’d read The Grapes of Wrath and it was too late. Already, tires on asphalt were singing and orange trees bloomed somewhere. There was also a dark undercurrent in Steinbeck’s prose, the murmured caution I might not survive the trip or, reaching an end, find what I was seeking.

The mythic American journey is a quest for self-realisation, a conscious effort to shake off the ties of convention and to seek truth through action. Henry David Thoreau showed the way when he went to Walden Pond to “suck the marrow out of life.” Note: it is okay to gather moss as you invent yourself. Movement, per se, is not the point. To actively choose a mode of being is what matters. Hunter S. Thompson put this as beautifully as I’ve seen, advising his kid brother: “Don’t think in terms of goals, think in terms of how you want to live. Then figure out how to make a living.” I first read those words on a bus rolling through the high plains outside Mexico City and they echoed in my head as we plunged south, through the impoverished streets of Acapulco to the wild beaches of Guerrero. It struck me that in all my years of work and education no-one ever suggested it is important to think about how to live. If I wanted any wisdom on that front I would have to find it on my own.

Inspiration is rare because twenty-first century America is obsessed with security. Running away to find yourself is disreputable. The joy of movement, of self-propulsion, is viewed with suspicion because it is antithetical to stability. If even a fraction of the dreamers shrugged off the encumbrance of property, life insurance and steady jobs the social order would collapse. So we’re allowed Easy Rider and On the Road, while being subtly shackled by 401(k) plans and 10 days per year paid vacation.

Daily life is full of opportunities to behave in familiar ways. The trick is to avoid doing so. This means taking a hard look at what convention has to offer, and refusing it. “This is why I left the States when I was 22,” rock icon Chrissie Hynde once remarked. “I saw that I was going to be trapped into buying a car so I could get to work so I could pay for my car.” Like all artists, she understands the vital importance of action, of embracing uncertainty. Such choices are fraught with insecurity; with the promise of bittersweet, intoxicating thrills.

“Nobody’s ever taught you how to live out on the street,” Bob Dylan hymns in Like a Rolling Stone, “And now you’re gonna have to get used to it.” Getting used to it is hard. If it wasn’t everyone would do it. Death and desperation drive the Joads; in Breakfast at Tiffany’s Holly Golightly runs from the wilderness to the glass canyons of New York City to the jungles of South America, never quite catching up to her dreams. Their journeys are tragic, not triumphal, yet the dream remains – wistful, stubborn – of California sunsets and the glint of diamonds. Travelling your own road requires a fervent belief in the infinite possibilities of freedom, but catastrophe and failure are always among the possibilities.

Vincent Van Gogh, who is unjustly dismissed as an ear-hacking auteur, wrote luminous, philosophical letters pondering his struggles to live with artistic integrity in a material world. “I think that most people who know me consider me a failure, and… it really might be so, if some things do not change for the better,” he wrote on his thirtieth birthday. “When I think it might be so, I feel it so vividly that it quite depresses me… but one doesn’t expect out of life what one has already learned that it cannot give.” What life, faced square on, cannot give is any assurance of a happy ending. There is powerful literary testimony to the fact that courage is no guarantor of success.

Martha Gellhorn, novelist and war-correspondent extraordinaire, knew this better than most. I’ve dragged her superb memoir, Travels with Myself & Another, across two continents as much for the spine-stiffening effect of her brusque prose as for her mordantly funny stories of ‘horror journeys.’ “Moaning is unseemly,” she concludes. “Get to work. Work is the best cure for despair.”

Contrary to popular belief, work matters to the wanderers. There is nothing lazy about going in search of experience. Hunter Thompson scraped, rowed and rolled across the Americas not because he didn’t want to work but because he wanted meaningful work. The tragedy of The Great Gatsby is that the idle rich flourish at the expense of hungry, intelligent young men who cannot find honest labour. Hell, even Dean Moriarty, “the most fantastic parking-lot attendant in the world,” pays for his adventure with stints of “working without pause eight hours a night.”

America trivialises the industry and vitality of people who carve their own paths because it needs well-rooted consumers to prop up its web of shopping malls, real estate brokers and HMOs. And because it is afraid of being called to account for broken promises about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In The Grapes of Wrath Steinbeck offers a deadly accurate diagnosis of establishment dread:

The Californians wanted many things, accumulation, social success, amusement, luxury, and a curious banking security, the new barbarians wanted only two things – land and food…. Whereas the wants of the Californians were nebulous and undefined, the wants of the Okies were beside the roads.

Land and food are buried deep in the heart of every personal saga. Even rolling stones need a resting place. (Kerouac first uses “beat” in the sense of beat-up, worn out, kicked around. Only later did it become a badge of honour.) Truth is, unhitching yourself from the comfortable yolk of everydayness is difficult business. It is an act of necessity, desperation even, undertaken by those who refuse to live half-lives. If you heed Thoreau’s injunction to “step to the music [you hear], however measured or far away,” you are liable to find yourself lost, cold, broke, alienated, adrift. Getting to California means crossing the cross the Great Divide. Like as not, your only encouragement along the way will be the books at the bottom of your rucksack. And faith the destination will prove worthy of the journey.


Capote, Truman Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Dylan, Bob ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ from Highway 61 Revisited

Eliot, T.S. ‘East Coker’ from Four Quartets

Gellhorn, Martha Travels with Myself & Another

Kerouac, Jack On The Road

Steinbeck, John The Grapes of Wrath

Thompson, Hunter S. The Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman

Thoreau, Henry David Walden

Van Gogh, Vincent The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh (ed. Mark Roskill)