I recently received a copy of Gregory Stephenson’s new book, And The Rivers Thereof: Reflections on Riverine Imagery in the Writing of Jack Kerouac. It is a slim edition by Felix Culpa Press in the UK.

Stephenson begins by telling us that “throughout much of Kerouac’s prose – from his first published novels to his final printed words – images of rivers make their appearance, multivariant in their resonances, manifold in their layers of meaning.” [7] In fact, he explains that these go beyond his first published novels to Mike Explores the Merrimack, a novel Kerouac wrote at just eleven years old.

Kerouac’s first published novel was The Town and the City, and this begins with a depiction of the Merrimack – the river that runs through Kerouac’s hometown of Lowell, called Galloway in this book. “[T]he sights and sounds of the Merrimack river form a fixed and steady backdrop to the thoughts and fates of the story’s principal characters,” Stephenson explains. [9]

His next book, On the Road, was in Kerouac’s own words intended to be “a study of rain and rivers.” [10] A notebook he used at the time of writing was called “Rain and Rivers” and filled with notes on the various rivers Kerouac encountered whilst travelling. “Certain of the descriptions,” Stephenson says, “were later used – in altered form – in his published writings.” [10]

It is Stephenson’s contention that rivers were thus of more importance than one might expect in Kerouac’s most famous book:

The title of the journal, the detailed notes concerning individual rivers – the origin of their names, their headwaters and courses – together with the author’s poetic reflections on them, together suggest that Kerouac intended to employ the image of rivers and the rains that fed them as an underlying, unifying metaphor in the novel he was then writing. [10]

How did Kerouac’s plan work out? The published version of On the Road, Stephenson says, “is both framed by and permeated with imagery of rivers.” [11] He goes on to give various examples, including an epiphany that Sal Paradise experiences when crossing the Mississippi:

as the river poured down from mid-America by starlight I knew, I knew like mad that everything I had ever known and would ever know was One. [13]

Stephenson tells us that “riverine imagery in the novel also serves to suggest the journey of individual life, from birth through growth to death and union with the ocean of consciousness, the One, from which new life proceeds.” [14]

The book then moves on to discuss other Kerouac works, including Doctor Sax and Maggie Cassidy, where again rivers are of importance. In Sax, it seems the river is a malevolent force until we realise it is merely a force of nature, punishing human arrogance.

The ravages wrought by the flood upon the city of Lowell might not – in a karmic sense – have been entirely unearned, for the narrator notes with disgust the continual defilement of the Merrimac (sic) River with industrial dyes and human sewage. [22]

The depiction of the Merrimack in Sax, Stephenson says, “restates and extends the poetic suggestiveness of the riverine imagery deployed in the opening paragraphs of The Town and the City.” [24]

We are then told about the Skagit River, which appears in The Dharma Bums and Desolation Angels. In the latter, Kerouac (or rather his narrator) calls the Skagit “my pure little favorite river of the Northwest.” [28]

Regarding Big Sur, Stephenson moves from rivers to creeks and notes:

In the course of the account of his sojourn at Big Sur, Duluoz’s relation to the creek serves as a kind of seismograph of the state of his psyche. [30]

There is more. Stephenson takes us through several short stories and even Kerouac’s last piece of published writing, “What Am I Thinking About?” In this final piece, Kerouac mused on the Mekong, which wound its way through a warzone as he wrote.

One of the more interesting sections of this little book is the final few pages, where Stephenson notes the connections between rivers and Kerouac’s spontaneous prose method. Although he prefaces this by saying “I would not wish to draw too close a correspondence,” he makes an interesting case for a riverine influence not only on the themes in Kerouac’s book but their method of composition. [40] He cites various examples of Kerouac using riverine language to describe his spontaneous prose style, too.

Altogether, this was a great read. Stephenson is known for his excellent research and interesting insights on all matters Beat, but he is also a wonderful writer and there are many sections in this book that demonstrate that skill. It is an engaging but succinct study that opens a new avenue of discussion into Kerouac’s work.

Gregory Stephenson

And The Rivers Thereof: Reflections on Riverine Imagery in the Writing of Jack Kerouac

Felix Culpa Press

ISBN 8797437520

44 pages