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Eating the Beat Menu

Words by Nick Meador

Illustration by Kaliptus

(from issue 10, available at Amazon)

Jack Kerouac’s books contain such a variety of subjects, styles, and voices that his readers have never shared many common characteristics. On the surface, many of Kerouac’s books seem to exude a tone of rebellion against mainstream culture and everything that comes with it, be it business, government, or religion. This voice speaks to the counterculture that has existed in the developed Western world since the 1950s. Similarly, Kerouac’s major works reflect his heavy interest in Buddhism during the ‘50s – an appealing characteristic to the hordes of young Americans disillusioned with their indoctrination under the various denominations of Christianity. Yet behind Kerouac’s Buddhist leanings remained his consistent views about Catholicism, as well as his constant mentions of Christian iconography in his writing. This voice calls to those who never fully departed from the Christianity or Judaism of their youth, often because of the painful experience of disagreeing with family tradition. What most readers don’t know is that Kerouac himself lived almost entirely in this religious mindset, spurning the counterculture altogether. Continue Reading…

Tristessa: Heavengoing

by Paul Arendt

 

Jack Kerouac’s surroundings invariably affected his writing style. Narrator Leo Percepied’s voice in The Subterraneans reflected Kerouac’s emergent interest in psychology, and the author’s vision of the stream-of-consciousness as a frantic and self-conscious purge. This interest in psychology found its way into Kerouac’s aesthetic. The result was a manic prose. The narrator tore into his thought patterns and behaviors with a seemingly psychotherapeutic authorial agenda. Kerouac’s application of psychological theory in his writing allowed him to move beyond the stylistic limitations of On the Road and truly engage the stream-of-consciousness. His psychological definition for the stream-of-consciousness was, however, a temporary one. Upon completing The Subterraneans, he began to immerse himself in Buddhism, and this markedly changed both his aesthetic and his theories on the human experience.

Kerouac wrote Tristessa in Mexico at the height of his Buddhist studies. Religious devotion calms the narrator, named simply Jack. He no longer focuses on sex, self-loathing and shame as he did in The Subterraneans but on chastity, compassion and religious devotion. Jack explores his feelings for Tristessa, a Native Mexican morphine addict. Using an active present tense he muses on love, piety and drug addiction while considering Tristessa’s relationship with Catholicism and his own relationship with Buddhism. The writer has spent years refining stream-of-consciousness technique in his novels and poetry. Tristessa is an embodiment of Kerouac’s stylistic goals; the narrator’s arrangement of suffering, compassion, and spiritual awareness makes it thematically mature.

Still, the text is often excluded in criticism. The limited scholarly work focuses primarily on Kerouac’s handling of race and gender. Often, critics are compelled to bind The Subterraneans and Tristessa into one story, one idea, as they both concern a narrator exploring the essence of a dark-skinned woman. Stylistically and thematically the texts are quite different.

With a Buddhist’s detachment, the narrator separates himself from Tristessa’s world of morphine and poverty. From his own world he offers observation and metaphysical contemplation. The self-conscious writer now becomes a selfless Buddhist student, one who uses Tristessa and her home to meditate on the subjects of sadness and balance. The writer’s focused consideration of these two subjects, sadness and balance, is evidence that Kerouac had truly become a craftsman, that his post-On the Road work should be considered more relevant in criticism. Each step he took to develop his style led to different and more refined stream-of-consciousness. This is overlooked in most critical studies of the author.

Benedict Giamo recognizes Kerouac’s “impressive creative outpour” after he had discovered Buddhism. In “Enlightened Attachment: Kerouac’s Impermanent Buddhist Trek,” he writes that Buddhism was a valuable and perfectly timed “inspiration for [Kerouac’s] ongoing spiritual-literary-artistic quest” (180). Giamo is one of only a few critics who have explored that quest and its effect on Kerouac’s style. Buddhism certainly took his writing in a different direction, but, perhaps more importantly for Kerouac, it “provided the means and conditions necessary for delivering one from the trepidations of mortal hopelessness” (Giamo, 2003 181). Kerouac did not go through this spiritual transition alone; the religion made sense to many Beat writers, especially poets Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder. Buddhism proves central to the seven books Kerouac wrote during his most productive period (1955-1957): The Scripture of the Golden Eternity, Some of the Dharma, Desolation Angels, Visions of Gerard, The Dharma Bums, his collection of poems Mexico City Blues, and Tristessa.

Kerouac took Buddhism very seriously. It was not a passing interest. He writes in Some of the Dharma, a recently published journal, of his daily reading of Buddha’s Diamond Sutra, his exploration of other ancient texts, his experiences with meditation. He engaged and applied Buddhist ideas in his daily writing. But, as Gregory Stephenson submits in The Daybreak Boys, even though Kerouac embraced a very disciplined lifestyle, books like Tristessa give a narrow view of his relationship with Buddhism. Stephenson writes that Kerouac’s “affinities with the teachings of the Buddha are largely limited to his unreserved acceptance of” the first noble truth of Buddhism: All life is suffering (Stephenson 34). Kerouac offers emotionally balanced writing in Tristessa and the possibility of transcendence, but the nature of the work aligns with the idea that Kerouac never moved too far away from this first truth, from a lifelong artistic intention to prove that life is sorrowful:

 

Tristessa says ‘How is Jack-?-’she always asks: ‘Why are you so sad? -muy dolorosa’” and as though to mean ‘You are very full of pain,’ for pain means dolor-‘I am sad because all la vida es dolorosa,’ I keep replying, hoping to teach her Number One of the Four Great Truths,-Besides, what could be truer (18). 

 

The narrator makes it clear that suffering is not a product of chance but a function of human existence. Kerouac’s emphasis on this first truth in Tristessa, though he was quite educated in wider Buddhist theory, divulges an extremely focused artistic usage, but other elements in Tristessa demonstrate a wider application.

Though he spends considerable time filling passages with evidence of the first truth, with images of sadness and corrosion, Kerouac is also intent on combating it through writing of a faith he has in a shared destiny of transcendence and a calibrated scale on which all events are inevitably weighed. These attempts to combat sadness yield a wider usage of Buddhist theory as the narrator considers the idea of balance, divine compensation. He creates a surreal, almost dreamlike sorrow with Tristessa’s afflictions in the physical world – drug addiction, helplessness, poverty – but consistently emphasizes the harmony and amelioration to be found in the metaphysical world: “Bright Explanations of the crystal clarity of all the Worlds, I need to show that we’ll all be all right” (34). These bright explanations oppose, and perhaps make neutral, the dark observations.

