And here is nastly slap at Jack from a writer not much better, Edward Abbey: "Jack Kerouac, like a sick refrigerator, worked too hard at keeping cool and died on his mama's lap from alcohol and infantilism."
Cactus Ed on Updike:
John Updike: our greatest suburban chic-boutique man of letters. A smug and fatal complacency has stunted his growth beyond hope of surgical repair. Not enough passion in his collected works to generate steam in a beer can. Nevertheless, he is considered by some critics to be America's finest *living* author: Hold a chilled mirror to his lips and you will see, presently, a fine and dewy moisture condensing--like a faery breath!--upon the glass.
It debuted hereabouts in Scottsdale this morning at 11:00 AM at Harkins 14. There were exactly three souls in attendance, mine included. Beautifully done and especially moving for this native Californian Kerouac aficionado who knows the book and the road and the bridge and the views and has had his own remarkable experiences at Big Sur. Gazing out at the Pacific over 40 years ago I felt as if locked into the same nunc stans that I had glimpsed a few months before at Playa del Rey on the southern California coast. Nature in the extremity of her beauty has the power to unhinge the soul from the doorjambs of what passes for sanity.
The following from Chapter 11 of Big Sur, emphasis added. After three weeks alone in Big Sur in Lawrence Ferlinghetti's Bixby canyon cabin, Kerouac, freaked out by the solitude and his metaphysical and religious brooding amidst the starkness of nature, hitch hikes for the last time in his life north on Highway 1 toward Monterey and San Francisco where he receives another 'sign':
The next sign is in Frisco itself where after a night of perfect sleep in an old skid row hotel room I go to see Monsanto [Ferlinghetti] at his City Lights bookstore and he's smiling and glad to see me, says "We were coming out to see you next weekend you should have waited, " but there's something else in his expression -- When we're alone he says "Your mother wrote and said your cat is dead. "
Ordinarily the death of a cat means little to most men, a lot to fewer men, but to me, and that cat, it was exactly and no lie and sincerely like the death of my little brother -- I loved Tyke with all my heart, he was my baby who as a kitten just slept in the palm of my hand with his little head hanging down, or just purring, for hours, just as long as I held him that way, walking or sitting -- He was like a floppy fur wrap around my wrist, I just twist him around my wrist or drape him and he just purred and purred and even when he got big I still held him that way, I could even hold this big cat in both hands with my arms outstretched right over my head and he'd just purr, he had complete confidence in me -- And when I'd left New York to come to my retreat in the woods I'd carefully kissed him and instructed him to wait for me, 'Attends pour mue kitigingoo" -- But my mother said in the letter he had died the NIGHT AFTER I LEFT! -- But maybe you'll understand me by seeing for yourself by reading the letter:
"Sunday 20 July 1960, Dear Son, I'm afraid you wont like my letter because I only have sad news for you right now. I really dont know how to tell you this but Brace up Honey. I'm going through hell myself. Little Tyke is gone. Saturday all day he was fine and seemed to pick up strength, but late at night I was watching TV a late movie. Just about 1: 30 A. M. when he started belching and throwing up. I went to him and tried to fix him up but to no availe. He was shivering like he was cold so I rapped him up in a Blanket then he started to throw up all over me. And that was the last of him. Needless to say how I feel and what I went through. I stayed up till "day Break" and did all I could to revive him but it was useless. I realized at 4 A. M. he was gone so at six I wrapped him up good in a clean blanket -- and at 7 A. M. went out to dig his grave. I never did anything in my whole life so heart breaking as to bury my beloved little Tyke who was as human as you and I. I buried him under the Honeysuckle vines, the corner, of the fence. I just cant sleep or eat. I keep looking and hoping to see him come through the cellar door calling Ma Wow. I'm just plain sick and the weirdest thing happened when I buried Tyke, all the black Birds I fed all Winter seemed to have known what was going on. Honest Son this is no lies. There was lots and lots of em flying over my head and chirping, and settling on the fence, for a whole hour after Tyke was laid to rest -- that's something I'll never forget -- I wish I had a camera at the time but God and Me knows it and saw it. Now Honey I know this is going to hurt you but I had to tell you somehow... I'm so sick not physically but heart sick... I just cant believe or realize that my Beautiful little Tyke is no more -- and that I wont be seeing him come through his little "Shanty" or Walking through the green grass ... PS. I've got to dismantle Tyke's shanty, I just cant go out there and see it empty -- as is. Well Honey, write soon again and be kind to yourself. Pray the real "God" -- Your old Mom XXXXXX."
So when Monsanto told me the news and I was sitting there smiling with happiness the way all people feel when they come out of a long solitude either in the woods or in a hospital bed, bang, my heart sank, it sank in fact with the same strange idiotic helplessness as when I took the unfortunate deep breath on the seashore -- All the premonitions tying in together.
Monsanto sees that I'm terribly sad, he sees my little smile (the smile that came over me in Monterey just so glad to be back in the world after the solitudes and I'd walked around the streets just bemusedly Mona Lisa'ing at the sight of everything) -- He sees now how that smile has slowly melted away into a mawk of chagrin -- Of course he cant know since I didn't tell him and hardly wanta tell it now, that my relationship with my cat and the other previous cats has always been a little dotty: some kind of psychological identification of the cats with my dead brother Gerard who'd taught me to love cats when I was 3 and 4 and we used to lie on the floor on our bellies and watch them lap up milk -- The death of "little brother" Tyke indeed -- Monsanto seeing me so downcast says "Maybe you oughta go back to the cabin for a few more weeks -- or are you just gonna get drunk again" -- "I'm gonna get drunk yes"
[. . .]
It was the most happy three weeks of my life [the three weeks at Ferlinghetti's cabin in Bixby canyon] dammit and now this has to happen, poor little Tyke -- You should have seen him a big beautiful yellow Persian the kind they call calico" -- "Well you still have my dog Homer, and how was Alf out there? " -- "Alf the Sacred Burro, he ha, he stands in groves of trees in the afternoon suddenly you see him it's almost scarey, but I fed him apples and shredded wheat and everything" (and animals are so sad and patient I thought as I remembered Tyke's eyes and Alf's eyes, ah death, and to think this strange scandalous death comes also to human beings, yea to Smiler [Ferlinghetti] even, poor Smiler, and poor Homer his dog, and all of us) -- I'm also depressed because I know how horrible my mother now feels all alone without her little chum in the house back there three thousand miles (and indeed by Jesus it turns out later some silly beatniks trying to see me broke the windowpane in the front door trying to get in and scared her so much she barricaded the door with furniture all the rest of that summer).
