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The Boston Phoenix Lonesome Traveler

Newly published volumes of letters and early work tell the tale of Jack Kerouac's road to fame

By John Freeman

NOVEMBER 22, 1999: 

Atop an Underwood, edited by Paul Marion. Viking, 249 pages, $24.95.

Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters 1957-1969, edited by Ann Charters. Viking, 514 pages, $34.95.

In one of the many "notes to self" that appear in Atop an Underwood, a newly released collection of his early writings, Jack Kerouac warns himself away from the kind of existence that, toward the end of his life, was to become his: "[A] man has no destination at the end of the road -- which is Home . . . I hope, little madman, that you realize that the destination is really not a tape at the end of a straight-away racing course, but that it is a tape on an oval that you must break over and over again as you race madly around." It's this racing around the oval -- the perennial search for the elusive American dream -- that makes Kerouac such a distinctly American writer. Like the works of Steinbeck and Twain, Kerouac's books are fueled by conflicting feelings about the America his fiction explores: an intense love for it, but a disillusionment with it as well.

Born into a French-Canadian family in the poorer section of Lowell, Massachusetts, Kerouac knew both sides of the American dream well. He grew up playing baseball with the Italian and Polish immigrants in his neighborhood, and he achieved some recognition as a student and an athlete. By age 18, he was on his way to the fancy New York prep school Horace Mann. But Kerouac would always feel somewhat unwelcome, outside, and different. In his vatic poetics and scabrous midnight ramblings, he searched constantly for a bridge between his home and the better world that he sought at the end of highways and, later, at the bottom of bottles.

The simultaneous release of Atop an Underwood and Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters 1957-1969 offers readers an opportunity to view Kerouac through twin lenses. In the former volume, there is the early Kerouac, alive and buzzing with his own potential greatness (and arrogance). In the latter -- the second and last collection of Kerouac's correspondence, beginning just before the publication of On the Road and ending with his death at 47 from an alcohol-induced internal hemorrhage -- there is the disillusioned Kerouac, trying desperately to see his books into print while growing increasingly belligerent, ever more distrustful of the fame that assails him.

Atop an Underwood is the decidedly more pleasant, albeit less interesting, of the two books. In numerous short, often inconclusive pieces, we see Kerouac exercising the perceptual muscles that he would later augment with massive doses of Benzedrine and other stimulants. Part one of the book begins in 1936, when Kerouac was 14 and writing up imaginary sports events. On top of this sports writing, Kerouac channeled his interest in football and baseball into fiction, writing about plucky, good-hearted athletes who, like himself, were always a bit on the outside and needed to use their athletic ability to win acceptance. The flavor and quality of this material has been well documented in Ann Charters's and Gerard Nicosia's biographies of Kerouac, so there is little reason to include it here, except as a curiosity. More interesting, though, is Kerouac's early meditative writing, in which he burned through some of the clichés that mar most of his early fiction and began beating his prose into a buzzing, expressive rhythm.

Part two of Atop an Underwood contains work from the period of his life when Kerouac left home to attend Horace Mann and, later, Columbia University. Here, he begins to deepen his interest in jazz, food, travel, nostalgia for home -- the themes that later became his trademarks. A lot of the pieces from this time are throwaways -- Kerouac's reviews of jazz concerts for the school newspaper are especially tedious -- but a few gems reflect his ability simply to record events. His remembrance of a day working at a cookie factory is especially vivid, and a story called "The Juke-Box Is Saving America" has a signature poignancy. This section also contains several of the stories from a collection Kerouac worked on "atop an Underwood" typewriter at night, during his days pumping gas in Hartford, Connecticut. The best of these is "Credo," which shows Kerouac already sounding out ecstatic self-motivation. Any writer who has ever encountered self-doubt ought to cut this out and tape it to the wall:

Remember above all things, Kid, that to write is not difficult, not painful, that it comes out of you with ease, that you can whip up a little tale in no time, that when you are sincere about it, that when you want to impress a truth, it is not difficult, not painful, but easy, graceful, full of smooth power, as if you were a writing machine with a store of literature that is boundless, enormous, endless, and rich.

