Rediscovering Jack Kerouac

During my recovery from a recent surgery, I started reading Jack Kerouac again.  I say “again,” because Kerouac was my favorite writer during my first years of college. For many people his mad babbling, his breaking into ectatic song seems over the top; Truman Capote dismissed Kerouac’s approach with the famous comment, “That’s not writing, that’s typing.” But I found On The Road to be excellent medicine, especially when I was lying flat on my back with my insides sliced and diced.  Kerouac’s headlong road trips back and forth across this continent were at times exhilarating.  The book also got tedious, as anything and anyone can get tedious, but I had so much fun reading On The Road again (not “On The Road Again” — that’s a song by Willie Nelson) that I ordered from Amazon.com another book of his that was published posthumously:  Some of the Dharma, a collection of random notes,  poems, meditations and mini-essays on Buddhism, writing, and Kerouac’s battles with alcohol, women, and his inner demons.  I’m still in the middle of that, so I’ll withold comment for now.

Kerouac’s deadliest demon was alcohol. Binge drinking shows up in just about every chapter of On The Road and another great Kerouac book, Dharma Bums.   In both books, ethanol seems to fuel every epiphany, conversation, celebration, reunion, jazz performance, and poetry reading.  It’s like watching a slow-motion train wreck.  Kerouac even showed up drunk for a 1968 TV interview with William F. Buckley. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CD4ofEoUpxE&feature=player_embedded)  He drank himself to death, dying of complications from alcoholism at the age of 47 in 1969.

Can one separate Kerouac’s wild, boundless free spirit from the destructive boozing that brought him to an early grave?  I don’t know.  It’s ironic that Kerouac, who devoted books and years of his life to the practice of Buddhism — which teaches mindfulness — also drank himself mindless.  But I also say that, without an appreciation of irony and contradiction (I’ll do a whole post on irony contradiction some day), none of us can have much fun in this world, and Kerouac’s crazy dance with death was part of his fun.  He was a dionysian Buddhist madman saint, zig-zagging from exuberance to despondency, reveling in purity and squalor.  He blew a mad jazz that I still love today:  high notes, low notes, fast and slow, joyful and tragic. 

But I think what I love best about Kerouac’s writing is its spiritual vibrancy.  Permeating every page of On The Road, like a source of light shining from deep under water, is love — fearless love — for life, for the road, for adventure, for women, for all the people who come into and go out of the protagonist Sal Paradise’s (Kerouac’s) life; for wine and weed, for Buddhism, for the soaring wings of words — but most especially for his friend “Dean Moriarty” (Neal Cassady).  It is actually a quasi-religious devotion; Kerouac loves “Dean” almost like a devotee would love a spiritual master, or like a nun would love Christ.  Of course this is balanced by Kerouac’s depictions of Dean’s destructive behaviors.  Moriarty is always speed-skating on thin ice.  This makes for an exhilarating ride, but everyone, most of all the people he loves, must hold on for dear life.  Dean is a double-edged sword of bliss and burnout.  That dichotomy cuts through the whole novel like butter.  I love the flights of travel poetry, then I grow weary of Dean and the boozing and shouting and sweating and crashing around.  I find myself praying for Kerouac to find peace.  Yet again I thank God and all the gods, not to mention Buddha and all the buddhas, that he took the time to type out this novel madly in three weeks on a continuous roll of teletype paper, so that he could write without interruption, without having to stop at the end of every page and change paper. 

Of course On The Road had to clear a lot of hurdles before it reached the bookstores.  Kerouac wrote the main draft in a few weeks in April 1951, but it took six years to be published in 1957.  

Where are the Kerouacs of today?  Where are the mad drunken holy men of current literature?  Dear reader, if you know, please tell me.  Because Jack Kerouac was — for a while at least — my Dean Moriarty, and I pray that his soul, wherever it is, is finding the peace he rarely found in this world.

Note:  In this post, all photos were the result of a Bing search for public-domain images relating to Jack Kerouac.

P.S.:  Here, in its entirety, is an informative review of “OTR” by Robert Thomas on weread.com.

