Jack Kerouac has certainly been and is still an inspiration for various groups of people coming from different social and ideological backgrounds. His widely read novels such as On the Road, The Dharma Bums, The Subterraneans, and Big Sur remain major influences on old and young generations with revolutionary aspirations. Kerouac was spontaneous, adventurous, and passionately yearning for life, and this is perhaps why the youth claim him for themselves. He was candid, honest, and impromptu: values that he sought to reflect in his hyper-autobiographical writings that employed stream-of-consciousness juxtaposed with what he called “bop prosody or spontaneous poetics.” The hippies of the 60s, who aspired to change the world through peace and love, claimed him as an essential inspirer of the countercultural movement. The LGBT movement welcomed him to their club as an instigator of a new consciousness that seeks to understand the complex web of homoerotic, bisexual, and heterosexual relationships. Western Buddhists glorified his early explorations of Asian traditions and considered them an initiation into the mysteries of a spirituality different from the Abrahamic faiths. Members of Generation Z also seem to admire Kerouac for his ability to entice a new sensibility that would create a society whose values are not necessarily defined by a traditionalist family or archaic, bureaucratic government.

Kerouac somehow brings these various kinds of people together when he claims, “the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous Roman candles” (Kerouac, Road 7). Nevertheless, how did Kerouac end up bringing all these polarities together? Was he a political revolutionary with an anarchist agenda? Are his actions and modes of living to be seen as rebellious acts against the authority of leaders, both political and religious? We have to understand Kerouac’s origins to make sense of the evolution and choices that he made in the subsequent years of his relatively short life. This paper attempts to trace the spiritual metamorphosis that he went through by tracing the beginnings of his upbringing in Lowell, Massachusetts, his education, and his involvement in various social and cultural communities.

Kerouac was born and raised in a Roman Catholic family that immigrated from French Canada to New England, USA (Maher 9, 10). He constantly said things like, “I am actually not ‘beat’ but strange solitary crazy Catholic mystic” (vi).  His parents followed a Catholic tradition as demonstrated by the concrete practices of his parents; his father Leo wore a rosary around his neck, and his mother Gabrielle wore “religious medals attached to the strap of her slip” (McLaughlin, parag 4). However, Kerouac’s father seems to have been more reticent to succumb to organized religion and its prophets than his mother(Mémêre as she was known), who made sure to ingrain in Kerouac a strict Catholic religious sensibility that would find its way into his literary works and subsequently permeate his attitudes, beliefs, and conception of the world. Kerouac grew up feeding on a Catholic ethos that he recalled in different contexts. For instance, in Lonesome Traveler, he confessed that he “had good early education from Jesuit brothers at St Joseph’s Parochial School in Lowell making me jump sixth grade later on in public school” (v). His strong relationship with his devout Catholic mother and the untimely death of his brother Gerard, his example of the compassionate, resulted in his early awareness of and intense sensitivity to “l’expérience interieure” of Man which eventually led to the realization that sin, suffering, and penance, when accepted and offered up in union with the Passion of Jesus, lead to redemption. Even Kerouac’s understanding of “beat” seemed to hinge on his Catholic background that connected the notion of “beat” to the promised eight beatitudes mentioned in the Gospel of St. Mathew (5:3-10). Upon a visit to Lowell in 1954, Kerouac returned to the church of his youth, knelt alone in the silence, and realized suddenly that “Beat means Beatitude! Beatific! I was beatific in the church…” (Hayes 31). Later, he would go to confess, “It is because I am Beat, that is, I believe in beatitude and that God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son to it…So you people don’t believe in God. So you’re all big smart know-it-all Marxists and Freudians, hey? Why don’t you come back in a million years and tell me about it, angels?” (Playboy Magazine, June, 1959).

