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The International Writers Magazine: Jack Kerouac revisited

Jack Kerouac's Peripatetic Ode Comes Home
You're not really writing a book till you begin to take liberties with it.
- Jack Kerouac
James Campion

Jean-Louis Le bris de Kerouac wrote the above in a 1949 journal two years removed from his first of three free-wheeling cross-counrty road trips, considerable portions of which were spent beside a human dynamo named Neal Cassidy, the hero and focus of his most famous and influential work, "On The Road", to be published eight years later and now fifty years ago.
The passage resonates as a confession for its author, whose public sermonizing about the priority of "spontaneous prose" led to the mythology behind the book's bizarre crafting, but it is also serves as a prophecy for generations of its readers, who have taken many and varied liberties with the novel's compelling content and in the process perhaps twisted its original themes.

The book's narrator, Sal Paradise could well have been talking about the legacy of "On The Road" when he muses; "I realized I had died and been reborn numberless times but just didn't remember especially because the transitions from life to death and back to life are so ghostly easy."

"On The Road" and the image of Jack Kerouac have led several lives in the past half-century. Both art and artist, as inseparable as the two get, have become icons to decades of youth and culture movements, soundboards for freedom through itinerancy, and an overt call for social rebellion in alternative lifestyles forged through experimenting with drugs and sex. The novel, like all of Kerouac's work, has been required reading for those emerging from innocence to experience and the trading of middle-class illusions for a wide-open breath of American madness.

But is that the book the man the Beat Generation anointed Saint Jack, and the media labeled its King, intended to write? Is it possible there was more to "On The Road" than good times and weird friends who burn "like fabulous roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue center light pop and everybody goes "AWWW!"? Could Kerouac, a reluctant figurehead of an ensuing counterculture movement, who remained a devout Catholic and political conservative until the day he died, have been grossly misunderstood?

Viking Press, the novel's original publisher, has released two new books which provide insight into these questions; "Why Kerouac Matters -- The Lessons Of 'On The Road' (They're Not What You Think)" and the "On The Road: The Original Scroll".
"The Original Scroll" is quite simply the Holy Grail to fans of Kerouac's lasting imprint on American literature; literally a 120-foot scroll cobbled from eight sheets of tracing paper taped together and run through a typewriter, allowing the heavily amped author (some claim Benzedrine, Kerouac claimed coffee) to spend three solid weeks regurgitating his frenetic tale without interruption. Appearing in one long and sparsely edited paragraph and revealing the actual names of the participants, including, among others, the impassioned Cassidy, Beat poet, Allen Ginsberg and author, William Burroughs, it is far more graphic and vicious than its published successor and a must read for fans of the work.

    "Why Kerouac Matters" is the exhaustive work of NY Times reporter, John Leland, who recently told me, "Many begin their assessment of 'On The Road' with the idea that it laid the groundwork for the sixties counterculture, which might seem like a reasonable assumption, but the second they make it they've lost Kerouac, because he was heading in a completely other direction. And whatever complaint he had with the fifties, and this book includes a lot of them, his solution is not the sixties; it's this kind of timeless spiritual quest."

Part of Kerouac's spiritual quest, accordingly to Leland, involved profound suffering, a search for emotional boundaries, religious epiphany, and mostly importantly, becoming a man. It is all played out on a wing and a prayer across a post-war American landscape that would evolve, much to the author's chagrin, into a soulless monolith. Through that prism, "On The Road" becomes less a social manifesto for a boundless future filled with unbridled promiscuity, senseless excess, and a blatant rejection of a moral fabric than a sober longing for an innocence lost; both to the author and his country.

"'On The Road' is, among other things, a search for the old hobo, which is a thirties character," says Leland. "I think to a great extent Kerouac remained true to the period of time when he grew up, the twenties and thirties. He was nostalgic for a more authentic American character, the vagabonds and the hobos and the drifters, and the working guys who carried the lunch pail."

