By the time Jack Kerouac died at 47 in 1969, he’d exiled himself from the 1960s youth culture he’d partly inspired with the likes of On the Road and The Dharma Bums. Bloated by booze and reactionary politics, he bore little resemblance to that matinee-idol handsome ‘King of the Beats’. In death, though, Kerouac’s star has risen with each succeeding generation. Catherine de Leon, a self-described ‘Kerouac acolyte’ examines the posthumous power and lasting legacy of Lowell, Massachusetts’ most famous (and infamous) native son.
Visions of March in icy white frigid New England – the browns of old kitchens where potatoes bubble upon cast-iron stoves, where red bricks bleed ominous shadows, where snow-peaked roofs and evergreens shudder, and the thunder of rushing rivers sing songs of doom, mark the 99th anniversary of the first day of a relatively short journey on the path of “we’re all going to die”. March 12, 1922 was the day that Jean-Louis “Jack” Lebris de Kerouac was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, and angels and phantoms bore witness; his soon to be dead brother too, and with every page that has been turned from the 1950s until today, we are all reborn with him, and together we walk, ride, and dance the road to the golden eternity one kick at a time.
The reverence we now have for Jack Kerouac was not remotely akin to the way he was viewed during the last years of his professional life. Like James Dean and JFK, both of whom had died before he did, his legacy has grown and he has become exceedingly idealised. Had he lived to old age, would he have triumphed over his failures and become a venerated spokesman, a reincarnated man of letters rather than the so-called ‘barbarian with a typewriter’ that critics in the 50s reviled? Kerouac would never have been seen backstage at Doors concerts or touring with Dylan. He did not have the talent for hanger-onism that Allen Ginsberg had, and he did not embrace the cultural and political ideologies of successive youth movements. Had he lived and remained a public figure, he would not be considered the forefather of punk and deconstructionism as William S. Burroughs is. Poet Michael McClure once told a story about being approached by a skate-punk who asked him what ever happened to the Beat Generation. McClure replied, “You did.” As much as I love Kerouac, I cannot picture him being so accurately and lovingly succinct. Jack gives us more from his grave, preserved in amber at 35, safe in Heaven, better off dead.
At the time of his death, Jack had only $62 in the bank, and all but two of his books were out of print. Today, his literary estate is worth tens of millions and posthumous works stand alongside what are now viewed as classics, yet in his time his works were railed against, or worse still, ignored.
Posthumously, Jack Kerouac is celebrated for changing the way that American fiction is written. He is the singular avatar of a postwar rebellion that has come and gone and come again with different uniforms and different vernacular, but its essence remains the same: to get to know time, to be free, to hold mortality in the palm of one’s hand, marvel at it and understand that we’re a small piece of a vastness that continues on in a single voice raised to the heavens in celebration of life. This is how we have come to know Jack, but during his lifetime, he was held cheaply if held at all. He fell prey to a contrived public image of dangerousness that overshadowed the importance of his work. As John Clellon Holmes observed in the documentary What Happened to Kerouac? (1986), there is a big difference between being famous and being infamous. Kerouac could not cope with the latter, which was how he was perceived after the publication of On the Road. He was created in a new image by a new media machine and ultimately destroyed by the same.
What Happened to Kerouac – Trailer
I remember watching the aforementioned documentary on Kerouac with my mother, who was 7 years his junior yet swore she had danced with him when he and some Greek boys from Lowell allegedly attended one or another church-sponsored dance back in the day. “I always thought he was a nice-looking boy,” she said. “Too bad he was such a bum.”
I choked on my wine. “Bum???” I shrieked, “What do you mean, bum???”
“Well,” she said, “He never did anything with his life.”
“How can you call a man who is translated in almost every language in the world, someone who is on required reading lists of major world universities, someone who inspired a movement and generation, a bum?” I railed. “What do you think he should have done with his life? Stayed in Lowell? Become a sports writer for the Lowell Sun? Worked in a shoe factory?”
“Yah,” she replied.
My mother, although a member of the same generation, was clearly not Beat. And she was not alone. I remember my first trip up to Lowell in 1988 when they had the commemoration ceremony for Kerouac Park. I met Allen Ginsberg, Ann Charters, and Joyce Johnson, and saw Jim Carroll cut down an alleyway to take a piss. They knew Jack, and I expected that the city would know him too, that they would be filled with adoration for their native son. But every cab driver, train conductor, bartender, and pedestrian who asked me what I was doing there, would reply to my answer, “Why would you want to come up here for that? He was a bum.” They didn’t know Jack. Or did they?