Sweet gone Jack really did try to be a good boy and give up the booze and dissipation and all the near occasions of sin & temptation that fame brought him once he made it in '57 with the publication of On the Road. Here he is arrived at Lawrence Ferlinghett's (Lorenzo Monsanto's) cabin in Bixby Canyon, Big Sur:
And in the flush of the first few days of joy I confidently tell myself (not expecting what I'll do in three weeks only) "no more dissipation, it's time for me to quietly watch the world and even enjoy it, first in woods like these, then just calmly walk and talk among people of the world, no booze, no drugs, no binges, no bouts with beatniks and drunks and junkies and everybody, no more I ask myself the question O why is God torturing me, that's it, be a loner, travel, talk to waiters only, in fact, in Milan, Paris, just talk to waiters, walk around, no more self-imposed agony . . . it's time to think and watch and keep concentrated on the fact that after all this whole surface of the world as we know it now will be covered with the silt of a billion years in time.. . Yay, for this, more aloneness" -- "Go back to childhood, just eat apples and read your Cathechism -- sit on curbstones, the hell with the hot lights of Hollywood" (remembering that awful time only a year earlier when I had to rehearse my reading of prose a third time under the hot lights of the Steve Allen Show in the Burbank studio, one hundred technicians waiting for me to start reading, Steve Allen watching me expectant as he plunks the piano, I sit there on the dunce's stool and refuse to read a word or open my mouth, "I dont have to R E H E A R S E for God's sake Steve! " -- "But go ahead, we just wanta get the tone of your voice, just this last time, I'll let you off the dress rehearsal" and I sit there sweating not saying a word for a whole minute as everybody watches, finally I say, "No I cant do it, " and I go across the street to get drunk) (but surprising everybody the night of the show by doing my job of reading just fine, which surprises the producers and so they take me out with a Hollywood starlet who turns out to be a big bore trying to read me her poetry and wont talk love because in Hollywood man love is for sale)... So even that marvelous, long remembrances of life all the time in the world to just sit there or lie there or walk about slowly remembering all the details of life which now because a million lightyears away have taken on the aspect (as they must've for Proust in his sealed room) of pleasant movies brought up at will and projected for further study -- And pleasure -- As I imagine God to be doing this very minute, watching his own movie, which is us. (Big Sur, ch. 6, pp. 24-25)
. . .
from the wheel of the quivering meat conception and the granting of your wish:
"The wheel of the quivering meat conception . . . . . . I wish I was free of that
slaving meat wheel and safe in heaven dead." (Mexico City Blues, 1959,
In 1955, The Paris Review paid a struggling Jack Kerouac fifty dollars for an excerpt from a then unpublished manuscript. The excerpt appeared as a short story titled “The Mexican Girl” and, after much acclaim, was picked up a year later by Martha Foley’s The Best American Short Stories. Due in large part to the success of “The Mexican Girl,” On the Road was soon accepted by Viking Press; the full novel was published in 1957. (reference)
Here is an audio clip of "The Mexican Girl." Meanwhile, the Mexican Girl, Bea Franco, has been found, written up, and assumes her place in the Beat pantheon.
Lest we forget, however, "Pretty girls make graves." (The Dharma Bums)
I thought of Carolyn in September and I thought I ought to check the obituaries. She died September 20th at age 90, her longevity as if in counterpoise to the short tenures of her main men, wildman Neal Cassady, the Dean Moriarty of Kerouac's 1957 On the Road, and the brooding Jack Kerouac himself. Carolyn played the stabilizer to the mania of the one and the melancholy of the other. Both quit the sublunary before the '60s had run their course. The tale of Jack's end has been told too many times, though I will tell it again on 21 October, the 44th anniversary of his exit from the "slaving meat wheel." Neal's demise is less frequently recounted.
died in February of 1968, also of substance abuse, having quaffed a nasty
concotion of pulque and Seconals, while walking the railroad tracks near San Miguel de
Allende, Mexico. Legend has it that Cassady had been counting the ties and that
his last word was "64, 928." (Cf. William Plummer, The Holy Goof: A
Biography of Neal Cassady, Paragon, 1981, pp. 157-158.)
Carolyn kept the beat while the wildmen soloed, seeking ecstasy where it cannot be found.
May all who sincerely seek beatitude find it. Kerouac: "I want to be sincere." May Jack with his visions of Gerard, of Cody, finally enjoy the ultimate beat vision, the visio beata.
A tip of the beret to Monterey Tom, fellow Kerouac aficionado, Octoberite, native Californian, and fellow lonesome traveller along Highway One for alerting me to the arrival of Big Sur, the movie, based on the eponymous novel by Jack Kerouac. Appropriately enough, it is scheduled to open here in the Valle del Sol on November 1st, All Saints' Day on the Catholic calendar. If you live hereabouts it will debut locally at the Harkins Shea 14 in Scottsdale. I think I'll catch the 11:00 AM performance, then have lunch at an authentic Jewish delicatessen Peter L. introduced me to: Goldman's Deli near the corner of N. Hayden and E. Indian Bend.
no better way to kick off Kerouac month than with 'sweet gone Jack' reading from "October in
Railroad Earth" from Lonesome Traveler, 1960. Steve Allen provides the
wonderful piano accompaniment. I have the Grove Press Black Cat 1970 paperback
edition. Bought it on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, 12 April 1973. I was
travelling East by thumb to check out East Coast graduate schools where I had been accepted, but mostly I 'rode the dog' (Greyhound bus), a mode
of transport I wouldn't put up with today: two guys behind me chain-smoked and
talked all the way from Los Angeles to Phoenix. New Orleans proved to be
memorable, including the flophouse on Carondelet I stayed in for $2. It was
there that Lonesome Traveler joined On the Road in my
rucksack. I never before had seen Tabasco bottles so big as on the tables of the Bourbon Street bars and eateries. Exulting in the beat quiddity of the scene, I couldn't help but share my enthusiasm for Nawlins with a lady of the evening, not sampling her wares, but just talking to her on the street, she thinking me naive, and I was.
