A friend of mine once met Jack Kerouac. This was in 1968, in the Carolinas somewhere; my friend was a college student, and Kerouac, well, Kerouac was playing out the string. He was forty-six (the age I am now), broken-down and bloated, a barroom brawler discontent with his legacy. In September of that year, he would appear on William F. Buckley Jr.'s television show, Firing Line, along with the Fugs' Ed Sanders, whose work and politics he'd disavowed. To look at footage of that appearance is instructive— Kerouac drunk in a checkered jacket, smoking a cigarillo and tossing off non sequiturs, face florid and body thick; Buckley supercilious in seersucker, subtly goading him. A telling moment comes at the end of the segment, when Kerouac turns to Sanders and declares, "Say, Ed, I was arrested two weeks ago. And the arresting policeman said, 'I'm arresting you for decay.'" There's a flash of cognitive dissonance: Did he really just say that? The crowd laughs, but it's an edgy laughter, tempered by the shock of Kerouac's self-awareness, by the sense that they've just caught a glimpse behind the curtain.
According to my friend, meeting Kerouac was a similarly dissociative experience; he went to a party, and there he was. For the entire evening, Kerouac sat alone in the living room, drinking, smoking dope, and resolutely ignoring all these kids who saw him as "the man who launched the hippie world, the daddy of the swinging psychedelic generation," to steal a phrase from the cover of my old Signet paperback of On the Road. What my friend recalls most is that Kerouac smelled terrible: boozy, tinged with sweat and urine. This split, the dichotomy between Kerouac as he was and Kerouac as we want him to be, continues to obscure him, to make of him an oddly spectral avatar. It's been more than sixty years since he met Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs at Columbia University and with them formed the nucleus of what we now know as the Beat Generation; that encounter reverberates, in ways we recognize and ways we may never, for every ensuing generation of disaffected youth. It's impossible to imagine American culture in the second half of the twentieth century without the tropes Kerouac helped codify—the cars, the music, the endless, restless movement, the sense that authenticity cannot be found in the mainstream, that it has to do with living slightly outside the law. Even now, we are attracted by the myth of him, by his vigor and exuberance, by his status as the dark-eyed saint of the underground, awash in Buddhism and blues.
But Kerouac was also tortured, death obsessed, an alcoholic who withdrew, during his last decade, into a bitter, self-contained universe, living with his mother, Gabrielle, and his third wife, Stella, in a succession of suburban homes from Northport, Long Island, to Saint Petersburg, Florida, where he died in 1969. This is the Kerouac my friend met, the icon who sought his distance from the counterculture and lamented his influence on it in the last piece he ever published, a Chicago Tribune essay called "After Me, the Deluge." Even as a young man, Kerouac represented this kind of double vision—on March 12, 1952, his thirtieth birthday, he wrote to novelist John Clellon Holmes, a longtime friend, that he was "blowing such mad poetry and literature that I'll look back years later with amazement and chagrin that I can't do it anymore." Here, we catch a glimpse of his uneasy mix of exultation and apprehension, of enthusiasm and despair. "I was never a 'rebel,'" he admitted in a 1949 letter to novelist Alan Harrington, "only a happy, sheepish imbecile, open-hearted & silly with joys." Perhaps more apropos is Holmes's assessment, from the 1986 documentary What Happened to Kerouac? "Jack Kerouac," he explains, "was never taken seriously while he lived . . . [b]ecause [people] weren't looking in the right place. They weren't looking at the work, they were looking at their image of the man, an image which they derived from the few works that they read. They kept mixing Jack up with Dean Moriarty, they kept thinking he was like Dean Moriarty—in other words, Neal Cassady—and he wasn't."
So who was Jack Kerouac? And why does he matter to us still? This, it seems, is the moment to ask such questions, with September 5 marking the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of On the Road. Certainly, there's no shortage of books to commemorate the occasion. The Library of America has just put out Road Novels 1957–1960, a collection featuring On the Road, The Dharma Bums (1958), The Subterraneans (1958), Tristessa (1960), and Lonesome Traveler (1960), as well as a selection of journal entries, and Viking, On the Road's original publisher, has released the text of the novel's scroll manuscript, the uncorrected version of the book that Kerouac delivered in 1951 to Robert Giroux, who had edited his first novel, The Town and the City (1950), for Harcourt, Brace. (Viking has also issued New York Times reporter John Leland's Why Kerouac Matters: The Lessons of On the Road.) Other, less essential volumes are also available: Jack Kerouac's American Journey: The Real-Life Odyssey of On the Road by Kerouac biographer Paul Maher Jr. and You'll Be Okay: My Life with Jack Kerouac by Edie Kerouac-Parker, the author's first wife (they met at Columbia in the early '40s).