Throughout his literary works, Kerouac used Catholic imagery and vocabulary which reflected, in Mary-Beth Brophy’s view, a certain kind of “ongoing engagement with Catholicism” (418). This mystical Catholic faith—mixed with the ordeals of a daily existence in a working-class town—found its expression in Kerouac’s novels, mainly The Town and the City, Visions of Gerard, Maggie Cassidy, Vanity of Duluoz, and Doctor Sax. Not only do those novels reflect a deep attachment to the Catholic ethos, but also his most countercultural literary work, On the Road, which in his view told “really a story about two Catholic buddies roaming the country in search of God. And we found him. I found him in the sky, in Market Street San Francisco, and Dean had God sweating out of his forehead all the way. There is no other way out for the holy ma: he must sweat for God” (Gilmoure 7). Perhaps On the Road is after all a pilgrimage undertaken by a man seeking a Savior. Alan Miller claims that Kerouac’s work “is the idealized record of a pilgrimage, or set of pilgrimage, which can profitably be understood by recourse to a type of analysis that has as its lineage the ideas of Van Gennep, Durkheim, and Turner” (43). For someone like Kerouac, who witnessed religious and ethnic discontent in his social milieu at an early age, identity crisis can become a state of being. Richard S. Sorrell contends that this paradoxical combination of a Catholic ethos, a Franco-Canadian ethnicity, and a passion for artistic endeavors catalyzed “an almost dual personality in Kerouac. Beat versus Lowellite, Rebel versus Good Boy, he was circumscribed by the very Franco, Catholic, and mill town origins that he was trying to move beyond” (40). It was in this complicated amalgam of traditional family values and devotional catechism that Kerouac’s creativity emerged, leading him to question everything. Significantly, it was Father Armand Morrissette, his local priest, who galvanized him into moving to New York City, a cosmopolitan locality that would unleash and polish his artistic ambitions (Mansfield parag 19).    

The second phase of Kerouacian spiritual metamorphosis lies in his turn to Buddhism and Eastern spirituality in the mid-to-late 1950s as a reaction to the repressive atmosphere of Eisenhower-era with its stifling McCarthyist crackdowns. Kerouac began to read Buddhist texts, one of which was Dwight Goddard’s A Buddhist Bible, and eventually he became a practitioner of the religion. In many instances, Kerouac confessed, “I am Buddha come back in the form of Shakespeare for the sake of poor Jesus Christ and Nietzsche” (Inchausti 47).  His understanding of Buddhism has always been controversial as when he admitted, “I am no saint, I’m sensual, I can’t resist wine & attachment to imaginary lures before my eyes— but I intend to ascend by stages & self-control to the vow to help all sentient beings find enlightenment and Holy escape from the sin and stain of life-body itself” (Charters 446-448). Allen Ginsberg described Kerouac as an “American lonely prose trumpeter of drunken Buddha sacred heart” who sought “the ultimate meaning of existence and suffering, and the celebration of joy in the meantime” (Inchausti 47). Kerouac’s zeal and passion for this new spiritual path was intense to the extent that he believed his role consisted of teaching the dharma and converting multitudes of people to the Buddhist tradition (Some of the Dharma 1997). Inspired by his epistolary exchanges with Ginsberg, he started to jot down daily thoughts, snippets of haiku poetry, journal entries, excerpts from letters, and ruminations on Buddhism that would eventually be collected in a book called Some of the Dharma. Without a doubt, Some of the Dharma came to be seen as a beginner’s guide to Buddhism since it explains key concepts such as nirvana, karma, dharma, kama, rebirth, fertility, individuality, and Avalokitesvara. Ginsberg admitted that he was indeed outraged by Kerouac’s insistence that suffering is the basis of existence, being “more or less left-wing liberal progressive intellectual” (Anctil, et al 46). Yet, he still agreed with Kerouac on the impermanence and transitoriness of our condition on this planet, a kind of unreality of our existence.

