Yes, Jack Kerouac Still Matters

Babysitting my granddaughters the other day, my eye caught a headline in my son-in-law’s The Wall Street Journal, which lay on the marble kitchen countertop of their suburban home. It concerned long-deceased writer Jack Kerouac. His 100th birthday was March 12.

I thought it ironic that this birthday was recognized by a publication like The Wall Street Journal.  Kerouac’s lifestyle and philosophies seemed a conscious rejection of everything which that newspaper represents.

I also thought it ironic that he was born only a few months before my dad. The two of them couldn’t have been more unlike (and I’m forever thankful of that).

No American writer has experienced such a mixture of worship, mockery, and vilification than Kerouac. My belief is that most who hate him have read little if any of his novels or poetry. Some undoubtedly bring their political or cultural prejudices to the table.  His early critics were literary and social conventionalists. After the 1960s, his critics, most of them older than 30, saw him as dated and trite.

A few surprising facts to shake up the myths: Kerouac was plagued his entire life by guilt inflicted by the Catholic Church, as well as the early death of his older brother, Gerard, whom he worshipped; he had a deep understanding of classic world literature; he pioneered “spontaneous prose” but continually reworked what he spontaneously wrote; he hated being labeled the “King of the Beat Generation” and almost sued the producers of the exploitative TV show Route 66; unlike friend and fellow beat Allen Ginsberg, he was baffled by the hippie counterculture that both writers had inadvertently spawned; he (reputedly) watched TV airings of HUAC hearings while simultaneously smoking marijuana and cheering for Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

A less surprising fact: he wrote the Great American Novel. Maybe the most American.

Like many, I read On the Road while in college.  (I discovered it on my own; no university English professor would dare assign that book.)  And like all who read it, it kindled a brush fire under my ass, flinging me behind the wheel of my car to travel across America…twice…loving everything and everybody along the way.

On the Road got under my skin like no other book ever has.

Flash forward forty years, and I’m astonished at how and why I fell under Kerouac’s spell.  In 1979, when I first tentatively read Road (I’ve read it five times total, and several other Kerouac books), the author had been dead ten years.  Road had been in print for 22 years.  Kerouac’s (Sal Paradise’s) first car trip with Neal Cassady (Dean Moriarty) was ten years before that.   

How could someone’s experiences from just two years after the end of World War II have such a visceral effect on a starry-eyed kid who, in two years, would be scratching his head over the popularity of a corporate phenomenon called MTV?  From Charlie Parker to Haircut 100? Are you fucking serious? The times, indeed, had a-changed.

Today, wrapped in the “forlorn rags of growing old,” I cringe when recalling some of the dangerous behaviors on my own road trip, in direct emulation of my hero.  (“Did I really do that?”)  But I was young, and young people play-act and do dumb things.  Thankfully, I didn’t get shot, or catch hepatitis or HIV…or end up a morose alcoholic, living with his mother, dead in central Florida at age 47.  Significantly, neither am I the poet Kerouac was.

I probably took the emulation bit somewhat farther than most—I kept my paperback copy of Road in the glovebox of my ’79 Chevy Impala as motel rooms store copies of the Holy Bible—but that doesn’t negate the fact that I had a fantastic time trying to emulate him, and would never trade in that naivety. 

I have flashes of that old sensation: anticipating leaving home to plunge into the red-orange glow of the West when I was 23.  It was the openness of possibility and discovery, of being young and unencumbered, of experiencing freedom in America for the first time.

I haven’t done research, but I wonder how many college kids or grown-up kids today read On the Road.  I’m afraid to find out. I don’t think it matters. That book has made a permanent imprint.

They look and talk differently today, but young people still have Kerouac in their veins, cell technology notwithstanding, and even if they don’t know it and can’t verbalize their motivations. I met them last year while thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail. They’re willing to, at least for a while, reject Dow Jones & Company, Inc.  They’re old enough yet bold enough to chance a great adventure and love everybody and everything along the way.  Crazy enough to dirt-bag one of America’s trails, or start a rock band, or follow a band around the country, or suspend time while suspending themselves by rope against a rock face.

