For the greatest key to courage is shame and the blurfaces in the passing train see nothing out on the plain but figures of hoboes rolling out of site…
Jack Kerouac’s grave, courtesy of Michael Estabrook
Born: March 12, 1922, Lowell, Massachusetts
Died: October 21, 1969, St. Petersburg, Florida
The Smell of Ink
Copyright September 1999, by Mary Sands
Young Jack learned about layout at an early age in an atmosphere made intoxicating by the smell of ink.
-Douglas Brinkley, “In the Kerouac Archive,” The Atlantic Monthly, 1998.
From the time when Jack Kerouac was very young and nicknamed Ti Jean, he wrote in his diary. Throughout the years, he kept letters, articles, and thoughts scribbled during uncertain midnights or in pinetop clarity near creekbeds. Some of these writings have already been published, and others will be published soon. Now that Kerouac’s estate has begun to authorize the release and publication of Kerouac’s personal belongings, and thanks to historian Douglas Brinkley and others such as Kerouac’s friend and Neal’s wife Carolyn Cassady, we will begin to see more books about Kerouac.
We may begin to understand more about Jack Kerouac through his newly published writings (some of them coming out now, in the latter part of 1999). Journalists, biographers, and editors will no doubt continue to find new angles that inspect and analyze Jack and his life.
The Atlantic Monthly stated in November 1998, in an article titled “In the Kerouac Archive,” that if Kerouac is not unfamiliar, he may nevertheless be underknown. We already know a lot about Kerouac because the 17 books published while he was alive, and a few more after his death, document his experiences. Kerouac wrote novels based on his life, from growing up in Lowell to later travels across the country. Besides novels, he also wrote poetry, including haiku, giving insight to his artistry and perception. He wrote essays about his “spontaneous bop prosody” and about the beat generation. He’d also developed a very conversational style of writing. Since Jack died, 30 years ago this month, his friends and biographers and editors and readers have tried to eschew that fact. We just can’t let Jack Kerouac die, really. He never did.
Jack Kerouac, named Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac, was born in Lowell, Massachusetts on March 12, 1922. He was the youngest child of three. Raised by French-Canadian parents, he didn’t speak English until age 6; before that he spoke joule, a French dialect. By the time Kerouac was 10, he knew he wanted to be a writer. His earliest inspirations were Thomas Wolfe and a radio show called “The Shadow.” Jack’s father Leo published a Lowell newsletter called “The Spotlight,” and Jack helped his father with the layout and press work for the publication. The smell of ink must have been a true “first” deep impression on Kerouac. As a young teenager, Kerouac wrote his own sportsheet, which he sold to friends. In the 40s, he wrote for Lowell’s Sun as a sportswriter.
Dancing in his young mind were visions of an American dream: he idolized plains drifters and cowboys, and he adored baseball–and later wrote “Ronnie on the Mound,” about Ronnie Melaney of the “Chicago Chryslers.” By the time he was in high school, he was on the baseball, track, and football teams. There was a wide open road ahead of Kerouac, and little did he then know that he’d follow that “hero” road and that almost half a century later, others would regard him as a great rucksack-literary trailblazer trekking across America.
His life in Lowell was partially documented in Kerouac’s later novels. In Maggie Cassidy and Vanity of Duluoz, he wrote of skipping school to read Shakespeare, Hugo, and Penn. In Maggie Cassidy–which was based on his friendship with Mary Carney, whom he met at age 16– he also talked about the poetry of Robert Frost and Emily Dickenson as part of his high school agenda and learning. The book Visions of Gerard is a bittersweet, spiritual “pain-tale” that re-creates the tough feelings surrounding the sickness and death of Kerouac’s brother. Kerouac was only 4 when his brother Gerard died at age 9. Doctor Sax mentions the Boott, a mill, where windows shine “like a lost star in the blue lights of Lowell.” Visions of Cody also mentions working in the textile mills. One gets a sense that growing up in Lowell was a soft, red-brick dally, before Jack would eventually depart and thread through other towns and cities, in the true holyboy/hobo way.
Life in Lowell had become a financial struggle for Jack’s parents, Leo and Gabrielle. The textile mills, once the reason for Lowell’s prosperity, were not doing so well anymore, which affected the entire community. Leo’s once successful printshop began to suffer as well. Jack’s father turned to gambling in order to help the family’s financial situation. Jack felt that going to college might help restore the Kerouac name and good reputation. He received a football scholarship to Columbia University, after a winning touchdown in a key game for Lowell High School.
