50 years after his death, a journey through the work of one of the three great beatniks referents, together with Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs: his innovative spontaneous prose, his poetry and his influence on literature
By Juan BatallaOctober 21, email@example.com Share on FacebookShare Share on TwitterTweet Share on WhatsAppShare
Jack Kerouac (shutterstock)
“But then they danced through the streets like crazy tops, and I wavered after them as I have been doing all my life while I follow the people that interest me, because the only people that interest me are crazy, the people who are crazy to live, crazy to talk, crazy to save herself, wanting everything at the same time, people who never yawn or talk about common places, but burn, burn like fabulous yellow rockets exploding like spiders among the stars and then you see a light explode blue and everyone lets go ahhhh ”.
This phrase from On the road could summarize a bit the style and way of life of Jack Kerouac , one of the greatest references of the Beat Generation , who died exactly half a century before turning half a century, at age 47, due to internal bleeding as a result of his alcoholism.
Novelist and poet, Kerouac's prose produced a break in American literature and, therefore, was misunderstood and rejected by the publishing world for a very long time and even by intellectuals and critics. Yet today it would be canonical myopia to leave him out of the most influential writers of the last century.
In this note, a review of his life, but especially of his work, his influences, his style, his poetry and some stories of one of the most interesting characters in northern literature.
Brief biographical sketch
Jean-Louis Lebris de Kérouack came into the world in 1922 in Lowell, Massachusetts, as the son of French Canadians. He only spoke French until he was 7 years old, his father, Léo-Alcide (printer), predicted that he would never be a writer before cancer took him away, while his mother, Gabrielle (a shoe worker), eternalized as a mémère in his work and in his life, he played a fundamental role and undoubtedly marked his destiny. She rejected all her friends, especially the beats, and as Borges's mother did with the Argentine writer, she was scared of girlfriends. But it was essential so that this author, who never lasted too long between trade and trade, who spent his time touring the US with a suitcase and slept in the open air, could carry out his work.
Kerouac was an outstanding American football player. His speed, his strength, led him to stand out in his town and were the bridge to be awarded a scholarship by Columbia University, in New York. They were seven years in which he received multiple contusions and were interrupted first by breaking his leg during a game and once he recovered, doing it again in a car accident. By then, he had given up on his NFL dreams and was wasting his hours wanting to become a great writer.
By 1942 he enlisted in the Navy, but was discharged for having a schizophrenic personality, so he tried his luck in the merchant, where they clearly had fewer requirements. She married for the first time in 1944 only to have a formal image during the trial of Julien Carr , a friend who had stabbed David Kammerer, an alleged stalker, to death on a walk by the river. The marriage lasted 6 months. Then he went through the altar two more times and had only one descendant, Jan Michelle Hackett.
In the merchant marine (shutterstock)
The beatniks or the Beat Generation
When it comes to beats there are three names that predominate: Kerouac, William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg , for being the founders of a movement that was never recognized as such and having had the most transcendental work. Although so many other names can be added to the list such as John Clellon Holmes, Neal Cassady, Gregory Corso, Lucien Carr, Herbert Huncke, Lawrence Ferlinghetti , Gary Snyder, Diane di Prima, Carl Solomon, Philip Lamantia and Peter Orlovsky , among others.
The beats arose during the 40s, after the terrible 30 post Great Depression, a decade in which the middle class increased exponentially in its demographics and reached an economic status that they did not want to renounce, much less criticize. In that context, the beats were a threat, not only by society, but also by intellectual circles, which never stopped ridiculing them or theorizing about the relativity of this new literature.
The beatniks took to the streets, took the highways, slept in trucks, rejected the comforts of home with the patio in front, and although they did not have a pamphlet work in their early days (not at least Kerouac), they were considered outlaws. of lyrics, one outcast, until success, first underground and then popular, placed them at the center of the scene. Of course, even being recognized figures emerged from the para-cultural, the canon never finished accepting them and that ghost still persists.
