An excerpt from I Am the Revolutionary: Young Jack Kerouac

Kerouac has an interest in world history; he reads H.G. Wells’ The Outline of History which serves as a survey of evolution. The Outline of History spans primal earth to the first world war. It isa book he will defer to throughout the 1940s.

He is also immersed in the historical surveys of Carlton Hayes. Kerouac becomes increasingly grounded in world affairs from which he becomes informed (most times though, he remains apolitical). He absorbs the politics of the Spartan wars, the Hellenistic era and the Roman conquest usurping and becoming the center of a great empire.

He learns of the Iliad as a method of chanting to proclaim the heroic deeds of Aegean warriors. He notes the poetry’s singular style of vivid imagery. These, he learns, are ways of conveying ideas with a fresh provoking essence. Of science, Kerouac’s education runs through a survey of Thales, Pythagoras and Aristotle’s tremendous influence over later sciences. There is Euclid, Archimedes, the trigonometry of Hipparchus, Galileo, Ptolemy, Copernicus, and the astronomy of Tycho Brahe.  Kerouac learns to graph cultures, a solvent education he becomes increasingly interested in, exemplified in Oswald Spengler’s belief that all rising civilizations will eventually fall. There is, Spengler believes, a birth, life and death to all cultures. This belief becomes instrumental not only to Kerouac, but his fellow beats who use the book as a talismanic barometer of current events, informing their belief that there will be a ‘Second Religiousness.’

Kerouac reads even more, sounding through fathoms of Greek tragedies like the theological mystic Aeschylus whom envisions Man as a spectator of God-like events in the trilogy of Oresteia.

 

“Oh, the torment bred in the race,

            the grinding scream of death

            and the stroke that hits the vein,

            the hemorrhage none can staunch, the grief,

            the curse no man can bear.

 

            But there is a cure in the house, and not outside it, no,

            not from others but from them,

            their bloody strife. We sing to you,

            dark gods beneath the earth.

 

            Now hear, you blissful powers underground —

            answer the call, send help.

            Bless the children, give them triumph now.”

Other books (over the next several years) pass through his hands: Sophocles and the skeptic Euripides delving into the psychological dealings of humans (Oedipus Rex). He reads Aristotle’s Poetics, noting its influential design. He delves into the Enlightenment, of Locke and man’s pre-disposal to sin via Martin Luther and Calvin’s predestination. Isaac Newton, Montesquieu and Voltaire, the mighty advocate of freedom of speech: I wholly disapprove of what you say and will defend to the death your right to say it. He reads Descartes, Locke, Rousseau, Erasmus and the Augustinians. Humanism proclaims Man to be innately “good.” The Renaissance serves to stress Man’s worthiness. These and more assault Kerouac through rote book-learning alogn with books of his own choosing: Thoreau, Joyce, Tolstoy, Goethe, Swift, Mark Twain and Walt Whitman. Every morning he turns Old Testament pages, immersing into a phantasmagoria of prophecies, infanticide, human sacrifice, ethereal arch-angels and hell-haired demons bent on raining blood on earthy paradise: “Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you.  I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.  Isaiah 46:4”

Reading however doesn’t distract him from what is to come. He worries for the future. What will it bring? The western world, seemingly far away across ever-rolling bars of gleaming sea, violently toils at war. There is scarcely time for frivolity.  Get mad! He nurtures an uncanny certainty for artistic destiny. He cannot hide indefinitely, as is his wont. The journal he keeps enables aloofness from “teeming humanity.” It keeps him in line; a fermenting restlessness held in check by self-destination. He acknowledges a turgid flow of thoughts worthy of reflection and expression. They can serve as the bedrock of his art.

Now on Sale! I Am the Revolutionary: Young Jack Kerouac (2017)

I Am the Revolutionary: Young Jack Kerouac takes the reader from Kerouac’s childhood years in Lowell, Massachusetts through his World War II years in New York City and across America, where the hapless writer searches for his voice as a writer and an artist. Using archival material such as journals, notebooks, diaries and letters as well as Kerouac’s published books, this portrait serves to bring into focus the internal and external forces that forged the leader of the Beat Generation’s highly-original poetry and prose. NOW 40% OFF! Click pictures below for ordering link . . .