Still, it's a bit comical to think of Kerouac going through such rah-rah exercises before getting down to the actual act of writing. At some points, it begins to sound like one of Al Franken's Stuart Smalley sketches from Saturday Night Live: "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me!"

In the years after he dropped out of Columbia, Kerouac was a merchant seaman, a brakeman on the Southern Pacific Railroad, a live-at-home dad, a runaway dad, and, through it all, a writer. As he dashed madly around the United States, hitching, driving, hopping on boxcars and into beds, and leaping up again to keep the toot going, he developed the writing method that mirrored his frenetic pace of life. In his "Essentials of Spontaneous Prose" (1957), Kerouac called on writers to "begin not from preconceived idea of what to say about image but from jewel center of interest in subject of image at moment of writing, and write outwards swimming in sea of language to peripheral release and exhaustion. . . . " Such verbal freedom, with its inherent lack of structure, was a mixed blessing. By exploring his acute sense of the American vernacular, Kerouac, like Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams before him, loosened the collar of American prose. But by giving himself this latitude, he ensured that much of what came out of his typewriter and his pocket notebook was not real art. In the end, he would pay dearly for his attachment to this approach. From 1951 to 1956, Kerouac pounded out some 11 books of poetry and prose, all of which went unpublished.

But when his novel On the Road appeared at last in 1957, after years of haggling over changes with editor Malcolm Cowley, Kerouac became an overnight celebrity. Suddenly, everyone wanted a piece of the King of Beats. It is here that Jack Kerouac: Selected Letters 1957-1969 picks up. Kerouac was suddenly a one-man shopping stop for all things Beat. Travel articles, stories, jazz readings, plays -- you name it, and it was requisitioned from the eager author. Meanwhile, there was one party after the next, and Kerouac got progressively more inebriated at each event. A shy man, ordinarily generous and good-natured, Kerouac became combative when drunk, and he needed to be drunk in order to deal with his fame. Two years later, he wrote to his agent, Sterling Lord, almost asking for help: "I'm really now rapidly going to pot and on the verge of becoming a blob. . . . And what bothers me is the way I have to constantly drink to put up with nervous appointments . . . and vast nervous parties where everybody is staring at me and fulfilling their preconceptions of me as a drunken fool."

As fame used him, Kerouac tried frantically to use it, before the spell wore off. "I wanta get these masterpieces of mine published before everybody gets sick of me," he wrote to Lord during these heady years. And Lord responded valiantly, managing to place Kerouac's previously rejected manuscripts with domestic and foreign publishers everywhere. Kerouac published two books a year for several years, flooding the market with his work and raising the ire of critics who got the impression that he simply dashed off a book every few months. Some of their criticisms were indeed valid, but they were unnecessarily vicious. Kerouac's former mentor and champion, Kenneth Rexroth, began denouncing him in the New York Times Book Review, and Time magazine unleashed a persistent barrage of insults. One especially cruel critic wrote that "reading Mr. Kerouac's On the Road or The Subterraneans, I am reminded of nothing so much as an insistent and garrulous barroom drunk, drooling into your ear."

The more critics attacked him, the more unwilling Kerouac became to meet new people or see his old friends. He wrote to Gary Snyder of how disillusioned he had become: "I was in love with the world through blue purple curtains when I knew you and now I have to look at [the world] thru hard iron eyes." As his mother got older, Kerouac was forever cooking up schemes to bring all his family members together under one roof, and to keep away from the partying friends he had shared his life with. By the time of his death, he had cut himself off from all those former friends, becoming paranoid that he would be implicated in Allen Ginsberg's revolutionary politics. Instead, he stayed home and laid waste to himself with cases of liquor. "I only have one body and one soul and can't handle everything at the same time," he wrote in self-pity. Eventually, Kerouac got to the point where he couldn't handle anything at all, not even the thought of breaking the tape at the finish line. When held up to the bustling, bright, and wonderfully optimistic Kerouac of Atop an Underwood, these late letters tell a sad, cautionary tale.

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