Kerouac is among the most misunderstood of American writers, and the misunderstanding stems, in many ways, from On the Road. The book was both a blessing and the worst kind of burden to him, a work that defined as well as obscured him. Partly, this had to do with the novel itself, which provoked controversy from the start. Although Gilbert Millstein called it "an authentic work of art" and the defining statement of a generation in a daily New York Times review, his position was quickly undercut by a Sunday piece in which David Dempsey attacked the novel for its "morally neutral point of view." That's a telling statement, and it suggests just how radical a vision Kerouac was offering '50s America, a culture popularly (and, I think, accurately) derided for its buttoned-down conformity, its infantile faith in organizations and authority, its frantic optimism in the face of the atom bomb. Like other postwar outsider artists—the beboppers, the Abstract Expressionists— Kerouac and his Beat cohorts aspired to something different: to reflect the fractured realities of a world on the brink of annihilation, in which the social verities (religion, country, family, the satisfactions of professional success) no longer had relevance except as a collective lie. That's an idea many of us take almost entirely for granted and have for years; even when I first read On the Road, as a teenager in the late '70s, it seemed tame, utterly recognizable, with its portrait of tea-smoking hipsters driving from city to city, rapping, listening to music, riffing on the universe. This was just a heightened version of what my friends and I were doing, or dreaming about doing, every day. "We know time," Dean continually murmurs, in one of the book's iconic refrains, but by the time I got to On the Road, time had caught up with it, rendering even its most shocking moments, many of which involve the characters' easygoing attitudes toward theft, sentimental, even passé.
And yet, if On the Road long ago ceased to be a revolutionary narrative, it did introduce a pair of legends that remain persistent—and, I'd argue, counterproductive—ideals. The first is that of spontaneous composition, which Kerouac promoted throughout the '50s, even banging out a short guide, "Essentials of Spontaneous Prose" ("No pause to think of proper word," he warns, "but the infantile pileup of scatological buildup words till satisfaction is gained, which will turn out to be a great appending rhythm to a thought and be in accordance with Great Law of timing"), in 1953. For him, On the Road was the starting point of this creative journey, a way to work the traditional, Thomas Wolfean textures of The Town and the City into a wilder, more impressionist style. There's no question he was onto something: On the Road is a careening, headlong piece of writing, produced, or so Beat hagiography tells us, in an extended Benzedrine-fueled burst. But despite the compelling romance of this legend, it's not true in the strictest sense. Yes, the final draft of On the Road—the scroll manuscript—was completed in three weeks during the spring of 1951, on a 120-foot roll of paper taped together and laced through Kerouac's typewriter so as not to interrupt the flow of his mind. And yes, to look at it now is to be struck by its similarity to the finished book, by just how much Kerouac got. Certainly, there are differences: scenes deleted (a visit to his ex-wife Edie in Detroit, passages highlighting Cassady's polymorphous sexuality) and stylistic variations, beginning with the fact that the scroll is written as a single paragraph close to three hundred pages long. You can understand why Giroux threw up his hands when Kerouac unfurled the scroll across the floor of his office: "But Jack," he said, "how can you make corrections on a manuscript like that?" Still, it's an impressive performance, not only as a test of endurance—"by his own account," Howard Cunnell writes in his introduction to On the Road: The Original Scroll, "Kerouac averaged '6 thous. [words] a day, 12 thous. first day, 15 thous. last day'"—but also as a creative act.
Jack Kerouac in his Long Island home displaying one of the scrolls on which
he composed his books, 1964.