Here is a long excerpt (7:10), which contains the whole of the first two
sections of the piece, pp. 37-40, of the Black Cat edition.
October is Kerouac month hereabouts, but aficionados will want to read the recent Football and the Fall of Jack Kerouac, a New Yorker piece that raises the question of the contribution of football-induced brain trauma to Kerouac's decline and early death.
In The New Criterion, Bruce Bawer lays into Kerouac's poetry with some justification:
Grimly reconciled though one may be to the annual flood of books by and about the Beat Generation, it’s particularly depressing to see Jack Kerouac’s poetry, of all things, enshrined in the Library of America, that magnificent series designed to preserve for posterity the treasures of our national literature. To read through these seven hundred–odd pages of Kerouac’s staggeringly slapdash effusions set in elegant Galliard, outfitted with the usual meticulous editorial apparatus, and bound—like Twain’s novels and Lincoln’s speeches—in a beautiful Library of America volume is enough to trigger a serious attack of cognitive dissonance.
Here. Millstein's NYT review brought Kerouac fame, but fame contributed to an early death at age 47 just a bit more than 12 years after the review. Fame brought death, but no fortune, leastways not for Jack. Last I checked, his heirs were battling over his estate.
By the way, the Telegraph article to which I have just linked gives the year of Keroauc's death incorrectly as 1968. Kerouac died in his beloved October, in 1969. I remember the day he died and my annotation in my journal.
Neal Cassady, Keroauc's hero and friend, the Dean Moriarty of On the Road, died in February of 1968, also of substance abuse, having quaffed a nasty concotion of pulque and Seconals, on the railroad tracks near San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Legend has it that Cassady had been counting the ties and that his last word was "64, 928." (Cf. William Plummer, The Holy Goof: A Biography of Neal Cassady, Paragon, 1981, pp. 157-158.)
. . . from the wheel of the quivering meat conception and the granting of your wish: "The wheel of the quivering meat conception . . .. . . I wish I was free of that slaving meat wheel and safe in heaven dead." (Mexico City Blues, 1959, 211th Chorus).
Some become solvent only after their dissolution. The case of Kerouac. His solvency came long after he had dissolved himself in that sovereign solvent of soul and body, alcohol. But money, though making solvent, is a solvent too, of human ties, as his relatives learned when they fell to fighting over his estate.
And no better way to kick off Kerouac month than with a reading from "October in Railroad Earth" from Lonesome Traveler, 1960. Steve Allen provides the wonderful piano accompaniment. I have the Grove Press Black Cat 1970 paperback edition. Bought it on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, 12 April 1973. I was travelling East by thumb, but mostly I 'rode the dog' (Greyhound bus), a mode of transport I wouldn't put up with today: two guys behind me chain-smoked and talked all the way from Los Angeles to Phoenix. New Orleans proved to be memorable, including the flophouse on Carondelet I stayed in for $2. It was there that Lonesome Traveler joined On the Road in my rucksack.
Here is a shorter (3:58) excerpt with great images. It includes the first section and about half of the second, pp. 37-39 in the Black Cat edition. Here is the second, longer excerpt (7:10), which contains the whole of the first two sections of the piece, pp. 37-40.
This is Danny Lanzetta. I saw your blog posting in response to my piece in the Huffington Post last week, "In Defense of Jack Kerouac..." Thanks for reading.
In your reaction, you wrote of my link to that famous OTR passage: "Lanzetta seems to be suggesting that this is a particularly bad specimen of Kerouac's scrivening."
I went back and looked at the passage in question. Your reading of it could not be more correct. That is absolutely what I wrote. However, it is not what I meant. My point was supposed to be that Kerouac's "madness" sometimes led to the most beautiful and ecstatic writing one could ever read (thus, the link), while at other times it led to the mess that became his personal life (such as his terrible treatment of his daughter, Jan). After countless proofreadings and going through my piece with a fine-toothed comb, I simply missed the way that sentence read. A simple adjective, appropriately placed, could've saved me. Alas, I missed it. I apologize for the confusion.
I'd be grateful if you could pass along my apologies to your readers. Luckily, it was only a case of bad writing (my own) and not what would be an egregious denouncement of one of the most beautiful sentences ever put to paper.
Well, Danny, there is certainly no need to apologize. If you had meant that the famous OTR passage was the sort of purple prose an over-excited sophomore might write, that would have been a defensible claim. But I am glad that is not what you meant. In any case, it is very easy for a writer to fail to say what he means.
I must say I was very impressed at your willingness to accept criticism.
Kerouac's work is undoubtedly sophomoric at times. He is hopelessly naïve about people, which sometimes leads to this and other times just comes off as laziness, a selfish desire to write the way he wanted to write and live the way he wanted to live, collateral damage be damned.
The first link is to this OTR passage:
The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones 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 exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes 'Awww!"
Lanzetta seems to be suggesting that this is a particularly bad specimen of Kerouac's scrivening. But although too often quoted, it is passages like this that grabbed my attention and gave me shivers back in the '60s and that still do now in my 60s. My 'beatitude' is considerably more measured these days, and it's a good thing too: too much 'madness' leads to an early grave. Jack's prodigious quaffing of the joy juice caught up with him in '69 at the tender age of 47, and his hero Neal Cassady (the Dean Moriarty of On the Road) was found dead on the railroad tracks near San Miguel Allende, Mexico the year before a few days shy of his 42nd birthday.
But it is for the hyper-romanticism and the heartfelt gush & rush that some of us read Kerouac still despite his many literary flaws, not to mention the mess he made of his life and the lives of others. He was no cool beatnik. He was mad to live, to talk, to feel, to know, to be saved. He was a restless dreamer, a lonesome traveler, a dharma seeker, a desolation angel passing through this vale of tears & mist, a pilgrim on the via dolorosa of this dolorous life, a drifter on the river of samsara hoping one day to cross to the Far Shore.