Kerouac’s travels west to the Bay Area would lead to his encounter with other American Buddhists, including Gary Snyder, a diligent student and practitioner of Zen, with whom Kerouac engaged in profound and constructive debates about Asian religious traditions (Taoism and Hinduism), their teachings, and practices. This encounter would result in Kerouac’s second book on Buddhism, entitled Scripture of the Golden Eternity, which together with the first one foregrounds an alternative philosophy of life revolving around emptiness, transience, the impermanence of human life, and a call for a planetary consciousness. In Ann Charters’ words, Kerouac’s new philosophy of life was “profoundly in agreement with the First Noble Truth of the Buddha’s teaching that all life is suffering” (Charters 581).  For Ginsberg, this discovery of Buddhist philosophies about suffering, the impermanence of life, and the emptiness within form is not totally unfamiliar to the Western monotheistic tradition as it suffices to remember Heraclitus’ famous saying that “You can’t step in the same river twice.” However, Kerouac seems to find Buddhist precepts and reformulations of these notions more sophisticated and appropriate to make sense of the malaise, greed, competitiveness, and alienation that Western man experiences in a capitalistic nation-state. Indeed, his goal consists mainly of reconciling, if not merging, Asian religious traditions with the theistic teachings of a Western mind. Aware of all the contradictions brought about by his conflicts with close friends and the bohemian lifestyle (drugs and alcoholism) he was leading in a capitalist, military-industrial locality, Kerouac confessed, “I must exert my intelligence now to secure the release of this Bodhisattva from the chains of the City” (Some of the Dharma 185).

Kerouac recognized the limits that the city with its distractions sets on his spiritual quest and ecumenical worldviews. He realized that being a saint in the city with its contrived spectacles and market-oriented activities was not an easy affair, a predicament that drove him to seek the fellaheen spiritual path. This turn to fellaheen ethos embodied Kerouac’s temporary escape to a different mode of spiritual awareness, a mode of awakening that he fused with his Buddhist aspirations. Kerouac’s understanding of fellaheenism stems from his reading of Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West, a book recommended by William Burroughs in 1944 when the Beats experienced “some kind of spiritual crisis in the west and the possibility of Decline instead of infinite American Century Progress” (Gifford and Lee 38). In his book, The Decline of the West, Spengler portrayed the fellaheen as a massive group of people who survived on society’s margins without necessarily being assimilated by any civilization, thus remaining ahistorical. Their life, according to Spengler, is “just the zoological up and down, a planless happening without goal or cadenced march in time, wherein occurrences are many, but, in the last analysis, devoid of significance” (Spengler 707). Kerouac echoed this Spenglerian view in the second chapter of Lonesome Traveler, entitled “Mexico Fellaheen” in which he came close to a definition of the term fellaheen: “…but you can find it, this feeling, this fellaheen feeling about life, that timeless gayety of people not involved in great cultural and civilization issues” (Spengler 22).

Kerouac disagreed with Spengler’s characterization of the fellaheen as primitive beings since he thought that their reality and lifestyle were much saner and more fulfilling than what capitalistic urban spaces offered in the form of empty buildings made of concrete, depressing loneliness, and unreliable social relations. Like Spengler, Kerouac was apprehended by the fact that modern man is doomed to suffer in a decaying civilization, something that drove him to sympathize with and seek the company of bums, hoboes, racial minorities, and social outcasts. His works reflect his compassionate support of the unrestrained, rowdy farmer, the black jazz musician and more importantly the freewheeling Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady) who represents a heroic figure living life to its fullest. This fascination with fellaheenism is revealed in Kerouac’s anti-white existential aspirations that he voices in On the Road:

At lilac evening I walked with every muscle aching among the lights of 27th and Welton in the Denver colored section, wishing I were a negro, feeling that the best the white world had offered was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night…I wished I were a Denver Mexican, or even a poor overworked Jap, anything but what I was so drearily, a “white man” disillusioned (180).

Kerouac’s turn to what Allen Ginsberg dubs, in his afterword to Visions of Cody, “Fellaheen Eternal Country Life” (Visions of Cody xi), would take him on a voyage in 1950 to northern Mexico—the country of the fellaheen—to reconnect with William Burroughs. There in Mexico, Kerouac would be enthralled by the fellaheen’s non-industrialized mode of living and he seems to have wished for a total immersion in their culture and embraced their hectic but serene rhythm. Yet, he could not help but denigrate their naïve readiness to succumb to a materialistic Western civilization that jeopardized the nonconformist conventions of a rustic way of life. Through the perspective of his protagonist Sal Paradise, Kerouac painted a bleak picture of the Fellah’s naivety:

[The Fellaheen] had come down from the back mountains and higher places to hold forth their hands for something they thought civilization could offer, and they never dreamed the sadness and the poor broken delusion of it. They didn’t know that a bomb had come that could crack all our bridges and roads and reduce them to jumbles, and we would be as poor as they someday, and stretching out our bands in the same, same way (299). 