 

 

 

 

 

March-April 1946 – Kerouac & New Prose

Kerouac’s planned novel is less about Galloway than it is of his impressions. It is even less about the city than it is of a submersion into a phantasmagoria of new sensations that had assaulted him from the early to late-1940s.

Each character delineates Kerouac’s total psyche. He plans the novel to be autobiographical, even more than any other former work in his corpus. Kerouac sought to describe the full flavor of his father and mother (minus the bigotry, to which we have a fuller flavor in The Haunted Life). Kerouac will inhabit the character, at first, of Peter Martin (before he is also fleshed out in several of Peter’s brothers). When Martin throws his text book in disgust, Kerouac is drawing from his own disgust as recorded in an early-1940s journal kept at Columbia. Martin, like Kerouac, broods. He contemplates, puzzles and discerns the toiling writhing mass of humanity he is plunged into daily.

Martin’s emancipation fully materializes by the time he “wanders” into Times Square (the section of the “city” where the Martin family moves from Galloway to Brooklyn). The world is on fire. War rages. The city’s populace bustles with an enormous array of people. Peter observes zoot-suiters, hoodlums, dishwashers, Chinese, “dark Puerto Ricans,” and “battered lonely young Negroes.” Or a “whore in purple pumps and red raincoat,” or an “incredible homosexual flouncing by with an effeminate shriek of general greeting to everyone, anyone.” Among and through these sensationalistic stereotypes are blue-collars carrying lunch pails intermixed with “crooks and thieves,” or an elder immersed in fear at being among such dreck and peril.

This was the way Peter had seen it everywhere in these years of the war, but nowhere was it so dense and fabulous as on Times Square. All the cats and characters, all the spicks and spades, Harlem-drowned, street-drunk and slain, crowded together, streaming back and forth, looking for something, waiting for something, forever moving around.”

Kerouac was no longer just drunk on booze, but on experience, fleshing it word-by-word, laying bricks for a vast edifice constructed in his mind, striving to make it real in the pages of a book.

On 18 March 1946, Kerouac drafted extensive notes for the novel, and authored long descriptive passages and dialogue. The notebook served as a direction draft to which he sought to wrap his concept around a far vaster plot. The planning stage of the novel was intricate and thought out. He perceived the new book to be “cultural” and “anthropological.” He yearned to address the direction American culture was taking, of a general attitude metamorphosing, despite war’s chaos, by a Dionysian spirit. In The Town and the City, Kerouac wanted to depart from his Dostoyevskian preoccupations, and instead, make it “strictly American.” But how?

By describing in a Wolfean heat the world he lived in: the continent criss-crossed by trains and highways; of jazz, college football, automobiles, clothes, baseball, celebrity worship via Hollywood, mother worship, hipsters and zoot suits, the fantastic criminal element, its politics, and the sneering condescension toward homosexuals and others marginalized by the 1950s hetero-normative spirit arrowing through every town and city.

One character, since abandoned, was Paul Martin, who was to have been the American version of Aloysha Karamazov, the youngest of the Karamazov brothers, sent out into the world by his elder only to be embroiled by his family’s sordid affairs. Though Kerouac once envisioned transplanting Dostoevsky’s notions toward faith in his work, he ultimately felt that it wasn’t possible to do so convincingly. “Faith,” Kerouac thought, was not a concern for Americans like it was for Russians. He wanted to flesh out a “completely American” character under the guise of Joe Martin (an All-American name if there ever was one!). On the other hand, Francis Martin would break away from that Americanism. Closer to himself, Kerouac reveals, is Peter Martin, because he could act as an intermediary, being only “half-American” and “half-expatriate.” Peter could be both at the same time, and by virtue of being so, he then functions as a “true American artist of the most rigorous order.” He must manifest his new work with striking modernity. “Towards Galloway” has its echoes of Wolfe’s Of Time and the River, opening with a Boston-bound train careening along the Connecticut coast in a morning of January 1941. The train wailed its cry far over the winter-bound land. In the train car, two boys sat with their feet resting on the seats facing them. One wakens the other, to show him the beautiful dawn spreading over the land.

It’s New England allright,” said the boy who had been awake. “You don’t know what a feeling it gives me to come back like this in the snow. It’s always like the first time I’m coming back—it’s been only two months since Thanksgiving and I feel as if it were the very first time. Damn!