Maybe Jack would get a kick out of that, casting his visions back to San Francisco skid row days drinking Tokay out of brown paper sacks, masquerading as a hobo here and there, now and again, but I think not. All Jack ever wanted was all he never got while he lived; acceptance, understanding, and validation. “Everybody goes home in October’…. The vastness of Jack’s later-life experiences in Lowell were less a triumphant homecoming and more an epitaph. Though not yet “safe in Heaven, dead”, he was the walking dead, sum and substance of his disappointments, wounded by his critics and perceived enemies. While a hopeful return to the womb of his boyhood may have given him hope for a security without pretentiousness, his escalated alcoholism fuelled a bitterness and vulgarity in him that rubbed the New Englanders the wrong way. As he had told Ed Sanders on William F. Buckley’s Firing Line, Lowell’s finest saw fit to “arrest him for decay.” Although Kerouac played the buffoon on the panel discussion show, he knew what he was saying. He was at that time in an advanced state of mental and physical decay that would culminate in an early death at age 47 in 1969.
But what brought Jack so low? At first glance, Kerouac, like Jack Kennedy, was made for the new medium of television. The camera drank in his intensity, his intellect, his matinee idol handsomeness, but it equally exposed his vulnerability making him attractive to his female audience and dangerous to the males. The Madmen with their suits and ties and three martini lunches perpetuated the good-for-publicity myth that Jack was Dean Moriarty, far more virile and threatening than Sal Paradise, the narrator of On the Road who was actually Jack’s alter ego. Every time this myth was bought, Jack was challenged to a bar fight, left bleeding on the pavement, or panned in the critics’ column, left bleeding at his typewriter, watching his dreams of literary success become more about image than substance, as he became infamous for fictional antics, not famous for artistic integrity and ingenuity.
Jack’s Beat Generation which began in the mid-1940s had somehow, by the late-1950s morphed into caricatures labelled Beatniks, a word coined in 1958 by San Francisco columnist Herb Caen. The black-clad, beret-wearing existentialist silhouette parodied and linked to unAmerican juvenile delinquents had nothing in common with Kerouac, Lucien Carr, Burroughs, and Ginsberg. In the mid-forties the crucible bearers were hardly teenagers who hung on corners stealing hubcaps. They were educated men, exploring and defining America, as they forged careers for themselves as published authors. The new generation, supposedly inspired by On the Road were painted by journalists and commentators as poetry-spouting, bongo-playing, paint-spattered Communists who carried switchblades and threatened the American way of life with their dirty books and marijuana cigarettes. My earliest Halloween costume that I can recall was that of a Beatnik inspired not by Kerouac and Company, but by Maynard G. Krebs, a character on a hit sitcom of the day, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (1959 -1963). Bob Denver played the goofy ne’er-do-well who listened to Dizzy Gillespie and had holes in his Keds. I complained because I thought Beatniks were not scary, to which my mother (you remember her) replied, “Yes, they are.” At three years old, I proclaimed that I would marry Maynard when I grew up. That, my mother found really scary but probably not as scary as the Kerouac acolyte I would become.
Hollywood and Madison Avenue irreversibly tied Jack to the new youth movement and the commercialised stereotype they, not Jack had created. Labelled ‘King of the Beats’, he became a media-contrived ringleader for what straight society viewed as juvenile delinquents and Communists. He was constantly associated with the worst elements of Fifties’ society which was a misconception of his personal character while his writing was ridiculed as “typing, not writing” (f.__ you, Capote) or “barbaric yawps”. David Dempsey, whose New York Times review of On the Road nearly broke Kerouac’s spirit, kept his attacks coming, saying The Subterraneans “seeped out like sludge from a leaky drain pipe” and panned his writing style as “the complete, almost schizophrenic disintegration of syntax”.
Far from the image concocted by cotton-headed critics and pundits in the ‘50s, Jack was not a Neanderthal with a typewriter. He was a sensitive, educated man, a scholar of world literature who, from his earliest days of daydreaming about the future with Sebastian Sampas in Lowell, to his pre-road days with Lucien Carr, Bill Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, wanted to be seen as a man of letters. He fervently believed that he would be the one to create an American fiction with an American voice, not the red-headed stepchild of English Literature that was the accepted style of American lit of the time. He believed that the postwar renaissance that was taking root in New York City was not just about jazz and painting. It was about painting pictures all over the page in words that flowed to the rhythm of bop, the language and colours and images of America in a form and style that was uniquely American, sung and painted and written about by this new generation, whom he called Beat. From his Self-Ultimacy period and collaborations with Burroughs to his taped scats with Neal Cassady, Kerouac was laying it down. By 1956, he had already written six full novels and had been carrying them around with him, back and forth across the country getting wires and postcards from Ginsberg, who was shopping his novels and trying to make inroads at various publishing houses without much success. He was experiencing a profound confidence crisis that rode him like a monkey on his back for the rest of his life. Even with the publication of On the Road, he continued to question himself, wondering whether it was he who was his own worst enemy or if there was a secret society waiting in the wings to destroy him before he barely began.
