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Desolate Angel: Jack Kerouac, The Beat Generation and America

September 22, 1979

Jack Kerouac/Tom Palumbo

It may seem hard to believe, but at the time of his death 10 years ago, Jack Kerouac was considered a has been, all but forgotten by those who had read On the Road and proclaimed him the king of the Beats. The hippies, the inheritors of the freedom that Kerouac extolled and exercised, had never heard of him—or, if they had, thought of him as one of those old guys who wrote books. He languished in Orlando, Florida—alcoholic, dyspeptic, given to fits of anger against both the Establishment and those who opposed it. Was he a man without a country? No, never that, for he was always American, knew it and glorified in it, and gave his whole life to proving it. What he was, I suppose, was a writer without a readership, a literary hero without a following, an idea whose time had come and gone.

Well, if that last was true 10 years ago, then Jack Kerouac today is an idea whose time has now come back again. Not only are his novels selling well once more in paperback reprint, but books about him now appear about as regularly as studies of Faulkner and Fitzgerald used to. There was Ann Charters's Kerouac, a bibliographer's work that was dry and revealing by turns. This was followed by Barry Gifford's and Lawrence Lee's Jack's Book, which the co-authors describe quite accurately as an "oral biography." And then came Carolyn Cassady's Heart Beat, a memoir of her life with Neal Cassady (the mad Dean Moriarty of Kerouac's "road" books) and of her affair with Jack, from which a movie has been made that is scheduled for release in the not-too-distant future. And now: Desolate Angel, which is being touted as the definitive Kerouac biography.

Is it? Well, perhaps. It is certainly the best organized narrative account of his life. Dennis McNally has packed a great deal of information into the book's 400 pages, yet it all comes out in smooth-flowing style. If there is not much new information in it, then that is because the same ground had been covered pretty thoroughly in the earlier books—including Kerouac's own, for he was a compulsively autobiographical writer. By the same token, however, if the story is by now an old one, it loses nothing at all in the retelling.

The child of French-Canadian parents, Jack was born Jean Louis Kerouac in the old New England mill town of Lowell, Massachusetts, just in time to see his brother Gerard, the family saint, die of rheumatic fever. As far as he roamed and as hard as he ran, he never really left Lowell behind. His family, particularly his mother in later years, exercised a kind of tyranny over him. And he never really got over being the dreamy kid he had been while growing up along the Merrimack River.

By biographical convention, dreamy kids grow up intending to be writers—and so it was with Kerouac when he headed off to Columbia on a football scholarship just before the war. In fact, nearly everything he did from then on was determined by that desire—quitting Columbia to ship out in the Merchant Marine, low-lifing with William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg among the denizens of Times Square, even venturing forth with Neal Cassady on those voyages of discovery which he described so excitingly. His was virtually a life lived in search of material, and as he found that material, he filled book after book with it—The Subterraneans, TheDharma Bums, Desolation Angels, Tristessa, Big Sur—in that tumble of titles that appeared once Kerouac and the Beat Generation had exploded on the scene.

McNally handles all this quite well—although he does show a rather distressing tendency to use language in the same imprecise, bombastic, shotgun style that Kerouac did. And what is forgivable in a novelist should not necessarily be permitted the novelist's biographer. For instance, McNally tells us that "almost all fifties' magazine articles had been rigidly narrative in format," but this is simply not so, for the prevailing style then was expository; but I truly think expository was what he meant, for he goes on to contrast "narrative" with "the Beat's personal, confessional view."

Note that this example is one—one of the many in the text—in which McNally takes it upon himself to explain the 1950s to the reader. Judging from his photograph, he was born sometime early in that decade. That being the case, it is not surprising that he makes mistakes not so much in the facts as in the feeling of the period. And in the details: he associates Matthew Arnold with the New Critics, whereas if Arnold had influence on any critical school at all, it was through Lionel Trilling on the social and moral critics of the Partisan Review.  He compares Kerouac's "spontaneous bop prosody" to the bebop of Charlie Parker and the action painting of Jackson Pollock. While it is true that Jack Kerouac thought he was modeling his automatic prose style on Parker's improvisations, it is also plain from what he has written of it that he had absolutely no grasp of what was really going on in jazz; he thought of it as far more structureless and free than it is. (And if Kerouac had only an enthusiastic listener's grasp of music, then his biographer is no more knowledgeable, talking as he does a few pages later of "the fundamental chord changes that made rock out of rhythm and blues"; in fact, both are based on traditional blues.) The analogy of Kerouac's prose approach to action painting seems to make more sense, but I suspect this may be because I know less about painting than I do about music.

It is best not to attempt the polymathic approach unless one is a true polymath. What Dennis McNally shows himself to be here is an historian, a scholar, a diligent researcher who can gather facts from the most diverse sources and weave them into a nearly seamless story that runs from romance to tragedy in less than five decades. But McNally is evidently not much interested in the literary aspect of his subject. There is virtually no attempt in this book to evaluate or even formally comment upon the texts left by Kerouac. Nor, beyond comparisons to bop and action painting, is there any analysis of his style. Although Desolate Angel is the biography of a novelist, it is not, by any means, a literary biography.

The Beat Generation seemed something more than (some would say, other than) a literary movement when it became known in the late 1950s, and that is also how it is remembered by most and written about today, over 20 years later. Still, it was a literary movement, one that inspired poets and novelists and journalists and had far-reaching effects in loosening up strictures regarding subject matter, language, and style. Since then there has been nothing to compare to it. That is the real reason why Kerouac and the rest are still important to us today and will continue to be until another such generation or movement comes along. If one ever does.