After attending public schools, including Lowell High School and Catholic schools, upon the advice of Columbia’s football coach, Kerouac attended the Horace Mann Preparatory School, in New York City, from 1939 to 1940. At age 17, he tried his first “stick of tea” and published articles in the “Horace Mann Record,” which was the school newspaper. In 1941, he spent his first and only year at Columbia. The football plans didn’t work; Jack “broke his leg” and was unhappy with his coach’s insistence that Jack not play. To beat it all, Jack’s father lost his business and fell into alcoholism. Jack dropped out of college.
Jack joined the Merchant Marines, and a year later, after WWII began, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy. During these couple of years, Kerouac sailed to Greenland as well as to Liverpool as a merchant seamen. He was discharged from the Navy for psychiatric reasons.
Jack met Allen Ginsberg, Lucian Carr, William Burroughs, and Neal Cassady during these years when he was home from sailing. His new friends, some of them from Columbia University as well, were either writers or wannabe writers, and a deep literary interest tied these men together. Jack later gave Allen a manuscript he had been working on, and in turn Allen gave the manuscript to one of his professors. This book was published in 1950, as The Town and the City. The novel was inspired by Wolfe and addressed Jack’s tug-of-war concepts of the sanctioned values he’d been raised with versus his newly embraced city life that opposed the old ways. Kerouac’s new friends provided a cushion for his home life worries, and they helped Jack to chart new pathways that began to unveil their “furtive” and seeking minds. Kerouac’s new buddies sat more heavily on the seesaw than Jack’s old life did. Although his mother Memere always kept him under a tight wing, Kerouac had begun to fly a little.
During this flight, sometimes Jack found himself in trouble. For instance, Lucian Carr, who had introduced Kerouac to both Ginsberg and Burroughs, killed a man named David Kammerer, who had been stalking and threatening Carr. Kerouac was named as an accessory and a material witness, and was sent to jail. A quick marriage to girlfriend Edie Parker ensured the payment of bail from her family. Their marriage was annulled a year later. Meanwhile, Jack collaborated with William Burroughs in writing “And the Hippos were Boiled in Their Tanks,” which recounted the Kammerer murder and trial.
One of Kerouac’s most influential friends, however, was Neal Cassady, the holy madman who had come to visit New York from Denver. In many ways, Cassady represented the folk hero that Jack had envisioned dreamily from boyhood days. Some say that Neal signified Kerouac’s long-lost Gerard–a brotherhood resurrected. Neal Cassady and Allen Ginsberg hit it off right away, and even had an affair; Kerouac chronicled his early thoughts about the duo (Neal Moriarty and Carlo Marx) in On the Road:
But then they danced down the street like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’
Kerouac and Cassady made a deal: that Jack would teach Neal how to write and Neal would teach Jack how to drive. Ironically, it was Neal’s writing (spontaneous, honest, and fresh) that influenced Jack’s prose. As well, Jack may have been a safer driver than his pedal-to-the-metal friend; but a lackadaisical agreement was made, and thus the two (and sometimes with other beats) were on the road.
In 1947, Kerouac set out to Denver, in search of Neal, and then drove to California and back to New York. In the next few years, Cassady would get married to his second wife Carolyn after an annulment from his first wife Luanne, and have a “home base” in San Francisco. Yet, Cassady and Kerouac would still take to the road extensively, much to the dismay of their women at home: Carolyn and Gabrielle.
In 1948, Jack met John Clellon Holmes and the two began trying to define a “new vision” of writing that was being sought by themselves and cronies such as Lucian Carr, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs. Holmes wrote “This is the Beat Generation,” and Kerouac began to write On the Road, documenting his travels with Cassady. The cluster of writers felt that they were “furtive seekers” and wanted to define their new, unique writing concepts.
The beat generation had formed its roots, and people such as Ginsberg, Burroughs, Cassady, and Kerouac often tried to bring a label or definition to their writing techniques. Kerouac developed a love for bebop, an improvisational, intricate riff-like jazz style that originated in Harlem jam sessions and was ignited by such greats as Charlie Parker. This energetic music was described by journalist Frank Convoy as “ejaculatory jungle music.” However it can be characterized, both Kerouac and Cassady were impressed by the sound of bebop, and their writing was styled after it.
In 1949, Kerouac and Cassady met up at Rocky Mount, North Carolina, where Jack’s mother had moved after the death of Leo. Together, they drove up to New York in a 1949 Hudson and then out to California, with a stop in Algiers, Louisiana to visit William Burroughs. During this year, Kerouac and his mother also moved temporarily to Colorado.