At any given time I am reading about 20 books. Yesterday afternoon, while reducing the whole of an Arturo Fuente 'Curly Head' to smoke and ashes, I enjoyed Chapter Seven, "Beats, Nonconformists, Playboys, and Delinquents" of Tom Lutz's Doing Nothing: A History of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers, and Bums in America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006). The chapter in question contains a penetrating discussion of Jack Kerouac's particular mode of slacking off. It is marred by only one inaccuracy: Lutz (p. 215) confuses Boston College with Boston University. Kerouac received a football scholarship to BC, not BU. (He chose Columbia, however, fatefully as it turned out: had he gone to BC there would have been no meeting of Ginsberg and Burroughs, and no Beat Generation).
My chance reading about Jack yesterday was most auspicious in that today, the 12th, is his birthday. Had his slackery not led him deep into the bottle, he might have been with us today. But he'd be an old coot. Today is the 90th anniversary of his birth.
Does it matter much whether one gets off the "slaving meat wheel" at 47 or at 90? "Safe in heaven dead" is the main thing.
Being a 'completist,' I will of course secure a copy sooner or later. But I suspect that biographer Nicosia's literary judgment of The Sea is My Brother (reported in the linked story) is just.
Poor Jack barely scraped by while entangled in the mortal coil. But now that he is "free of that slaving meat wheel, safe in heaven, dead," his literary executors grow fat peddling every last remnant of his literary remains.
When fame comes, its sun shines equally on all of one's productions throwing their differential values into the shade.
When he was a young man he travelled around the country with On the Road, the 'Bible of the Beat Generation,' in his rucksack, just as Kerouac had with Dwight Goddard's Buddhist Bible in his. Now he is an old man. When he travels now he carries a different light paperback, the plain old Bible.
Ellis Amburn, Subterranean Kerouac (St. Martin's 1998), p. 324:
One night he [Kerouac, during a 1962 visit to Lowell, Mass.] left a bar called Chuck's with Huck Finneral, a reedy, behatted eccentric who carried a business card that read: "Professional killer . . . virgins fixed . . . orgies organized, dinosaurs neutered, contracts & leases broken." Huck's philosophy of life was: "Better a wise madness than a foolish sanity." They drove to a friend's house in Merrimack, New Hampshire, and on the way, Jack sang "Moon River," calling it his favorite song. Composed by Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer, "Moon River" was the theme song of the popular Audrey Hepburn movie Breakfast at Tiffany's. Sobbed by a harmonic, later swelling with strings and chorus, the plaintive tune's gentle but epic-like lyrics describe a dreamer and roamer not unlike Kerouac.
Indeed they do. A restless dreamer, a lonesome traveler, a dharma seeker, a desolation angel passing through this vale of tears & mist, a pilgrim on the via dolorosa of this dolorous life, a drifter on the river of samsara hoping one day to cross to the Far Shore. Here is another version of the tune with some beautiful images.
Another 'river' song in the same plaintive vein is Pat Boone's Moody River from 1961.
Jack Kerouac was a big ball of affects ever threatening to dissolve in that sovereign soul-solvent, alcohol. One day he did, and died. The date was 21 October 1969. Today is the 42nd anniversary of his release from the wheel of the quivering meat conception and the granting of his wish:
The wheel of the quivering meat conception . . . . . . I wish I was free of that slaving meat wheel and safe in heaven dead. (Mexico City Blues, 1959, 211th Chorus)
Apparently, he took his last drink at the Flamingo Sports Bar in St. Petersburg.
The bar has become the area's de facto gathering spot for Kerouac aficionados to swap stories. Sitting on the patio, Alan Sansotta, who shot pool with Kerouac every week in the late 1960s, said he understands why the connection still matters.
"The first time you read On The Road, you think, 'What the hell am I doing with my life? I need to open my head up and see what's going on in the world,' " said Sansotta. "His literature really did change my life. It changed my life. And I thank God for that, because no doubt, geez, I'd have led a pretty boring life without Jack."
Yep, it would have been a lot less interesting without Jack.
The picture below is of Neal Cassady. The inscription on the gravestone reads: "He honored life."
Flannery O'Connor, The Habit of Being (Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 1979), pp. 336-337, in a letter to Dr. T. R. Spivey dated 21 June 1959:
I haven't read the article in PR [Paris Review?] or the beat writers themselves. That seems about the most appalling thing you could set yourself to do -- read them. But reading about them and reading what they have to say about themselves makes me think that there is a lot of ill-directed good in them. Certainly some revolt against our exaggerated materialism is long overdue. They seem to know a good many of the right things to run away from, but to lack any necessary discipline. They call themselves holy but holiness costs and so far as I can see they pay nothing. It's true that grace is the free gift of God but to put yourself in the way of being receptive to it you have to practice self-denial. I observe that Baron von Hügel's most used words are derivatives of the word cost. As long as the beat people abandon themselves to all sensual satisfactions, on principle, you can't take them for anything but false mystics. A good look at St. John of the Cross makes them all look sick.
You can't trust them as poets either because they are too busy acting like poets. The true poet is anonymous, as to his habits, but these boys have to look, act, and apparently smell like poets.
This is the only reference to the Beats that I found in The Habit of Being apart from the sentence, "That boy is on the road more than Kerouac, though in a more elegant manner." (p. 373)
And I wonder what Miss O'Connor would say had she lived long enough to read that book by the Holy Goof, Neal Cassady, entitled Grace Beats Karma: Letters from Prison 1958-1960? (Blast Books, 1993) Grace Beats Karma: what a wonderful title, apt, witty, and pithy! I shall have to pull some quotations before October's end.
Arguably, the central figure of the Beat movement was not Kerouac (OTR's Sal Paradise) but Neal Cassady (OTR's Dean Moriarty).
Jack Kerouac's On the Road was published 54 years ago in September, 1957. Joyce Johnson remembers. Excerpts:
Who could have predicted that an essentially plotless novel about the relationship between two rootless young men who seemed constitutionally unable to settle down was about to kick off a culture war that is still being fought to this day? [. . .]
In Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman sacrificed his life to a fruitless pursuit of the American dream; Kerouac's two protagonists acted as if that dream was of no importance. On the Road followed Sal and Dean through three years of frenetic transcontinental movement in the late 1940s. Their main goal in life was to "know time," which they could achieve by packing as much intensity as possible into each moment. [. . .]
