September 6, 2017

“A Thousand Swirling Things All Untold” — “On the Road” at 60, Jack Kerouac at 95

By Stuart Mitchner

Sixty years ago yesterday Jack Kerouac’s On the Road was published, “a historic occasion” according to the New York Times, which called it “the most beautifully executed, the clearest and the most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as ‘beat,’ and whose principal avatar he is.”

“The book that made me famous,” Kerouac (1922-1969) recalls in Big Sur, “so much so [that] I’ve been driven mad for three years by endless telegrams, phone calls, requests, mail, visitors, reporters, snoopers (a big voice saying in my basement window as I prepare to write a story:—ARE YOU BUSY?) or the time the reporter ran upstairs to my bedroom as I sat there in my pajamas trying to write down a dream.” He recalls teenagers jumping the six-foot fence he’d had built around the yard for privacy and people at his study window yelling “Come on out and get drunk, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy!” while other drop-ins “stole books and even pencils.” And he was drinking “practically all the time to put on a jovial cap to keep up with all this but finally realizing I was surrounded and outnumbered and had to get away to solitude or die.”

“The Perfect Cry”

During the week spanning the August 29th birth of Charlie Parker and the September 5th birth of On the Road, I’ve been listening to tracks like “Barbados” from The Genius of Charlie Parker (Savoy), where Parker plucks poetry out of thin air and brings it into the ghost of a melody; at the same time, I’ve been finding prose equivalents in Kerouac: “a waterfall in my brain, a rose in my eye, a beautiful eye, and what’s in my heart but a mountainside, and what’s in my skull; a light. And in my throat a bird.”

Unlike the breakdown described in Big Sur, Kerouac’s abiding state of mind resembles what he finds in an alto saxophonist who “looked like Buddha … the lidded eyes the expression that says: all is well. This was what Charlie Parker said when he played: all is well. You had the feeling of early-in-the-morning like a hermit’s joy or like the perfect cry of some wild gang at a jam session.”

Party in Princeton 

All’s well in Parker whatever he’s playing, however blusey-fierce or fast, because his genius is positive; and as often as Kerouac gravitates to the “sad music of the night in America,” he stays upbeat, all’s well, moving free, writing free. The “waterfall in my brain” comes from the Library of America’s Unknown Kerouac, where he’s feeling his way toward On the Road, the “vehicle with which as a lyric poet, as lay prophet, and as the possessor of a responsibility to my own personality (whatever it rages to do) I wish to evoke that indescribable sad music of the night in America—for reasons which are never deeper than the music. Bop only begins to express that American music. It is the actual inner sound of a country.” In “Notes of February 1950,” he’s looking back on “a thousand swirling things all untold” from the “crazy” month that began on New Year’s Eve “with that fantastic party that ended for me in Princeton, N.J. and the [Roger] Lyndons” (a mathematician, Lyndon is known for Lyndon words, “a nonempty string of symbols that is smaller, lexicographically, than any of its cyclic rotations”).

If I dropped the Kerouac word indescribable while referring to his trope on the “sad music of America,” it was because it didn’t belong in my sentence; in the passage itself, tuned to the beat of what Kerouac termed bop prosody, it works, it’s forgiven, it is what he is, it defies the pedantic reader (“Why sad if it’s indescribable?”). It’s also in Kerouac’s sense of himself as a player in Mexico City Blues (242 Choruses): “I want to be considered  a jazz poet blowing a long blues in an afternoon jam session on Sunday.”

Writing Down the Dream

Kerouac lays it out, not for the first time, in his journal, Sunday, September 2, 1951, five months after the three weeks in April in which he completed the scroll version of On the Road (published by Viking in 2007 as On the Road: The Original Scroll): “To tell a story with all your heart, is that grammar?—to explain yourself completely, in full truth, is that grammar? I should therefore make it a rule to compose willy nilly, swift, ungrammatical, like a dazed man writing down the dream from which he just woke.”

