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Jack Kerouac Wrote 'On The Road' in Three Weeks. It Shows.

Tom Palumbo/Wikimedia Commons

December 2, 1972
William Crawford Woods

On what would have been his 92nd birthday, a look back at Kerouac's legacy.

A change of fashion has left Jack Kerouac's work inert and his legend inactive; nevertheless, any reasonable investigation shows that we would do wrong to abandon him. I've just finished such a search, mounted in a style the author ("My work comprises one vast book . . .") might have applauded: eight books in half as many evenings, midnight readings stoked by scotch and coffee with the hi-fi leaking "old god Shearing" and the bebop of a brighter day. The books in the order I read them were The Dharma Bums, The Subterraneans, Satori in Paris, On The Road, Lonesome Traveler, Desolation Angels, Dr. Sax, and the Book of Dreams; all the heavies, but leaving out God knows what: the known books like Maggie Cassady, Tristessa, Big Sur . . . the mysterious books like Visions of Cody, Visions of Gerard, Wake Up, Scriptures of Golden Eternity and so forth, volumes which never existed save in MS or broadsheet or somebody's galleys—though McGraw-Hill promises Visions of Cody in January of the coming year; and it is in the nature of Kerouac's work for me to be able to suggest that this piece might serve as a review of that book, as yet unborn. The above conditions, of course, belong to that moment of Kerouac's life when he could not write a shopping list without being badgered by somebody eager to publish it. Malcolm Cowley helped by naming him the next certified superstud of American letters, and Truman Capote drew laughs with the "Laugh-In" line, "That's not writing, that's typewriting." 

But, fact is, I have an eerie feeling that Kerouac is not much read anymore. The kids who are his natural audience are now lost in pipe dreams or bizarre political pursuits; their coffee-table authors are Hesse and Vonnegut, better writers but hardly less fey than Kerouac himself, and far more damaging—for the last thing Kerouac ever was was a fantasist. Dark recorder of the details of his daily life, he makes demands on the patience of his readers as wearying and ego-mad as Ernest Hemingway's; but every 50 pages you get an odd reward, some perfect phrase or virtuoso sentence, a tiny Buddhist gift to carry away from the reading like the Diamondcutter of Mercy. For the word on which, see Dharma Bums.

That was the first book I saw before undertaking this reconsideration. Oddly — for, like you, I hadn't read Kerouac in years— I came on it by chance in a little bookstore I discovered in the middle of the desert. Nothing else in sight but a Shell station, with vultures wheeling low above, waiting for it to die. The Dharma Bums was sandwiched in the middle of a sad small Kerouac kit, with John Montgomery's pamphlet (written to prove himself a better mountaineer than Jack) on one side, and somebody's beatnik cook-book on the other. Now I was low that day. (Reading Kerouac and writing about him prompts a confessional tone that seems not only permissible, but appropriate.) My "lovelife" was fine, but my "worklife" becalmed—two Kerouac words for his two worlds. Whatever I was reading seemed stained with irony and chic. Taos was barren, the desert a suffocation. Hippies abounded, their brains in their saddlebags. Chicanos made dull menace. Outside my own front door, I could find few folk to speak to without sagging. So when I pulled the book from the shelf and read the first line for the first time in 15 years, I snapped it up like a Bandaid, eager to be taken in the time machine: 

Hopping a freight out of Los Angeles at high noon one day in late September 1955 I got on a gondola and lay down with my duffle bag under my head and my knees crossed and contemplated the clouds as we rolled north.... 

The finest, the all-American freedom. With its essential terror gone unnoticed. Granted, consolation is not the highest use of literature. But there are few enough authors of any healing power, and as I dug deeper into the food-like sweetness of the book, 1 freshly remembered Kerouac's special grace—which is, at his best, to shower mindful tenderness on the crummy specifics of the day-to-day. It's a grace given no- where more freely than in this book, where the writer's later bleaker vision ("Why else should we live but to dis- cuss . . . the horror and terror of all this life . . .") is crowded off the page by animal enjoyment. The uniform celebration of food, sex, art and exercise that is the core of the book suggests the intellectual sensuality that was the core of the Beat esthetic: poems and women, both to be made.

Well. Dharma Bums put a new polish on my day. And welcome was the subsequent suggestion that a longer look at Kerouac would be welcome in these pages.

