When last we pondered Jack Kerouac, we were contemplating a trip to the mountains of Colorado, and a school, Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, dedicated to extending the literature and spirit of the Beat Generation. Until recently, I was planning a return engagement, as a graduate student. But we are taking a different course as the trip resumes.
Although he inspired many writers of his generation, and their children, Jack Kerouac withdrew from the creative well of the Beats as he hurtled toward his death of liver cirrhosis in 1969, at the age of 47, a victim of his own excess. In the end, he didn’t want anything to do with the literary movement he helped create.
In his final years, Kerouac was bitter, hateful and largely incoherent, even in prime time TV appearances, here on William F. Buckley Jr.’s Firing Line, along with Lewis Yablonsky, a professor who had written a book about hippies, and Ed Sanders, a poet, political activist and leader of The Fugs, a hippy-dippy protest band. Kerouac was out of his element, a bit out of his mind:
That same year, in an interview with Paris Review, Kerouac railed against the left-wing bent of the Beat movement, dismissing the “community” of Beats led by Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti by questioning their politics and lifestyles. All those being lined up by the media as Beat Generation artists were different people, he said.
“They are very socialistically minded and want everybody to live in some kind of frenetic kibbutz, solidarity and all that,” Kerouac said. “I was a loner. (Gary) Snyder is not like (Philip) Whalen, Whalen is not like (Michael) McClure, I am not like McClure, McClure is not like Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg is not like Ferlinghetti, but we all had fun over wine anyway. We knew thousands of poets and painters and jazz musicians. There’s no ‘Beat crowd’ like you say … What about Scott Fitzgerald and his ‘lost crowd,’ does that sound right? Or Goethe and his ‘Wilhelm Meister crowd’? The subject is such a bore. Pass me that glass.”
“That glass” helped Kerouac’s escape from the public spotlight that exposed the “confessional” nature of his writing. As he told Ted Berrigan in that 1968 interview, “It’s our work that counts, if anything at all and I’m not too proud of mine or theirs or anybody’s since Thoreau and others like that, maybe because it’s still too close to home for comfort. Notoriety and public confession in the literary form is a frazzler of the heart you were born with, believe me.”
There it is: the fragile ego behind the bravura of Jack Kerouac. He put himself out there, and he’d taken it on the chin. He was like the battered prizefighter bobbing and weaving against the rat-a-tat-tat attack of an opponent that sticks him every time. He was tired and giving up on writing, which he said he never really liked to do anyway.
Kerouac previewed his end of days in the brutally honest biographical novel, Big Sur, as he grappled with alcoholism and the nature of friends and relationships, with the constant party of his life but also deeply alone, there at Ferlinghetti’s cabin in the wilderness along California’s rugged Pacific coast. For all his meditation and brooding melancholy on this trip, Kerouac finds solace and inspiration in nature, reflecting truth and light in the words he chooses, or the words that spill out of his mind. Take a minute to read this paragraph from Big Sur out loud. The punctuation will come to you:
“It’s as familiar as an old face in an old photograph as tho I’m gone a million years from all that sun shaded brush on rocks and that heartless blue of the sea washing white on yellow sand, those rills of yellow arroyo running down mighty cliff shoulders, those distant blue meadows, that whole ponderous groaning upheaval so strange to see after the last several days of just looking at little faces and mouths of people – As tho nature had a gargantuan leprous face of its own with broad nostrils and huge bags under its eyes and a mouth big enough to swallow five thousand Jeepster stationwagons and ten thousand Dave Wains and Cody Pomeroys without a sigh of reminiscence or regret – There it is, every sad contour of my valley, the gaps, the Mien Mo captop mountain again, the dreaming woods below our high shelved road, suddenly indeed the sight of poor Alf again far way grazing in the mid afternoon by the corral fence – And there’s the creek bouncing along as tho nothing had ever happened elsewhere and even in the daytime somehow dark and hungry looking in its deeper tangled grass.”
There was something happening here in Jack Kerouac’s brain that defied the caricature of the person we saw in his demise, on TV or in the obituary reports. He took refuge in the work of authors long dead, dismissing his own work as unworthy of the literary tradition he loved, finding little hope in the literary movement that embraced him. And yet he sparkled on the page, and still does.
This sad demise of a literary giant leads me to ask: What if Jack Kerouac didn’t drink himself to death, sitting alone in front of the television at his mother’s house? What if he carried on, in the best of the Beat tradition, to chronicle the personal and cultural transformation that he and his generation were undergoing.
I am imagining a Jack Kerouac who survived, even thrived, and is now telling stories of the Information Age – not Kerouac, per se, but an adventurous Beat spirit that infuses a new “Dharma Bums” quest. This literary light has been my muse in writing this blog, and in planning to pick up the thread that Kerouac let die out there on the road many years ago. Stay tuned.