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)

Steve Allen to Jerry Springer

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Dysfunctional excess

Is all it took for my success.

(Peter Gabriel, from his song “The Barry Williams Show”)

Last week Jerry Springer made a return visit to Cincinnati for a question and answer forum.  Before hosting a nationally syndicated “trash” talk show, Springer was a TV anchorman/commentator in Cincinnati, and before that, he was mayor (until he was caught writing a check to a prostitute).  I guess there’s a segment of society that’s attracted to “dysfunctional excess.”  One of the folks at work went to the forum and referred to Springer as being “smart” (how smart can you be if you pay off a prostitute with a personal check?!).  It got me to thinking about another smart guy who was a talk show host: Steve Allen.

For those who may not know, Steve Allen was the very first host of “The Tonight Show,” long before Jay Leno, and even before Johnny Carson.  He was largely responsible for developing the format of the TV talk show.  He didn’t look it, but he was actually pretty hip, being one of the first to book a young Elvis Presley, and helping to promote writer Jack Kerouac, author of the beat-generation bible “On the Road.”  And a teenaged Frank Zappa appeared on Allen’s show, playing an upside-down bicycle as a musical instrument!  In addition, Allen was an accomplished jazz musician and song composer, a talented comic, and he wrote a staggering 50 books during his lifetime.

Toward the end of his life (he died in 2000 at age 78), Allen became increasingly concerned about the amount of gratuitous sex, violence, crudity, and stupidity that the entertainment media was dishing out.  His last book was called “Vulgarians at the Gate: Trash TV and Raunch Radio: Raising Standards of Popular Culture.”  In the book he castigates TV producers, personalities like Springer and shock-jock Howard Stern, the film industry, and the music and video gaming industries for helping to facilitate a breakdown of mores in society through their product.   In my opinion, his voice carries weight.  Allen was there at the very beginning of TV, and he witnessed a number of changes over a 50-year period.  That combined with the fact that Allen was a voracious reader and researcher and he was constantly trying to improve himself.

Politically, Allen was a Democrat.  And as far as religion, he considered himself a secular humanist (he wrote several books that critiqued the Bible, but only after doing a lot of research on Christianity).  He didn’t believe in censorship.  But he did feel that Hollywood and the entertainment industry needed to do a much better job of policing themselves, and citizens needed to become more engaged and speak out against the crassness.  Parents are the best police for their kids, but they’re powerless once the kids leave the house. Allen felt so strongly about these things that at the end he was taking out ads in city newspapers and he became honorary chairman, with actress Shirley Jones (Mrs. Partridge!!!), of the conservative Parents Television Council.  The group is still active today, though unfortunately few of the board members have the acuity or worldliness of Allen.  Most recently, it started a petition to ban Seth McFarlane from ever hosting the Academy Awards again.

In another post on longitudes, I rebuked the NRA and gun lobby for their incomprehensible use of the Second Amendment to bludgeon attempts at sensible gun legislation.  But I also pointed a finger at the entertainment industry for shoveling out whatever garbage they could get away with under the First Amendment.  Until Second Amendment conservatives and First Amendment liberals stop blaming each other for gun violence, and decide that the problem is multifold, I’m afraid our society will continue its ineluctable slide into the muck of violence and vulgarity.  And we need more Steve Allens to hold accountable the Jerry Springers.