Kerouac, however, had been trying to write On the Road for two and a half years before he started working on this version; he'd struggled through several drafts that lacked the necessary immediacy and voice. That's one reason the book has so much power—it's the expression of an artist wrestling with a problem, the problem of how to make language and experience explode off the page. As a cultural ideal, though, it's a disaster, directly responsible for fifty years of careless prose. It may be true, as Kerouac wrote to Viking editor Malcolm Cowley on September 11, 1955, that "what a man most wishes to hide, revise, and un-say, is precisely what Literature is waiting and bleeding for," but it's also the case that this kind of "first thought, best thought" authenticity is often little more than an excuse for not putting in the necessary work. Eventually, this was true even of Kerouac, for whom writing became a kind of torture: "When the time comes to pay the rent again," he admitted in a 1968 Paris Review interview, "you force yourself to sit at the typewriter, or at the writing notebook, and get it over with as fast as you can." Nonetheless, he understood that spontaneity is not always the best strategy, and when he worked on Buddhist-themed books like The Scripture of the Golden Eternity (1960), which he considered holy, he wrote "in pencil, carefully revised and everything, because it was a scripture. I had no right to be spontaneous."
Kerouac's Buddhist writings—The Scripture of the Golden Eternity, Some of the Dharma (1997), and Wake Up (1955; unpublished)—are instructive because they investigate individual consciousness. This runs counter to the other great myth generated by On the Road, which tells us that bohemian life is a collective experience, defined by a group of friends. Here we have perhaps the greatest misconception about not just Kerouac but the Beats in general: that this was some kind of organized movement, with Kerouac (and, to a lesser extent, Ginsberg) at its head. That's an understandable misreading; Kerouac is at his most ecstatic writing about "the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars," and the fact that many of these mad ones (Ginsberg, Cassady, Burroughs) turned out to be public figures gives his fiction a larger-than-life quality wholly distinct from the writing on the page.
But if Kerouac couldn't help romanticizing his friends and their experiences, this, too, is understandable, the sign of a young writer, naive and impressionable, which, of course, he was. He wrote On the Road in his late twenties and most of his other books in his early to mid-thirties; by the time he became famous, in the late '50s, he was basically finished as a writer, much as he'd predicted to Holmes he would be. More to the point, his books revolve around younger characters—outsiders, artists, who for the most part have few attachments other than to themselves. There's a real sense, especially in On the Road, The Dharma Bums, and The Subterraneans, which self-consciously seek to evoke a bohemian atmosphere, that what's recorded is a more authentic way of living, steeped in youthful curiosity about literally everything, from the quiet transfigurations of Eastern religion to the screaming, foot-stomping solace of blues and jazz. Such an attitude brought derision not only from the straight world but also from some older bohemians, who saw it as disrespectful and glib. As Leland notes in Why Kerouac Matters (which argues that On the Road is less the story of a young man in rebellion than of a young man looking for a way to become an adult): "Kenneth Rexroth, an early advocate for the Beats, dismissed Kerouac's treatment of jazz as sentimental and patronizing, steeped in the same 'primitive stereotypes' used by more traditional racists. 'Now there are two things Jack knows nothing about,' he wrote— 'jazz and Negroes. His idea of jazz is that it is savage drums and screaming horns around the jungle fire while the missionary soup comes to a boil.'"
Rexroth has a point here—Kerouac was a sentimentalist, and his portrayals of minority characters (see Mardou Fox in The Subterraneans and the "Mexican Girl" sequence of On the Road) traffic in cliché. But Rexroth also misses the point, by failing to recognize that Kerouac was, at heart, a self-mythologizer, whose primary purpose was to transcribe his experience, to preserve every instant, every interaction, through the fluid intercession of his pen. "The 'perfection of Jack's sensorium,'" Michael McClure suggests in Gerald Nicosia's 1983 Kerouac biography, Memory Babe, "was such that he could reproduce his responses to the world in 'hard, bright, sharp' terms that gave the reader the sensation of being inside his skin." It's an individual journey, existential, in which bohemia is chiefly important as a setting, a way to get outside the strictures of convention that keep us at a distance from ourselves. That's a key perspective, because it reminds us that even the most frantic of Kerouac's writings were really the sagas of a solitary seeker: poor, sad Jack, adrift in a world without mercy when he'd rather be "safe in Heaven dead."
Perhaps that's why Kerouac always sought a bodhisattva, a protective presence, a spiritual guide. Even in childhood, he invented heroes like Dr. Sax and the Shrouded Stranger, and in his novels, he returns continually to similar formulations, framing himself (or his fictional stand-in) as acolyte to a more dynamic figure—Dean, Mardou, Japhy Ryder in The Dharma Bums, and even, in some odd sense, the Mexico City prostitute Tristessa— who might show him how to live. The road itself is a metaphor for such a process, as is the endless quest for kicks: the idea that only in experiencing every instant fully can we achieve, even if "for just a moment . . . the point of ecstasy that I always wanted to reach, which was the complete step across chronological time into timeless shadows, and wonderment in the bleakness of the mortal realm." Perhaps the apotheosis of this ideal comes a third of the way through The Dharma Bums, when the narrator, Ray Smith, goes mountain climbing with Japhy and another friend, only to realize that his fear of heights is little more than an illusion. "Then suddenly everything was just like jazz," Kerouac writes. "It happened in one insane second or so: I looked up and saw Japhy running down the mountain in huge twenty-foot leaps . . . and in that flash I realized it's impossible to fall off mountains you fool."