Six years later in the first Viking edition of On the Road, it’s Neal Cassady as Dean Moriarty who’s watching over his shoulder as he writes, urging him on,”Yes! That’s right! Wow! … there’s so many things to do, so many things to write! How to even begin to get it all down and without modified restraints and all hung-up on like literary inhibitions and grammatical fears …” Dean’s manic cheerleading has Kerouac’s Sal Paradise seeing “a kind of holy lightning … flashing from his excitement and his vision, which he described so torrentially that people in buses looked around to see the ‘overexcited nut.’ “

Kerouac as The Cat in the Hat

So where do you draw the line? Where do you say “Get serious, forget the holy lightning, grow up, be like the literary bonafides whose books are gathering dust while yours are being read all over the world.” Maybe one day some “overexcited nut” will write an essay comparing Jack Kerouac and Dr. Seuss, On the Road as The Cat in the Hat of American literature, with Jack the Cat turning the house upside-down while Neal Cassady and Allen Ginsberg spread the chaotic wealth as Thing  One and Thing Two. For the Fussy Fish in the Bowl, think the literary establishment, including Truman Capote (“That’s not writing, that’s typing”), crying, “No, I do not like it, not one little bit!…This mess is so big and so deep and so tall, we can not pick it up, there is no way at all!”

To see Kerouac’s Cat in action, read the Paris Review interview in Writers at Work 4th Series (Penguin 1977) conducted less than two years before his death wherein he riffs at great length on the original Buddha while pacing back and forth (“This is what you do in jail to keep in shape”), then sits down and plays Afro-Germanic music on the piano as drinks are served. He’s only just begun. When asked about writing under the influence of drugs, he draws his interviewers, Ted Berrigan and Aram Saroyan, into an extended performance of the 230th chorus from Mexico City Blues, “a poem written purely on morphine,” each line composed “within an hour of one another.” When he comes to the line Conceptions of delicate kneecaps, he says, “Say that, Saroyan,” and Saroyan says it, and so they go, line by line right through to Like kissing my kitten in the belly/The softness of our reward.”

The Lost Novel

Kerouac’s “lost novel” The Sea Is My Brother (DaCapo 2011) was written at 20 after he spent July-October 1942 as a scullion on an Army transport ship that was sunk by a German sub three months later with a death toll of 675. If he hadn’t jumped ship in Boston to rejoin the Columbia football team in time for the Army game, there might have been no On the Road; and if he’d lived past 1969, Kerouac might have gone back to his first novel to do away with all the “modified restraints” and “grammatical fears.” My guess is he’d have either left the manuscript on the shelf or else published it with all its primitive defects intact. For one thing, it’s a readable narrative, the characters live and speak in spite of clumsy dialogue connectors like “declared” and “commented” and “interjected.” The book is also of interest if you want a glimpse into Kerouac’s time hanging out on the Upper West Side and then hitching to Boston with a young assistant professor at Columbia who has decided on a whim to see what life is like in the Merchant Marine. Not surprisingly, the writing is at its best “on the hot flank of the road, where the tar steamed its black fragrance” and “great trucks” labor up hills “leaving behind a dancing shimmer of gasoline fumes.”

More often, instead of On the Road-style rhapsodies about following “the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time,” you get first-novel prose: “What was the strange new sensation lurked in his heart, a fiery tingle to move on and discover anew the broad secrets of the world? He felt like a boy again.” After these thoughts, the runaway prof fears that perhaps “he was acting a bit silly about the whole thing,” which inadvertently presages the literary elite’s view of Kerouac.

Although the most recent in the “lost novel” genre, Walt Whitman’s Life and Adventures of Jack Engle (Univ. of Iowa Press 2017), may be smoother and more accomplished, you won’t find as much Walt in his pot-boiler as you will Jack in The Sea Is My Brother, which with all its flaws, comes from a young writer’s heart.

Gone, But Never More Here

The Charlie Parker tracks I’ve been listening to, like “Bird Gets the Worm,” “Bluebird,” and the aforementioned “Barbados,” are among the joyous peak performances recorded in Parker’s 1944-1948 prime, the same years in which Kerouac was getting to know William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Neal Cassady, and writing The Town and The City, his first published novel.

The Genius of Charlie Parker CD is introduced by DJ Al “Jazzbo” Collins, with the stress on a jazz cliche sometimes used by Kerouac: “Bird was gone! Bird was ‘gone’ they said. But what they meant, now that he is, is that he was never more here.”

Kerouac is very much “here” all through The Unknown Kerouac, and in Visions of Cody (1972), where “we all stumbled out into raggedy American realities from the dream of jazz.”

Among the special features of The Unknown Kerouac, along with, among other things, his journals from 1951, his memoir Memory Babe, and a portion of the early novel, I Wish I Were You, are translations of two novels he wrote in French, The Night Is My Woman and Old Bull in the Bowery.