As he considers the sad state of affairs in Tristessa’s home, Kerouac reasons with the subject matter by projecting onto it Buddhist Truth, Catholic symbol, and a conviction he has in an organizing principle. This organizing principle is a compassionate and neutralizing force, a mixture of Catholic God and Buddha which Kerouac began to assemble as he wrestled with a cultural homelessness, unsatisfied with the spiritually atrophied America he saw from the margins. The different parts of the religious mixture can be isolated and separated, but in the story they complement each other; they blend into each other to form a unified spiritual light that illuminates Kerouac’s writing, guides his romantic recollection with absolute language and a dual project: capturing the magnitude of sadness and balancing it on a scale. The emotional cadence of the story is determined by Kerouac’s constant juxtaposition of negative woeful image with positive multi-religious prose burst. Most of Kerouac’s attention seems to be on balancing pain with reward, on the construction of theories that rely on divine compensation, combat the pain, and function as an opposing weight on his scale. Paradoxical words, opposing emotive energies and balance are the new patterns which Kerouac uses in his stream-of-consciousness.

Kerouac is often seen as an improviser, but even they who pull art from the air in improvisation work from patterns. These patterns give an artist order and control in what seems to be random, chaotic, improvised expression. In “Revision, Prevision, and the Aura of Improvisatory Art,” David Sterrit notes how “extemporaneous creation is tempered in practice by realities of repetition” (171). Kerouac’s patterns in small, descriptive phrases reflect the emotional patterns in large passages and the intersecting “realities of repetition” that exist on, and outside, the page. The patterns of sadness and corrosion begin with the narrator’s initial description of the Mexico he sees around him. He travels through “the whore street district,” the “poor district of Rome” (9). Tristessa’s home is a “tenement cell-house” with “dripping faucets and pails” and “rain still falling from the leaves and boards that served as the kitchen roof” (9).  It is full of “chicken garbage” with wild animals sitting in their own filth, like the “little pink cat taking a little pee on piles of okra and chickenfeed” (9). The room is “ransacked as by madmen,” and the writer cannot adequately explain “the awfulness of that gloom in the holes in the ceiling” (12). From the streets to Tristessa’s tenement, Kerouac begins to lay out the indefatigable power of corrosion that will drive his story and function as a giant weight on one end of his scale.

During this impressionistic tour of Mexico, the writer introduces Tristessa as a walking paradox of sorts, a figure of beauty and corrosion, piety and sadness, a tortured angel. She is “high, beautiful as ever, goin home gayly to go to bed and enjoy her morphine,” yet her first words are “I am seek (7, 8).” In his first physical descriptions of her, Kerouac writes, “gorgeous ripples of pear shape her skin to her cheekbones, and long sad eyelids, and Virgin Mary resignation” (8). In this one description the reader finds the three key elements that shape his complex vision of Tristessa and what she represents: sexual beauty, sadness, and religious devotion. These elements are projected onto her throughout the story in descriptive patterns.

Descriptions of Tristessa contain paradoxes, disharmony, words and images that sit in direct opposition. She is a “sad mutilated blue Madonna,” and a “bundle of death and beauty,” whose face is “so expressive of the pain and loveliness that went no doubt into the making of this fatal world” (73, 52). In “We’re On the Road to Nowhere: Steinbeck, Kerouac, and the Legacy of the Great Depression,” Jason Spangler submits that the “melancholic mixture of possibility and disenchantment” in Kerouac’s work originated in the author’s childhood (310). The humbling forces of the Great Depression, and a catastrophic flood in his hometown Lowell, Massachusetts paved the way for these conflicting “realities of repetition” in Tristessa. As she simultaneously embodies the highest and the lowest, the corroded and the pure, as a tortured angel junky Tristessa seems a fitting subject for a meditation on the disharmony Kerouac sees in the human experience.

Kerouac’s descriptive patterns reflect his Buddhist understanding of illusion in the physical world: “everything is nothing” (32). This understanding is amplified in unforgiving paradoxes like “born to die BORN TO DIE I could write it on the wall and on Walls all over America …beautiful to be ugly…glad to be sad” and “living but to die, here we wait on this shelf” (32,42). Gregory Stephenson also notices these patterns and narrative tendencies in Tristessa. He finds that the phrases and passages in physical and emotive conflict with each other “represent both a microcosm of the dichotomies and contradictions of existence and a projection of [Jack’] inner conflicts” and they are all “emblematic of the irreconcilable duality of the world, its disunity and its disharmony” (Stephenson 34-5). The larger disharmony seems a more important subject than Tristessa’s specific disharmony; the narrator sees a world of Tristessas. But he can be the cause of Tristessa’s transcendence, and his own, through testifying to her holiness and the holiness of all.

The narrator faces the “irreconcilable duality” of the physical world, its paradoxes. He concludes that all the dualities, paradoxes and binaries are but mental fictions, illusions. His patterns of disharmony, his consistent emphasis on poverty, sadness, corrosion, contradiction, are balanced out by his use of spiritual conclusions. These conclusions appear often in prayers of lament: “Ah Above, what you doin with your children?…your stolen children you stole from your mind to think a thought because you were bored or you were Mind” (88). In his last thoughts the narrator writes “O movie – A movie by God…this is my part of the movie, let’s hear yours” (96). These conclusions function throughout the story as rifts that separate torrents of sad images, and they function as strategically placed punctuation marks. The first punctuation mark comes after setting up Tristessa’s home, addiction and sickness:

 

It’s gloom as unpredicted on this earth, I realize all the uncountable manifestations the thinking-mind invents to place wall of horror before the pure perfect realization that there is no wall and no horror just Transcendental Empty Kissable Milk Light of Everlasting Eternity’s true and perfectly empty nature (16).

 

This kind of verbal mathematics exists throughout the story. Tristessa’s pain, and Kerouac’s pain as witness, is inevitably neutralized through conclusions that seek to add holy illumination to a wretched mortal darkness, to qualify an organizing principle. In this moment, like many others, Kerouac leans on the infinite and absolute in his language, “uncountable manifestations” and “Everlasting Eternity,” the stillness of it all having a “perfectly empty nature.” Once these kind of moments begin repeating themselves, the reader can see them as another refrain, an always-applicable chorus to drown out the patterns of the saddest tune in all the world. Immediately, Kerouac begins arranging new images of sadness: a “dead dog in the gutter,” followed by “beggars on the sidewalk with no hats looking at you helplessly,” and a little girl next door “praying little woeful squeals enough to make a father’s heart break” (17). These knots are untangled in a similar manner. Absolute language amplifies the narrator’s spiritual conviction and his belief in a calibrated balance “that recompenses all that pain with soft reward of perfect silent love” (33).