Editing in On the Road In 1951, over a three week time period, Jack Kerouac typed the legendary Beat Generation classic On the Road. He taped pieces of translucent meat paper together to create one long scroll as to be uninterrupted when he wrote. Fueled by alcohol and a typing speed of 400 words per minute, Kerouac refused to leave his small apartment until he had completed his novel. He slept and ate only marginally and typed in single spaced lines with no paragraphs and made all of his edits in pencil. The dedication and determination of this writer is nothing less than inspiring. When examining a recent copy of On the Road, the text reads different than the original scroll that Kerouac turned in. Reports have shown that Kerouac opposed these edits and changes (Lowell Sun, May 5, 2005). But what changes were made between the original scroll and a copy of the novel we can find in any library? What are the benefits and downfalls to this style of writing? “There are vomit drafters and there are diamond polishers,” (Anne Fadiman, SNHU 2008). Vomit drafters are writers who spew out a lot of information onto the page in order to get it all out in the interest of maintaining the writer’s momentum for as long as possible. It is compared to vomit, because it may jumbled and unedited and no one would enjoy reading it in its current state. A diamond polisher is a writer who must find the exact word to describe a particular thing before they can move onto the next word. In this way the writer does all of their editing as they are writing and often before they move onto the next sentence. When the manuscript is finished it appears polished as a diamond with little or no flaws to speak of. Jack Kerouac for On the Road, was a vomit drafter. Despite this however On the Road makes this reader wants to live and to get out there and have an adventure. It is the antithesis of the rebel novel screaming out everything belongs to me because I am poor. A glimpse into a library version of On the Road reveals a well manicured, well structured, grammatically correct novel full of fun and excitement. It has space breaks and chapter breaks and commas and other proper punctuation. Kerouac takes the reader on a great adventure and then gives their eyes a break by giving them these aforementioned breaks. The scroll on the other hand is typed in single spaced font with no paragraphs. Grammar is often ignored as is punctuation. In examining this text it reads as one long sentence of uninterrupted prose that this reader could not get away from fast enough. It was hard on my eyes to read and I often lost my place going from one line to the next. Mid-way through I quickly lost interest and switched back over to my edited copy. It makes this reader appreciate the finer nuances that writers and editors put into each novel. They take into consideration not only entertainment value but also a certain readability factor. They have an obligation to make each the best novel it can be. So why would Kerouac oppose these changes? Like most authors, he became attached to his literary darlings and could not be parted with them. When the publishing houses edited his novel he disassociated himself with what would be his most famous work. Work Cited: Lowell Sun. “Scroll Return to Lowell.” May 5, 2005. Fadiman, Anne. SNHU 2008 Summer Residency. Kerouac, Jack. On the Road. New York: Penguin, 1957. Kerouac, Jack. On the Road, The Scroll. New York: Penguin 2007.
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About John Mears

I teach English, take photographs, play guitar, write, do yoga, meditate, hike, play computer games, and love (and try to serve) humanity. If anything here touches you, let me know! Leave a comment! Subscribe! Enjoy! If you like the photos, you might like the greeting cards we will be selling soon!
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3 Responses to Rediscovering Jack Kerouac

  1. Kerouac fan says:

    Great post! I’ve posted it on “Beat_Happening” site. I like the way you sense the spiritual connection in Kerouac. Which begs the question does spirituality equate with morals which is a question I’ve been pondering a lot lately with the current attack on religions by atheism. – Al

    • John Mears says:

      Yes, Al, that’s an interesting question re: spirituality vs. morality. One’s definition of morality tends to be personal and cultural, as is one’s spirituality. I personally do not equate spirituality with religion, however. Thanks for your note. I’m going to check out “beat_happening.”

  2. patrick routier says:

    Le simple fait que tu ais mis ici ces lignes sur JK est une bonne chose. J’ai toujours du plaisir à lire des trucs sur lui. Quand je randonne, je profite et j’apprécie ce qui ne remplit pas toujours mes journées, mes soirées… ces arbres, cette lumière, sa clarté, et le reste. A chaque fois, un bon sandwich et une canette face à tout ce qui est à portée de main, ça te remet sur les rails…

    PR

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