His next stop in search of this fellaheen ethos is Tangier’s International Zone, to which he journeyed on February 15, 1957, on board a Yugoslavian freighter. The voyage across the Atlantic was, as Regina Weinreich claims, “an interior trip, a melding of geography with locations already in his head” in search for a cosmopolitan freedom. The journey would eventually produce “a handful of haiku, and some detailed journal notes” (7) that Kerouac used as primary materials for his subsequent literary works. Joined later on by other Beat writers, notably Ginsberg, Orlovsky, and Corso, Kerouac strolled on his own pondering the values and ascetic practices of Tangier’s poor peasants while also helping with the typing of Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, relishing cheap wine, hashish, and the sex offered by local prostitutes. He enjoyed more the primal vitality and peace of mind characterizing the Moroccan peasants, fishermen, and shepherds whom he saw as a group of people that connected man with nature outside of a society organized by controlling political and governmental institutions. The fellaheen spirit that distinguished Tangier’s peasants from modern city-dwellers suited Kerouac’s quest for “a reproduction of that absolute peace as an artist” and also offered a liminal space to experience “a way of life in itself more beautiful that any, a kind of cloistral fervor in the midst of mad ranting action-seekers of this or any other ‘modern’ world” (Desolation 247). Infatuated by the lenient and nonchalant character of Tangier’s fellaheen struggling to live, Kerouac denounced the hostile, humiliating, and intimidating atmosphere that distinguished the American cultural and political environment in a deeply ruminative passage in Desolation Angels:

One look at the officials in the American Consulate where we went for dreary paper routines was enough to make you realize what was wrong with American ‘diplomacy’ throughout the Fellaheen world: – stiff officious squares with contempt even for their own Americans who happened not to wear neckties, as tho a necktie or whatever it stands for meant anything to the hungry Berbers who came into Tangiers every Saturday morning on meek asses, like Christ, carrying baskets of pitiful fruit or dates, and returned at dusk to silhouetted parades along the hill by the railroad track. The railroad track where barefooted prophets still walked and taught the Koran to children along the way. Why didn’t the American consul ever walk into the urchin hall where Mohammed Maye sat smoking? or squat in behind empty buildings with old Arabs who talked with their hands? or any thing? Instead it’s all private limousines, hotel restaurants, parties in the suburbs, an endless phoney rejection in the name of ‘democracy’ of all that’s pith and moment of every land (357-58).

For Kerouac, the fellaheen represented a category of people who were still connected with Mother Earth and the cosmos: precepts that he valued as a Buddhist who aspired to become one with the slow rhythms of the universe. He believed that the fellaheen, according to Spengler, would resist the calamities of civilizational decline that he claimed would sweep away the West. Kerouac was drawn to fellaheenism because it resonated with his admiration for Eastern philosophy with its Buddhist practices and teachings that emphasized non-attachment, presence, and awareness. He wrote, “Buddhism is a Fellaheen thing. —Fellaheen is Antifaust Unanglosaxon Original World Apocalypse. Fellaheen is an Indian Thing, like the earth. Jean-Louis the Fellaheen Seer of New North America.—-Tje Imfaust, the antichrist . . . Unspuare, Ungothic” (Some of the Dharma Kerouac 114).

