Not many prose writers alive (Céline, Genet, a few others) would dare the freedom and intelligence to trust their own minds, remember they made that jump, not censor it but write it down and discover its beauty. That’s what I look for in K’s prose. He’s gone very far out in discovering (or remembering, or transcribing) the perfect patterns that his own mind makes, and trusting them, and seeing their importance – to rhythm, to imagery, to the very structure of the “novel.”
– Allen Ginsberg, Village Voice (1958)
This essay originally appeared in Beatdom #16:
Jack Kerouac’s works might be better appreciated today were not the man so deprecated and his books so routinely misunderstood in his own lifetime; for we can see by now that no other major modern American writer ever suffered from such malicious, erroneous, and foolish “criticism.” Some of the remarks made about Kerouac six decades ago were so askew that quoting them now embarrasses his detractors more than Kerouac. One of the prepublication readers at Viking Press reported that On the Road (1957) contained “everything that is bad and horrible about this otherwise wonderful age we live in.” On May 3, 1959, a New York Times reviewer dismissed his novel Doctor Sax as “largely psychopathic” and a “pretentious and unreadable farrago of childhood fantasy-play.” Earlier that year, the discreetly anonymous Time reviewer characterized Kerouac as “a cut-rate Thomas Wolfe”; on David Susskind’s television interview program in September, Truman Capote cruelly dismissed Kerouac’s books as “not writing but typewriting.” In the New York Times Book Review, Nov. 29, of the same year, Kenneth Rexroth, once a friend of Kerouac’s, resorted to an ad hominem attack: “Someone once said of Mr. Kerouac that he was a Columbia freshman who went to a party in the Village twenty years ago and got lost. How true.”
Only the year before, Alfred Kazin paused, in an essay ostensibly about Sigmund Freud, to rate Kerouac as “a far less gifted and intelligent writer than [Norman] Mailer.” In 1958 as well, Norman Podhoretz, soon to become for decades the principal editor of Commentary, published in Partisan Review an extended essay entitled “The Know-Nothing Bohemians” in which he spoke of Kerouac’s “simple inability to say anything in words” and demoted both On the Road and The Subterraneans to sub-art “so patently autobiographical in content that they become almost impossible to discuss as novels.” Podhoretz continued, “The Beat Generation’s worship of primitivism and spontaneity is more than a cover for hostility to intelligence; it arises from a pathetic poverty of feeling as well.” Several times since, Podhoretz reprinted his insults, word for word, most recently forty-five years later in his book The Norman Podhoretz Reader (2003) – how’s that for smug. As late as 1964, John W. Aldridge, in his introduction to his book Time to Murder and Create, disparaged “writers like Jack Kerouac who continue to practice an extinct provincialism and to exult depressingly in experience that the rest of us have long since had.” In truth, Kerouac’s literary reputation was almost destroyed, not by critical neglect – the usual bane afflicting innovative American writers – but by concerted critical assassination.
Even Kerouac’s closest friends often misunderstood what he was doing. It was, after all, Allen Ginsberg, not a philistine factotum, who, in April, 1952, wrote their mutual friend Neal Cassady (a.k.a. “Dean Moriarty”):
[The manuscript that became Visions of’ Cody] is a holy mess – it’s great allright but he did everything he could to fuck it up with a lot of meaningless bullshit I think, page after page of surrealist free association that don’t make sense to anybody except someone who has blown jack. I don’t think it can be published anywhere, in its present state… Jack is an ignu and I all bow down to him, but he done fuck up his writing money-wise, and also writing-wise. He was not experimenting and exploring in new deep form, he was purposely just screwing around as if anything he did not matter what he did, was O.K. no bones attached. Not purposely, I guess, just drug-out and driven to it and in a hold in his own head – but he was in a hole.
Another cause for misunderstanding Kerouac is mistaking the man for his work. Since he wrote fiction that seems autobiographical (and, indeed, much of it is), readers make the common error of thinking that the books are the man, rather than his creations. In fact, he was a sadder, much sadder and less confident figure than, say, Sal Paradise. It is true that he often behaved badly; he drank compulsively without ever taking an alcoholic cure; he depended too much upon amphetamines to write; he worked quickly; he interviewed badly; he invariably insulted the literary powermen who could have advanced his career; he left behind stories of outrageous behavior; and every place in which he lived he ultimately found disquieting. His relationship with his widowed mother was at once touching and pathological, for she both supported and infantilized him. From the wake of his fame, in his own mid-thirties, to his death, he lived primarily with her, migrating around the U.S. eventually settling in, no joke, St. Petersburg, Florida, where in 1969 he died of alcoholic excesses, at the age of 47. However, the works are separate from the man. Only by overcoming certain impressions about his life can we get a surer sense of his extraordinary writings.