The trouble with transcendence, though, is that it doesn't last, that we must come back to the world. This is a lesson Kerouac was never able to internalize, and in Big Sur (1962)— his final road novel, and the only one without an avatar—Jack Duluoz, the author's alter ego, slowly succumbs to desperation in Bixby Canyon, listening to the relentless crash of the Pacific against the rocky Northern California coastline, "so haunted I go wandering up and down the canyon crying with that bag under my arm: 'What on earth's happened to me? And how can earth be like that?'" The most provocative thing about such a moment is how it strips away the veneer of bohemia, allowing us to consider Kerouac in a new light. This is only appropriate, for he was not really a revolutionary, at least not in the way his image suggests. Rather, he was a peculiar hybrid of the experimental and the traditional, of the avant-garde and the middlebrow. The product of a Massachusetts mill town, he was a working-class French-Canadian who embraced a fantasy of America even as he saw through the transience of that myth. His body of work has more in common with a writer like Balzac's than with the literature of bohemia—it's a multivolume Comédie humaine he called "The Duluoz Legend": "one vast book . . . seen through the eyes of poor Ti Jean (me), otherwise known as Jack Duluoz, the world of raging action and folly and also of gentle sweetness seen through the keyhole of his eye." It's a compelling vision, this reinvention of the world, and it suggests another way to think about his writing, not as a portrait of a generation, but as an act of faith, of preservation, as an extended symphony of himself. "That is how I remember Kerouac," Burroughs once noted, "as a writer talking about writers or sitting in a quiet corner with a notebook, writing in longhand. . . . You feel that he was writing all the time; that writing was the only thing he thought about. He never wanted to do anything else."
And yet for Kerouac, the search for faith led to a lack of faith, a loss of faith, a faithlessness so profound that he retreated to the bottle and to his mother's arms. You can see it in the way he ultimately turned his back on Buddhism to reconnect with a bleakly Catholic sort of fatalism, born of obligation and of blood. You can see it in the way he shed his friends—first Cassady, who, like him, never quite recovered from the notoriety of On the Road; then Ginsberg, whom, writes Ann Charters in her 1973 biography Kerouac, he'd come to see as "a wolf in sheep's clothing . . . suspicious of [Ginsberg's] 'omniscient image mania,' his politics and his Jewishness." You can even see it in the way Kerouac worked so hard to drink himself to death, getting into altercations— a month and a half before he died, his ribs were broken in a bar fight—and staying drunk for days on end. Looking at him on Firing Line, I'm reminded of what I've read about his father, another bloated drunkard, bitter, disappointed, unsure of what has happened to his life. "Nobody, nobody," Kerouac writes in the closing lines of On the Road, "knows what's going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old." But it is also true that those rags—ghosts from the inevitable future, time bombs woven into our very DNA—are with us even when we're at our most transcendent. If, in some sense, that's a form of failure, it's the same failure we all face, the failure to sustain ourselves in the face of eternity, to build a firewall against the void. No one ever tried harder—making his friends into mythic figures, turning his adventures into heroic legends, creating a cosmology around the essence of the self. It's a remarkable achievement, or it would be if we could see it, if we could clear away our preconceptions and misreadings, if we could recognize that it is precisely the contradictions (the road warrior who lived with his mother, the "happy, sheepish imbecile" who became an alcoholic) that make him so compelling after all. "Kerouac," Burroughs pointed out, "opened a million coffee bars and sold a million Levis . . . [but] Kerouac and I are not real at all. The only real thing about a writer is what he's written, and not his life."
Or as Kerouac himself said, in that Paris Review interview: "It's our work that counts, if anything at all."
David L. Ulin is book editor of the Los Angeles Times. He is the author of The Myth of Solid Ground: Earthquakes, Prediction, and the Fault Line Between Reason and Faith (Viking, 2004).