In six weeks, at the A.T. trailhead at Wind Gap, Pennsylvania, I’ll join them again.  (I defy the golf course and fishing rod.)  It won’t be the same as when I was 23, but I can still capture shards of that fading feeling. I’ve got God on my side, and “don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear?”

Those of us in the know are still with you, Jack.  Belated Happy 23rd Birthday.

Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac (photo by Carolyn Cassady)

7 thoughts on “Yes, Jack Kerouac Still Matters

    • It’s a book that spurs one to action and is best experienced when you’re young, when the world is still open and bright, before the cynicism of age and experience. But I’m sure you can still get a vicarious thrill. And Kerouac’s prose is just so lively. His passages about jazz music are without equal.

  1. Love this essay. Great work. When I was 11 I lived for a summer with cousins in Pensacola, fl. Several times we ran into the derelict old guy they called “the beatnik poet.” In was only years later (after reading OTR, assigned in my modern lit class in 1970) that I figured out I’d had a chance to meet K. He was a pitiful wreck by that point— mumbling and drunk, on the make for young sailors. A sad ending for a great writer

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    • Merci, David. (Was hoping you might clock in, as I had an inkling a personage such as yourself might appreciate Kerouac.) He ended his life in St. Petersburg in ’69, but perhaps he was in Pensacola earlier. I read he probably had sexual relations with Ginsberg and Cassady, but drunk and “on the make for young sailors” is very pathetic. And sounds like you had a forward-thinking lit prof in 1970! I was handed that book by a friend of a dorm-mate after he learned I’d read “Kool-Aid Acid Test.” This guy was a bit of a phony, a pseudo-intellectual, pseudo-bohemian type. And OTR turned me off as a sophomore. But I read it again as a senior, just before graduation, and it was like a window being thrust open. I lived in a beat haze (1980s version) for the next several years, and wouldn’t change anything (well, maybe a couple things).

  2. It’s odd how much Kerouac had filtered into me without reading most of his novels in their entirety. He can move me greatly, yes even in my old age, in short doses.

    Sometimes it’s little things, like the recordings I have of him reading. The Steve Allen show clip. Or this performance by Charles Laughton that a DJ that I worked with play every Thanksgiving.

    What lead to his diminished career? I think his literary autopsy is one of those where the coroner can’t tell what was the singular fatal wound. Well, change in styles was one. The Thomas Wolfeian rhapsodies were always an acquired taste. A “youth novelist” is likely to have a shorter shelf-life by definition. He never “played the game” with the cultural gatekeepers and cliques, even after time with “The Beats.” The casual misogyny was considered vital in Midcentury, and now is a rightly condemned, — but baby-and-bath-water. Folks who otherwise admire him report long sections of bad prose in some work. There’s the turncoat factor too. Some writers who did the hard left* to hard right turn survived in their new hard right affinity groups, but Kerouac was not an attractive spokesman for the evils of the left or bohemianism in his later life.

    Could it be, to a large degree, that he survived to be read may be laid to Allen Ginsburg’s unflagging devotion to crediting him?

    *AFAIK, Kerouac was never anything like an organized leftist, but by The Sixties bohemianism was largely associated with the New Left and so he suffered the turncoat problem.

    • Great feedback, Frank. Thank you. Re Left/Right, Burroughs said he was always apolitical. As a second-generation French-Canadian in America, he had a traditional Americanism that conflicted with the standard Left, but right-wingers disliked the sex and drugs, plus his empathy for the downtrodden. So he was caught in the middle. And you’re right, he never “sold out,” and he probably did write a lot of bad prose (but so did Melville, who was only appreciated 70 years after Moby-Dick). I don’t think he was “misogynist” as we now define it. He didn’t hate or look down on women, he was just traditionally masculine, and a tortured individual who was never meant to be a husband or father.

      I loved The Dharma Bums and actually read it while on the road. A paler version of Road, but nonetheless a wonderful book, and Laughton (!) chose a beautiful, poetic passage to recite.

      I briefly knew a girl out in Colorado whose sister laughed when she heard of my Kerouac fixation. She dismissed him as a drunken bum. So what? Did you read his stuff? I shouldn’t take my own road trip or admire his writing? I’ve always wondered if her reaction was based on current literary fashion, or if she was merely jealous of her sister. Will never know!

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