Scribe of a new lost generation
You either love or hate Kerouac's writing.
Browse the reader reviews of his novel On the Road on the internet and you'll find comments like "this book has affected my entire perception of the world and everything within it", right next to "a lot of ridiculous ramblings...talk to some idiot on drugs and you'll hear the same thing".
Truman Capote famously said of Kerouac's work, "That's not writing, that's typing."
I'm on the side of loving it though.
This might seem strange, given that I usually champion well-presented characters, plot and structure—all of which On the Road is notorious for not having. But I appreciate that Kerouac breaks all the rules to try to take me somewhere I've never been in literature before.
Most critics at least agree Kerouac is historically important. He was a founder of the Beat movement in the late 1940s and the 1950s, which he supposedly named for the weary, "beaten" state of its anti-establishment members—though Kerouac later claimed the name came from "beatific" to indicate their search for spiritual peace. The movement's co-founders included poet Allen Ginsberg and novelist Williams S. Burroughs. Starting in New York and moving to San Francisco, the Beat scene grew to include poets Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso and Richard Brautigan, among many other writers and artists. The movement also influenced later figures like novelist Ken Kesey, journalist Hunter S. Thompson, and poet-playwright Leroi Jones, not to mention pop figures like Bob Dylan, the Beatles—and perhaps the entire tuning-in, turning-on and dropping-out counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s.
The big shake-up
In literature, Kerouac's effect was to encourage spontaneous creation, rejecting the formal, structured approach in favour of an unpolished style, seeking enlightenment in a rhapsodic piling up of words that captured the present moment without past or future. Even established authors like Norman Mailer adopted Kerouac's free-form syntax and hipster voice to some degree after On the Road.
It was fresh and exciting, and it provided the kind of shake that literature needs every now and then. Kerouac is often credited with giving the kind of generational goad to American writing in the 1950s that Ernest Hemingway had given in the 1920s. (This possibility may have occurred to Kerouac too, as he refers to the older writer repeatedly in the first half of On the Road, despite their radically different approaches to composition.)
He was born Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac of French-Canadian immigrants in Massachusetts, not learning English until he was of school age. In 1939 he attended Columbia University in New York on a football scholarship but dropped out after a dispute with his coach. In the 1940s he worked as a sports writer, was in the navy (until being discharged during World War II as a "schizoid personality" after acts of insubordination), worked as a merchant seaman, and served as a firewatcher for the U.S. Forestry Service. Most significantly in this period, he made contact with Ginsberg, Burroughs and other disaffected young writers. Also in their circle was an uninhibited, car-thieving, philandering, fast-talking, wannabe writer named Neal Cassady who would become the model for one of America's greatest fictional characters.
Kerouac's first published novel, The Town and the City (1950), however was conventional in structure and told the story of his own family. Before and after The Town and the City, he wrote prolifically, producing several other novels, autobiography, and a collection of poetry, none of which was published until after On the Road appeared in 1957.
On the Road was said to have been written without revisions on a single one hundred and twenty-foot roll of paper that spooled out of Kerouac's typewriter in twenty days. I don't believe it for a second (as I explain in the On the Road commentary).
But the novel was a sensation, popularizing the unfettered lifestyle of the early Beats, who actually seemed to do very little writing in the book, spending their energies drinking, smoking dope, chasing women, following jazz performers and running around the country. It was a fictionalized account of Kerouac's late 1940s experiences during several expeditions driving or hitchhiking across North America on his own or with friends, especially with Cassady, who became Dean Moriarty in the book.
On the Road made Kerouac into a public representation of the Beat generation, an icon to the "beatniks" and the later hippies. It was a position he was uncomfortable with, not necessarily condoning the views and behaviour of those who followed him. He is quoted in 1960 as saying, "It is not my fault that certain so-called bohemian elements have found in my writings something to hang their peculiar beatnik theories on.
His next novel The Dharma Bums (1958) was again biographical, featuring friend and poet Gary Snyder disguised as character Japhy Ryder who rejects modern consumerism and seeks enlightenment through meditation. Kerouac's second best-known novel introduced Buddhism to the bohemian scene and later to the counterculture.
With his growing fame, many of Kerouac's earlier neglected works were now being published in a flood along with some new works, including:
- The Subterraneans (1958), a disjointed account of an affair which had supposedly been written in three days with the help of Benzedrine, on which Kerouac became hooked
- Maggie Cassidy (1959) about a teenage infatuation
- Dr. Sax (1959) weaves in and out of reality, before and after birth, among the jazz-loving bohemians of San Francisco
- Mexico City Blues (1959) containing his poetry written while staying in Mexico to mediate
- Tristessa (1960) about a woman he met in Mexico
- Lonesome Traveller (1960), a collection of essays and meditations
- The Scripture of the Golden Eternity (1960)
- Book of Dreams (1961)
- Big Sur (1962), a novel based on his life in California the previous year
- Visions of Gerard (1963) about the death of his older brother at age nine
- Desolation Angels (1965), Kerouac's wandering life in the mid-1950s, in the character of Jack Duluoz
- Satori in Paris (1966), an account of a trip to France
Apart from suffering from drug addiction and alcoholism, Kerouac lived through the turbulent 1960s rather conventionally, supporting and nursing his mother, appearing on television talk shows, espousing conservative politics, and alienating himself from his former bohemian mates, until finally dying of cirrhosis of the liver in 1969.
Even since his death, Kerouac's works have continued to appear. The novel Visions of Cody, also based on his brother's death, was written twenty years before its publication in 1972. Orpheus Emerged, concerning his adventures with the early Beats, was written in 1945 and first released in 2000 in electronic form.
Reportedly, there remains more Kerouac writing yet to be published.
Like scrolls of the ancients, rolls of his writing could be stashed away in dark corners of the continent.
— Eric McMillan