By 1959, Kerouac had lost his interest in Buddhism, mysticism, drugs, and the depressing forlornness of modern bohemian life. His life started to fall into disarray when his mother was paralyzed, a health condition that required a move to a warmer climate. The move to Florida was prompted by his unconditional love for his mother, who, contrary to all his one-night-stand girls, “provided [him] with the means for peace and good sense—she didn’t tear at her slip and rant [he] didn’t love her and knock over dressers of makeup” (Desolation Angels 376). While in Florida, Kerouac merely confined himself to his home in St. Petersburg, a town he described in his letters as “a good place to come die” and “the town of the newly wed and the living dead” (Selected letters, 1957-1969, 438).  It was a new life for him and he seems to have bid farewell to his desolation angels, but the next thing we discover is that he turned to alcohol, a long-time trouble, as a soothing anesthesia to endure media demands and the outrageous criticism of his works after the fallout of a sour success. In his comprehensive critical biography of Jack Kerouac, Memory Babe, Gerald Nicosia remarks that he became rowdy and boisterous having “boilermakers at every bar on Main Street, collecting a crowd of fishermen along the way. When Jack ran out of money Stan led the troop up to his studio. Swigging from a bottle of bourbon, Jack instigated arm wrestling and Indian wrestling” (Nicosia 622).  He even stopped writing for four years and confessed that “too much adulation is worse than non-recognition, except on the economic level” (Selected Letters 1957-1969, 195). Kerouac was also disillusioned with the healing virtues of voyage and mobility and subsequently was disheartened to find out “how unbelievably bleak the actual world is after you’ve dreamed of gay whore streets and gay dancing night clubs” (Desolation Angels 273).

Contrary to previous claims about the Beat Generation as an anti-establishment artistic movement, Kerouac started to distrust the whole project of countercultural rebellion and revolutionary political activism. He confessed once to Bruce Cook that “I want to make this very clear… And I wasn’t trying to create any kind of new consciousness or anything like that. We didn’t have a whole lots of heavy abstract thoughts. We were just a bunch of guys who were out trying to get laid” (Cook 89). Similarly, Judith R. Halasz contends, “his attitude late in life seemed to contradict his youthful searching and sense of spiritual curiosity” (Halasz 31-32). In contrast to his initial denunciation of all forms of alienation, discrimination, and social domestication resulting from a capitalist state, Kerouac became conservative and openly affirmed that “the real enemy is the Communist, the Jew” (Esquire Magazine, March 1970). His conversion to the capitalist credo is vividly expressed in his article “After Me, the Deluge,” which first appeared in 1969 in the September 28 edition of The Chicago Tribune, where Kerouac admits that “if it hadn’t been for Western-style capitalism,” which enabled “free economic byplay, movement north, south, east and west, haggling, pricing, and the political balance of power carved in to the U.S. Constitution,” he “wouldn’t have been able or allowed to hitchhike half broken thru 47 states of this Union and see the scene with my own eyes, unmolested.” Paradoxically, he seems to have forgotten about the atrocities of those wars that America waged against countries that it suspected had subversive communist affiliations. Unlike Ginsberg who, according to Christopher Orlet, “easily transitioned from Beat to hippie guru” (The Hedgehog Review, January 2022), Kerouac developed a grudge against the hippie movement and raged at one of its icons, Ed Sanders, when he appeared on the conservative talk show “Firing Line”:

You make yourself famous by protest. I made myself famous by writing songs, and lyrics about the beauty of the things that I did, and the ugliness, too. You make yourself famous by saying down with this down with that, throw eggs at this, throw eggs at that. Take it with you. I cannot use your refuse; you may have it back.

All in all, Kerouac experienced a spiritual crisis that led him to drink himself to death. Gary Snyder anticipated the fact that Kerouac would one day return to his original faith when he reprimanded him: “You old son of a…… you’re going to end up asking for the Catholic rites on your deathbed.” Kerouac asked, “How did you know, my dear? Didn’t you know I was a lay Jesuit?” (Gifford and Lee 294). In the months before his death, he had begun a tentative return to the Church. As he explained, he rediscovered prayer, particularly the short Catholic Marian prayers of his youth. Every little prayer he offered to Mary kept him, he believed, from his destructive behaviors. He often went to Catholic churches, just to pray or kneel quietly. He might very well have fully embraced the Church again, though in some ways he had never really left it. Kerouac died shortly after a sudden violent hemorrhage of his liver. His funeral Mass was held in Lowell at St. Jean Baptiste Cathedral. Father Armand “Spike” Morisette, who celebrated the Mass, beautifully linked the mystery of Kerouac’s life to Emmaus, saying of him the words from St. Luke’s Gospel, “Wasn’t it like a fire burning in us when he talked to us on the road?” (David A. King 2014).

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