William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg (Crazy Wisdom / Kobal / Shutterstock)
There are two iconic moments that signified the birth of the beatnik, at least from the outside: the recital of six poets at the Six Gallery in California in 1955, where Ginsberg first read Howl (with Kerouac in the audience – there is a description of that night in the novel The Dharma Wanderers ) and the publication of On the Road in 1957.
Kerouac had tried to publish On the Road for many years when Go came out, considered the first beatnik novel, written by John Clellon Holmes , who in addition to naming this generation in an article for Time , gave a simple, but fairly accurate description of Kerouac in his essay The great Remember (The great memorioso): ” It is a generous, impulsive, naive and beautiful man. He was not like any other writer I knew. He was not cautious, nor dogmatic, nor cynical, nor competitive, and if I had not known him through his great fame, I would have mistaken him for a poetic woodcutter or a sailor who kept Shakespeare in his backpack … Stocky and short Kerouac had the muscular arms, bumpy thighs and robust neck of a man who enjoys life in the great outdoors.
On his influence and style
Along the way he continues the long tradition of the American initiation novel, which began with Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn , but changed the currents of the Mississippi for the roads of his America, from coast to coast, but ultimately it is about about understanding the world and self-discovery. In this literary heritage of vagabonds and rejected must also be included Jack London , the character of Nick Adams from Hemingway , and who after Kerouac continued with Augie March from Bellow ; in the saga of Run Rabbit , by Updike , where the protagonist begins with a frustrated American footballer who goes out on the roads or with V , by Thomas Pynchon , and so on.
But if influences are involved, the greatest was Thomas Wolfe , the forgotten author who portrayed the United States of the first third of the twentieth century and who had a prose that fascinated him, a style that he sought to imitate to such an extent that – biographers say – the After Ginsberg went to meet him at his home near the Columbia campus, at just 16 years old, Kerouac was there pounding the keys, copying sheets and sheets of the North Carolina-born author. But in addition to Wolfe, another of his great influences was William Carlos Williams – perhaps the highest authority for the beatniks, especially for Ginsberg with whom he maintained a friendship.
Kerouac wrote with a technique that he called “spontaneous prose” and thus defined it: “No 'selectivity' and expression, but to follow the free deviation of the mind towards the infinite seas of thought, to dive into the ocean of English without another discipline than the rhythms of rhetorical exhalation and protested narration, like a fist that falls on a table with each complete sound bang! ”. In another interview, he commented: I spent all my youth writing slowly, making corrections and endless speculations and erasures and all I got was one day to write a sentence … and the sentence had no feeling. ”
So he just sat down to write without interruptions, without pauses. Page after page. But the fact that he had to change leaves annoyed him, cut off his flow. He was not interested in finding “the right word,” or dwelling on punctuation issues that broke with that energy, that took him away from that desire to become a bebop musician – the way '40s jazz found to break with its enquistamiento- to be able to compose, improvise, one note after another.
His friend Carr found a solution to his problems when one afternoon he arrived at the apartment they shared with a reel of teletype paper from the United Press , where he worked. Thus Kerouac found the tool for his style, a single eternal roll of paper, which did not need to be constantly changed. Kerouac claimed that he wrote On the Road in three hectic weeks in 1951, Carr accepted that during that time he never saw him doing anything other than writing. “I imagine that at times he has had to stop to eat or sleep, but I can't be sure,” Carr said in an interview.
To the “spontaneous prose” it must be added that Kerouac was an excellent typist – he had even won competitions in his youth – so that the admiration of his substitutes also went through his incredible speed. Although, not everyone believed that these gifts meant anything. One of them was Truman Capote , who in a debate with Norman Mailer , one of the greatest admirers of the beat work, declared: “Write? That is not writing, that is typing ”.
This style, logically, had mixed results and rejections. In fact, an editor told him that On the Road couldn't go out like this, that even Shakespeare was published and that he wasn't Shakespeare. But for Kerouac, “spontaneous prose” was non-negotiable. Thus, possessed, he wrote complete novels in two, 10 or 20 days.
In the path
“ On the Road is Jack Kerouac's second novel, and its publication is a historical event insofar as a true work of art corresponds to a great moment, in a time when attention is divided and sensitivities hampered by excesses of fashion ”. Thus begins the first published review of the novel, on Thursday, September 5, 1957, in The New York Times .