This pattern continues as Tristessa’s woe becomes larger, and more specific. The narrator becomes increasingly reliant on his own vision of God, Buddhism, and the absolute language necessary to qualify them:

 

It makes me cry to realize Tristessa has never had a child and probably never will because of her morphine sickness (a sickness that goes on as long as the need and feeds off the need and fills in the need simultaneously, so that she moans from pain all day and the pain is real, like abscesses in the shoulder and neuralgia down the side of the head and in 1952 just before Christmas she was supposed to be dying) holy Tristessa will not be cause of further rebirth and will go straight to her God and He will recompense her multibillionfold in aeons and aeons of dead Karma time (22-3). 

 

This burst of writing builds again upon woeful images, but with a familiar formula. The facts of her life get worse and worse. The emotional content increases and increases, as does the need for absolute, conclusive theory. First Kerouac presents the image of Woman without Child, an image that is a result of an incapability. Tristessa has been denied a feminine function and instead must carry out a unisexual function of sadness. The morphine has replaced her sexual inclinations and her desire to procreate. Next, her incapability is placed into a circle of futility, evoking the ouroboros snake eating its tail to represent the cyclic prison of her drug addiction. Then comes an image of physical corrosion with Tristessa, beautiful and young, defaced by the drugs that control her. Finally an image of Tristessa dying on Christmas, an image of sadness gaining emotive power from the mention of religious celebration and thoughts of a suffering Christ. As is the rhythm of Tristessa, these images are neutralized by a final image of God, heaven, balance. Tristessa is rewarded, removed from the cycle of reincarnation. His attempt to sanctify Tristessa’s world is part of Kerouac’s balancing act as he considers a shared world and weaves images of mortal collapse with images of divine construction.

Kerouac scholar Robert Hipkiss writes that the narrator’s goal is to “minister to Tristessa’s condition with a dose of innocent faith,” though she is given much more than a dose (Hipkiss 7). Similarly, Benedict Giamo submits that Kerouac’s “compassionate response to [Tristessa] causes him to sanctify her world from the profane perspectives of abject poverty, drug addiction and junk-sickness-unto-death” (Giamo, 2000 104). This compassionate response is more evidence for Giamo that Kerouac’s writing became more complicated and more significant as he became more spiritually driven to write. This is the part of Kerouac’s catalogue that should invite more critical attention. His attempt to sanctify Tristessa’s world is part of his balancing act as Kerouac considers a shared world and weaves images of mortal collapse with images of divine construction.

This particular divine construction, that of Tristessa being rewarded for her pain and suffering with “dead Karma time,” comes from Kerouac’s own vision of the Buddhist idea of karma, the highest balance. Often credited with bringing Buddhism to the West, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso defines karma in these terms: “Every action we perform leaves an imprint, or potential, on our very subtle mind, and each karmic potential eventually gives rise to its own effect” (Gyatso 9). But Kerouac seems to think that each one of Tristessa’s actions and trials leaves an imprint directly on “her God.” In Kerouac’s interpretation of karma, Tristessa is not being rewarded for exhibiting positive action but for being so inundated with negative experience. The spiritual theories he imports are adjusted to fit into, or complement, his Catholic foundation.

In a scene where Tristessa runs out of morphine, she points to the sky and compliments Kerouac’s karmic theories. ‘So I geev every-things I have to my friend, and eef he doam pay me back…my Lord pay me back…More’” with Kerouac adding “as the spirit swims around the room I can tell the effective mournful horror of it (her reward is so thin) now I see radiating from the crown of her head innumerable hands that have come from all ten quarters of the Universe to bless her.” He concludes “her Enlightenment is perfect” (57). He also envisions a universal understanding of karma as he watches young Mexican baseball players, writing how “they wonder ‘Did I make a bad play in the fifth inning? Didn’t I make it up with that heet in the seventh inning?’” (43). Even Old Bull Gaines, a minor character who passes like a ghost, must find a delicate balance of chemicals to get to sleep, mixing morphine, codeine, coffee and cigarettes to find the Nirvana of sleep (48). Each separate element in the story challenges the author to find a place for it in a balance. Kerouac even balances an active, present tense narrative in the first half of the story with a reflective, past tense narrative in the second.

Indeed the most noticeable element in Tristessa is religion, its spiritual intent, its attempt to speak with a religious voice. The narrator lays out a complicated multi-religious network and ornaments Tristessa, her friends, her country, even the animals in her home, with Catholic and Buddhist symbols and sentiment. Kerouac’s mystic and reclusive nature provided him with years of solitude to practice Buddhist meditation and prayer. He withdrew from society. Tristessa is a product of that solitude, that mixture of spiritual introspection and detachment.

Kerouac weaves his Catholic upbringing and the ubiquitous Catholic imagery in Mexico into his new interest in Buddhist theory; he balances the imagery, precepts and metaphysical theories of these two religions, mixes them with his own unique language play and American poetics, and projects them onto subjects and objects as he writes. Though many of the narrator’s conclusions draw from Buddhist theory, he never wholly commits to Buddhism as an exclusive, superior means for understanding mortal trial. Benedict Giamo sees a tremendous value in Kerouac’s religious pluralism. He writes that after Kerouac’s “long and passionate engagement with Catholicism and Buddhism-amid a post-Nietzschean world spun out of divine orbit” he began ”craving for belief and devotion to affirmative conceptions of the sacred in human life” (Giamo, 2003 202). As Americans transitioned from their introduction to apocalyptic military power in World War II to the fear and confusion of the Cold War, Kerouac’s “affirmative conceptions of the sacred in human life” became all the more significant for his readership. He did not simply advocate intellectual resistance to mass American culture, he advocated the heavens when God seemed to be dead, or like Tristessa’s white dove (“God the Dove”), sitting “in nest ever contemplating the entire scene forever without comment” (25). Giamo also ranks Kerouac’s expression of Buddhism “among the most innovative evocations and energetic expositions of traditional Eastern belief in modern American literature” (Giamo, 2003 174).