A year later, Jack’s first novel The Town and the City was published, and he went on the road again with Neal, to Mexico. He also married Joan Haverty, whom he divorced a year later. Joan later gave birth to their daughter, Jan, but despite finally (in 1962) acknowledging the fact that she was his daughter, Jack failed paying child support for years and never made Jan a part of his life.
After two short-lived marriages and some infamous road trips with Neal Cassady, Kerouac may have begun to feel the excitement of the beat generation’s historical and formative literary years. By 1951, Burroughs had written Junkie and Holmes had written Go, which Kerouac read. Jack had also been working on his novel On the Road, and he wrote the novel on a during a three-week period. Jack’s manuscript was rejected, and this caused him some grief and insecurity, until On the Road would be published by Viking Press in 1957.
In 1952 Kerouac stayed part of the year with Neal Cassady and his wife Carolyn, in San Francisco. A strong tie had been established with Neal, as it had with Allen Ginsberg, and because the three would often be stuck like pins on a map in different parts of the country, or world, the infamous letter-writing begun years earlier became a mainstay. During times when Kerouac stayed with the Cassadys, he also became close to Carolyn; the two even had an affair that Neal didn’t seem to mind. Throughout the years, this bond among Neal, Carolyn, Jack, and Allen formed into the famous letter-writing years. It was as though they were family–and when apart, the post office was handling what would later become treasured memorabilia.
A year later, in 1953, Kerouac was on the road again, to stay with William Burroughs in Mexico City. Jack wrote Dr. Sax, before heading to North Carolina to visit his sister and then back to California to work as a brakeman (like Cassady). That year, he also worked on the S.S. William Carruth, in New Orleans. During his travels between California and Mexico, Jack wrote “The Railroad Earth,” inspired by his temporary assignment as a brakeman. This was also the year that Joan gave birth to Jan, in Albany, New York.
During the next several years, Jack traveled and wrote much more. He wrote “San Francisco Blues” and Some of Dharma in 1954. In 1955, he wrote Mexico City Blues and began work on Tristessa. A year later, he penned Visions of Gerard, wrote journals that would become Book One of Desolation Angels, finished Tristessa, and completed “The Scripture of the Golden Eternity” and “Old Angel Midnight.” In 1957, On the Road was finally published, and Jack wrote The Dharma Bums. He also gave readings at the Village Vanguard and helped Ginsberg type and edit Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. In 1958, The Dharma Bums and The Subterraneans were published, and Jack began to write Lonesome Traveller. The following year, he narrated the film “Pull My Daisy” (based on his play by the same name) and began writing a column for Escapade. Three of his books–Dr. Sax, Mexico City Blues, and Maggie Cassidy–were published. In 1961, his Book of Dreams was published, and he wrote both Book Two of Desolation Angels and Big Sur. During the next two years, both Visions of Gerard and Big Sur were published. Later, Satori in Paris, Pic, and Vanity of Duluoz were published.
In the 1950s, as he was writing and getting published, Kerouac had reached a peak in his spiritual, literary, and nomadic experiences. He had been all over the United States, to Mexico, and had visited Burroughs in Tangier, Morocco. He’d lived in New York; Rocky Mount, North Carolina; several California cities; Orlando and St. Petersburg, Florida (where his mother had moved); and Paris, France. Note that the word “lived” signifies “stayed,” since Kerouac never established residency anywhere for too long.
The height of the beat generation, and some say the beginning of it, was on the night of October 7, 1955, when several of the original East Coast beats joined the West Coast poets for the “Six Poets at the Six Gallery” reading in San Francisco. The six readers were Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, Philip Lamantia, Kenneth Rexroth, Philip Whalen, and Allen Ginsberg. Kerouac, who came to the Six Gallery to visit Ginsberg and hear the other poets, would grow to admire Snyder’s love for nature and simple Buddhist philosophies (this spiritual seeking side of Kerouac, and Snyder’s contributions to it, are illustrated in The Dharma Bums). That night also marked Ginsberg’s reading of the poem “Howl,” which Lawrence Ferlinghetti, part owner of City Lights Bookstore, heard, loved, appreciated, and published. Ferlinghetti was later arrested for selling an obscene book. This, as well as many of the beats’ lifestyles–not to mention the years-before killing of David Kammerer and Burroughs’ accidental murder of his wife Joan–created a stigma around the beat generation that was hard to break through. Although Ferlinghetti eventually won his case for publishing “Howl,” it would become many years before the majority of beat writings were seriously looked at and appreciated by those outside the “subterranean” culture.
