Jack Kerouac was born March 12, 1922 and died October 21, 1969. Nearly all people who knew him in the 1st degree of separation has died – not all, but most. In recent years, books by the women he knew have been coming out, revising the fiction and the facts. Kerouac wrote roman à clef novels. Kerouac and his friends appeared in other roman à clef novels. The same crowd also wrote and talked endlessly about their lives. Countless biographies have been written. Then friends and lovers started publishing their stories. Kerouac has always been ground zero for the Beat movement, and trying to understand why is a fascinating snark hunt that ultimately reveals a lot about universal psychology and philosophy.
Recently Carolyn Cassady died. She was Camille Moriarty in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, wife to real-life Neal Cassady, who was Dean Moriarty in the book. Carolyn wrote her own books, Heart Beat and Off the Road. Jack Kerouac haunts me, so it saddens me to hear about Carolyn, who now becomes another of the Beat Generation ghosts.
In 2011 Lu Anne Henderson, who was Marylou in On the Road, and Neal Cassady’s first wife, had her side of the story told in One and Only. Like Carolyn, Lu Anne was the oxygen atom to Kerouac’s and Cassady’s hydrogen atoms. Camille and Marylou were the pivotal women of On the Road, so to get their stories is very revealing, even creating new mysteries.
Finally, there’s Joyce Johnson. In 1999 she came out with Minor Characters: A Beat Memoir, and then in 2000, Door Wide Open, a collection of letters between her and Kerouac, and finally in 2012 The Voice is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac, a major biography. Joyce knew Kerouac just before and after the publication of On the Road.
I often ask people: Which would you rather do, write a great novel, or be a model for a character in a great novel? Jack Kerouac wrote many novels and was a character in many more, and he has been the subject of many biographies. Carolyn and Lu Anne were featured characters in both the novels and biographies.
Jack Kerouac is a person I like to keep up with, even though he died in 1969, the year I graduated high school. About every half decade I check out what new discoveries have been unearthed about his legend. That’s the thing about legendary figures, they always evolve and mutate. There is much to be learned about oneself by careful studying of other people. Pick a person and try it out. I find ambitious writers with lots of personal flaws to be quite revealing about life. Jack Kerouac makes a particularly painful role model.
Most of Jack Kerouac’s novels are semi-autobiographical. Many people read On the Road and never read another Kerouac novel – their curiosity for Beat life was quickly quenched. A few more might go on to read The Dharma Bums, or even Big Sur or Visions of Cody, but for most readers, a little Kerouac goes a long way. But if you’re like me, you keep reading books by and about Kerouac and the story changes as it becomes deeper.
Part of the problem is most readers think Kerouac equals the Beat Generation, and once they think they understand the Beats and reject their philosophy, because most do, they are through with Kerouac. That’s too bad. But to really know Jack, you have to separate him from the Beats and read him as one man trying to make literary sense of his reality. Kerouac was on the edge of several social and literary movements, but because he was crowned King of the Beats, that’s all most people judge him by.
Some people study genealogy because they want to know about their ancestors, about their genes and blood. Not me. I consider myself a creation of pop culture, and I want to know my pop culture ancestors. Who we are is our cultural history. We’re all descendants of Judaism, Christianity, Greek philosophy, the Enlightenment, Science and a whole host of 19th and 20th century influences. Most Baby Boomers focus on the 1960s, but to really know yourself requires getting to know the 1950s, 1940s and 1930s. And to understand those times means studying the 1920s, 1910s and 1900s. America is constantly changing and mutating.
I was born in 1951 and remember the 1950s. My father died when I was 19, and I never really knew him. He was born in 1920, and Jack Kerouac was born in 1922. They both died miserable drunks a few months apart, both in Florida no less. I use Kerouac to understand my father. And to understand them both I need to understand the 1940s.
By the time the Beats got famous, their movement was already over, and had mutated into many new movements around the country. Go (1951) by John Clellon Holmes and On the Road (1957) by Kerouac, were the real Beat novels, and were about events a decade before the public discovered the Beats. Kerouac was a character in Go, as was Neal Cassady. Carolyn Cassady knew Kerouac in both the late 1940s and later in the 1950s, and her books, clarify the story.
The trouble with studying the Beats, is most of the documentation on them is about when they all got famous in the late 1950s. What defined the Beats were their reaction to America in the late 1940s, but how we remember the Beats is defined by their public personalities of the late 1950s. To understand Jack Kerouac means understanding American from 1945-1955, and even dividing that time into two parts.