Later in his life, when an interviewer asked Kerouac what the difference was between Jesus and Buddha, he answered “There is no difference” (Berrigan 68). While Kerouac isolates a pattern of sadness, and offers a thematic pattern in prayer, he ends up emphasizing what Giamo calls “the direct subjective experience of the divine as a living reality.” The reader can “pivot freely between the living Christ and the living Buddha, for each…manifests an imminent holiness in humankind” (Giamo, 2000 112). The narrator sees the names, the weight of each figure in religious history, as one name, one weight, and the emotive power in his language comes directly from the force of religious energies combined, the force of a writer who is writing of his faith, his private spiritual theories.

In Tristessa Kerouac advocates a Buddhist approach to his American readers, and while documenting his experiences with that approach he rejects the American sociocultural norm.  This rejection is also a pattern in Kerouac’s catalogue, as it is in other Beat Generation texts. Kerouac writes of the inner world, what could potentially happen inside that world. His commitment to self-exploration, self-cultivation and widening his own spiritual capacity anticipates the tremendous interest Americans have in Buddhism, yoga, acupuncture, imported wisdom. Allen Johnson writes of the significance of the Beat Generation authors in terms of the effects their resistance to typical American spirituality and ambition had on both the intrinsic and social consciousness of their readers. “The Beat rejection of consumerist aspirations and the existing economic order helped open the way for a critical perspective on modernity that still influences those who feel alienated from the dominant culture” (Johnson 122). The monkish and contemplative lifestyle Kerouac describes in his books offered an alternative, and therein lies the social significance of the Beat Generation. Due to critical emphasis upon On the Road, the scope of that social significance and intellectual resistance has been limited to wanderlust, drugs, jazz and hip language. The Beat writers moved away from the sensory pleasures found in On the Road; their critics did not.

Johnson sees writers like Kerouac giving his readers permission, through their writing, to look for a new angle. Similarly, Stephen Prothero contends “the Beats were spiritual protesters as well as literary innovators” (208). He believes this should make them more significant in conversations outside the literary sphere. He argues that the critical world should pay more attention to the curiously sustainable writers and poets of the Beat Generation and their contributions to the spiritual atmosphere of succeeding generations. Kerouac and the Beats “responded to the challenge of religious pluralism by conjuring out of inherited and imported materials a wholly new religious vision” (Prothero 220). Like the transcendentalists, who have solidified a place for themselves in American religious history, Kerouac made “contact with the sacred on the nonverbal, transconceptual level of intuition and feeling” and then transmitted what he found into his writing (Prothero 220). For this he, and other beat generation authors, should be included in discussions about American religious history. Their work helped to bring Buddhism into American intellectual and theological discussion, and contributed to the widening of a country’s religious landscape. This is not a common angle for literary criticism on Jack Kerouac, because to consider his application of spiritual theory would require a consideration of how his aesthetic developed over many years and projects.

Kerouac never turned his back on Catholicism. In Tristessa he places it right beside Buddhism to show them as flowers from the same stem, as two dogmatic systems that can synthesize the same world, the same ephemeral and convincing illusion, in similar ways. Kerouac writes “the Buddhas and the Virgin Marys are there reminding me of the solemn pledge of faith in this harsh and stupid earth” (16). The narrator swears “on the Bible on God on Buddha” (71). After lighting a cigarette with one of Tristessa’s prayer candles, he makes “a little French prayer: ‘Excuse mue ma ‘Dame’ – making emphasis on Dame because of Damema the Mother of Buddhas” (30). When watching moments of religious ritual, be it Tristessa praying for morphine or lighting a candle, he is quick to blur the line between East and West. “The Virgin Mary has a candle, a bunch of glass-fulla-wax economical burners that go for weeks on end, like Tibetan prayer-wheels” (11). A Catholic image is, more often than not, immediately followed with a Buddhist image. While briefly considering Tristessa as a sexual partner, a lover, a third wife, Kerouac finds her “lodged in the Virgin Mary, and her love of wish-for-me,” which “makes her as mysterious as the Tathagata whose form is described as being…as inscrutable as the direction in which a put-out fire has gone” (54). Tristessa is sexually unattainable, which the narrator romantically equates to holiness and purity. The writer then makes another quick association to Buddha essence, the Tathagata. Kerouac does not disregard his childhood religion, does not simply replace it with his current Buddhist interests, but incorporates it into the story with balance, seemingly matching image for image, symbol for symbol, god for god.

Religious balance is also seen in the way Kerouac expands the idea of sentience to bring into the narrative the animals in Tristessa’s home: a hen, a rooster, a dog, a cat, and a dove. Kerouac ornaments the human characters, Tristessa, her sister Cruz, their friend El Indio, with Catholic images. This human Catholicism is balanced by animal Buddhism. Kerouac projects onto each animal some kind of Buddhist nature, allowing the animals to participate in dialogue, and meditate on metaphysical subjects with superior understanding. The cat is “meditating among our mad endeavors like the Dove above” (29). He says, in Spanish, “Your cat is having golden thoughts,” assuming that as the cat is observing the filthy apartment, the daily drinking and morphine sicknesses, she understands everything completely, and knows all is still well (30). The dog has her own “reflections on the subject of Nirvana and death” (32). Kerouac also uses the dog to serve as an example of the trappings of impure thoughts. The dog howls in pain.  “Tristessa says she’s in heat and that’s why she cries” (13). The hen “walks around the golden kitchen of Time in huge Nirvana” (20). When pecked by its holy beak the narrator notes “what a gentle touch it is from Mother Maya,” and sympathetically calls the animal a “poor sentient being” (34,20). “God The Dove,” representing the silent organizing principle, is resting “in nest, ever contemplating the entire scene forever without comment” (25). The Buddhist animals, the Catholic angels and saints, the narrator’s own dogmatic amalgam, “it’s all taking place in one vast mind” (35). Expanded sentience works to balance Catholicism with Buddhist image and sentiment, and to reaffirm that all is well. In a way the narrator tries to prove that everyone, and everything, is practicing some kind of Buddhism, and they all know it without knowing it.