For a period of time, Kerouac’s career and popularity peaked: his road trips were followed by his feverish writing about them. These years may have been Jack’s happiest. He was still close to his mother and visited her often; his friends and fellow beats shared his great enthusiasm for writing, jazz, Buddhist philosophies, experimentation, being on the road, reaching intoxicated states, and getting involved with rucksack/nature expeditions. The novel The Dharma Bums elucidates a mountain climb with Gary Snyder in which Kerouac finds some “answers” about beinghood and happiness, in the form of Buddhism, poetry, and rucksacking on some awe-inspiring trails.
The beat generation had become “hip” by the mid-fities, and after the publication of On the Road, which propelled Jack into an overnight celebrity status, he began to drift away, not wanting to fit the mold of a wildman image. He began drinking a lot, too much, and in the years to come, he would grow confused, unfocused, and needy.
When Kerouac spent the summer of 1960 in Big Sur, he was trying to get away from his newly found popularity, which meant fleeing from the attention of the press and fans who wanted a glimpse, a word, a touch. Jack’s escape was two-fold: he had gotten the popularity he wanted, yet he didn’t like the responsibility that came along with it. He didn’t want a fad, but that’s how it appeared. The “beat” vagary became a juxtaposition of “beat” meaning. Staying in Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s cabin in beautiful coastal California, not too far from Carmel, where authors such as Robinson Jeffers and Jack London had lived, seemed to be a good move for Jack. He’d already had several grand encounters with nature, as described in The Dharma Bums and Desolation Angels. This might be another, to help him get back on track.
However, the high cliffs and pounding surf of Big Sur made Jack uneasy right away. His stay there was one full of paranoia; even the sounds of a small creek, the crashing waves, or the other nighttime sounds around the cabin frightened Jack. He had been drinking so heavily that his reality was becoming distorted, and he was experiencing delirium tremors. Although finding some comfort by the creekbed during the day, and trying to confront his irrational fears, he was aware of the fact that he was having a nervous breakdown. He imagined that evil existed in a mountain at nearby Bixby Canyon, and the mountain began to materialize in nightmares.
Kerouac’s book Big Sur describes his cabin experiences, after which Kerouac left to go to San Francisco to continue to drink, thus falling deeper into depression. Back at the cabin, later, things became worse. Kerouac’s hands would tremble upon trying to light a match, he would pace for hours, and he imagined that the waters in the creek were poisonous.
After his trip to Big Sur, Jack returned to New York, where he wrote and published some of his later novels. In 1962, when Big Sur was published, Jack moved with his mother to St. Petersburg, Florida. His older sister Caroline (“Nin”) died that year. Jack also met Ken Kesey in New York, with the Merry Pranksters, and reunited with Neal Cassady; they hadn’t seen each other for years.
The following year, Jack went to France to write Satori in Paris; a year later, that book was published, and Jack moved in with his mother again, this time to Hyannis, Massachusetts. His mother suffered a stroke in 1966, and Jack married Stella Sampas, a friend of the family’s since his childhood. A year later, he moved with his wife and mother back to Lowell.
Although Jack was still writing, his drinking had begun to dominate his life. Carolyn Cassady wrote in Off the Road that during these last few years, Jack would often call her, incoherent, drunk, and needing an ear. When Neal Cassady died in Mexico, in 1968–the same year that Vanity of Duluoz was published–Jack and Carolyn spoke on the phone again, and Carolyn felt ominously forewarned by Jack’s mood that he would soon join Neal. That year, Jack, Stella, and Gabrielle moved again to St. Petersburg.
Jack died in St. Petersburg, at age 47, in October, 1969. His death was from an abdominal hemorrhage surrounding complications due to his alcoholism.
After Kerouac’s death, more of his books became published: Pic, in 1971; Visions of Cody, in 1973; Heaven and Other Poems, in 1997; Pomes All Sizes, in 1992; Old Angel Midnight, and Good Blonde & Others in 1993; Book of Blues and Selected Letters 1940-1956, in 1995; On the Road: 40th Anniversary Edition and Some of Dharma, in 1997.
It’s difficult to discuss Kerouac’s impact on his readers, because there are so many varieties of readers. There are those who see Kerouac as godlike, and use such phrases as taking a “pilgrimage to Desolation Peak” or “Jack is holy.” There are those who read Kerouac’s novels and see them as crazy, insurgent turns of events that are to be admired, if for no other reason than their youthful and lawless pursuit of mad, hopping adventure. Some read Kerouac and come away deeply moved by the human, spiritual insights that he captured so well with words, and these readers are inspired by Jack’s breath of fresh air, as well as his obvious profound sense of life and being.