The two ideas, beat and beatnik -- one substantive and life-expanding, the other superficial and hedonistic -- helped shape the counterculture of the '60s and to this day are confused with each other, not only by Kerouac's detractors but even by some of his most ardent fans. [. . .]
Beatniks were passe from the start, but On the Road has never gone without readers, though it took decades to lose its outlaw status. Only recently was it admitted -- cautiously -- to the literary canon. (The Modern Library has named it one of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century.) Fifty years after On the Road was first published, Kerouac's voice still calls out: Look around you, stay open, question the roles society has thrust upon you, don't give up the search for connection and meaning. In this bleak new doom-haunted century, those imperatives again sound urgent and subversive -- and necessary.
He led a tormented life, and I cannot help but feel sadness for a would-be rebel who spent most of his life, as did Kerouac, living at home with his mother. He also drank himself to a horrible death. But while it is true that most great writers were tormented souls, it does not follow that most tormented souls were great writers. To call Kerouac's writing mediocre is to do it too much honor: its significance is sociological rather than literary. The fact that his work is now being subjected to near-biblical levels of reverential scholarship is a sign of very debased literary and academic standards.
I have seen some of the most mediocre minds of my generation destroyed by too great an interest in the Beats.
The last line of this quotation parodies the first line of Allen Ginsberg's Howl:
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked . . . .
And as for Kerouac's "living at home with his mother," which Dalrymple intends as a slight, the truth is rather that Kerouac's mother lived with him, and with him and Stella Sampas after the two were married on 18 November 1966. (See Gerald Nicosia, Memory Babe, p. 670 ff.) Kerouac was ever the dutiful son, a conservative trait that Dalrymple misses.
The very best books, or so it seems, are usually the ones that get withdrawn from circulation in local public libraries, while the trash remains on the shelves. The librarians' bad judgement, however, redounds to my benefit as I am able to purchase fine books for fifty cents a pop. A while back, the literary luminaries at the Apache Junction Public Library saw fit to remove Linda Hamalian, A Life of Kenneth Rexroth (Norton, 1991) from the shelves.
Why, I have no idea. (It wasn't a second copy.) But I snatched it up. A find to rejoice over. A beautifully produced first edition of over 400 pages, the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America wanted $25 for it. I shall set it on the Beat shelf next to Kerouac's Dharma Bums wherein Rexroth figures as Reinhold Cacoethes. I hope the two volumes refrain from breaking each other's spines.
Moral: Always search diligently through biblic crap piles, remainder bins and the like. It is amazing what treasure lies among the trash.
I think it would be good for all young men somewhere in their early years to have to work for Manpower. It might give them more appreciation of what they have. It also might teach them something useful. I remember my various Manpower stints with some pleasure. I worked hard at a variety of jobs, learned a number of things I might not have, and felt like I earned my money. That’s not all bad.
I agree entirely, Bill, though your "with pleasure" I would qualify. It is not pleasant to be bossed around by inferior specimens of humanity, but that can and does happen when you are at the bottom of the labor pool. But working Manpower grunt jobs was well worth it, if not for the money, then for the experiences and the characters I met.
One cat, Larry Setnosky, was a failed academic, known in the seedy bars we'd hit after work as 'The Professor.' A doctoral student in history, he never finished his Ph. D. Lived in Venice, California, with a couple other marginal characters, rode a motorcycle, wore a vest with no shirt underneath. He'd write articles and then file them away. He was just too wild and crazy to submit to the academic discipline necessary to crank out a thesis and get the degree. Booze and dope didn't help either. I still recall his "Nary a stem nor a seed, Acapulco Gold is bad ass weed!"
Ernie Fletcher was one of Setnosky's housemates. A law school dropout, he was convinced that the system was a "rigged wheel." When I met him he was in his mid-thirties, an ex-boozer, and warmly in praise of sobriety. He had sworn off what he called 'tune-ups" but was not averse to watching me "dissipate" as he told me once, not that I did much dissipating. In point of dissipation I was closer to the Buddha than to the Bukowski end of the spectrum.
Fletcher was from the Pacific Northwest and had worked as a logger there. Observing me during Manpower gigs he thought I was a good worker and not "lame" or "light in the ass" as he put it. So he suggested we head up to Washington State and get logging jobs. And so we drove 1200 miles up the beautiful Pacific Coast along Highway 1 from Los Angeles to Forks, Washington in my 1963 Karmann Ghia convertible. Amazing as it is to my present cautious self, we took off the very next day after Ernie suggested the trip to me. We probably had little more than a hundred bucks between us, but gas in those days was 25 cents a gallon. On the way we stopped to see Kerouac's friend John Montgomery, who was also a friend of Ernie. John Montgomery was the Henry Morley of The Dharma Bums and the Alex Fairbrother of Desolation Angels. (For more on Montgomery see here.) Unfortunately, when we located Montgomery's house, he wasn't at home. I've regretted that non-meeting ever since. Now I hand off to my Journal, volume 5, p. 32:
Saturday Midday 10 February 1973
Last Monday left L. A. about 12:00 PM. Saw [brother] Philip in Santa Barbara, made Santa Cruz that night, stayed in motel after checking out [folk/rock venue] "The Catalyst" and local flophouse. While passing Saratoga, CA decided to look up John Montgomery, friend of Ernie's who knew Kerouac and the Beats. We couldn't get in touch with him. So on to Frisco, entered the city, became involved in intricate traffic tangles, visited [Lawrence Ferlinghetti's] City Lights Bookstore and Caffe Trieste where I had a cup of espresso. By the way, in Big Sur visited Ernie's friend Gary Koeppel. [He was bemused to hear from Ernie that I was a Kerouac aficionado. In those days, Kerouac was pretty much in eclipse. The first of the Kerouac biographies, Ann Charters' was not yet out and Kerouac's 'rehabilitation' was still in the future.]