Further jeopardizing the processes of literary comprehension, his publishers served him badly. In part because of the unfavorable notices, a publisher doing one of his books precipitously lost courage when offered a successor (and there would always be a successor). When Kerouac’s publishers urged him to repeat his commercial success (e.g., On the Road), rather than accepting something different, they revealed a limited sense of his literary talent. Not only were his manuscripts distributed among a dozen different publishers, but his single most extraordinary book, Visions of Cody, did not appear in print until 1973, four years after his death and more than two decades after it was written.
What has been lost in all these misunderstandings of Kerouac are certain irrefutable truths. First, he had an elaborate literary education, not only in schools but on his own. From an early age, he seized literature passionately and read omnivorously. Shakespeare, Melville, Joyce, Thomas Wolfe, Rimbaud, Dostoevsky, and Proust were among the authors to whom he returned. Secondly, even as a high-school football player, he wanted to be a writer. Once his athletic career ended, the ambition and disciplined energy he developed on the playing fields were channeled into writing. At Horace Man prep school, he wrote fiction and contributed feature pieces to the student newspaper. By the time he started to publish, in the late forties, he had already written, it is said, over a million apprentice words. He reportedly kept a separate journal for each of his creations, which were, in fact, far more conscious than they seem. Third, not only did he have a phenomenally evocative and precise memory – “Memory Babe” was a nickname from childhood – but as an adult he mastered the ability to exploit this talent in language. In his writings are a wealth of details, which are incorporated not clumsily and exhaustively like Theodore Dreiser’s, but in an impressionistic and efficient style.
Even when his literary reputation was at its nadir, he always had the kind of stubbornly faithful following that inevitably survives and expands in time. At its base were Allen Ginsberg, John Clellon Holmes, Donald Allen, Seymour Krim, Warren Tallman, and the editors and publishers of those magazines sympathetic to that literature called “beat.” (The enthusiasm of this nucleus of support was one reason why Kerouac was so vehemently attacked, for no one bothers deprecating a writer no one likes.) It seems to me that anyone sensitive to the peculiar processes of literary reputation-making could have predicted fifty years ago that every book Kerouac published in his lifetime would be in print, that many of his unpublished manuscripts would have become books, and that he would, yes, be widely regarded as a major American author. Although he may not have had the effect on subsequent prose-writing that Ginsberg, say, has had on poetry, he helped change American literature from what it was in 1950 to what it is now. Had he not come and done, American writing today would not be the same.
His literary intelligence had an experimental cast, so that most of his important novels began with a particular imaginative constraint. On the Road, for instance, was originally written as a single paragraph, single-spaced, with no margins, on 250 feet of continuous drawing paper (which had to be transcribed onto rectangular sheets, paragraphed and punctuated to produce the text we know). Because this format was in part responsible for its forward-rushing style, it would be appropriate, by now, to publish an extended paper-roll edition of On the Road, even as a facsimile of the original manuscript, if only so we can see what the book would be like to read in the form that its author wrote it. (Isn’t the National Endowment for the Humanities charged with the production of “definitive editions” of the major American authors?)
The last forgotten truth is that the life he led was, in fact, far less spectacular than the lives he wrote about (or some of the publicity about him portrayed). Born in 1922, in Lowell, Massachusetts, the son of a printer, he grew up in a working-class French Canadian household, speaking a French dialect before he learned English. As a high school sprinter and halfback, with short thick legs, he was recruited by Columbia College, which sent him to Horace Mann for a preparatory year. Quitting the Columbia football team in the wake of a leg injury, he lost his scholarship and dropped out of college. After a hitch in the Merchant Marine, he hung around Manhattan with a group of incipient writers, including Allen Ginsberg, John Clellon Holmes, and William Burroughs, while living mostly in Queens with his parents. After his father’s death, he assumed responsibility for the care of his mother and, except for occasional wanderings, lived with her on Queens, in Lowell, on Long Island, briefly in Berkeley, on Cape Cod, and then in Florida. He married thrice, the first two times for less than a year apiece, and the last time to a childhood friend, Stella Stampas, who joined both mother and son.
Outside the house, he worked briefly as a railroad brakeman, a factory worker, and a script synopsizer for Twentieth Century-Fox. When he was home, his mother became his patron, feeding him from wages she earned largely in shoe factories. He tended to write at night, after she had gone to sleep, setting his typewriter on the kitchen table and taking Benzedrine pills to keep himself going. Once he became a recognized author, they occupied houses that had a separate workroom, where he spent much of his sober time writing the books and articles that were their principal source of income. In 1956, Upton Sinclair published A Cup 0f Fury, documenting the deleterious effects of alcohol upon prominent American writers. In this context, Kerouac becomes yet another major figure in a recurring tragic tendency. On the other hand, perhaps his penchant for self-destruction preceded his involvement with alcohol.