Critical journalists and analysts tend to see Kerouac’s following as immature and juvenile. A recent article, by James Wolcott, in Vanity Fair (October, 1999), says that “The issue of whether On the Road holds up is irrelevant to a kid cracking it open for the first time; to him (and usually it’s a him, Kerouac’s disciples being overwhelmingly male, in my experience), the novel isn’t a literary artifact to be judged against the inner gold of other artifacts, but a personal saga and broadcast that bypass normal communication. To newbies, Kerouac’s exploits aren’t filtered through layers of critical analysis but come at them point-blank, just as Ginsberg’s haranguing lines in ‘Howl’ manage to hit new generations of readers full blast. Kerouac writes as if he’s right there with you, a fellow passenger. (Kerouac himself seldom drove.)” Wolcott follows this passage with an example of Xander (Nicholas Brendon) reading On the Road in an episode of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”
On the other end of the spectrum, growing academic interest in Jack Kerouac and his “new vision” buddies shows that the beat generation’s literary styles do measure up and are worth the study. Several universities teach about Jack Kerouac and other beats in a structured, serious setting. Professors and instructors are not there to teach about the “latest craze.” Spontaneous bop prosody has found a place in academia; the impact of Kerouac’s and others’ writings on literature and culture, although still considered by many to be avant-garde and rebellious, is finally being taken earnestly by scholars.
Last year, two 100-top-books lists came out, and on both of them, On the Road ranked around the 55th best book of all times. In China, where post-Tiananmen youth are scared into maintaining a cutting edge of non-political rebellion, one bookstore noted that Kerouac’s On the Road and Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, were the two topsellers. In bookstores in the USA, On the Road takes its seat in the display cases of “Best Literary Classics” or “Recommended Reading.” An article by the New York Times, in 1997, noted that beat-related books and products are enjoying their highest sales ever.
Whether the beats are being resurrected from their fashionable, but underground, place in the 40s and 50s is hard to tell. From times when Kerouac wore Levis in an advertisement for The Gap, to current rumors of Francis Ford Coppola and his son Roman producing a movie based on On the Road, what has resulted is that serious students of Kerouac wonder about whether the current neo-beat Kerouac interest has a sincere, heartfelt place in the 90s. There are curious reactions to people like Johnny Depp’s celebrity status harboring enough of an edge to get his views about Kerouac published in the recent book The Rolling Stone of the Beats. Although objectively, Kerouac’s oldest readers welcome anyone’s (including Depp’s) appreciation of Jack, it’s also scary that the thought of Kerouac’s profundity might be miscaptured and misplaced in the current times of rich and technological consumerism, lazy comfort, two-second attention spans, and push-button accessibility to quick-fix information. Nobody but nobody wants to filter out Kerouac’s followers and lovers, and there has never been an elite crowd of those who read Kerouac, because that goes against the kindness and warmth that Kerouac projected to others during his peak quests for meaning and happiness. But there is a deep desire among Kerouac’s oldest fans to keep his true spirit alive. It’s easiest by going back to read Kerouac’s greatest words, such as the passage below, from The Dharma Bums, and then taking these thoughts with you on your own road.
Down on the lake rosy reflections of celestial vapor appeared, and I said “God, I love you” and looked up to the sky and really meant it. “I have fallen in love with you, God. Take care of us all, one way or the other.”
(Ray Smith, on Desolation Peak)
Key to Kerouac’s characters in his own novels: Sal Paradise in On the Road; Peter Martin in Town and The City; Jack Duluoz in Satori in Paris, Maggie Cassidy, Tristessa, Visions of Gerard, Desolation Angels, Big Sur, and Visions of Cody; Leo Percepied in Subterraneans, Ray Smith in Dharma Bums; and Jack in Book of Dreams. He was also known as Gene Pasternak in Holmes’ Go.
The Town and the City (1960)
On the Road (1957)
The Dharma Bums (1958)
The Subterraneans (1958)
Doctor Sax (1959)
Maggie Cassidy (1959)
Mexico City Blues (1959)
Visions of Cody (1959)
Lonesome Traveler (1960)
Book of Dreams (1961)
Big Sur (1962)
Visions of Gerard (1963)
Desolation Angels (1965)
Satori in Paris (1966)
Vanity of Duluoz (1968)
Scattered Poems (1971)
Selected Letters (1993)
Some of the Dharma (1994)
Book of the Blues (1994)