Though the thematic energies in Tristessa are balanced, and the language more elegant than in his previous works, the reader can still see traces of Kerouac’s old habits, residue from his psychological experience with The Subterraneans. When the narrator begins to wonder what Tristessa is thinking, worried she will judge him for the way he spends his money, he stops himself before the writing becomes overly self-conscious, “no time to think,” and continues on without incident (9). Aware of the trappings of sexuality, pleasure-seeking, powerful moments where the mind is controlled by the body, he writes of his experiment with chastity early in the story and how it will allow him to transcend the shallow flesh: “I have sworn off lust with women,- sworn off lust for lust’s sake,-sworn off sexuality and the inhibiting impulse- I want to enter the Holy Stream and be safe on my way to the other shore” (22). He understands the psychic boulders that could potentially dam the stream-of-consciousness. He understands that his neuroses will appear in his writing. By eliminating women and sex from his life, by eliminating the whole world of The Subterraneans, by moving away from its darkness, its sexual objectives, its ruinous cycle of sin and self-conscious reflection on sin, he can allow the stream to flow upward.

The line separating self-conscious participation and selfless observation can be seen more clearly as Kerouac reverts, in brief moments, back to his old self-conscious style. He becomes increasingly preoccupied with his own sexual feelings for Tristessa as the first section winds down; he begins to focus on himself, his place in the story. There is very little action in Tristessa. The narrator observes from the outside. Once he begins to think about participation, especially in the form of romantic pursuit, the content shifts abruptly, regresses back to the habits of neuroses-laden narrator Leo Percepied in The Subterraneans.

 

I don’t want to disgust Tristessa – It would horrify me to cause her ruinous fleshpetal tender secrets and have her wake up in the morning lodged against the back of some unwelcome man who loves by night and sleeps it off, and wakes up blearing to shave and by his very presence causes consternation where before there was absolute perfect purity of nobody (55).   

 

Jack finds so many moral flaws in his imagination when Tristessa resounds in his mind as an object of sexuality, and not a subject of sadness and religious devotion. The familiar self-loathing narrator returns in this moment. The balance begins to disappear as self-consciousness and thoughts of sexual conquest infiltrate the writing. He writes, “It’s all my own sin if I make a play for her,” for if he does make that play for her she would be nothing more than “a material witness to my murderous lust” (54). To curb his thoughts, to paint them as futile and empty gestures of the mind, he leans on the idea of Tristessa as a holy figure, a nun, a saint, an angel, a nonsexual idea that in its enlightenment floats above that kind of toil. “I play games with her fabulous eyes and she longs to be in a monastery” (58).

Tristessa’s second chapter finds Kerouac again returning to the Self, his personal trials, and thoughts of sexuality. This time he reiterates the Oedipus complex seen in The Subterraneans, and explicitly references his mother as he waves goodbye to unattainable and holy Tristessa: “I’ve screwed everything up with mama again, Oedipus Rex, I’ll tear out my eyes in the morning,” concluding that he is always “the positional son in woman and man relationships” (93). Perhaps this turn, or return, is inevitable in any of Kerouac’s works given that he is more often than not applying the self-conscious technique of the stream-of-consciousness, but the momentum gained by his observations in this text seems to disappear as the writer makes himself the subject at the end of each section. The fact that this happens so infrequently in Tristessa may be a testament to Kerouac’s Buddhist lens, as he tried in the middle of the 1950s, shortly before becoming a famous author, to place some distance between his spiritual experience and his physical experience.

Stylistically, and thematically, Tristessa was an achievement of Kerouac’s. It harmonizes the blurring melodies of the stream-of-consciousness style with long, overarching thematic drones. He created space for the drug-sick to have humanity and soul, though they struggle with the will in mortal skin. He welcomed imported spiritual wisdom during the peak of twentieth century American xenophobia. He concentrated his energies on compassion. Kerouac relied on his typing speed in The Subterraneans, and the result was engrossing and manic, but the story does not move far beyond the narrator’s ego. Tristessa, however, contains the same narrative energy, a signature of the stream-of-consciousness narrative energy, but it is ornamented with expansive thematic significance, and a thoughtfulness, for which the author should be known.

 

Conclusion

 

Jack Kerouac’s writing is a reflection of the maddening times he lived in, of the changing American realities in the twentieth century. He turned to the stream-of-consciousness, while turning away from ordinary American life and writing conventions. He retreaded inward, behind the eyes, and ensconced himself in the inner world because the external world was threatening, unsatisfactory, controlled. He discovered his own unique literary form; once he focused on the spiritual world, he successfully integrated significant content and profound insight into that form in works like Tristessa, Big Sur, and Visions of Gerard.

On the Road was published at the right time to speak for a collective unconscious, to guide a countercultural movement, but generations later we can see that timing also hid Kerouac’s post-road work in a haze of negative criticism and tunnel-vision emphasis on one lonely text. On the Road is well-written; Dean is a beautiful character. It is a period piece, he a timeless eccentric. Today people still reach for something when they read it, something that is gone.

While timing made Kerouac famous, it also made him simple. There was pressure placed upon him to embody the “beat generation.” All the positive and negative energies of this movement were projected onto him, and onto his famous travel novel. Six years after writing the novel—having become a spiritually driven prose poet, a quiet Buddhist wanderer, a prolific author with a style entirely his own—Kerouac was forced back into the skin he had shed. He was often asked to justify On the Road, qualify “his generation;” he was never taken seriously as an author, but was dismissed as some kind of spokesman for a small percentage of the American youth.

He is rarely allowed in the classroom; in the sphere of literary criticism he is rarely allowed his many dimensions, or his genius. He resounds as a simplified sociocultural figure, an icon, and not as an important American author.  Jack Kerouac, writer of the inner world in the twentieth century, rich with psychological and spiritual layers, a writer who harnessed the musical texture of language, who saw the synergy of poetry, prose and sonic melody. There is much to learn from his work. So many roads to take with him as a guide. So many roads, if only we get off the beaten path, the road often traveled that cuts across a flat earth, leave it and be heavengoing.

 

Works Cited

 

Berrigan, Ted. “The Art of Fiction: Jack Kerouac” Conversations with Jack Kerouac Ed.   Kevin J. Hayes, Jackson: UP of Mississippi, 2005. 51-81.

Giamo, Benedict. Kerouac, the Word and the Way: Prose Artist as Spiritual Quester, Carbondale:   Southern Illinois UP, 2000.

————.“Enlightened Attachment: Kerouac’s Impermanent Buddhist Trek.” R&L 35:2 (2003).    173-205.

Gyatso, Geshe Kelsang. Eight Steps to Happiness: The Buddhist Way of Loving Kindness, Glen       Spey: Tharpa Publications, 2000.