Most people are shaped by their teen years, early twenties and late twenties, from 13-30. Jack turned 20 in 1942, and 30 in 1952. It’s those ten years that we want to get to know. Later on, Jack tried to understand his own personal development by writing about his childhood, the 1930s. It took a long time to get On the Road published, and by 1957 when it hit the scene, and defined the Beat Generation, Jack was 35, a burnout, living most of the time with his mother in Orlando, Florida, and committing slow suicide with a bottle. He died at 47. My father died at 49. I was 19.
A good contemporary view of Kerouac in 1957 and 1958 is Door Wide Open by Joyce Johnson, a collection of letters between Johnson and Kerouac. This is not the Kerouac of the 1940s.
There are people who never stop reading about Kerouac and the Beats. This is hard to explain. In a way, it’s like studying cosmology – there’s always more to discover. First you are drawn to the excitement of rushing back and forth across America in the 1940s, but soon realize all this rushing is madness, that there is no normal life to be found. You accept that poor Jack was a loser, a drunk, and the dazzling Neal Cassady was a low life hustler, con man, thief, and a man who would always let his wife, children and friends down, but they all loved him.
You walk away from the Beats thinking they were Nowheresville. That’s too bad. The real mystery is beyond the Hudson rushing across the plains at a 100 mph, the kicks, the drugs, smoking gigantic reefers in Mexican brothels, or following the mad ones Kerouac was so enamored with, but instead, we have to look over Neal’s shoulder’s to the American he was speeding by, to the couples they shared rides with, to people who own the cars they boosted, to the sane folks who saw them in the jazz joints acting like madmen.
If you’re lucky, you’ll read one of the biographies and discover Jack is more complicated. Slowly this Charlie Parker generation starts coming alive, and you begin to realize that the Beats weren’t Beatniks. America is the sum of all its hidden histories, and not the history they teach you in school. Reading books by the Beats, and books about the Beats, leads to exploring a different 1940s America than what we remember from It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), The Bishop’s Wife (1947), Miracle on 34th Street (1947) – the films by which most Americans remember America from 1946-1950, which is the time covered in On the Road. It’s not that those great films are wrong, but they are only one facet of a multifaceted view.
All novels have a gestation period. On the Road was published in 1957, but was about events from the late 1940s. The Catcher in the Rye was published in 1951, the year I was born, but was about the earlier 1940s. Also published in 1951 was From Here to Eternity by James Jones, which was about 1941. Zeroing in on On the Road’s America, isn’t easy. It comes before The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955) about 1953, but I think many readers picture Kerouac’s adventures happening around the time of its publication in 1957, just after Sputnik went into orbit, and thus the term Beatnik. We think of the Beats as the generation before the Hippies, but in reality, they were the 1945-1950 youth, and the famous 60s generation happened between 1965-1975. 1955-1965 included the folk generation, as well as the early rock and roll kids – think Grease and American Graffiti.
By 1957, Kerouac was well on his way to being a full time drunk. His short moment of fame gave him enough money to reignite his life and go on a few more road adventures, that were mostly lonely and pathetic. Kerouac in Paris is very sad.
If Kerouac had an artistic vision that chronicled his spiritual quest for transcendence in America, it wasn’t about the end of the 1950s when he was famous, it was about his life between 1940 to 1955, and even earlier when he tried to reconstruct his childhood of the 1930s. Strangely enough, the late 1950s was Ginsberg’s time, because of the Six Gallery reading in 1955, and the beginning of the San Francisco Renaissance. Kerouac was there, but his involvement was waning. Kerouac had been a part of a reactionary movement a decade earlier at Columbia, with his anti-academic friends. By the mid-1950s Kerouac wasn’t a leader but a follower, inspired by younger writers like Gary Snyder, who inspired his interest in Zen, Buddhism, hiking, mountain climbing, and spiritual practices. By then, Beats, Beatniks and proto-Hippies were everywhere. The counter culture was a good sized snowball rolling down the hill that would become an avalanche in the 1960s.
What I want to know about is the counter culture of the 1940s and 1930s. The radicalization of America in the 1960s didn’t start then – it started much earlier. I think we’re currently living through times getting ready for another big social change. Whether the 2010s will be the 1960s, when all hell broke loose, or the 1950s or 1940s when the seeds were planted, is still to be seen.
JWH – 10/6/13