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Picture of Jack Kerouac, author of On the Road; Beat novelist; twentieth century American Literature

October 21, 1969
Jack Kerouac   (1922 - 1969)
Kerouac: Legend or Books?
by Steve King

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Jack Kerouac spent the summer of 1956 as a fire-watcher for the Washington State Forestry Service. For nine years, he had worked and wandered from New York City to San Francisco, from Mexico to Alaska, intent on "performing our one and noble function of the time, move." When not in motion, he had lived with Ginsberg or Burroughs or some of the other "despairists of our time" -- even, for two weeks, with his wife. He had written a handful of unpublished novels -- the last one, The Subterraneans, in a three-day, benzedrine rush of "spontaneous prose." He had written a larger handful of unpublished poetry -- the last collection, Mexico City Blues, a jazz-based, morphine-driven, New Reality Jam Session set of "sensory meditations." But Kerouac had recently discovered Buddha, and rediscovered Thoreau. His cabin in the Cascade Mountains -- on Starvation Ridge, atop Desolation Peak -- was to be solitary, still and cleansing.

Two months alone -- time for a dozen novels, at the recent pace -- produced a few haiku poems, a few letters, and a profound, horrified restlessness. Kerouac celebrated his first night back in San Francisco in a jazz club, listening to the "cool colored cats" beat the rhythm of the ages:
    . . . everything is going to the beat -- It's the beat generation, it's the beat to keep, it's the beat of the heart, it's being beat and down in the world and like oldtime lowdown and like in ancient civilizations and slave boatmen rowing galleys to a beat and servants spinning pottery to the beat --
Some say that Kerouac coined the term "beat generation" in the early fifties. Certainly, when On the Road was finally published in 1957 -- nine years and much revising after the legendary three-weeks' writing of his first draft, on the 120 ft. roll of teletype that recently auctioned for $2.4 million -- he immediately became its most famous and most reluctant spokesman. The book was on the best-seller lists for ten weeks, and the author was in the spotlight for years, as both hero and target. He was the "King of the Beats," the "Hippie Homer," the one responsible for a "rucksack generation," the one that Establishment magazines like Time could label "the latrine laureate of Hobohemia," the one that the hustlers wanted to endorse their bongo drums and berets, their "Beat Condoms," their "Rent-a-Beatnik" party service.

Image: photograph of Jack Kerouac, author of On the Road; 1950s Beat movement writer; American Literature
Kerouac was a dedicated writer, and a personality as horrified by Pop Culture as by Desolation Peak. He felt that he had moved on, in the decade since writing On the Road, to better books and a new style: "no fiction, no craft, no revising afterthoughts...all of it innocent go-ahead confession." He was interested in his poetry-jazz recordings, in his experimental film, in writing with "the discipline of making the mind the slave of the tongue." He was not interested in being a beatnik, or an icon.

Nor was he able. Kerouac's other dedication was drinking, and by 1960, he was already in the alcoholic tailspin that would end in his death nine years later. At those interviews where he managed to show up and make sense, he expressed views that were hardly counterculture: that hippies were "a bunch of communists," that women were "demons" best kept at home, that blacks and Jews were a national problem, that his fondest wish was to be a Marine in Viet Nam. Such behavior and attitudes all but completed his alienation from Ginsberg and the others, most of whom were in the activist-pacifist vanguard.

Kerouac's estrangement from Neal Cassady -- his longtime friend, driver and inspiration for On the Road, authority on "subjects that hadn't been identified yet"-- was more complete, and more affecting. In the late fifties, just as Kerouac was becoming famous, Cassady was entering San Quentin on drug charges. By the mid-sixties, as Kerouac was retreating to the town of his boyhood, Lowell, Massachusetts, to live with his invalided and almost equally alcoholic mother and be tended by a local woman who had agreed to be his nurse-wife, Cassady was heading back on the road, as bus driver for Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. Kerouac felt that the man who "inspired every word I wrote" had been "sucked in by the hippies," and by LSD; Cassady felt that Kerouac had given up, surrendered to alcohol and to Lowell, where he wanted nothing more than to be drunk and famous on his own terms.

When Cassady died in 1968 -- found unconscious in the Mexican mountains, from a pulque and speed overdose, while on a fifteen-mile walk along the train tracks, undertaken to retrieve the "magic bag" which contained his Bible and his old letters from Ginsberg and Kerouac, and to count the ties between stations -- Kerouac began to talk about how "there's nothing more to say or do."

He had just finished Vanity of Duluoz, about his high school days in Lowell and his first move to New York. His grand plan of a multi-volumed, biographical epic was now at fourteen novels, and as complete as it was going to get. While growing up in Lowell, Kerouac's high school buddies had nicknamed him "Memory Babe" for his remarkable recall, and in writing his Legend of Duluoz cycle he had relied heavily upon it; living in Lowell now, he could not recall in the morning what he had done in a drunken rage the previous evening, even when his mother pointed out the gouges in the wall caused by the kitchen knife he had thrown at her.

Jack Kerouac died on October 21st, 1969, at the age of forty-seven, from gastrointestinal bleeding brought on by cirrhosis of the liver. Most obituary notices marked the event with some sort of moralized travel metaphor, as in the Esquire magazine headline, "This Is How The Ride Ends." The priest at the funeral chose to recall the biblical story in which two disciples reflect on traveling to Emmaus with Jesus: "Wasn't it like a fire burning in us when He talked to us on the road?" The grave site in Lowell is still popular today, especially with young people, who leave joints, or wine bottles, or messages. And the legend endures as the books -- all but one -- do not, although a recent article in The New York Times Book Review describes their author as America's "most important unrecognized modern writer."

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Related authors:  Allen Ginsberg, Bob Kaufman, Charles Bukowski, Neal Cassady, Richard Brautigan
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