December 28, 2022

Jack Kerouac at 100: “I’m Lost But My Work Is Found”

By Stuart Mitchner

I drink because I want to make people respond wildly, be happy, enthusiastic…

—Jack Kerouac (1922-1969)

One year ends and a new one’s looming, so get ready for “Auld Lang Syne,” toasts, laughter and tears, and remembering the friends you lost but never lose, like Jack Kerouac, born 100 years ago, March 12, 1922, in Lowell, Mass. Of all the writers I know and never knew, from Shakespeare to Salinger, Coleridge to Chekhov, Jean-Louis Lebris de Kérouac, who lived out his 47 years in the 20th century, is always good company, the writer most likely to make fast lifelong friends of readers like myself. On the scale of associations, no one else I know can go from New Year’s Eve parties dancing to Wardell Gray and Dexter Gordon blowing “The Hunt” to the spire of Combray cathedral and Proust, “that old teahead of time” who “I love so much now that in the history of my affections he ranks with Wolfe & the man of the Karamazov darkness.” 

In his journal for November 13, 1951, Kerouac recalled the moment when “heaven punished me” for being drunk dancing “so crazily to Stravinsky that I tore my own shirt off.” The day before, he’d written, “I’m beginning to see my own tragedy. All I have to do is look in the mirror. The moment is coming when I must decide to go cold turkey on all alcohol. I just can’t restrain myself after a brew.” Ten days later and 18 years before his October 21, 1969 death from “massive internal bleeding caused by cirrhosis of the liver,” Kerouac stated his writer’s rational for alcoholic excess, that his drinking derived from his desire to make people “respond wildly, be happy, enthusiastic.” Yet it was the crowds of wildly happy, enthusiastic, privacy-invading fans that nearly drove him out of his mind and deeper into drink, a fate detailed in Big Sur (Farrar, Straus and Cudahy 1962).

For the past week, I’ve been returning to beat-up Avon paperbacks of Maggie Cassidy and Tristessa, the Original Scroll of On the Road, and the Library of America’s infinitely explorable Unknown Kerouac (2016), which contains the journals he kept from August 28 to November 25, 1951, setting the stage for everything that followed. That was the year he finished the first draft of On the Road, endured its rejection by a once-interested editor, and began rewriting the now-legendary book-length scroll into a more publishable form before joining Neal Cassady (aka Dean Moriarty) in San Francisco that December.

Later the same month he declared that “putting together a ms. for publication is hack work” and that the act of writing must be “wild, undisciplined, pure, eager, coming in deep from under, the crazier the better.” It was time to “begin my-life-alone-in-America: I’m lost but my work is found.” He planned to write “3,000 words a day till Christmas.” He already had enough “for a Remembrance 10,000,000 words long.” He ended the journal on November 25 with “a mind filled with work and a soul fortified with the knowledge of the inevitability of loss — and so goodbye sweet journal, adieu calm book, may the best hearts find you.”

Of course he had to know that you never know who’s going to “find you.” My copy of the fifth printing of On the Road has achieved a state of weathered, much-thumbed beatitude as a replacement for the copy of the first edition I received on my 19th birthday and lent to “a friend of a friend” who disappeared with it and ended up marrying a high-ranking member of the Nixon administration — a fate that might actually have pleased the aesthetically unfathomable but politically conservative Kerouac.

Drinking with Dostoevsky

In last year’s final column I had Flaubert, Baudelaire, and Dostoevsky hanging out in the same Paris cafe in the summer of 1862. Consider all the 20th-century American writers who come to mind, and the hard-drinking, French-speaking Kerouac is the one most likely to fit into that scene, rapping in his adolescent patois with Baudelaire on the beat squalor of Parisian spleen, or pressing Flaubert on the perils of the quest for le mot juste, at the same time floored to find himself in the presence of Dostoevsky, one of his patron saints along with Proust and Joyce, Céline and Genet. In March 1950, he wrote: “I think the greatness of Dostoevsky lies in his recognition of human love.” His vision “is the vision of Christ translated in modern terms,” a vision “which we all dream at night, and sense in the day, and it is the Truth.”

Cities of Words

The word-drunk, oft-defamed  Kerouac (“that’s not writing, that’s typing”) shared Flaubert’s fascination with le mot juste, if not in practice. His interest in the manifold possibilities of words is a feature of the “Private Philologies” section of The Unknown Kerouac. After quoting a passage from Ulysses wherein Joyce creates a place-name impression of Dublin (“Before Nelson’s pillar, trams slowed, shunted, changed trolley, started for Blackrock, Kingstown, and Dalkey …), Kerouac asks himself “was Joyce only being cute when he listed these Dublinisms, these Dublin names and Dublin sounds, this Myth of the Dublin Day? Or is it because he knew secrets of humanity?”