He believed that the postwar renaissance that was taking root in New York City was not just about jazz and painting. It was about painting pictures all over the page in words that flowed to the rhythm of bop
As Jack was dedicated to his path as an author, he was equally tortured by guilt for his inability to financially care for his mother. He more often borrowed from her than supported her. We can imagine scenarios in which Jack’s life could have looked different, where he would have been less a bum. He could have done his four years at Columbia and returned to Lowell, been given a column and by-line at the Lowell Sun and held court in the after-work bars telling stories of big city shenanigans. He could have married “Maggie Cassidy” bought a house and a dog, had a few kids and lived until he was 80. He could have, if not for his injury, continued to play football for Columbia and perhaps gone pro after school and hawked Burma Shave or Vitalis on TV in California, living the dream with a blond wife and a beach house with a mother-in-law wing for Memere. All these scenarios might have made him less a bum, but he wouldn’t have written the truth, and would not have lived by an ethic which he proclaimed to Bill Buckley in his last year on earth, was “Pure”. It would not have staved off his slow suicide, because the grass is always greener and a Heisman Trophy would have paled in comparison to a Pulitzer Prize in Jack’s baby blue eyes.
As displayed by Jack’s short-lived stint as a railroad worker, his discipline began and ended at his own typewriter. He would not wear the knotted tie symbolically binding him to a desk at the Lowell Sun, and he could not take the criticism heaped upon him during Columbia’s head coach Lou Little’s football practice drills. He could not assimilate to the structure of the Navy during the war, and opted for a stint “in the bughouse” instead as Ginsberg recalled, swallowing a diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia and a discharge rather than toe the line and conform. The symbolism of Jack travelling to Michigan in a freight car as recalled by his then-wife Edie Parker, sitting on a flag-draped casket of a fallen soldier should not be lost on us. He rode the lives and deaths of his generation and told their truths, not in first class, but in the tail end of the train, on a long and lonely journey home.
Throughout his career, both Kerouac the man, and Kerouac the writer was vastly misunderstood. He was put on the spot in interviews and was constantly unsuccessfully defending himself. As he wrote in Desolation Angels, “They put spotlights on me standing there in the road in jeans and work-clothes, with the big woeful rucksack a-back, and asked: -‘Where are you going?’ which is precisely what they asked me a year later under Television floodlights in New York, ‘Where are you going?’-Just as you can’t explain to the police, you can’t explain to society: ‘Looking for peace’.”
While his friends and contemporaries were able to shrug the criticism and ridicule off, Jack could not. His sensitivity was his Achilles heel in as much as it was the gift he shared with us, page after page. The only way he could shore himself up against the gleeful media hounds was to protect himself in a cloud of drink and his often outrageous and sloppy behaviour justified the press he got, hurt him more, and brought him to his end. As his friend, the novelist John Clellon Holmes, said, “If he’d known how the world worked, he never would have broken his heart over it.”
The 21st century is not a time where people stumble into corner drugstores to pick up a book, any book, because they read a review in the paper or heard the buzz on the street, in a bar, or café. These days people often see the movie first, and read the book later, if they are going to read it at all. That being said, is the newest generation to be turned on to Kerouac left to discover him through film? When I revisit the movie versions of my copies of now dog-eared novels, I am always disappointed, always left wondering why the narrative can never be aptly translated to film. The voice is so elusive yet common to every heartbeat on the planet, never quite captured by the director’s vision, the cinematographer’s eye. The actor’s fledgling attempt at imitation is more an insult than the sincerest form of flattery. Is there still something about Jack that even the most ardent student of Beat cannot get? Is he still misunderstood? Jack’s unfulfilled dream was to see his novels faithfully (as opposed to the highly unfaithful 1960 film version of The Subterraneans) represented on the big screen. What would he have thought of the 21st century interpretations and would the increase of his bank account over-ride his disappointment in unfavourable reviews? Will these rather bland attempts at giving Kerouac cinematic success inspire a new generation to read the books and create a tribe of 21st-century Beats?
“If he’d known how the world worked, he never would have broken his heart over it.” – John Clellon Holmes
At the time of his death, Jack had only $62 in the bank, and all but two of his books were out of print. Today, his literary estate is worth tens of millions and posthumous works stand alongside what are now viewed as classics, yet in his time his works were railed against, or worse still, ignored. They say he died from a combination of things: an untreated hernia, cirrhosis of the liver, internal bleeding resulting from untreated injuries caused by a bar fight in St. Pete. Those are merely symptoms of the real cause; a long slow death from a broken heart.
Perhaps it is easier for us to set aside the last chapter of his suffering. Even when he was a young man, still full of hope and idealism, he acknowledged that all life is suffering, but strived to teach us that it is also filled with supreme joy. We are better off holding onto the Jack who loved life, who loved jazz, who loved the mysteries of God and nature, rather than the lonely, embittered man who drank himself to death missing his friends, not as they were in the 1960s, but who they were in their primes. They are all together again, safe in Heaven, finally settled into the warm glow of the golden eternity.