The book that so many of us in raging puberty turned into the ultimate escape pod filled with incredible episodic eruptions could well have been a solemn nostalgic prayer for the collective soul adrift.
"There were two statements that Kerouac made about the book that really struck me," Leland notes. "Before he'd really gotten too far along in the early drafts, he said, 'It's going to be a profoundly sorrowful book...but good'. Now that's not the way we think of the book. And the other is after it was a success and he was asked about the themes of 'On The Road', he said, 'It's two Catholic buddies going out in search of God and we found Him.' And that's not the way so many of us think about the book either. I wanted to find that book or see if that book was in the text. And I found that that book was hiding in plain site."

Revisionist history and the deconstruction of public figures is a dangerous game. It has become an early 21st century art form which often devolves into out and out hokum, as in the dubious outing of Abraham Lincoln's homosexuality or the painting of Joseph McCarthy as a misunderstood American hero. But when it's done with Leland's exhaustive research, captivating scholarly dissection, and an obvious reverence for the book, and placed alongside the long-awaited revelations of "The Original Scroll", it is downright gripping.

Many argue, including Leland, that Kerouac brought any possible misinterpretation of his book upon himself, by producing a vaguely poetic, cryptically musical prose that while breaking literary ground and capturing his transient nature, belabored a vibe at the expense of key story devices.

"Kerouac aims for climaxes and doesn't know how to deliver them yet," cites Leland, who admits the author's later work such as "Big Sur" comes closer to achieving goals set in On The Road. "And that's why so many people don't see a book about two Catholic boys in search of God, because Kerouac sort of backs off when it is time to really deliver that climax. When it's time for God to show himself, Kerouac backs off."

Disciples of "The Original Scroll", of which Ginsberg and many Beat writers and poets are in lock-step, argue that timid publishers and over-zealous editing muted Kerouac's mad tale of spiritual longing and an endless highway of revelation. Too much homosexuality? Too much substance abuse? Too much racial tension? Too much failure and degradation? Too much jazz? Too much raw honesty? All of these subjects and the damaged soul of a brother in arms eventually lead to the center of the "On The Road" mysteries.

Kerouac's most underrated gift as an artist is that he had the guts to take us there.

The jewel center of interest is the eye within the eye.
- Jack Kerouac

Jack Kerouac's "On The Road" may be one of the more misinterpreted literary works of the 20th century, but that's only where its contradictions begin. It is more widely read today than ever, while also being ignored as a seminal literary benchmark. It is celebrated as vehemently as a groundbreaking effort as it is vilified for being an overrated mess. Stories of its creation and influence are in many ways more intriguing than the book itself, and the shadow of its most worshipped character has forever enshrined its author as a pop culture immortal.

At the epicenter of all this is Kerouac's hymn to "Beat", a secret "hustler culture" of social outcasts, hipsters, transients and jazz cats who are literally "beaten down", immune to rehabilitation, and most importantly, protective of its hobo freedoms. And while "On The Road" spawned an unlikely "beatnik" movement, which gave way to a hippie counter-culture yearning in generations to follow, the book's solemn and reverential themes refused to be buried beneath spicier scenes of unbridled exploits.

Kerouac's adventures across America with nary a penny to his name and no sense of coherent direction or purpose seem to embody a sense of itinerancy as sacrament, a rolling stone gathering no moss, the spiritual wanderer as rejected inhabitants of Eden looking for a home. As long as the characters keep moving, specifically Sal Paradise (Kerouac) and Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady), they will enact an almost physical return to divinity. Through the very act of perpetual traveling, the peripatetic existence becomes the holy journey through life; growing, maturing, and abandoning the fantasies of youth for the harsher but more meaningful realities of adulthood.

For most of the novel the insane pace and erratic tendencies of Dean Moriarty represent for Paradise the purest soul of an America once wild and free, but now wounded by economic tragedy (The Great Depression) and reborn in glorious victory (World War II). Moriarty is, like real-life friend and companion, Cassady, an angelic "holy goof", a man without boundaries, inhibitions or guilt, who embodies the seductive jazz rhythms that cannot be tamed. But by novel's end there is only a hero's shell. Abandoned by his best friend and left to flail alone, Moriarty literally disappears into the fog. Paradise cannot keep up, but, instead, must grow up.

