Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The rush of what is said

Jack Kerouac, author of one of America’s most celebrated novels, On the Road, died 40 years ago today. He is remembered particularly for that book, but also as the leader and inspiration for a whole generation of Beat writers. Although he left behind a lifetime of diary and notebook entries, only a limited selection has ever been published, and this was not until 35 years after his death. The New York Times said of his diaries that they ‘rescued Kerouac from the cultists’ and ‘secured his admission to the mainstream hall of fame’. In one particularly apposite entry, Kerouac tells his journal, ‘It’s not the words that count, but the rush of what is said.’

Kerouac was born in Lowell, Massachussetts, in 1922. He was recruited to be a student at Columbia University, New York, thanks to his football ability, but stopped playing before long because of a broken leg. He proved uninterested in studying, and quit before the year was out, having already decided to be a writer, and having met Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. After travelling around for a while, he joined the Navy but was honourably discharged for having a schizoid personality. Many more jobs followed, including merchant seaman, forester, and railman.

Kerouac’s first novel written in the mid-1940s - The Town and the City - was not published until 1950, but received some literary acclaim. However, dissatisfied with literary conventions, Kerouac developed a new style of writing, spontaneous and free flowing, and it was this that formed the basis of his most famous book, On the Road. Written in 1951, the book was first published by Viking Press in 1957, and brought Kerouac almost instant fame. It tells of several frenetic road trips across the US and is considered, Wikipedia says, ‘a defining work of the postwar Beat Generation that was inspired by jazz, poetry, and drug experiences’.

Further books followed, such as The Dharma Bums based on Kerouac’s experiences with Buddhism and a mountain climbing trip he took with the poet and essayist Gary Snyder. Kerouac married three times: his first marriage was annulled after a year, the second broke up after two months, and the third - to Joan Haverty - did not last much longer. Haverty left Kerouac while pregnant, in 1951, and it was only nearly a decade later, after a blood test, that he acknowledged Jan Kerouac as his daughter. Kerouac’s early death in 1969 - on 21 October, 40 years ago today - was caused by a lifetime of too much drinking. The internet is awash with information about Kerouac, one of the most iconic of American writers - try Wikipedia, The Beat Museum, Dharma Beat.

Nearly thirty years after Kerouacs’s death, in 1998, The Atlantic Online ran a story about a hoard of unpublished Kerouac material, including ‘a voluminous diary that [Kerouac] started at the age of fourteen’. It said that ‘the great bulk’ of the writings had been turned over to Douglas Brinkley, director of The Eisenhower Center for American Studies and a professor of history at the University of New Orleans, who plans to produce a multi-volume edition of the Kerouac diaries. The article included a short preview by Brinkley himself. Here is one paragraph from that 1998 preview:

‘While gathering material for On the Road, criss-crossing America, Kerouac stopped in the eastern Montana town of Miles City. Soon Kerouac had one of his many epiphanies. ‘In a drugstore window I saw a book on sale - so beautiful!’ he wrote in his diary. ‘Yellowstone Red, a story of a man in the early days of the valley, & his tribulations & triumphs. Is this not better reading in Miles City than the Iliad? - their own epic?’ Kerouac was intent on creating his own Yellowstone Red story - but in a modern context, where existential jazz players and lost highway speedsters would be celebrated as the new vagabond saints.’

A single volume edition of the Kerouac diaries, edited by Brinkley, was published in 2004 as Windblown World, with the subtitle The Journals of Jack Kerouac, 1947-1954. Indeed, it focuses only on Kerouac’s first two novels; and there is no sign of any further volumes from Viking or Brinkley. A review by Publisher’s Weekly, on Amazon.com, explains that the ‘selections from a series of spiral notebooks into which the fledgling author constantly poured story ideas and private thoughts offer an intimate perspective on those novels’ development.’ It goes on to say: ‘Anybody who’s ever started a novel will grasp Kerouac’s obsession with his daily word count and the periodic frustration and self-doubt. ‘I know that I should never have been a writer,’ Kerouac laments at one dark moment; in another, he wonders, ‘Why doesn’t God appear to tell me I’m on the right track?’.’

There’s a longer review, by Walter Kirn in The New York Times. He says the book’s publication may ‘at first strike readers as an attempt to squeeze yet more toothpaste out of Kerouac’s flattened tube’, but that ‘unlike other posthumous volumes that have worn Kerouac’s name, it’s readable’, and tells ‘a story of self-invention, perseverance and breakthrough that should help rescue Kerouac from the cultists and secure his admission to the mainstream hall of fame, where he deserves to rest’.

Here’s a further taste of Kirn’s review: ‘Despite the reputation for self-indulgence that continues to cling to him, Kerouac was a reflective, vigilant artist who constantly, and consciously, strove to overcome his limitations - the chief one being, as he saw it, his own self-critical temperament. ‘I’m going to discover a way,’ he wrote, casting forward to On the Road while he was completing The Town and the City, ‘of preserving the big rushing tremendousness in me and in all poets.’ One could call the effect he was after ‘willed spontaneity’. Verbal diarrhea it was not. The journals show him evolving toward his ideal almost by the month. Released from his monastic labors in his mother’s kitchen, the ascetic, introverted Kerouac took an abrasive dust bath in the real world and emerged a broader, stronger artist, who combined a mind for the transcendental with a feeling for the particular.’

Here are a few (undated) snippets from Kerouac’s journal (culled from Kirn’s review).

‘2,500-words today in a few hours. This may be it - freedom. And mastery! - so long denied me in my long mournful years of work, blind powerful work.’

‘Tonight I’m going to write greatly and love greatly and strangle this folly. I’m catching these damnable changes of purpose in the flesh, red-handed, and throwing them to the winds, just like that.’

‘It is suddenly occurring to me that a great new change is about to take place in mankind and in the world. Don’t ask me how I know this. And it’s going to be very simple and true, and men will have taken another great step forward.’

‘No one has consciously realized the tremendous significance of American weekends, from proud sartorial Saturday night with its millions of premonitions of triumph and happiness, to dark Sunday night with its sweet and terrified loneliness.’

A last comment from Kirn: ‘The traditional rap against Kerouac - that he was a sort of half-baked dopehead primitivist who prized sensation over sense - crumbles on a reading of his journals. For every entry concerning a wild night out with his colorful cohort of insomniac poets, opiated philosophers and autodidact ex-cons, there’s a meditation on Mark Twain or a list of favorite Renaissance poets. There’s no way around it: for all his hobo posing, Kerouac began as a New England highbrow. . . He trusted, finally, in his own energy, but it was an energy produced from the finest sources: great books, adventurous friends, high moral purpose and wide experience. ‘It’s not the words that count,’ he wrote, ‘but the rush of what is said.’

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