Monday, October 21, 2019

The rush of what is said

Jack Kerouac, author of one of America’s most celebrated novels, On the Road, died 50 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 - 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 full listing of Kerouac’s diaries and notebooks can be found at the website of the New York Public Library. 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.

‘Wherever novelist Jack Kerouac wandered in his peripatetic life,’ Brinkley writes in his introduction, ‘he usually kept a spiral notebook or railroad brakeman’s ledger with him just in case he wanted to scribble down a spontaneous thought or compose a haiku. This was not an unusual trait for a serious writer. Old-time reporters, in fact, never left home without their cigarettes and notebook, and Kerouac was no different. So Allen Ginsberg knew exactly what he was doing when, in 1953, he snapped the elegiac photograph that adorns this book’s cover. There is the handsome Kerouac on an East Village fire escape, gazing out over a sea of New York buildings, brooding like Montgomery Clift under the tenement-filled sky at dusk. With a “Railroad Brakeman Rules Handbook” protruding out of his jacket pocket, this photograph represents the iconic Kerouac; it’s as if he offered Ginsberg his best Jack London-like pose for posterity to ponder.

Unlike that photograph, there is nothing posed about these journal entries, published here for the first time. The printed text of this volume of journals draws on material entered by Kerouac in ten notebooks from June 1947 to February 1954. Though these journals are presented here as a single entity, the editing has involved minor interweaving between one notebook and the next. Kerouac’s doodles, deadend rants, and marginalia have not been included. But I’ve tried to stay as close to the original journals as possible, correcting Kerouac’s punctuation and spelling only when it was necessary for clarity’s sake. I’ve also inserted occasional footnotes, as unobtrusively as possible, in order to provide context when necessary.’

A review by Publisher’s Weekly, on, 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.’

And, a last quote 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.’

Finally, here are several extracts from Windblown World.

16 June 1947
‘Just made one of those great grim decisions of one’s life - not to present my manuscript of “T & C” to any publisher until I’ve completed it, all 380,000-odd words of it. This means seven months of ascetic gloom and labor - although doubt is no longer my devil, just sadness now. I think I will get this immense work done much sooner this way, to face up to it and finish it. Past two years has been work done in a preliminary mood, a mood of beginning and not completing. To complete anything is a horror, an insult to life, but the work of life needs to get done, and art is work - what work!! I’ve read my manuscript for the first time and I find it a veritable Niagara of a novel. This pleases me and moves me, but it’s sorrowful to know that this is not the age for such art. This is an excluding age in art - the leaver-outer [F. Scott] Fitzgeralds prevail in the public imagination over the putter-inner [Thomas] Wolfes. But so what. All I want from this book is a living, enough money to make a living, buy a farm and some land, work it, write some more, travel a little, and so on. But enough of this. The next seven(TEEN) months are joyless to view - but there is as much joy in these things, there is more joy, than in flitting around as I’ve done since early May, when I completed a 100,000-word section (Mood Log). I might as well learn now what it is to see things as they are - and the truth is, nobody cares how I fare in these writings. So I must fare in the grimmest, most efficient way there is, alone, unbidden, diligently again, always. The future has a glorious woman for me, and my own children, I'm certain of that - I must come up to them and meet them a man with things accomplished. I don’t care to be one of those frustrated fathers. Behind me there must be some stupendous deed done - this is the way to marry, the way to prepare for greater deeds and work. So then -‘

27 January 1948
‘Had a fist-fight with my novel and drew 2500-poor-drops-of-blood out of it, and after the smoke of the battle was over, something probably important occurred to me: - to try writing in quick first drafts of just sheer dialogue and sheer description of the action, without pausing to arrange it all in sentence-form, that is, logical and rhythmical and clear. Not that I believe too strongly in clear and logical writing, but I do believe in the kind of writing that give effortless pleasure to the reader. In the end, I am my own greatest reader. Also, I believe in sane writing, as opposed to the psychotic sloppiness of Joyce. Joyce is a man who only gave up trying to communicate to human beings. I myself do that when I’m drunk-weary and full of misery, therefore I know it’s not so honest as it’s spiteful to blurt out in associations without a true human effort to evoke and give significant intelligence to one’s sayings. It’s a kind of scornful idiocy.’

25 July 1948
‘. . . to the beach. We played in the waves for hours, lay in the sun. We had dinner at my house, and then the summernight fields and softness and great stars bending close-pack’t, and odourous darkness, and flowers and hidden gardens, and the whole universe melting and falling down the skies all crumbled and soft, all blurred and transcendental with milky light, all immortal, all sacrificial and sighing, all too impossible to keep and bear so beautiful and so sad. I wonder why our life must quiver between beauty and guilt, consummation and sadness, desire and regret, immortality and tattered moments unknowable, truth and beautiful meaningful lies, knowledge and the genius of illusion, love and chagrin, “Time” and minutes, what-we-do and what-we-want - or - other poles quivering elsewhere in greater, softer darknesses. Later, at night, wandered in the Bowery enjoying a few beers and thinking love-thoughts, then saw Lucien and Barbara and got out-drunk and staggered home in the morning . . . and Allen was crying because he thought nobody wanted to hear his new “silence and transcendence" visions, although, being silent and transcendent, of course, he could not utter them, and we could not utter our understanding, and the Big Error, or (to me) the Big Truth, hovered near touching us almost with its unknown wings. However there was no reason for me to get so drunk. I think I got drunk for the first time simply because I was happy, no other big reason, and because I was in love, in its living room resting.’

