From On the Road’s initial publication in 1957 to the release of its original scroll manuscript in 2007, the most persistent issue critics have faced when discussing Kerouac’s most well-known novel has been first establishing it as something that’s worthy of criticism at all. In a 1974 essay, George Dardess cites Norman Mailer’s dismissal of Kerouac as a writer who lacks “discipline, intelligence, honesty, and a sense of the novel”. “Why do students still want to read Kerouac,” Joshua Kupetz quotes a colleague in another essay on the novel in 2007. The rebukes of On the Road – that it has no structure, no definitive ending, is incoherent, and only works as a pop-culture relic – have endured along with the work’s popularity. But perhaps most problems reading On the Road exist because this real-life tale, the story of Kerouac and his friend Neal Cassady, is not best served by seeing the work through a literary lens, but instead by embracing the idea that On the Road occupies a unique space between memoir and fiction. More accurately, On the Road is a story that fits into a literary genre that would eventually become New Journalism, a style of non-fiction writing that’s characterized by literary gymnastics and intense, immersive reporting delivered to the reader through the subjective prism of the author’s own point of view. Continue Reading…
Archives For on the road
An interview with Bevin Richardson about his alternative The Dharma Bums book made from a seven 1.5 meter scroll painted in wine. Continue Reading…
A Negative Score on the Happiness List: The Economics of Hustling in Bonnie Bremser’s For Love of Ray
Bonnie Bremser’s road book For Love of Ray gives a harrowing account of the effects of poverty on travellers. Poverty seems a necessary part of the authentic road experience, since it involves exile from mundane existence and steady income. Like Jack Kerouac’s mythic progenitors Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, the duo around which the story revolves are penniless drifters on the road in Mexico. But Ray and Bonnie Bremser were newly married with a child, and so the text allows insight into their bohemian marriage. This article focuses on how the Beat path runs for the woman in the relationship, with differences becoming apparent when Bonnie begins to work as a prostitute in order to remedy their poverty. Continue Reading…
In Search of the Origin of Burroughs’ Mythical Trust Fund
From Beatdom #16
William S. Burroughs was always quick to observe that, thanks to the novels of Jack Kerouac, he had been saddled with the reputation of being a rather wealthy man. He once explained to an audience:
I have never been able to divest myself of the trust fund that [Kerouac] foisted upon me. I mean there isn’t any trust fund. There never was a trust fund. When I was not able to support myself… I was supported by an allowance from my family… my hard working parents who ran a gift and art shop in Palm Beach, Florida, called Cobblestone …
But you see Kerouac thought a trust fund was more interesting and more romantic. Let’s face it there was a very strong Sunday supplement streak in his mind. And he also saddled me with a Russian countess. Well, she was a bit easier to get rid of than the trust fund. And he nurtured the myth of the Burroughs millions. There are no Burroughs millions except in the company. And the family got nothing out of it… Continue Reading…
“If two things are two sides of the same coin, they are very closely related although they seem different”
– The Cambridge Dictionary
As one might guess, the name of the world’s most successful (Hotten) band in history – the Beatles – does not completely incidentally sound so similar to that of the influential group of writers that called themselves the Beat Generation. What one might not guess, however, is how manifold and deeply rooted their connections are.
It must be said from the outset that there are multiple stories surrounding the origin of the Beatles’ name. Stuart Sutcliffe, the so-called ‘fifth Beatle’, who was a study friend of John Lennon and only a part of the first beginnings of what would later become the Beatles, suggested they call themselves ‘the Beatals’ in January 1960, as a tribute to the then famous rock ‘n’ roll band Buddy Holly and the Crickets. In the months that followed this name changed to ‘the Silver Beetles’ (May), ‘the Silver Beatles’ (July), and eventually ‘the Beatles’ (August) (Lewisohn 18-22). John Lennon himself in 1961, before their enormous success came about, already rejected every notion of a ‘meaning’ behind the name:
Many people ask what are Beatles? Why Beatles? Ugh, Beatles, how did the name arrive? So we will tell you. It came in a vision – a man appeared on a flaming pie and said unto them, ‘From this day on you are Beatles with an ‘A’’. Thank you, Mister Man, they said, thanking him.