Kerouac cooks up a word mix of his own for San Francisco: “Oakland, waterfront dive, sawdust floor, red lamps, Bay Bridge, Turk, Jones, O’Farrell and Annie Street; Fog, Coit Tower, Tarantino’s, steak, wine, White Russian Hill.” He then goes on to translate his version with reference to Alain-Fournier’s The Wanderer (for “red lamps”), and ends by taking white from vin blanc, Tarantino’s being “a winey name (because Italian),” which “thus goes with a white hill, one called ‘Russia,’ which is a snowy country, and has a Ukraine, and a history of its own in settling ‘Frisco.”

San Francisco 1952/2022

One of Kerouac’s earliest and best-known works is The Railroad Earth, written in 1952 when he was working as a baggage handler for the Southern Pacific Railroad. Its reference to “commuter frenzy” has resonance today, given the photograph of a deserted Market Street accompanying the December 18 New York Times story (“The Fate of the Emptiest Downtown in America”) about the abandonment of the city. Also known as “October in the Railroad Earth,” the piece begins, “There was a little alley in San Francisco back of the Southern Pacific station at Third and Townsend in redbrick of drowsy lazy afternoons with everybody at work in offices in the air you feel the impending rush of their commuter frenzy as soon they’ll be charging en masse from Market and Sansome buildings on foot and in buses and all well-dressed thru workingman Frisco….”

A Kerouac Christmas

A piece by Kerouac about Christmas growing up in Lowell appeared in the long-gone New York World Telegram and Sun, December 5, 1957, titled “Not Long Ago Joy Abounded at Christmas.” Here’s a sample: “Christmas was observed all out in my Catholic French-Canadian environment in (the) 1930s, much as it is today in Mexico. At first I was too young to go to midnight mass, but that was the real big event we hoped to grow up to. Until then we’d stay in our beds pretending to be asleep till we heard the parents leaving for midnight mass and then we’d come down and sneak a look at our toys, touching them and putting them back in place, and rush up again in the dark in gleeful pajamas tittering when we heard them come back again, usually now with a big gang of friends for the open house party…. In the general uproar of gifts and unwinding of wrappers it was always a delight for me to step out on the porch or even go out on the street a ways at one o’clock in the morning and listen to the silent hum of heaven diamond stars, watch the red and green windows of homes, consider the trees that seemed frozen in sudden devotion, and think over the events of another year passed.”

Unwanted Editors

Apparently the same hackers who first posted (as 6 Park News) bizarre travesties of my columns online in the fall of 2021 (Dylan’s album Rough and Rowdy Ways became Tough and Rowdy Methods) returned last week to “edit” my essay on David Lynch into a vaguely recognizable replica of the original, with mistakes in grammar and punctuation and usage, in which “piquant memories” become “racy recollections,” and a “Badalamentian grandeur” becomes a “badass grandeur.” I’m reminded of Kerouac’s interest in disassembling and reassembling language, as in the novella Old Bull in the Bowery, which he wrote in French patois and translated into English. Reading it in The Unknown Kerouac, as edited by Jean-Christophe Cloutier, I found a passage titled “Night on Chatham Square” that would be a worthy challenge for the editing skills of any pirates anywhere:

“The October wind was starting to rise like a phantom in the streets. There were some streets cobblestoned — some black like the dog. The elevated was overhead, dirty, crashing, dropping sparks. They were around the corner from Bowery Street, not directly under the El. Bouge Saloon was written on the little stick legs of old women who passed, their mouths bite-bottle broken. Workers came out of nearby shops, pessimistic because of facts. Over the old roof of the loft could be seen high office buildings with white and blue profound lights; below, the red neons of bars made red creams on the sidewalks of dust and spit. It seemed there were phantoms climbing the sides of buildings that were like Italian palaces. There was a big brown sick light quivering and eating in the sky in little pieces like rats in the wind of God; that was high over the city; it told a story funnier than dramatic; New York wasn’t as bad as the angel of its rainbow that jumped out of all the sad lights and arranged itself in the Profundity as if to see what it had lit; a cloud a bitch to understand when you look. Little Port Street was illuminated a queer rose, half Chinatown and half the Bowery of warehouses.”

Mailer on Kerouac

The “that’s not writing, that’s typing” dig comes from Kerouac’s contemporary Truman Capote. In Advertisements for Myself (Putnam 1959), Norman Mailer presciently nails Capote about “the novel he could write of the gossip column’s real life, a major work, but it would banish him forever from his favorite world.” As for Kerouac, in spite of lacking “a sense of the novel,” he has “a large talent,” enormous “literary energy,” and “enough of a wild eye to go along with his instincts and so become the first figure for a new generation. At his best, his love of language has an ecstatic flux. To judge his worth it is better to forget about him as a novelist and see him instead an action painter or a bard. He has a medieval talent, he is a teller of frantic court tales for a dead King’s ears, and so in the year of James Madison’s Avenue, he has been a pioneer.”

On to 2023

In “Notes of 1950 February,” Kerouac writes, “The past month of January has been crazy . . . beginning New Year’s Eve with that fantastic party that ended for me in Princeton N.J.” He closes the entry with “A thousand swirling things all untold” — which seems as good a phrase as any for whatever lies ahead in 2023 for us and for all the friends we lost but never lose.