Hipkiss, Robert A.. Jack Kerouac: Prophet of the New Romanticism, Lawrence: Regents Press       of Kansas, 1976.

Johnson, Allen. “Consumption, Addiction, Vision, Energy, Political Economies and Utopian          Visions in the Writings of the Beat Generation” College Literature 32:2 (Spring 2005)    103-126.

Kerouac, Jack. Tristessa, New York: Penguin, 1992.

Prothero, Stephen. “On the Holy Road: The Beat Movement as Spiritual Protest.” HTR 84:2           (1991) 205-22.

Spangler, Jason. “We’re on the Road to Nowhere: Steinbeck, Kerouac, and the Legacy of the         Great Depression.” Studies in the Novel, 40: 3 (Fall 2008) 308-27.

 

Stephenson, Gregory. The Daybreak Boys: Essays on the Literature of the Beat Generation,            Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1990,

Sterritt, David. “Revision, Prevision, and the Aura of Improvisatory Art.” The Journal of   Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 58:2 (Spring, 2000) 163-72.

 

Death Within a Chrysalis

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.


Footnotes

[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. http://www.erowid.org/plants/mushrooms/mushrooms.shtml

[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. http://www.erowid.org/chemicals/alcohol/alcohol_article1.shtml#pulque

[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. http://www.levity.com/aciddreams/docs/dearcoach.html

[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. http://www.erowid.org/plants/peyote/peyote.shtml

[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. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nausea_%28novel%29

[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. http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/europe/article6926971.ece

[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. http://www.medscape.org/viewarticle/418882_4

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

[42] “Schizoid personality disorder.” BehaveNet. Undated. Accessed on 6/9/2011. http://www.behavenet.com/capsules/disorders/schizoidpd.htm

[43] “Schizotypal personality disorder.” BehaveNet. Undated. Accessed on 6/9/2011. http://www.behavenet.com/capsules/disorders/schizotypalpd.htm

[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.

Jack Kerouac’s Visions of Gerard

By Kristin McLaughlin

Without Gerard, what would have happened to Ti Jean? – Jack Kerouac[1]

Visions of Gerard is Kerouac’s prolonged meditation on his older, saintly brother Gerard, who died at the age of nine (Jack was four at the time) of rheumatic fever.  As the cornerstone of the Dulouz legend, Visions of Gerard, along with Maggie Cassidy and Dr. Sax, deals with Kerouac’s early life in Lowell, Massachusetts.  Most biographers agree that though Kerouac left Lowell after high school, he never left it emotionally.  That was where his heart remained.  In 1963, six years before his death, he said, “I have a recurring dream of simply walking around the deserted twilight streets of Lowell, in the mist, eager to return to every known and fabled corner.  A very eerie, recurrent dream, but it always makes me happy when I wake up.”[2]

Kerouac was born in March 1922 at 9 Lupine Road in Centralville, one of Lowell’s neighborhoods on the north side of the Merrimack River.  Lowell had its hay-day during the late 19th/early 20th century when the banks of the river were crowded with textile mills.  By the time Jack was born, however, Lowell was already declining as the mills began to close.

He was the third child of Leo and Gabrielle Kerouac, both French-Canadian immigrants who had met and married in Nashua, New Hampshire.  Leo owned a print shop in Lowell and was “a hearty, outgoing burgher”[3] and Gabrielle, known to everyone as Mémêre, conducted the household in a Quebecois patois known as joual.  For one of the most influential American writers of the 20th century, Jack didn’t learn English until he went to school.

Kerouac’s mother played an important – perhaps unhealthily important – role in his life.  He told biographer Anne Charters that his mother was the only woman he ever loved.  She was devoutly Catholic, and wore religious medals attached to the strap of her slip.  After Gerard’s death, she became fiercely protective of Ti Jean (as Jack was known), and that continued throughout his life.  While his father seemed indifferent and occasionally hostile to organized religion and its messengers, Mémêre instilled in the Kerouac children a religious sensibility that is apparent in all of Kerouac’s writings.  Religion, his mother, and his background as a child of working-class immigrants profoundly affected him, his writing, and his worldview.  Though he did a lot of things that could be viewed as the antithesis of those influences, it’s clear in his writing that those influences were always there.

In Visions of Gerard, Kerouac seamlessly blends dream and reality to create a “book of sorrows.”[4] Though evidence suggests that most of the scenes in Visions of Gerard do not stem from Kerouac’s real memories, he manages to meld his few recollections, his dreams and visions, his mother’s romanticized anecdotes and his own imaginings into a tribute to a dying brother.  To Jack, Gerard really was angelic.

One story related of Gerard is that he once found a mouse in a trap that was still alive.  Horrified that someone would do this to one of God’s creatures, he brought the mouse home, bandaged it up and took care of it.  Before long the cat found the mouse and ate it, leaving only the tail behind.  Gerard scolded the cat, but not in the mean way you would expect from a child.  Instead, Gerard gives the feline a lecture that it shouldn’t harm others.  Leo tries to explain to the boy that that happens in life – we eat things that are smaller than us.  But Gerard wants none of it.  “We’ll never go to Heaven if we go on eating each other and destroying each other like that all the time! – without thinking, without knowing.”[5]

As stated earlier, Gerard died of rheumatic fever, an inflammatory disorder affecting the heart, joints, skin, and nervous system that can develop after a Group A streptococcal infection such as strep throat or scarlet fever.  Though he was in a great deal of pain, particularly towards the end of his life, Kerouac does not put the boy’s suffering in the forefront.  Gerard, in his saintliness, suffers quietly, without complaint.  Despite his own pain, he brings home hungry neighborhood children for Mémêre to feed.  “Unceasing compassion flows from Gerard to the world even while he groans in the very middle of his extremity.”[6]

Gerard oversees Jack, wanting him to be good.  Kerouac writes of when he stabbed a picture of a murderess on the front page of the newspaper.  Gerard scolds him, like he scolded the cat, and together they patched the newspaper back together, so the picture was as good as new.  Though Gerard is mostly kind to Ti Jean (except when slaps him for knocking over his erector set), there is competition.  Little Jack wonders why Gerard gets fed before he does, and states, “there’s no doubt in my heart that my mother loves Gerard more than she loves me.”[7]

The Gerard that Jack knows is otherworldly.  He falls asleep in class and dreams that the Virgin Mary came to him with a white wagon pulled by two lambs.  He tells his little brother about the color of God.  He goes to confession where he tells the priest about a little boy whom he pushed when the child accidently knocked over something he was making.  The priest asks if the boy was hurt; Gerard says no, “but I hurt his heart.”[8] Near his death Gerard tells Ti Jean, “God put these little things on earth to see if we want to hurt them – those who don’t do it who can, are for his Heaven – those who see they can hurt, and do hurt, they’re not for his Heaven – See?”[9] When the doctor tells the Kerouacs that it is time to call for the priest, the nuns from Gerard’s school come as well, kneeling by his bedside, asking him questions and writing down the boy’s answers.  The whole portrayal is of a child who is more than a child –a child who understands something about the world and about Heaven that those around him do not.  He tries to explain that “we’re all in Heaven, but we don’t know it.”[10] Kerouac puts the religious theme in the forefront here.  All of his novels are religious novels at heart, but in some of them it’s hard to discern.