Spent Tuesday night in Dave Burn's trailer in Arcata, CA. [Dave was the drummer of a couple of bands I was in back in L. A. 1968-1971] Gave him the two tabs of acid I had in my attache case. Wednesday morning fixed the headlight (highbeam) which was malfunctioning and for which I received a citation the night before. Then went to the nearest CHP office and had the citation cleared. Breakfast at Ramada Inn and then on to Eugene, Oregon. Dug Taylor's, The New World Coffee House,and Ernie and Larry's old haunt, Maxie's. Arrived at Ernie's brother-in-law's house at 11:30 PM. Thursday spent in Eugene. I bought Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit and Habermas' Knowledge and Human Interests. Friday morning left early for Forks, Washington, arriving around 6:00 PM. Presently lodged in Woodland Hotel. Drinks last night with Ernie and legendary logger, Jim Huntsman. Arranged to start working Monday morning. So far, so good.
I told myself that come November I would quit Jackin' off for a while, but October's momentum continues. I was just now looking in an old journal for something else and found this entry from 10 November 2000:
During the years he wrote Some of the Dharma, Kerouac had a chance. But then On the Road was published in 1957 (in a sense the opposite of Some of the Dharma), fame came, and he was lost forever. Sex, drugs, booze, and fame. Ancient lures. A lure is an evil that appears good. The alluring is that which to all appearances is good but is poisonous at its core. The fish lure se-duces the fish then hooks him. Women are the chief "fishers of men" to twist a New Testament phrase. The fish is 'taken in' by the lure and then 'taken out' by it. "Pretty girls make graves," said Ray Smith the Kerouac character in The Dharma Bums. The meaning is that sex leads to birth and birth to another go-round on the "slaving meat wheel" (Mexico City Blues, 211 Chorus) of samsara.
One difference between these two websites is that the first exists while the second doesn't. It borders on a paradox: two major countercultural influences, Kerouac and Dylan, display significant conservative tendencies in their art. I recommend RWB's post Times Changin' with its links to First Things articles and to a very nice Dylan performance in which 'another side' of his vocal styling is made manifest. This bard's one protean cat.
The despairing section X of Book Thirteen of Vanity of Duluoz which I quoted yesterday is followed immediately by this:
Yet I saw the cross just then when I closed my eyes after writing all this. I cant escape its mysterious penetration into all this brutality. I just simply SEE it all the time, even the Greek cross sometimes. I hope it will all turn out true.
It is fitting to conclude Kerouac month with the last section of Jack's last book, a section in which, while alluding to the Catholic mass, he raises his glass to his own piecemeal suicide:
Forget it wifey. Go to sleep. Tomorrow's another day. Hic calix! Look that up in Latin, it means "Here's the chalice," and be sure there's wine in it.
Kerouac in a letter from 17 January 1962: "Everybody is making money off my ideas, like those "Route 66" TV producers, everybody except me . . . ." (Selected Letters 1957-1969, ed, Charters, Viking 1999, p. 326; see also p. 461 and pp. 301-302.) Here is the Nelson Riddle theme music from the TV series. And here is part of an episode from the series which ran from 1960-1964. George Maharis bears a striking resemblance to Jack, wouldn't you say? Now dig Bobby Troup. And if that's too cool for you, here is Depeche Mode. Chuck Berry, the Rolling Stones, Dr. Feelgood, and others have covered the tune.
Vanity of Duluoz, Book Thirteen, X, pp. 274-276, ellipses and bold emphases added:
. . . .Mad Dog creation has a side of compassionate mercy in it . . . we have seen the brutal creation send us the Son of Man who, to prove that we should follow His example of mercy, brotherly love, charity, patience, gave Himself up without murmur to be sacrificed. Otherwise we would have taken his example lightly. Seeing that He really meant it right down to the cross, we are impressed. [. . .] But we cant be redeemed "unless we believe," it says, or follow His example. And who can do that? Not even Count Leo Tolstoy who still had to live in a "humble hut" but on his own lands even tho he had signed over his "own lands" of course to his own family, and had the gall then, from that earthly vantage point of vaunt, to write The Kingdom of God is Within You. If I, myself, for instance, were to try to follow Jesus' example I'd first have to give up my kind of drinking, which prevents me from thinking too much(like I'm doing in awful pain this morning), and so I'd go insane and go on public debt and be a pain to everybody in the blessed "community" or "society." And I'd be furthermore bored to death by the knowledge that there is a hole even in Jesus' bag: and that hole is, where He says to the rich young man "Sell everything you have and give it tothe poor, and follow me," okay, where do we go now, wander and beg our food off poor hardworking householders? and not even rich at that like that rich young man's mother? but poor and harried like Martha? Martha had not "chosen the better part" when she cooked and slaved and cleaned house all day while her younger sister Mary sat in the doorway like a modern beatnik with "square" parents talking to Jesus about "religion" and "redemption" and "salvation" and all that guck. Were Jesus and young Mary McGee waiting for supper to be ready? While talking about redemption? How can you be redeemed when you have to pass food in and out of your body's bag day in and day out, how can you be "saved" in a situation so sottish and flesh-hagged as that? (This was also the hole in Buddha's bag: he more or less said "It's well for Bodhisattva sages and Buddhas to beg for their food so as to teach the ordinary people of the world the humility of charity," ugh I say. No, the springtime bud I talked about with rain dew on its new green, it's the laugh of a maniac. Birth is the direct cause of all pain and death, and a Buddha dying of dysentery at the age of eighty-three had only to say, finally, "Be ye lamps unto thyselves" -- last words --"work out thy salvation with diligence," heck of a thing to say as he lay there in an awful pool of dysentery. Spring is the laugh of a maniac, I say.
I'll prove it. Take this test. No search engines. 1. Name the one and only Kerouac novel that contains a chess diagram. Extra credit: Does it represent a legal position? 2. On which nationally known talk show did Kerouac make a reference to Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite? 3. Kerouac gave a pretentious literary subtitle to one of his novels. Name the novel and name the subtitle. 4. Kerouac applied the derogatory moniker 'Reinhold Cacoethes' to whom of his acquaintances? 5. Which of Jack's friends compiled a list of popes from A.D. 64 to 1958? 6. Which branch of the service was Kerouac in when the above picture was taken? 7. Name the neocon who took Kerouac & Co. to task in "The Know-Nothing Bohemians." 8. The phrase 'ball the jack' has fallen into desuetude. To the best of my knowledge, the phrase is employed in only one of Kerouac's novels. Name the novel and explain the phrase's meaning and origin. 9. "But it was that beautiful cut of clouds I could always see above the little S. P. alley, puffs floating by from Oakland or the gate of Marin to the north or San Jose south, the clarity of Cal to break your heart." From which short piece is this passage excerpted? And what does 'S. P.' stand for? 10. "Since beginningless time and into the never-ending future, men have loved women without telling them, and the Lord has loved them without telling, and the void is not the void because there's nothing to be empty of." From which novel?
