Jack Kerouac was a huge inspiration for Bob Dylan, the winner of the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature, and a host of other important writers and artists over the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. His magnum opus, On the Road, was one of the most important cultural events in American history, spurring a revolution in literature and effectively creating a counterculture that would shape art and politics for decades to come. Yet Kerouac was not universally loved – in fact, even among his fellow writers, he was often disliked or disrespected.
Kerouac claimed to have written his great novel in a three-week frenzy at his type-writer, banging away on the keys and churning out words onto a giant scroll of taped-together paper. Seven years on the road; three weeks writing the book. That’s how he said it was written. To this day, he is famed for this “spontaneous prose” style, yet it sparked the most well-known of all put-downs for On the Road, when Truman Capote, who wrote In Cold Blood, remarked, “That isn’t writing; it’s typing.”
If one is to consider influential books of the 1950s, both Kerouac’s On the Road and Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception must surely be included. Both texts became considered practically religious texts for the counterculture of the 1960s – a decade that would see the death of both authors, albeit Huxley at the end of a rather long life, and Kerouac while still tragically young. Kerouac was a fan of Huxley’s, saying in 1957 (the year On the Road was released) that, “Among English writers, Aldous Huxley is my man.” Around that time, Huxley read Kerouac’s novel and was less than impressed: “I got a little bored after a time. I mean, the road seemed to be awfully long.”
Hunter S. Thompson’s biographers and critics often mention the influence of Kerouac on the Gonzo journalist, which is understandable given that Thompson on more than one occasion mentioned Kerouac in interviews and writings in a positive light. He once said, “Jack Kerouac influenced me quite a bit as a writer… in the Arab sense that the enemy of my enemy was my friend. Kerouac taught me that you could get away with writing about drugs and get published.”
Yet Thompson was not exactly a fan, and while he appreciated On the Road (and supposedly The Dharma Bums) he thought Big Sur was a “shitty, stupid book.” He also said:
I’ve read The Subterraneans: all of his crap for that matter. The man is an ass, a mystic boob with intellectual myopia. The Dharma thing was not quite as bad as The Subterraneans and they’re both withered appendages to On the Road.
As countless critics tore into On the Road, John Updike jumped on the bandwagon and wrote a satire called “On the Sidewalk” for The New Yorker. In this story, he explained, he was telling America: “Don’t believe Kerouac. This is what really happens when you get on the road. You don’t go anywhere. You turn around and run home.” At the time he was somewhat repulsed by the “relatively privileged” characters who tore around America “with no visible means of support,” but later he softened and admitted that he was “jealous” of Kerouac’s success and freedom. He also admitted that he found Kerouac’s “spontaneous writing” style quite frightening.
Norman Mailer had a mixed relationship with the Beats, befriending Allen Ginsberg, praising William S. Burroughs, but harshly criticizing Kerouac, saying that latter, “lacks discipline, intelligence, honesty and a sense of the novel.” Kerouac for his part was unimpressed with Mailer: “I think he stinks.”
In On the Road, Kerouac talks of the “happy Negros of America,” which enraged James Baldwin, who said it’s “absolute nonsense, and offensive nonsense at that: I would hate to be in Kerouac’s shoes if he should ever be mad enough to rea this aloud from the stage of Harlem’s Apollo Theater.”
Old Hank Chinaski is often lumped in with the Beats (even, sometimes, in Beatdom) although he was removed from the movement in many ways. He criticized Ginsberg and Corso and Burroughs, although he also admitted some jealous, and suggested that perhaps his hatred came from their hipster fans rather than their actual work. However, for Kerouac he reserved special distaste, portraying him in his book, Hollywood, as Mack Derouac: “a writer who couldn’t write but who got famous because he looked like a rodeo rider.”