Then Gerard dies.  Jack runs down the street towards his father on his way home, “gleefully…yelling, ‘Gerard est mort! as thou it was some great event…I thought it had something to do with some holy transformation that would make him greater and more Gerard like…so when he wearily just said, ‘I know, Ti Pousse, I know’ I had that same feeling that I have today when I would rush and tell people the good news that Nirvana, Heaven, our salvation is Here and Now, that gloomy reaction of theirs, which I can only attribute to pitiful and so-to-be loved ignorance of mortal brains.”[11]

After his death, the neighborhood women notice that the birds that Gerard had lovingly fed from his windowsill had gone and they did not return. “’They’re gone with him!’ Or, I’d say, ‘It was himself.’”[12]

In 1955, shortly after the famed Six Gallery reading in San Francisco, which featured Allen Ginsberg’s performance of “Howl,” Neal Cassady left Kerouac in charge of his mentally unstable girlfriend of the moment, Natalie Jackson.  Jack spent the afternoon trying to calm her manic episode with Buddhist texts, but to no avail.  The next day she jumped from the window to her death.  Kerouac was very disturbed by this and returned to his sister’s home in Rocky Mount, North Carolina shortly before Christmas.  Of course, his mother was there too.  The experiences that would fill Kerouac’s future novel, The Dharma Bums, were occurring at this time.

In January 1956, Mémêre left Rocky Mount for New York to attend a funeral.  It was then, in the absence of his mother, that Kerouac sat down to write what would become Visions of Gerard.  “My sister and her husband weren’t interested.  They went to bed and I took over the kitchen, brewed tea and took Benzedrine.  It was written by hand on the kitchen table.  My sister wouldn’t let me light candles, so I used the kitchen light.  You got to live with your family, you know.  Mémêre wasn’t there.  She went to the funeral of her step-mother in Brooklyn.  If she’d been there, I wouldn’t have written it.  We’d have talked all night.  But that funeral reminded me of funerals, my brother’s funeral…”[13]

At the time of writing Visions of Gerard, Kerouac was in the process of synthesizing his two religions – Catholicism and Buddhism; both are clearly represented in the novel, and Kerouac successfully harmonizes them to present his Catholic sensibility from his recently adopted Buddhist perspective.  To say that Kerouac was a devout Catholic is to imply that he was a practicing Catholic, which he was not.  But he continued to maintain his belief in Catholicism throughout his life.  He was Catholic in his heart, and was devout in his own way.  His beliefs at the time of writing the novel can probably be summed in the words he says that Gerard’s “sad eyes first foretold”: “All is well, practice Kindness, Heaven is Nigh.”[14]

It only took Kerouac approximately fifteen days to write Visions of Gerard, though John Kingsland, who read the unedited original draft of Kerouac’s The Town and the City, stated that some of the scenes that were edited out of that first published novel are included in Visions of Gerard.[15] On January 15, 1956, Kerouac wrote to Gary Snyder that the novel was finished.  In that letter, he called the work his “best most serious sad and true book yet,”[16] and reiterated this in letters as late as 1961, still two years before its publication.  By late 1956, Kerouac had submitted the book to Viking Publishers, where Malcolm Cowley objected to its Buddhist influences; Cowley didn’t see how it related to Jack’s French-Canadian upbringing.  In response to requests to revise the novel, Kerouac told his agent, “Visions of Gerard suits me as it stands.  As it comes, so it flows, and that’s literature at its purest.”[17] But by 1958, Kerouac was offering to revise the novel and substitute Catholic references for the Buddhist ones if Viking would buy the book.  He really wanted the book to be published, mostly to counteract his ever-growing image as an encourager of youthful rebellion.  He wrote that Visions of Gerard “is by far the wisest next book for me because of present screaming about my juvenile delinquent viciousness.”[18]

The book, along with Big Sur, was eventually bought in January 1962 by Farrar, Straus and Cudahy for a $10,000 advance.  When it was sold, Kerouac’s editor promised not to make changes to it, but it’s unclear if any changes were made between its original writing, which was done in pencil, and its final, published version.  In December 1962, he wrote to his friend Philip Whalen, “I’m proofreading Visions of Gerard…[it] will be published by Fall 1963 and will be ignored I guess, or called pretentious, but who cares…”[19] Who cares?  Jack certainly did.  For all the coolness of that statement, Kerouac was crushed by negative reviews, which typically not only ripped his books to shreds, but Kerouac as a person.

Visions of Gerard wasn’t exactly ignored, but the reviews were very bad indeed.  The New York Herald Tribune stated that it was, “a text very much like everything else [Kerouac] has published in the past five years: slapdash, grossly sentimental, often pridefully ‘sincere’ that you can’t help question the value of sincerity itself…In someone else’s hands, it could have been moving.  Even in Kerouac’s own hands, it could have been good, if only he had made writerly demands of himself.  As it stands, though, it just amounts to 152 more pages of self-indulgence.”[20] The review in the New York Times wasn’t any better: “…the clangor we hear far too often is the narrator’s jaunty, garrulous hipster yawping, and before its implacable onslaught all feeling disintegrates. It is not enough to say that the style does not evoke or intensify the emotion. It betrays and debases it. The dead boy deserved better of his eulogist.”[21] Biographer Gerard Nicosia states that “critics seemed to be stirring for new lefthanded and underhanded ways of putting [Kerouac] down.”[22] This further fueled Kerouac’s downward spiral – now he was not only the cause of juvenile delinquency, but he was desecrating his brother’s memory and exploiting his death.