The novel is about Kerouac's experiences with Neal Cassady , Sal Paradise in the play, whom he met on one of his first trips to California, when they shared brakeman's duties on the South Pacific railroads. Cassady is one of the most interesting characters in the movement, for Kerouac he was “the greatest writer of all”, although he hardly published in life and much of what he wrote disappeared. Although his role as a fuel beat is undeniable, a character with an overwhelming energy from nomadic childhood and adolescence, who had known institutions and prisons before anyone else. In this sense, Kerouac's work – deeply autobiographical – is nurtured by all the authors of the time, through pseudonyms.
Cassady not only appears in multiple works of beat literature, but also in Lysergic Acid Punch , the novel by Tom Wolfe , which recreates the adventures of the Merry Pranksters , the group made up of Ken Kesey , author of One Flew Over the Nest. cuckoo (great film adaptation – Caught with no way out – by Milos Forman ), during the '60s. At one point, chance serves to highlight another point about much of Kerouac's work, which, being biographical in nature and written almost in parallel to the events described, is closer to the journalistic chronicle than to fiction, as it is described. knew until then. So it could be assured, challenging historicism, that Kerouac is the predecessor or the unrecognized founder of what was later called New Journalism and that he had Wolfe as the maximum reference.
The publication of the work was the literary event of the year. And the biggest cultural event in a long time. The times of the Lost Generation, the Hemingways, the Dos Passos and the Fitzgeralds were a few decades behind. Along the way, he gave voice to those who were waiting to have it, because Kerouac's work was already known by word of mouth thanks to multiple magazines that gave space to the beat, while publishers looked the other way.
Together with Neal Cassady (Moviestore / Shutterstock)
In fact, En el Camino was rejected multiple times before finally going through the Viking press, where it was drafted up to 7 times after a vote. “They told me it was too different a work to take risks,” said Sterling Lord , the only literary representative he had in his life and whom he respected more than any critic or editor. In that sense, he had a catchphrase: ” The Lord is my business man, I have nothing to fear ” ( The Lord is my businessman, I have nothing to fear ).
Following his phenomenal success, Kerouac's life changed dramatically. Some examples: Grove Press, which had bought the rights to Underground Angels or Underground , depending on the edition, even before Viking decided what to do with On the Road , quickly announced the publication of this novel. He was no longer the unknown, rejected author, but a celebrity guest on television shows; They offered him to do a weekly TV show called Las Adventures de Sal Paradise y Dean Moriarty – which he rejected and resulted in the successful plagiarism that was the Ruta 66 series -; he had to raise two-meter walls in his mother's house due to the constant invasion of young people and drunkards who knocked on the door, on the window of his room, at any time of day and more; Many of his former companions treated him with suspicion, others tried to take advantage of it, so he secluded himself, isolated himself, abandoned public and social life, while his addiction to alcohol continued to increase.
Jack Kerouac on the Steve Allen Show, 1959
As a curious fact of the scope of the novel, after its publication, that the Americans noticed that they had a vast country to travel, the result was the appearance of the first camper, the mobile homes.
Kerouac was free there, on the road, more than any other hipster (yes, original hipsters have nothing to do with going to barbershops to touch up bushy beards or wear plaid shirts). On the road he was happy, authentic, and turned the ordinary of everyday life into an adventure, into an art.
A Proustian work
Kerouac's novels can be divided into two spaces so different that they seem dissimilar authors, sometimes even in style. On the one hand, there are the memorable works, in which he narrates his childhood in Lowell, talks about American football, the war and in which he has a more serious, less profound style, and in which that great capacity for capture everything that was happening around him, the details that give strength to his work. Among them are his debut feature The City and the Country, Doctor Sax, Maggie Cassidy, Visions of Gerard and The Vanity of the Duluoz .
His debut The City and the Country gave no indication of the literary beast that would break into the road . It was written in parallel to a work that was never published in four hands with Burroughs, whom – in Ginsberg's words – he had convinced to enter literature. To do so, he proposed co-writing a detective novel in the style of Dashiell Hammett , whom the author of Naked Lunch admired. And since we attribute influences, it was Burroughs himself who confessed that the title of his most revered work was an idea of Kerouac.