The tragedy of his professional life was that he did not know how to live as a controversial literary man. He lacked the cultural background, the creative imagination, and the psychological resilience necessary to survive the hostile reviews, the snide remarks, the personal attacks, and the erroneous publicity. So he cut himself off from his professional friends to join his mother, who supervised not only his finances but his personal life. In this respect, he differed strikingly from his colleague Allen Ginsberg, the son of a poet, who charmed his antagonists, answered all criticisms, patiently cajoled the literary powermen and thus survived the professional scattershot that contributed to Kerouac’s undoing.
Not until he died, it seems, could readers separate their stereotypes of the man from both the facts of his life and the quality of his work; not until the seventies, after his death, could respectful books about Kerouac begin to appear. The first of note was Ann Charters’ Jack Kerouac (1973), a basically intelligent biography that was rushed into print and then distorted in production. (Because permission to quote from Kerouac’s letters was withheld, while the author returned to her home in Sweden to bear a child, a secretary in the publisher’s office reportedly rewrote numerous paragraphs. Though Professor Charters asserts that mistakes were corrected in the paperback edition, the “third printing” in my possession still misspells the names of Bern Porter and Finnegans Wake.)
A more elaborate biography is Dennis McNally’s’ Desolate Angel (1979), written initially as a doctoral thesis in the history department at the University of Massachusetts. The product of superior research, this book is particularly good at placing Kerouac in his immediate milieu. Typically, McNally knows precisely where Kerouac was and with whom he was corresponding in every phase of his life; he knows what books Kerouac read (and when) and what music he favored while he wrote each book. In between these two biographies appeared The Beat Diary (1974) and The Beat Journal (1976), two anthologies of previously unpublished interviews and memorabilia, and then Jack’s Book (1978), a collection of his friends’ memoirs, transcribed from tape and unified by a modest, circumspect commentary. In reviewing this last volume for the New York Times Book Review, I suggested that it was “neither criticism nor scholarship, but a labor of love, perhaps even hagiography.”
The principal work in the critical reassessment of Kerouac is John Tytell’s Naked Angels (1976), a sensitive and sensible study of the three major “beats” – Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs – that makes a strong case for Kerouac as the richest, most innovative figure. Tytell has an illuminating appreciation of Visions of Cody, and among other shrewd perceptions is his ingenious documentation of the likely stylistic influence of the long clauses of Visions of Cody upon the long lines of Ginsberg’s classic poems. In my opinion, future Kerouac criticism will need to start from here. Perhaps the most unusual of the recent Kerouac books is Jack Kerouac: essay-poulet (1972), by the Quebecois novelist Victor-Lévy Beaulieu. Reprinted in English as Jack Kerouac: a Chicken Essay (1975), it regards the writer as the epitome of French-Canadian culture. Charles Jarvis’s Visions of Kerouac (1974) is a yet more peculiar book, whose invaluable information about Kerouac’s life in his hometown (Lowell) is nearly smothered by idiosyncratic prejudices and Jarvis’s embarrassing self-aggrandizement. Other books are no doubt on the way, and the expectation now is that most, if not all, of them will be sympathetic.
A further fact is that by now nearly everyone literate has read Kerouac, much as two decades ago everyone literate had read Henry Miller, their mutually controversial reputations notwithstanding. Indeed, we can see that different people enjoy different Kerouac for different reasons. Those who have read only a little Kerouac tend to identify On the Road as their favorite book; it has sold millions of copies in several languages. Even Ann Charters considers it “probably the best.” Undergraduates tend to prefer The Dharma Burns (1958), mostly because the portrait of Japhy Ryder (a.k.a. Gary Snyder) is so appealing. Sentimentalists tend to like Maggie Cassady (1959) and Kerouac’s other nostalgic memoirs of childhood. Science fiction buffs remember Kerouac for “cityCityCITY” (1959), which otherwise seems an untypical work. Those predisposed to abstraction (and perhaps psychedelic drugs) often prefer Mexico City Blues (1959). Victor-Lévy Beaulieu identifies Doctor Sax (1959) as “the best documentation we possess on Franco-American life in the 20s and 30s.” Those sympathetic to experimental modernism, like Tytell and myself, prefer Visions of Cody, which contains much of his richest prose. Like all such compartmental schemes, this one is imperfect; however, it does suggest that Kerouac’s works are richly various enough to inspire various enthusiasms. By no account should Kerouac be considered a “one-book author.”