Kerouac crept up on his Beat Generation spokesman role by way of a traditional first novel. The Town and the City (1950), in which a few prototypal "hipsters" figured toward the end, but which was in essence a pretty standard product-wolfish, disorderly, long and populous, "well-written," unlikely to trigger a literary revolution. (In the end, nothing Kerouac ever wrote triggered a literary revolution, though he was one of many midwives to some other student stirrings in the land.) Just how he came upon the method of rapid writing that was to dazzle or bewilder so many readers seven years later is a tale that has as many versions as tellers. Kerouac credits the change to Neal Cassady—hero of On The Road and later aide-de-camp to Ken Kesey—who through the early ‘50s was writing the author endless free-form letters of his life, evidently leading Kerouac to speculate that the distance between a novel and a manic highspeed conversation could profitably be called a slim one.

In any case, all his writing after his first novel exemplifies the principles laid down in an essay, 'The Essentials of Spontaneous Prose," which saw light in the classic " San Francisco Renaissance" issue of Evergreen Review. Not having it in hand, I'll quote Seymour Krim's Kerouac-quoting summary from his fulsome introduction to Desolation Angels. This is worth giving in some detail, because it gives one of the measures against which Kerouac's work can most fairly be tested. The essentials—

. . . were this. Kerouac would "sketch from memory a definite image-object" more or less as a painter would work on a still-life; (it) necessitated an "undisturbed flow from the mind of idea-words" comparable to a jazz soloist blowing freely. . . there would be no "selectivity" of expression but instead the free association of the mind into "limitless seas" of thought. . . the writing was to be done "without consciousness," . . . allowing the unconscious to admit in uninhibited and therefore "necessarily modern language" what overly conscious art would normally censor.

How dated the plan, how limiting its assumptions. Kerouac all but loses the writer in the analogy to painter and musician. No selectivity? The imagination itself selects; and censors. And is the merely uninhibited necessarily "modern"? And     is modernity itself either issue or virtue? But discounting even all this, the noteworthy note here is that Kerouac, by subscribing to so strict a program, had made himself into the one thing he professed himself to be at war with: an academic from the start. Another novelist might discover his materials and methods painfully from book to book, but Kerouac came with a design that only genius could save from formula, and I think we will see that that salvation was not forthcoming. For what the author did was write the same book eight, 10, a dozen times, and in the end his “spontaneous prose” was shuffled from volume to volume in an unspontaneous manner. Take these examples from Lonesome Traveler and Desolation Angels:

One morning I found bear stool and signs of where the monster had taken a can of frozen milk and squeezed it in his paws and bit it with one sharp tooth trying to suck out the paste. In the foggy dawn I looked down the mysterious Ridge of Starvation with its fog-lost firs and its hills humping into invisibility, and the wind blowing the fog by like a faint blizzard and I realized that somewhere in the fog stalked the bear.


One morning 1 find bear stool and signs of where the unseen monster had taken cans of frozen hardened can-milk and squeezed it in his apocalyptical paws and bit with one insane sharp tooth in, trying to suck out the sour paste— Never seen, and in the foggy dusk I sit and look down the mysterious Ridge of Starvation with its fog- lost firs and humping-into-invisibility hills, and the fog-wind blowing by like a faint blizzard, and somewhere in that Zen Mystery Fog stalks the Bear.... 

There's nothing wrong with repetition of themes and sources, the greatest writers do little else, but this is selling the same goods twice. Nor is there much here to substantiate Kerouac's claim that his effort was similar in kind to Proust's: "My work comprises one vast book like Proust's except that my rememberances are written on the run instead of afterwards in a sickbed . . . . " The claim seems to have come as an afterthought anyway, touched off by the spectre of a stack of books peopled by the same five characters with 15 different names. But he really had no need to make It; in the tang of the prose itself, there is sufficient originality to earn him a modest honorable place in his period's pantheon. The truth is that he was a good, trapped writer. He had found a lazy man's way to work (the grail we're all secretly searching and fighting off)   and enshrined it into a method. The Subterraneans, for one, couldn't be fluff because it was essential spontaneous prose. “Wrote The Subterraneans in three days!” the author howls. Simenon could say no more.

Of the subterraneans themselves, Kerouac, taking 30 seconds of those three days, said, "They are hip without being slick, they are intellectual without being corny, they are intelligent as hell and know all about Pound . . . they are very quiet, they are very Christlike." A good media prince, he was being at once normative and descriptive, telling the generation he had named how they were expected to behave. This wasn't arrogance. It was fundamental to the wide loop of his work that his writing help create the people he would write about. In that staked and surveyed area, he was often markedly successful: his pictures of himself and his beat buddies are always convincing and sometimes even wise. But in the larger scene of real life necessarily trapped in the net of his travels, he could be dangerous and embarrassing. No sympathetic woman appears in the Kerouac canon. Blacks are spoken of in tomming terms that caused James Baldwin to remark he wouldn't like to be in Kerouac's shoes should the author ever read such nonsense from the stage of the Apollo theater. Homosexuals are figures of fun. ("Are you a fag?" one character persists in The Subterraneans. "You talk like a fag." And in On The Road, a man pulls a gun to guard himself against a men's room browser.) All this protective contempt is put in service of what amounts to a machismo vision no less virulent than, again, Hemingway's. (Unless I'm unfairly viewing a '50s culture with a '70s shocktrooped eye for it's easy enough to pick these nits at this distance, and I have an echo of Kerouac's sweeter voice greasing over each flaw, murmuring, "Ah well man, and what's it all for anyway?")