(qtd. in Coupe 131) Continue Reading…
In 2013 I was asked to review a book called The Stray Bullet, about William S. Burroughs’ years in Mexico. I described it as “unreadable,” which made it rather surprising when, a year and a half later, the publishers asked me to review another book by the same author and translator – Jorge Garcia-Robles and Daniel C. Schechter – called At the End of the Road: Jack Kerouac in Mexico. Garcia-Robles styles himself as the “leading authority on the Beats in Mexico” and as with the first book, this concerns a major Beat figure in the author’s homeland.
Naturally, I found myself dreading this book, as reading the Burroughs one had been little more than a chore. When I opened the front cover and saw that they’d credited a photo to one “Allan Ginsberg” (sic), I was sure that I was about to slog through another entirely incomprehensible text. Continue Reading…
It’s been an exciting few years for fans of the Beat Generation. Since Beatdom was founded, we have seen the release of a number of high profile movie adaptations (including Howl and On the Road), the publication of previously unpublished Beat works like The Sea is My Brother, and various major anniversaries (including the fifty years that have passed since Howl and On the Road were published, as well as the centenary of the birth of William S. Burroughs). Perhaps as a result of these events we have witnessed a revival of interest in the Beats, and as such a plethora of new critical works on their lives and art. Beat studies is thriving and the Beats are gaining respect as an important part of literary and cultural history. Continue Reading…
This essay originally appeared in Beatdom #15 – the WAR issue.
For about ten years after World War II Britain was a grey place. When Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady were gallivanting around the United States, the UK was recovering from Nazi bombing raids. Kids played in bomb craters and air-raid shelters. You could still find shell casings among the rubble and there were wrecked German Messershmitts in the fields. The big kids got the best bits.
It wasn’t until the end of the fifties that things started to change, and kids who’d been too young to die in the trenches came of age. TVs arrived in suburban homes, bringing American culture to the British youth. Brit pop music was pretty tame at first – Petula Clark, Frankie Vaughan – but it had potential. Then Bill Haley came over leaving a trail of smashed up cinemas, and Gene Vincent records appeared in the shops.
Proto-Beatniks were first spotted on the Aldermaston March. They were called Bohemians. There was a revival of traditional jazz among art students and a few bearded denizens of Soho pubs. Then Skiffle came along and whatever it was spread to the suburbs. Lonnie Donnegan got on TV with songs like Leadbelly’s “Rock Island Line” (“John Henry” was on the B-side) and suddenly England had a whole new sub-culture.
The spillover from places like Ken Colyer’s Club and Eel Pie Island followed… scruffy, hairy young people with bedrolls would find their way down to Brighton either by hitchhiking or by the infamous Milk Train from Victoria. It usually happened at weekends. They’d sleep on the beach under the pier or in upturned fishing boats on the hard pebbles and meet up in the fish market to share bottles of stolen milk and Mars Bars. Some of the beatnik chicks were quite attractive in a Bohemian kind of way. French actress style. It wasn’t that difficult to entice them into your sleeping bag; one at a time, of course.
Drugs? There weren’t many around. You could get a buzz off Dr. Collis Browne’s Mixture but speed and pot were hard to find. Acid was still some way in the future.
Primitive music was played there on the pebbles. Some people, like Davy Graham and Martin Wyndham, Wizz Jones (shoulder-length curly hair and owlish glasses), Clive Palmer (quiet, gaunt, and haunted), would have banjos and guitars. Somebody might show up with a battered trumpet. Perhaps there would even be enough instruments to make an impromptu band! Bemused old folk and other passersby on the sea front above would gather to watch this curious cultural phenomenon. Teddy Boys – working class lads in pseudo-Edwardian suits – would shout rude things at the Beatniks. Things like “Do you ever wash?” or “Get a bleedin’ ’aircut!” and “Are you a boy or a girl?”
Teds wore drape jackets, drainpipe trousers, and suede shoes with big crepe soles. They liked Gene Vincent and Elvis. Then the Mods came along, a younger group, who liked the Kinks, Small Faces, The Who, and early Reggae. They showed up like a shoal of piranha fish in their Fred Perry Polo shirts and parkas, driving Lambrettas and noisy little Vespas covered with superfluous headlights. They got a lot of media attention which annoyed the Teds, who had somehow morphed into Rockers while nobody was watching. They traded in their suits for leather jackets, bought motorbikes and rode around shouting rude things at the Mods.
It may have been youthful high-spirits, or excess testosterone. Historians are still puzzling over it. Or maybe the various fashion styles and musical tastes just didn’t mix well. Anyway, fights broke out which quickly became running battles, and it wasn’t long before the Great British Press was all over it. Coppers got in some weekend overtime with their truncheons. Arrests were made. Newspapers were sold. The public was shocked.