An essentially expressionistic artist, who worked impulsively to comb his mind for literary material, Kerouac developed a different, profoundly experimental way of writing. These innovative methods are roughly outlined in his “Essentials for Spontaneous Prose,” but perhaps the richest description appears in Seymour Krim’s brilliant introduction to Desolation Angels (1965) – an essay subsequently reprinted in Krim’s Shake It for the World, Smartass (1970), but lamentably not included in some paperback reprints of the Kerouac book.
Kerouac would ‘sketch from memory’ a ‘definite image-object’ more or less as a painter would work on a still-life; this ‘sketching’ necessitated an ‘undisturbed flow from the mind of idea-words,’ comparable to a jazz soloist blowing freely; there would be ‘no periods separating sentence-structures already arbitrarily riddled by false colons and timid commas’; in place of the conventional period would be ‘vigorous space dashes separating rhetorical breathing,’ again just as a jazzman draws breath between phrases; there would be no ‘selectivity of expression’ but instead the free association of the mind into ‘limitless seas’ of thought; the writer has to ‘satisfy himself first,’ after which the ‘reader can’t fail to receive a telepathic shock’ by virtue of the same psychological ‘laws’ operating on his own mind; there would be ‘no pause’ in composition, ‘no revisions’ (except for errors of fact) since nothing is ultimately incomprehensible or ‘muddy’ that ‘runs in time’; the motto of this kind of prose was to be ‘speak now or forever hold your peace’—putting the writer on a true existentialist spot; and finally the writing was to be done ‘without consciousness’ in a Yeatsian semitrance if possible and ‘admit’ in uninhibited and therefore ‘necessarily modern language’ what overly conscious art would normally censor.
This theory of the artist as a recording consciousness produces an art of incorporation, rather than an art made by removal and refinement; so that the run-on sentence, which offends grammarians, became perfectly appropriate to Kerouac’s needs. Thus, his books have an uneven, improvisatory, unfinished quality that no doubt reflects their method of composition. However, when most of us write impulsively, we tend to repeat ourselves excessively, not only in style but in content; one sign of Kerouac’s genuine genius is the fact that he did not.
One extreme result of this compositional method is “Old Angel Midnight,” which is to my mind his single most extraordinary piece of prose. As Ann Charters tells it, Kerouac had spent the evening of 28 May, 1965, boasting that he was “Shakespeare or Joyce reincarnated ….”
Jack returned to [Gary Snyder’s] Mill Valley cabin and tried to prove his boast by writing a long exercise in spontaneous prose as his friends slept off the wine. The piece was titled ‘Old Angel Midnight.’ The prose was supposed to be Shakespearean, but Jack coasted on his personal currents of sweet wine associations and floating perceptions. In different sections, Jack ranged in his thought of friends and places, his form fluid as jello.
McNally adds, “In fact, Jack’s trance was so deep that much of ‘Old Angel Midnight’ was written in an illegible scribble most unlike his usual neat printing.”
“Old Angel Midnight” was scheduled to appear in the Chicago Review, Winter, 1959. However, in response to a Chicago newspaper columnist’s attack upon the University of Chicago literary magazine for “filthy writing,” the deans asked to see the new issue before it went to the printer and subsequently ruled that two works should not appear. With the infallibly dumb taste of dismissive academics, they selected the very best. One, by William Burroughs, was an excerpt from a novel that would soon be internationally famous – Naked Lunch (1958); the other was Kerouac’s prose piece. Not unreasonably, six of the seven editors of the Chicago Review resigned; and two of them, Irving Rosenthal and Paul Carroll, started an alternative magazine, called, after Kerouac’s suggestion, Big Table. Once this new publication appeared, however, the United States Post Office banned its circulation through the mails. With characteristic determination, the publishers of Big Table lodged an appeal.
After five months, a verdict came down from Judge Julius Hoffman, the same federal judge who a decade later became the goat of the Chicago Seven trial. The anonymous editor introducing the fifth issue of Big Table remembers:
He found it unnecessary to rule on the constitutionality of the Post Office ban. Instead, Judge Hoffman held that Big Table #1 was not ‘obscene.’ Commenting on the two articles in Big Table #1 singled out by the Post Office as such [as well as by the University administration], Judge Hoffman ruled that both were in the broad field of serious literature. The Kerouac article was described by Judge Hoffman as ‘a wild prose picnic… which seems to be some sort of dialogue, broadly, between God and Man.’
Not bad, Julie, Abbie Hoffman would have told him.