All right. What is it all for?

Travel we know to be the governing metaphor: nothing here, nothing there, everything to be found along the line between. The same wisdom is shared with the wailing saxophone, the chant- ing poet, and the speeding car: GO! Again, at our remove, it's easy to cite the weakness in this carny view of life. In worldwide non-world wars, we've had quite enough of local color to last us all our days. The idea that literature is to be found in an undifferentiated record of aimless travel was lynched by Easy Rider if not before. And the jazz-wine-poem-pot-and-hiballing fast freight exuberances of Road and Bums is just, 15 years later, the source of a sad and knowing smile.

But Kerouac knew it first. "Why else should we live but to discuss —at least — the horror and terror of all this life, God how old we get and some of us go mad and everything changes viciously… A peaceful sorrow at home is the best I'll ever be able to offer the world in the end.”

We draw closer to his darker voice. 

In a famous passage of On The Road, the author gives the fundamental qualities of his heroes: "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."     

Yet the commonplace is his incessant subject, for there are few things more predictable or ordinary than an accredited Bohemia. Which is not to say unwelcome. It's all too easy to forget the television pallor of those days, the ticky-tack of Vance Packard houses and the lulling blood beat of the Cold War dance. Litbiz was a fair index, one's work was squeezed through the little magazines or the schools, unripeness was all. If Kerouac and his friends hoped to blow the whistle on all this, they must have been disappointed; the world they raged against was more than big enough to bury them with praise. Only Gins- berg has survived, made the harrowing transition from bard to guru. One sus- pects his old friend Jack might have had more trouble moving from Beat to hip to hippie —the word itself is evocative, a sneering diminutive of "hip," as though the harder stance of the street- fighting bop-creeps of the author's own milieu has had its burners damped down to the listless love and mindless good vibrations of today. Counter- culture. Counter what? 

It would be an interesting task for another time to determine whether hip- pie is the fulfillment or betrayal of Beat.

Some of this Jack's sleeping self predicted. One of his strangest publications is the Book of Dreams, which is peddled as the substrata of his fictions, but which in fact suggests a whole new line of thought, far more political. The recurrent theme is of "a big strange war broken out in America," with its companions of perversion (one dream derails Nabokov), A-bomb, and finally apocalypse (see Dr. Sax). "Writing dreams," the writer reminds himself, "take note of the way the dreaming mind creates," This is indeed a Proust- ian task, but there is nothing in his work to suggest that he successfully solves it. And yet there is much to show that when he was able to divorce himself from his self-anointed spokesman role and lose touch for a page or two with his slick computer program, he could be a clear, knowing writer. His good will and sweet ambition shine in many places, his anecdotal gift is sure. If The DharmaBums is the only whole survivor in his collection (and I think it is: a well0tuned book with a catapult’s motion), there are passages in almost all the others that lift from their drossy beds by natural art. These slabs are as potent as some hunks of Thomas Wolfe, to whom Kerouac has all along correctly been compared. Consider: both men were intuitive language-spewing beasts who left no heirs. (What careful writer would mimic that madness grace alone can save?)

Kerouac, I think, had more humor by far. Wolfe was never able to glory in jazz, for all his roaring-boy nationalism, and all of life had to him to be a mountain range of blackest tragedy. Kerouac is playful —the mark of the adult. He giggles, fawns on nature, joys in cheap food, takes true pleasure in tiny things. That is why when the sorrow begins to pour into his later work we grow uneasy. There is some awful secret we can't count on him to withhold-

Beyond that, he is the kind of unanonymous writer to whom some of us have a specific special debt. For me, it was nothing less than this: that having gotten himself through, he got me through, prep school. Flunking this or that and hopeless (unlike poor "Ti Jean") on the football field, 1 would find myself in the headmaster's office from time to time being solemnly told that it was time to close the carnival, to buckle down and hit the books—not, God forbid, for learning's sake—so I could get into that good college and get that good job and get that good country club. Sure. I would slip a Kerouac novel from my bookbag on the schoolbus home, and be assured the head was full of shit.

And Jack was right.

"Wrote The Subterraneans in three days," he somewhere exults, "wrote On The Road in three weeks!"

Who, now, would be unloving churl enough to say: it shows.