Today would have been the 100th birthday of that avatar of American youth culture Jack Kerouac (1922-1969)
Kerouac is one of the few things that the Mad Marchioness and I disagree on, and pretty radically. We’re pretty polarized on the subject. I understand and sympathize with her position. There’s no one more sexist than Kerouac. He’s not just a “love ’em and leave ’em” kind of guy…he’s a “love ’em, knock ’em up, leave the women and kids both, and also smack them around” kind of guy. And not just in his private life, away from his art: much of his writing, as in On the Road, is an expression, even a celebration, of whatever motivates that kind of disregard for others. The attitude is heinous, immature, and even unforgivable, particularly to the extent that it romanticized that behavior and influenced others.
But God I love his writing. Apart from say, Shakespeare or the King James Bible, I can think of no one I’ve tried to emulate more as a writer, especially when composing a theatrical monologue (but also definitely in sections of No Applause) — open the throttle, hit the gas, and (here comes the mixed metaphor) blow a solo, letting images and ideas flow out and smash and clash with zero self-censorship or inhibition. Kerouac’s writing is so good at the level of raw talent it makes me giddy. It’s like he taps into something cosmic and even (this will make some snicker) pre-verbal. He doesn’t always succeed, and sometimes it’s “pure effect” — but what an effect.
Kerouac also created an interesting template for how to be a writer in the age of media (actually very few people have followed him down the promising trail he blazed.) Here he is on one of those record albums he made in the late ’50s with Steve Allen at the piano (he also made a rare appearance on Steve’s TV show):
Kerouac’s celebration of America’s underbelly still exhilarates me, with his aesthetic of formal liberty in the tradition of Whitman, and its echoes of America’s indigenous musical form, jazz, and its relentless exploration of America’s eclectic if fickle attitudes towards religion, spirituality, and questions of identity.
My appreciation of Kerouac is cemented to something I can’t possibly defend but must own anyway: he’s one of my own people, a working class stiff from industrial New England (listen to the accent in that clip! sounds like home to me). And look at that picture up top. That’s what my football coach looked like when I was kid. Seen from the front, his visage has always reminded me a lot of Ben Gazzara. A French-Canadian kid from Lowell, Massachusetts, he’d gone to Columbia on a football scholarship, which is how he met his more privileged compadres Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. During WWII, he served in the Merchant Marine. To have all this crazy art coming out of somebody like that, there’s no way he’s not going to be some kind of hero of mine. (Hippies were startled to meet him, those who got to meet him during his last years — they were horrified at how conservative he was in many ways. I don’t defend that side, but I do think it adds to his complexity).
There is another famous television clip of Kerouac, one not so flattering. It’s of him, smashed and rambling, on Firing Line with William F. Buckley in 1968. It’s an unfortunate encounter, Buckley all glib grins and getting the best of his beer-addled guest. Within months, Kerouac would be dead at age 47 — all that romantic drinking had made his stomach bleed. Naturally Buckley and Kerouac would be at loggerheads about matters of culture and lifestyle, but what especially bugged me about the segment is Buckley’s (self-serving) condemnation of his writing. Buckley was of course a dedicated wordsmith, occasionally capable of infuriating wit, but his many attempts at fiction are, not to put too fine a point on it, garbage. It’s not something you can really debate, who’s more talented, but it would be nice to have seen Buckley put in his place by someone who could TALK like Kerouac could write, and that wasn’t Kerouac. The Establishment’s point that Kerouac needed an editor is well taken. Thomas Wolfe had a similar talent, but he had had the benefit of Maxwell Perkins to give shape to his explosions of genius, clean up redundancies, etc.
That speaks to the fiction of course, but Kerouac also wrote poetry, where his brand of anarchy is much more forgiven (and forgivable). Perhaps the most enjoyable artifact of Kerouac’s peak is the 1959 film Pull My Daisey, adapted from a part of his play The Beat Generation, and also featuring the talents of Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, et al, as well as musician David Amram, whom I had the honor of meeting many a time at Theater for the New City. It’s currently available on Youtube, with Italian subtitles. Kerouac and his cohorts influenced Jim Jarmusch and all the other No Wave filmmakers, let there be no doubt about it, as well as punk and New Wave musicians (Patti Smith comes to mind).
Kerouac’s aesthetic influence remains positive, I think, as the world sinks deeper into a corporate/consumer anti-human dystopia. But it’s probably just as well that he left the earth before Second Wave feminism really gathered steam in the 1970s, for I envision some truly unfortunate campus debates that might have tarnished his legacy even further. There are times when a simple nature is a virtue; there are also times when primitive views are a vice.