It was unfortunate that “Old Angel Midnight” got billed as obscene, because it scarcely is; but there is no question that it would disturb most readers. The principal problem is that the work does not appear to be about anything in particular. The numbered sections, into which the work is divided, do not ostensibly relate to each other, for adjacent sections are invariably leagues apart, not only in subject but in style. The only public clue to his purposes that Kerouac ever gave appeared at the end of sections 50-67, which initially appeared in Evergreen Review (Sept., 1964). Here he speaks of “my idea of how to make a try at a spontaneous Finnegans Wake with the Sounds of the Universe itself as the plot and all the neologisms, mental associations, puns, word mixes from various languages and non-languages scribbled out in the strictly intuitional discipline at breakneck speed.”
The sole critic to understand “Old Angel Midnight” at its initial publication, aside from Julius Hoffman, was the Saturday Review’s John Ciardi who, in the course of a sarcastic attack on recent censorship, described the work as:
A series of Joycean improvisations (no less!) on the nature of irreality as created by a slangy and polyglot god once named Old Angel Midnight… The writing, moreover, goes by something like musical principle, with basic themes recurring and being varied.
It is scarcely surprising that most of Kerouac’s critics have been reluctant to deal with “Old Angel Midnight”; indeed, only a few even mention it.
In my judgment, it is principally about the possibilities of both memory and language and especially about the limitless intensities of each. In form, the work is a series of pieces, mostly of prose, prefaced only by sequential numbers. Each incorporates moments of memory, not only from Kerouac’s own life but also of literature, sports, and other domains. Realizing qualities unique to prose, Kerouac works with conventional syntax and then without it. At one point, he even inserts punctuation marks to disrupt the flow. (“Why, hell, should, heaven, interfere, words, waiting, flesh, sure, I, know, write poems…”) He writes in various tones and styles, in various languages; he makes puns and casts his words in pictorial shapes. In addition to the large definite changes from section to section, he makes swift shifts, often quite subtle, within a section or even within a single passage, much as the remembering mind jumps from realm to realm, amidst and over distracting flashes.
Stump – all on a stump the stump – accord yourself with a sweet declining; woman one night – I mean by declining that she lays back & declines to say no – accuerdo ud. con una merveillosa – accordde tue, Ti Pousse, avec une belle femme folle pi vas’ t’councer–if ya don’t understand s t t and tish, that language, it’s because the langue just bubbles & in the babbling void I Lowsy Me I’se tihed ….
The suggestion is that Kerouac is stringing words together for their sound, rather than their syntactical necessities or semantic meanings; and in this respect he most resembles Dylan Thomas, of all contemporaries. There was nothing like this before in American prose, and scarcely anything like it since. (A second suggestion of, this polylingual passage is that Kerouac could have written an entire book in French-English, much as Anthony Burgess developed Russian-English for A Clockwork Orange .) What Kerouac is implying in “Old Angel Midnight” is a theme quite different from what most of his admirers think; his greatest truth is that classic literature is not about the representation of “experience” but about the possibilities of words creatively placed together.
In part because he could write so quickly, Kerouac had the temperament of a journalist, and perhaps the greatest misfortune of his professional life was that he never had a loyal periodical patron. It is true that, after dropping out of college, he worked as a sportswriter in Lowell; but he did not stay long enough for anything to appear under his by-line. The only journalistic opportunity ever extended to him was a back-page column, beginning in 1959, for the sub-Playboy ”girlie” magazine, Escapade, published and edited in Derby, Connecticut. In these columns, Kerouac ranged freely in subject, writing at different times about baseball, politics, literature and jazz; but perhaps the most interesting subcurrent of this series is that his prose becomes progressively stronger and more expressionistic until, by the final columns, we read that flowing, rushing style that we have come to associate with Kerouac at his best. It is hard to think of any other American writer whose magazine columns are as profoundly literary as these; in a better America, he would have had national syndication every week.
Finally, it is not surprising that such a master of personal expression should also be one of the greatest letter-writers of the twentieth century. Perhaps because he was not assured of publication for most of his life, some of his best writing appears in letters, which contain not only drafts of poems and prose, but also descriptions of his professional ambitions and purposes. A few of them have been reprinted; but until everything he wrote in available – not only these letters, but the unpublished poems and stories (including those initially written in French), his journals for each book – we will never know completely what an extraordinary American writer Kerouac was.
Originally written in 1980 as the introduction to an anthology of the most avant-garde Kerouac that was typeset but never appeared, this was published in the New York Arts Journal in 1980 and then reprinted in the author’s The Old Fictions and the New (1987), before being revised but not updated for publication now.
Great article! Enlightening and very well done.