In an October 1963 letter to friend and fellow writer John Clellon Holmes, Kerouac states, “everybody’s become so mean, so sinister, so hypocritical I can’t believe it.  So I turn to drink like a lost maniac…They make me feel like never writing another word again.”[23] So much for not caring.  Kerouac’s entire identity was as a writer, and all he desired professionally was to be taken seriously.  Since the publication of On the Road, he had been physically declining largely due to the notoriety it brought him.  He was so self-conscious, and the press had turned him into everything he wasn’t, and didn’t want to be.

Visions of Gerard is almost a prolonged religious homily to his brother, who in his mind – and the mind of his mother – was a saint.  But while this novel does have an overarching religious sensibility to it, it is a very sad tale.  Jack was absolutely devoted to his brother – he worshipped him and emulated him in a way probably most boys would look up to an older brother.  “For the first four years of my life, while he lived, I was not Ti Jean Dulouz, I was Gerard, the world was his face, the flower of his face, the pale stooped disposition, the heartbreakingness and the holiness.”[24] He was extremely jealous of Gerard’s friends, and when they would come to visit the bed-ridden boy, Jack would complain to Mémêre and she would send the boys away, saying that Gerard belonged to Jack.  Losing his brother appears to have been very traumatic for Kerouac – he grew frightened of the dark and often wondered how he could get into heaven to be reunited with his beloved brother.  For a short time after his brother’s death, Jack even thought Gerard would return in some resurrected form, “huge and all-powerful and renewed.”[25]

Neighborhood playmates of Gerard remember him as a normal, but sickly, kid and suggest that Kerouac largely embellished the story of his brother’s holiness.  In fact, in a letter to his sister, Caroline in 1945, Kerouac admitted all he remembered of Gerard was the slap over the erector set.[26] The myth of Gerard was most likely encouraged and reinforced by Mémêre and greatly merged with the French tradition of child-saints.  It is legitimate to wonder how much Gerard’s death – and his doting mother’s reaction to it – influenced Kerouac later in life.  In the same letter to Caroline, he admits feeling guilty about Gerard and that he may have been responsible for the death.  But imagine Jack’s position: as a child he believed his brother was favored over him, his parents view the boy as a saint.  Gerard’s piety was used as a standard against which Kerouac often measured his own life, and he failed miserably against that standard.  Gerard’s death has come to be seen by researchers as a potential source of Kerouac’s torments and turmoil, and Visions of Gerard has been described as being “told from the standpoint of a man looking from the dark torrents of a raging river at an unattainable peaceful shore.”[27] But though the boy’s death was clearly a tragedy, and served as a source of terrible guilt and anguish for Kerouac – and perhaps even was the original catalyst that eventually led to his alcoholism and death, we are also faced with the question of whether, had Gerard lived instead, Kerouac would have ever become a writer in the first place.  As Kerouac asks in the novel, what would have happened to Jack without Gerard?

“The whole reason why I ever wrote at all and drew breath to bite in vain with pen and ink…because of Gerard, the idealism, Gerard the religious hero – Écrivez pour l’amour de son mort.”[28]


[1] Kerouac, Jack. Visions of Gerard.  New York: Penguin Group, 1991. 5.

[2] “Book News from Farrar, Straus, & Cudahy, Inc.” Empty Phatoms: Interviews and Encounters with Jack Kerouac. Ed. Paul Maher, Jr. New York: Thurder’s Mouth Press, 2005.  223

[3] Gifford, Barry and Lawrence Lee.  Jack’s Book: An Oral Biography of Jack Kerouac.  NY: St. Martin’s Press. 1978.  4.

[4] Kerouac, Jack.  Letter to Gary Snyder. 15 January 1956.  Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters 1940-1956.  Ed. Anne Charters.  New York: Penguin Group, 1995.  358-359.

[5] Kerouac, Jack. Visions of Gerard.  New York: Penguin Group, 1991. 11.

[6] Ibid., 70.

[7] Ibid., 71.

[8] Kerouac, Jack. Visions of Gerard.  New York: Penguin Group, 1991. 36.

[9] Ibid., 104.

[10] Ibid., 54.

[11] Ibid., 109-110.

[12] Ibid., 117

[13] Charters, Anne. Kerouac: A Biography.  New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1973.  252.

[14] Kerouac, Jack. Visions of Gerard.  New York: Penguin Group, 1991. 6.

[15] Nicosia, Gerard. Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac. Berkley: University of California Press, 1983. 500

[16] Kerouac, Jack.  Letter to Gary Snyder. 15 January 1956.  Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters 1940-1956.  Ed. Anne Charters.  New York: Penguin Group, 1995.  358-359.

[17] Kerouac, Jack.  Letter to Sterling Lord. 7 October 1956.  Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters 1940-1956.  Ed. Anne Charters.  New York: Penguin Group, 1995.  589.

[18] Kerouac, Jack.  Letter to Sterling Lord. 29 November 1958.  Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters 1957-1969. Ed. Anne Charters.  New York: Viking Press, 1999.  169.

[19] Kerouac, Jack. Letter to Philip Whalen. 13 December 1962.  Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters 1957-1969. Ed. Anne Charters.  New York: Viking Press, 1999.  353.

[20] Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters 1957-1969. Ed. Anne Charters.  New York: Viking Press, 1999.  370.

[21] Maloff, Saul. “A Yawping at the Grave.” New York Times. 8 September 1963.

[22] Nicosia, Gerard. Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac. Berkley: University of California Press, 1983.  648

[23] Kerouac, Jack. Letter to John Clellon Holmes. 5 October 1963.  Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters 1957-1969. Ed. Anne Charters.  New York: Viking Press, 1999.  370.

[24] Kerouac, Jack. Visions of Gerard.  New York: Penguin Group, 1991. 2.

[25] Kerouac, Jack. Visions of Gerard.  New York: Penguin Group, 1991. 109.

[26] Kerouac, Jack.  Letter to Caroline Kerouac Blake. 14 March 1945.  Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters 1940-1956.  Ed. Anne Charters.  New York: Penguin Group, 1995.  87.

[27] Simpson, Emily Patricia. “Religious Turmoil: The Conflict Between Buddhism and Catholicism in Jack Kerouac’s Life and Writing.” MA Thesis.  North Carolina State University, 2003.  28.

[28] Kerouac, Jack. Visions of Gerard.  New York: Penguin Group, 1991. 112.