The Kerouac Conundrum

Thursday, November 28, 2013 10:01 AM

With publication of On The Road in 1957, Jack Kerouac became an overnight celebrity. Not just famous but a phenomenon. The experience brought him to another level of confusion, self-doubt and hard drinking. Kerouac had walked into Robert Giroux's office in 1951 with a 120-foot teletype roll manuscript, now known as the scroll version of the novel. Giroux, a traditionalist editor hailing from Columbia University, had published Jack's first novel, The Town and the City in 1950, but he could not comprehend this strange new submission which departed from all known conventions. 

It took six more years, with Allen Ginsburg acting as unofficial agent and cheerleader, to get the book accepted in New York. It was Malcolm Cowley of Viking Press who finally made it happen. The New York publishing world did not recognize what it had. In the meantime, Kerouac stayed true to his new way of writing and to his life as a subterranean, a desolation angel, a Dharma bum. He crisscrossed the country, and wrote seven books of "spontaneous bop prosody". All of them were rejected out of hand, only to be published within three years after On The Road became a sensation.

I suppose it was the glowing N.Y. Times review of On The Road on September 5th, 1957 which made the book. Detractors have suggested that the reviewer was a stand-in. His name was Gilbert Millstein, and he had been working for the Sunday edition of the Times since 1949. He proclaimed the long-delayed publication to be "a historic occasion" and that the book, "is the most beautifully executed, the clearest and most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as 'beat' and whose principal avatar he is." 

Only three days later, on September 8th, the Times proffered another review--"In Pursuit of Kicks"--with a less glowing perspective. The reviewer was David Dempsey, whom the Times described as "a freelance writer and critic of fiction." Dempsey proclaimed the book to be "a large affectionate lark" and that "Jack Kerouac has written an enormously readable and entertaining book but one reads it in the same mood that he might visit a sideshow--the freaks are fascinating although they are hardly part of our lives." Both reviews are accurate.   

Last month, the N.Y. Times reviewed a new movie--"Big Sur"--based upon the book which Kerouac wrote three years after the publication of On The RoadThe trailer looks promising. I have not seen the movie. It opened in Manhattan. The DVD will be released in January.

The book is important and pivotal. It reminds me of Scott Fitzgerald's The Crack Up. Scott's glamorous world had been shattered by the Great Depression. Jack's private dream world was exploded by the success of On The Road. True, both writers relied heavily upon alcohol from the start. Then later, even more so to cope with the new, transforming circumstances which blindsided them. They hit the wall.

In the novel, Kerouac wakes up, hungover and groaning, in a skid row hotel room in San Francisco. He escaped from New York in July 1960 via the train, barricading himself in a first-class compartment from which he contemplated the passing countryside that he knew so well. The purpose of the trip was to dry out and take stock. The visit was supposed to be kept secret, known only to Lawrence Ferlinghetti, owner of the famed Bohemian bookshop, City Lights, in North Beach. 

Ferlinghetti had offered Jack the use of his primitive cabin at Bixby Canyon, in the northern precincts of Big Sur on the rugged Pacific coast. There it was hoped that Jack could enjoy the solitude and relax. The plan was for Ferlinghetti to pick Jack up at the station and head out to the cabin. Jack did not follow the plan. He failed to inform Ferlinghetti of his arrival. Instead, he headed for skid row, then the bookshop, then the bars. It was Greenwich Village all over again, only maybe worse.

Jack's Book, first published in 1978, is a self-styled oral biography with quotes from all sorts of people who knew Kerouac at various stages in his journey. There is some wonderfully evocative material in it about the beat scene in Manhattan between 1957 and 1960. It gives you an idea of what Kerouac was escaping from. 

John Clellon Holmes, for my money the best of the beats, talks about a party given to celebrate the publication of On The Road. Jack was supposed to be the guest of honor. The king of the beats was a no-show. He called Holmes to say he was hung over and had the DT's. Holmes left the party to see him. Holmes: “He'd just had too much. He wasn’t boozed, really.... It was just that he’s been interviewed by television people five or six times, newspaper people. He didn't know who he was and he was just terrified. He was lying there in bed, holding his head."

I love the comments by Alene Lee, Jack's former girlfriend who appears as Mardou Fox in The Subterraneans: "In the early fifties everyone had the feeling something was going to happen--waiting for someone to make a move.... No one was quite prepared for the way all of this broke upon the scene. On The Road, pot smoking, LSD, the coffee shops started opening up and the poetry readings began. Suddenly there were millions more people on earth, and they all seemed to be coming to Greenwich Village. I had the feeling things were getting a little out of hand here.... I just remember being terribly frightened and wanting to hold on to some inner reality and not get caught up."

Obviously, the situation was more complicated for Kerouac, because he was at the epicenter of it, the star, the avatar. So he flees to San Francisco. Odd the way truly famous writers cope with their fame.

In 1949, Hemingway is the most celebrated writer in America. He is ensconced in a suite at the Sherry-Netherland hotel on Fifth Avenue. He is drinking brut champagne, snacking on caviar, and joking with Marlene Dietrich. He says he wants to get in and out of town quietly. He is speaking Indian talk.

In 1960, Kerouac, at the pinnacle of his success, is passed out on the floor of a skid row hotel room in San Francisco, surrounded by empty bottles of sweet Tokay wine. He doesn't eat. From one day to the next, he only drinks. He appears to be losing his mind.

When Kerouac picks himself up and makes it out to Big Sur, he does lose his mind. Not right away, but soon enough. Big Sur may contain the most harrowing description of a man going through hell, written by the man himself. Fitzgerald's Crack Up pales in comparison. Kerouac clinically examines his pain, disgust and utter confusion. It is poetry. His demons are real. It is terrifying.

Naturally, the movie cannot be expected to address that aspect of the book. It would be impossible and too depressing. As with Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, whatever there is to be learned from Jack Kerouac, stick with the printed word. Starting, of course, with On The Road.

--Copyright 2013 Patrick Foy--