In the six years between the publication of La ciudad y el campo and En el camino , he wrote at least a dozen more works. This meant that he could not refine his spontaneous prose, so that some passages of his works do not have the brilliance of others.
Among the best-known “on the road” works are Tristessa , Visions of Cody , The Underground , Angels of Desolation , The Dharma Vagabonds, and Big Sur , among others. For Kerouac his work was a unit, in an interview, he commented: “My work is reduced to a vast book, like Proust's , with the difference that my memories are written immediately and not later in a sickbed.”
Kerouac wrote most of these novels between the publication of his debut and “On the Road.” This is not their order of publication, but how they should be read chronologically
Poetry and Buddhism
Kerouac was also a prolific poet. In contrast to his terrible verbiage that was translated into his spontaneous prose, he also possessed the capacity for synthesis, to invent neologisms by joining words that by eliminating the connecting article generated new meanings, different ways of giving vitality to language.
For Ginsberg, Kerouac was the greatest writer of haikus , that form of synthesized, English-speaking Japanese poetry. In addition to short poems, he also wrote other long-term ones, perhaps the best known being Mexico City blues , a work composed of 242 choirs, considered the greatest literary example of what jazz would have been in poetry. One of the great admirers of this piece in the Nobel Prize for Literature and musician Bob Dylan , who together with Ginsberg visited the grave of the Lowell author to recite the collection of poems as a tribute.
Bob Dylan and Allen Gisnberg visit Jack Kerouac's grave
Already in his Buddhist stage, which he met thanks to Gary Snyder , he formulated the term pome , similar to what Cortázar did with his meopa, instead of a poem. Snyder introduced the Middle East to all the beatniks, unlike Henry David Thoreaux , Snyder was born and raised in a cabin, so he maintained a relationship with nature that led him later to take an interest in the mythology of local indigenous peoples. and then to the east, where he traveled, he learned about Zen meditation and on his way back, he so influenced the beats, especially Kerouac and Ginsberg, that the presence of Buddhism can be seen in the work.
In The Dharma Wanderers , Kerouac takes the place of a kind of disciple of Snyder in search of truth, found in survival, in the open air, in respect for nature and together they move to the mountains of California, where he practices Zen Buddhism and meditation.
Kerouac used to say that authors such as Proust and Joyce were in “slow motion” and that the speed of the prose should also be spontaneous and that in his search it was important to find “American haikus, poems or short pomes of three verses with or without rhyme, outlining if possible 'little Samadhis', usually of Buddhist connotation, destined for enlightenment ”. However, towards the end of his life, as regards religion, especially in Big Sur , that novel full of loneliness, Kerouac makes it clear that he had once again embraced the Catholicism that his mother had bequeathed him.
Kerouac's premature death is often attributed to his alcoholism. Systemic drug use can also be seen in his work. Of course, only Burroughs could write Junkie or travel to South America in search of ayahuasca ( The letters of the yague ), but to Kerouac's life we must add a fact that went unnoticed for many years, the large number of blows he received due to the football and that they persisted in fights as adults. A new theory is based on the fact that both his alcoholism and his depression could have been enhanced by CTE, the brain damage that occurs not only in American soccer players, but also in boxers with a greater propensity to blows to the head than in other sports. The reality is that Kerouac did not give his brain to science, so everything is left to speculation. Although different specialists, consulted by The New Yorker , assured that the possibilities are wide.
In April 1958, Kerouac arrived drunk and badly injured along with Corso at the home of the writer Joyce Glassman . The story goes that they had a dispute in a Manhattan bar, which ended in a beating of Kerouac, who hit his head on the floor in the fall. In a letter to Ginsberg, Corso and Orlovsky, he wrote: “I think I was misdiagnosed … I noticed that my recent belligerence and alcoholism started in April after I was beaten. Maybe I have brain damage, maybe I was once a merry drunk, but now I'm just a drunk with my brain and my gentleness blocked. ”
Works consulted for this article