During his years of unsuccess, when he was actually at his purest and best, an "unpublished freak," as he describes himself in a late summer 1954 letter to Robert Giroux, living for his art alone, Kerouac contemplated entering a monastery: "I've become extremely religious and may go to a monastery before even before you do." [. . .] "I've recently made friends in a way with Bob Lax and I find him sweet -- tho I think his metaphysics are pure faith. Okay, that's what it's supposed to be." (Selected Letters 1940-1956, ed. Charters, Penguin 1995, p. 444.)
And then on pp. 446-448 we find an amazing 26 October [sic!] 1954 letter to Robert Lax packed with etymology and scholarly detail which ends:
I'm no saint, I'm sensual, I cant resist wine, am liable to sneers & secret wraths & 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 sin and stain of life-body itself [. . .] but thank God I'm a lazy bum because of that repose will come, in repose the secret, and in the secret: Ceaseless Ecstasy.
"Nirvana, as when the rain puts out a little fire."
See you in the world,
For information on the enigmatic hermit Robert Lax (1915-2000) , see here and here.
Reader Ray Stahl of Port Angeles, Washington, kindly mailed me a copy of Ned Polsky, Hustlers, Beats, and Others. It is a work of sociology by a maverick sociologist, academically trained, but decidedly his own man. I wasn't aware of it or him until a few days ago. The preface already has me convinced that this is a book I will read and digest. A writer who writes like this is a writer to read:
Many readers of this book will feel that I object to the views of other scholars in terms that are overly fierce. These days the more usual mode in academia, thronged as it is with arrivistes aspiring to be gentlemen, is to voice such objections oleaginously. But luckily I cut an eyetooth on that masterpiece of English prose, A. E. Housman's introduction to his edition of Manilius, and so am forever immune to the notion that polemical writing and scholarly writing shouldn't mix. I believe that polemical scholarship improves the quality of intellectual life -- sharpens the mind, helps get issues settled faster -- by forcing genteel discussion to become genuine debate.
(Hyperlinks added. Obviously. But it raises a curiously pedantic question: By what right does one tamper with a text in this way? Pedantic the question, I leave it to the pedants.)
Polsky died in 2000. Here is an obituary. You will have to scroll down to find it.
When On the Road finally saw the light of day in 1957, fame proved to be Kerouac's undoing. William Plummer writes insightfully:
For nearly a decade he hungered for recognition, but when the public at last chose to take notice it would choose to measure the least part of him. In forums and on talk shows, he would be queried about drugs, kicks, promiscuity. No one would understand or care to credit the spiritual underpinnings of On the Road; interviewers would regard him quizzically when he suggested that his life and work constituted a single effort to force God to pull back the veil and show Himself in the althogether. (The Holy Goof: A Biography of Neal Cassady, Paragon, 1981, p. 104)
Vanity of Duluoz, pp. 176-7:
Pascal says it better than I do when he says:"WHAT SHALL WE GATHER FROM ALL OUR DARKNESS IF NOT A CONVICTION OF OUR UNWORTHINESS?" and he adds to show you right path: "There are perfections in Nature which demonstrate that She is the image of God" -- Timmy [Jack's dead cat] sittin like a lion, Big Slim in his prime, Pop in his prime, me in my careless 1943 youth, you, all -- "and imperfections" -- our decay and going-down, all of us -- "to assure us that She is no more than His image." I believe that.
"God is dead" made everybody sick to their stomachs because they all know what I just said, and Pascal said, and Paschal means Resurrection.
From a February 1950 journal entry (Windblown World, p. 262):
There's a noise in the void I hear: there's a vision of the void; there's a complaint in the abyss -- there's a cry in the bleak air; the realm is haunted. Man haunts the earth. Man is on a ledge noising his life. The pit of night receiveth. God hovers over in his shrouds. Look out!
Here is a review of Windblown World by Gerald Nicosia.
How I admire W. C. Fields! -- What a great oldtimer he was. None like him. I'll write something about him soon, my personal ideas. "Ain't you got no Red Eye?" "Ain't you an old Follies girl?" "I snookered that one." "Those Grampion hills." "Mocha-java." "The enterprise I am about to embark upon is fraught with eminent peril, and not fit for a young lady of your tender years." "Don't you want to wear diaphanous gowns? And get enough to eat?" With his straw hat, his short steps, his belly, his wonderful face hid beneath a bulbous puff of beaten flesh, his twisted mouth, his knowledge of American life, of women, of children, of fellow-barflies, and of death ("the fellow in the bright night-gown.") His utter lovelessness in the world. Bumping into everything blindly. Making everybody laugh. The line he himself wrote, addressed to him" "You're as funny as a cry for help." How he blows foam off a beer, an Old Mad Murphy of time; how he is alone among foolish people who don't see his soul.
Shakespeare never was sadder.
A hounded old reprobate, a clown, a drunkard of eternity, and "Man."
(Windblown World: The Journals of Jack Kerouac 1947-1954, ed. Douglas Brinkley, Viking 2004, p. 236, entry of 14-16 October 1949.)
Lest I lead astray any young and impressionable readers, I am duty bound to point out that this month's focus on Kerouac is by no means to be taken as an endorsement of him as someone to be imitated. Far from it! He failed utterly to live up to the Christian precepts that he learned as a child and the Buddhist precepts he assiduously studied in the mid-1950s. Not that he was a hypocrite; he was just a deeply flawed human being. I just now recall a critique of Kerouac by Douglas Groothuis from some years ago. (Old Memory Babe ain't got nothing on me.) Ah yes, here it is. I am in basic agreement with it.