The Beatniks, being peaceful folk for the most part, stayed out of it. Some simply went home to read their copies of On the Road. Some decided to hitchhike to India in search of spiritual enlightenment and cheap hash. They in turn evolved into Hippies. Most of these young people eventually got jobs, started families and settled down in front of the telly. Some have since joined the old folk on the seafront where they sit in Regency shelters, feeding sliced bread to gulls and discussing the youth of today.
Passionate Kerouac starts off, “I’m praying that you’ll buy ON THE ROAD…”and then explains Dean as, “no dopey hot-rodder but a real intelligent (in fact, Jesuit) Irishman.” Come on, Mar, how can you resist? And Jack’s funny: “I’ll show you how Dean acts in real life.” Jack is going to show America’s best ever actor how to act, and he extends an invitation to visit Neal and the wife and kiddies. Far out, Jack, I wanna be there, too. And a bit of a PR man plugging The Subterraneans, his latest novel, which he notes can easily be turned into a play. And ambitious: “What I wanta do is re-do the theatre and the cinema in America.” Write on, Jack, give it “spontaneous dash.” He mentions Frank Sinatra and French cinema and all Jack’s ideas are dazzling, terrific, glorious ideas.
Jack—I love him forever for this—challenges the great Brando, the ex-boxer, “I coulda been a contender” Malloy. “Come on, Marlon, put up your dukes and write!” And what does Marlon do? Nothing. He never answers Jack’s letter.
Oh, MARLON, you coulda done it, you broke our hearts. Jack, we’re still feeling your pain.
Only one other person could have played Dean, and that would have been the wild, unorthodox, intelligent, rebellious, athletic, “frantic cat,” and Adonis of Denver, Neal Cassady. Art imitating life and life imitating art, and Neal just being Dean being Neal, an American original, as American as hot apple pie left on the windowsill to cool and snatched by a wayward cowboy.
One tiny be-it-too-late suggestion, Jack – you shoulda followed your letter with another letter from that public relations wiz, Master Ginsberg. Or better yet, sent Ambassador Ginsberg on a mission. How could Brando refuse?
On the set of the movie Heart Beat, the story of Carolyn Cassady’s relationship with Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, William S. Burroughs dwelled on the thought of Jack’s obsession with writing: “Who had killed Neal Cassady?” Dean Moriarty killed Neal Cassady. “He had died of exposure. And who had killed Jack Kerouac? A spy in his body known as Jack Kerouac the writer.” Life and art.
*Image by Isaac Bonan
“In those days I was writing a Joyce-like novel in which I was the Dedalus; and called myself Duluoz. Let’s do that now. Duluoz the Ladysman!”
– Jack Kerouac
The fiction of Jack Kerouac is heavily inspired by the work of James Joyce. He liked to compare himself and his work to Joyce, and his hero, Neal Cassady, was sometimes compared to Joyce in Kerouac’s letters. Indeed, Kerouac even took inspiration for his own literary persona from the name of Joyce’s alter ego, Stephen Dedalus, as indicated in the above quote.
Kerouac aspired to write a Joyce-like novel, to learn Italian like Joyce, and to do for Lowell what Joyce did for Dublin. He claimed that his stream-of-consciousness style, for which he ultimately became famous, was taken from Joyce, and that his early writing was simply “imitating Ulysses.” When he joined the Merchant Marine and travelled to the UK, he saw Ireland and was primarily amazed that he was laying his eyes upon Joyce’s homeland – something, he claims, that brought tears to his eyes.
Today is Bloomsday, 16th June, the day on which the novel Ulysses is set. Kerouac greatly admired this novel, and claims that it not only inspired his own classic, On the Road, but that his book was so similar it deserved the same sort of respect: “On the Road is inspired in its entirely…. I can tell now as I look back on the flood of language. It is like Ulysses and should be treated with the same gravity.”
Evidently, Joyce was of influence to the creation of the Beat ethos, which was initially established in 1944 with the “libertine circle” philosophy of the New Vision. Kerouac equated it to the work of James Joyce: “I prefer the new vision in terms of art–I believe, I smugly cling to the belief, that art is the potential ultimate. Out of the humankind materials of art, I tell myself, the new vision springs. Look at Finnegan’s Wake and Ulysses and The Magic Mountain.”