31 May 1949 [The printed date is wrong, though I can’t tell whether the source of the error is in Keorouac’s original manuscript, or in its preparation for print. The subsequent entry to this one is dated ‘Wednesday June 1’]
‘Tuesday June 1 - I’m thinking of making On the Road a vast story of those I know as well as a study of rain and rivers. Allen expresses weariness with my “rain-&-rivers” preoccupation now, but I think it’s only because I have not explained manifestly what they mean: as I did in the notebook “Record” on pages covering ‘New Orleans to Tucson.’ That’s clear in my mind.

There is never a real goldstrike, or a real “scientific advance,” only a revelation in the heart on one day or the next, subject to horrible change and further revelation. “Revelation is Revolution,” as Holmes says, insofar of course, as it is a change, miserably from mere day to day.

There is no heaven and no reward, and no judgment either (Allen says his lawyers “will be judged”): - no: - there is only a continuum of living across preordained spaces, followed by the continuum of the Mystery of Death. That death is a Mystery makes Death acceptable therefore; because Mystery never ends but continues.

Still waiting for the family.’

25 November 1948
‘Went to movies in N.Y. with Ma - Stan Kenton, French picture, etc. She wore her best clothes and how I love my mother, my sweet, dear little mother. . . a person like all the other treats I happen to know so accidentally. What thoughts I’ve been having since that binge, from whiskey-sickness which always induces visions. My mother is just “it.” I brood over her with such delight. I think Hal Chase is crazy for mistrusting me . . . I hope Hal comes back to me I love people. I know now how geekish we all feel. I am not worth kissing anybody’s feet, not even that so poseful. Why don’t we all die? Why do we live with such pain of living? Why do I feel pain when I think of Marian, or Lucien, or Burroughs? - a pain that is just “it.” Everything is “it.” It’s got it. We’ll know when . . . When I think of them all, and hateful me in the middle (reason, see, so hateful.) What a big hole in the world! And in that hole, that amputation, there it is . . . why we don’t die. “She will not put motion at rest (that I dislike (or dislove) her) (Marian) until she see you again.” How avid we are! How can I hate anyone as much as I hate myself? - therefore, we all love each other don’t we.

It's not true that you must love yourself to love others, as Ann Brabham said. You must hate yourself with that pain, then you cross the shadow-bridges to the other side of eternity, where their avid faces twitch, pale, gone, gone . . . Above I said “I love people.” What an asinine thing to say. That was self-love. I have no right to be loved, haven’t I? It’s all somewhere around here and it’s the reason why we don't die. For we know superciliousness does not come from a supercilious source . . . and many other things. I’ve lost all my warm consolations. I sit on the hundred fathoms - everybody please love me.’

17 June 1948
‘Madly, painfully lonesome for a woman these June evenings . . . and on I work work. I see them walking outside and I go crazy . . . “no time, no money.” - but my desire for a woman is at its highest pitch right now. If my ego were attached to love, as it should be, instead of to work, I’d have me that woman tonight and forever. “No time, no money . . .”

Or, yet, why is it that a man trying to do big work by himself, alone, poor, cannot find one little wisp of a woman who will give him her love and time? Why is it that a man with money and success has to drive them away . . . or as Hal Chase says, a man with a woman belonging to him, sporting her odor, has to drive them away ... the Lesbians! This experience is going to make me bitter, by God. But an idea just came to me. (Meanwhile, of course, you see, I do believe that ‘feeling sorry’ for oneself is one of the truest things on earth because you can’t deny that someone like me, healthy, sexual, even poetic, slashed, pierced, riven with desire and affection for any pretty girl I see, yet unable because of ‘time and money’ to make love now, now, in youth, as they parade indifferently by my window . . . well Goddamit, you just can’t deny it! It isn’t right! There’s too much aloneness in a world yearning, yearning, yearning . . . and too many whores, real true whores. To hell with them? No . . . the point is, I want them. Someday I’ll go to France, to Paris, that’s what . . . where, like Jean Gabin if you can find a pretty love at the carnival in the night.) (In the night, in the night, in the sky-night and lights, the soft warm knees parting, the breathless clasp, the gasp, the tongue, and best of all, the low murmuring voice and what it says.) Well, as I say, I’m going to be bitter about this. This may be sexual inadequacy (no time, no money), but . . . just wait, woman, just wait.

Went to bed, after irritating work with a faulty typewriter-hand, with a .350 average.’

This article is a revised version of one first published 10 years ago on 21 October 2009.

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