Here is Kerouac on the road, not in a '49 Hudson with Neal Cassady, but in a bus with his mother:
Who are men that they can insult men? Who are these people who wear pants and dresses and sneer? What am I talking about? I'm talking about human helplessness and unbelievable loneliness in the darkness of birth and death and asking "What is there to laugh about in that?" "How can you be clever in a meatgrinder?" "Who makes fun of misery?" There's my mother a hunk of flesh that didnt ask to be born, sleeping restlessly, dreaming hopefully, beside her son who didnt ask to be born, thinking desperately, praying hopelessly, in a bouncing earthly vehicle going from nowhere to nowhere, all in the night, worst of all for that matter all in noonday glare of bestial Gulf Coast roads — Where is the rock that will sustain us? Why are we here? What kind of crazy college would feature a seminar where people talk about hopelessness forever?
Jack Kerouac (1922-1969), Desolation Angels, 1960, p. 339.
Compare Mexico City Blues, 1959, 211th Chorus:
The wheel of the quivering meat conception . . . . . . I wish I was free of that slaving meat wheel and safe in heaven dead.
Of the Beat triumvirate, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs, "sweet gone Jack" alone really moves me, and the quotations above I find to be among the most moving in all his writings.
Jack Kerouac was a big ball of affects ever threatening to dissolve in that sovereign soul-solvent, alcohol. One day he did, and died. The date was 21 October 1969. Today is the 41st anniversary of his release from the wheel of the quivering meat conception and the granting of his wish:
The wheel of the quivering meat conception . . . . . . I wish I was free of that slaving meat wheel and safe in heaven dead. (Mexico City Blues, 1959, 211th Chorus)
I own eight Kerouac biographies and there are a couple I don't own. The best of them, Gerald Nicosia's Memory Babe (Grove Press, 1983), ends like this:
The night of Sunday October 19, he couldn't sleep and lay outside on his cot to watch the stars. The next morning after eating some tuna, he sat down in front of the TV, notebook in hand, to plan a new novel; it was to be titled after his father's old shop: "The Spotlight Print." Just getting out of bed Stella [Sampas, his third wife pictured above] heard groans in the bathroom and found him on his knees, vomiting blood. He told her he didn't want to go to the hospital, but he cooperated when the ambulance attendants arrived. As they were leaving, he said, "Stella, I hurt," which shocked her because it was the first time she had ever heard him complain. Then he shocked her even more by saying, for the second time since they had married, "Stella, I love you."
Less than a day later, on the morning of October 21, after twenty-six blood transfusions, Jean Louis Kerouac died in St. Anthony's Hospital of hemorrhaging esophageal varices, the classic drunkard's death.
On Dizzy Gillespie's birthday. (p. 697)
He was 47. I was 19. On a restroom wall at my college, I scribbled, "Kerouac lives." A day or two later a reply appeared, "Read the newspapers."
Blaise Pascal says not to look to ourselves for the cure to misfortunes, but to God whose Providence is a foreordained thing in Eternity; that the foreordainment was that our lives be but sacrifices leading to purity in the after-existence in Heaven as souls disinvested of that rapish, rotten, carnal body -- O the sweet beloved bodies so insulted everywhere for a million years on this strange planet. Lacrimae rerum. I dont get it because I look into myself for the answer. And my body is so thick and carnal I cant penetrate into the souls of others equally entrap't in trembling weak flesh, let alone penetrate into an understanding of HOW I can turn to God with effect. The situation is pronounced hopeless in the very veins of our hands, and our hands are useless in Eternity since nothing they do, even clasp, can last. (Vanity of Duluoz, p. 133. Photo by Tom Palumbo.)
Tomorrow, October 21, is the 41st anniversary of Jack Kerouac's death. I remember the day well, having noted Jack's passing on a piece of looseleaf I still have in a huge file full of juvenilia from that period.
The NYT obituary features a perceptive quotation from Allen Ginsberg: "A very unique cat -- a French Canadian Hinayana Buddhist Beat Catholic savant." For pith and accuracy, that's hard to beat. The obituary concludes by noting that Kerouac "had no use for the radical politics that came to preoccupy many of his friends and readers."
"I'm not a beatnik. I'm a Catholic," he said last month. He showed the interviewer a painting of Pope Paul VI and said, "Do you know who painted that? Me."
Still I say, what means it? You may say that I'm a braggart about football, although all these records are available in the newspaper files called morgue, I admit I'm a braggart, but I'm not calling it thus because what was the use of it all anyway, for as the Preacher sayeth: "Vanity of vanities . . . all is vanity." You kill yourself to get to the grave. Especially you kill yourself to get to the grave before you even die, and the name of that grave is "success," the name of that grave is hullaballoo boomboom horseshit.
I puzzle myself by my continuing avid interest in the writers of the Beat Generation, Jack Kerouac principally. How does such an interest jive with the rest of my personality? How can such a logic-chopper appreciate a poetic lush like Kerouac? Or given my politics, how could I have an interest in Ginsberg?
"I am large, I contain multitudes." (Walt Whitman)
If there is divine light, sexual indulgence prevents it from streaming in. Herein lies the best argument for continence. The sex monkey may not be as destructive of the body as the booze monkey, but he may be even more destructive of the spirit. You may dismiss what I am saying here either by denying that there is any divine light or by denying that sexual indulgence impedes its influx, or both. But if you are in the grip of either monkey I will dismiss your dismissal. Why should I listen to a man with a monkey on his back? How do I know it is the man speaking and not the monkey?
Poor Kerouac got the holy hell beaten out of him by the simian tag-team. The Ellis Amburn biography goes into the greatest detail regarding Kerouac's homo- and hetero-erotic sexual excesses. His fatal fondness for the sauce, for the devil in liquid form, is documented in all the biographies.
It is not that the lovable dharma lush did not struggle mightily in his jihad against his lower self. He did, in his Buddhist phase in the mid-fifties, before the 1957 success of On the Road and the blandishments of fame did him in. (Worldly $ucce$$/Suckcess is an ambiguous good.) I've already pulled some quotations from Some of the Dharma which offers the best documentation of Jack's attempt to tread the straight path to the narrow gate.
One lesson, perhaps, is that we cannot be lamps unto ourselves even if the Tathagata succeeded in pulling himself up into Nirvana by his samsaric sandalstraps. To the vast run of us ordinary "poor suffering fucks" a religion of self-help is no help at all. The help we need, if help there be, must come from Elsewhere.