"There is that wonderful Dean Moriarty character and that ode to cowboy freedom that Dean represents," notes John Leland, author of a revealing new book, "Why Kerouac Matters". "But there is also the book of Sal Paradise, the narrator, that follows a different course. And as much as Sal falls in love with Dean the way we all do, he outgrows him over the course of the book and puts some distance behind him."

In a very real sense "On The Road" is a warning for those who Kerouac later despised when the book's success made him a famous guru for the desperate runaway baby boomer romantics, who refused to see the damage of Moriarty's trip into the unknown and the scars left by brothers adrift. They chose to ignore the visage of a resolved Paradise (the name is no coincidence) shuffling off into the womb of domestic bliss, arm in arm with his new girl to sip hot tea in her inviting upstairs apartment where he (Kerouac) will mature into the writer he longs to be.

And that is, beyond all else, "On The Road"'s lasting legacy; the naked force of the writer's vision. The bold leap for a post-war, relatively unknown novelist to challenge the structure of his art in order to express the forgotten faces of a burgeoning American Century; the dark faces, the soft faces, the young faces, the failed faces, the wild faces, and ultimately the face in the mirror, strung out on fractured dreams in steamy gin joints and lonely highways and endless nights teetering between revelry and misery -- thrashing it together in one long scroll over three weeks, after several painstaking revisions, to finally rescue the honesty in the experience, warts and all.

This is why the feral call of jazz music reverberates as the central theme in Kerouac's travels. His uniquely spastic descriptions of the music and its emotional affects move the narration along as if swept up in a wave, giving credence to Kerouac's beloved "spontaneous prose" and its concussive affect on the reader.

But tall tales of Kerouac jacked on speed and controlled madness whipping off phrasing and imagery in Herculean spurts in mere weeks are greatly exaggerated. While he did unfurl his "scroll version" of the novel in 1950 (released this summer as "On The Road -- The Original Scroll") the final published version we know today was carefully revised several times and in many voices.

"Kerouac's often been accused of having a rather shallow view of jazz," Leland explains. "That his idea of jazz is some primitive guy blows whatever's in his head and gets off the stage. But if you look at the way jazz musicians really put together their solos, with tremendous wood-shedding beforehand, working out phrases or connections or ideas through hours and hours of practice and then putting them together in some kind of spontaneous way onstage in a solo, but not inventing everything whole cloth, that's the way Kerouac wrote 'On The Road'. He'd written a lot of these scenes in his journals or his letters, and even in previous drafts of the book, but he cranked them all together fast in ways that probably felt new to him in the composition, so that draft becomes a performance, and that gives the book its pace and feel."

Still, as Leland puts it, the book's staying power in the American consciousness, whether selling khakis for The Gap or an escape route for youth, is rooted in a deeper "longing for a place in this world and a direction, a sense of meaning, an idea -- and that questioning of how you are going to get on as a man in the world, what type of man are you going to be, that will allow you to live an authentic life. I think those questions are as elusive to us and as relevant to us today as they ever were."

"On The Road" wasn't the first "road" story, and it certainly won't be the last. Homer, James Joyce, Henry Miller, and many others have hit the mark -- some of them an obvious influence on Kerouac's winding tale. Hell, I even wrote one that unabashedly heisted from those guys. But there is something eminently penetrating in the American spirit that Saint Jack tapped into 50 years ago. When he hit the road in 1947, a decade before the novel's publication, this was a very different country to travel. By '57 the highway system would eradicate our mysterious back roads and the quaint towns they led us through would begin to die out, leaving an homogenized nation bloated with malls and fast food chains, stripped of individuality and geographical pride, and a vast underbelly of furtive wanderers would be left to fade like the ghost of Dean Moriarty to haunt the pages of this most extraordinary book.
© James Campion October 6th 2007

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