The waking boys correspond to the waking land. It is an awakening America, opening its eyes into the dawn of pre-World War II. One of them is a football player, Michael Daoulas. The other, a ressurected Sebastian Sampas, is a Greek of “shabby dignity” named Christopher Santos.

By 28 March, after thirteen handwritten pages, Kerouac stopped to reassess his progress on The Town and the City. He then decided to separate the novel into three sections: Book One – Appurtenances and Preludes; Book Two (no given name) to detail the summer of 1941; Book Three (no name) – Peter Martin and his experiences living in Hartford onward through the dissolution of the patriarch and his family in New York City.

Kerouac’s other notes of this time resemble early forms of sketching, or a “Tic” as he will later call it:

Dark sweating Negro eating an orange at lunch time, sitting on dirty mats, in the glare and sleepy hum of noontime.”

These were flashbulb impressions, freezing a moment in time capturing a bygone era before the war (as compared to war’s end and its fall into modernism). Kerouac continued into the next page scribbling free associative “impressions.” These prose fragments served the same purpose, already indicating a propensity to “sketch” without addressing it as such:

Table radio, shiny top, with smooth steel lamp and shiny deep-bowled porcelain ash-tray on it—reminds me of the accoutrements of lives such as in “Double Indemnity” (and other such American “business-type” lives.) (Free association).”

Here Kerouac is practicing his craft, whetting his narrative blade by repurposing day-to-day existence as material for his book.

Two young hoodlums sleeping in a dirty bed in a squalid room on Lower East Side, sprawled, snoring, one’s arm all pockmarked from many injections, the dirty light coming through crude drapes falling on them revealing their ugliness and innocence, the litter around the room.

These are Kerouac’s notes. Later, free-associative notes such as these will be the source of his fully-formed prose, dropped from the mind straight to the page, raw, unpolished, and finished.

Here he had finally arrived after almost eight years of trying, inklings of originality leavening the bread of his own creation. Less than two months later, his father would be dead and the crudely ironic impetus would be established, pushing him onward until it was done, at last, to become his first published novel.

Caroline & Jack Kerouac – March 1944

19149116_10155805499643488_4169821765014770282_n

The Kerouacs in March 1943.

Kerouac is in his Naval Air Force V-12 uniform to which he was stripped of after dropping out of Columbia. He was no longer eligible by December 1942. This places this photo, discovered by Dave Moore, to be in Lowell, Massachusetts where they lived at Crawford Street residence.

Kerouac returned to Lowell in January 1943 and left for boot camp by March ’43. Nin joined WACs after leaving Sullivan Brothers in early March 1943.

By mid-March, Leo was working in Meriden , CT. and Gabrielle was at her stepmother’s home entertaining possibilities of running it as a boarding house (she didn’t). After that date, JK was alone at Crawford Street (attested by his letter to Sebastian Sampas in mid-March) JK failed his air test on 15 March (which reduced his rate to a Seaman Apprentice).

This firmly places the photo in the timeline of the first 2 weeks of March 1943, in Lowell.

Kerouac & Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet in B

2nd Adagio Movement of Brahms’
Clarinet Quintet in B Minor

First Part

These voices I hear are those of little angels I imagine have those sweet little mouths made oval by extreme upper teeth—rosy mouths sweetly ovaled, like the mouth-
piece of a clarinet.

When could Brahms have heard such music? It is impossible to imagine. It is incredibly sensitive— and, as I say, more beautiful music I have never heard. It  is music from the deepest gloom, the most sunny + hidden wild garden. I cannot imagine this music not how Brahms could have heard it in his mind— I gather, then, the happy accident
of art?— It is the sound of a heart in love.

John Clellon Holmes to Jack Kerouac (December 27, 1950)

And now, about your predicament, which I hope I am not wrong in mentioning. In T&C the form was implicit in the material. Perhaps you did not worry overmuch about it. Perhaps you let the great flood of material simply take you and find and form itself. You told me, one of the first times I met you, “You know, John, I haven’t got form really. But I think my book has deep form.” That stuck in my craw, and I think it is true of you, and true of many American writers. Those that have plagued their minds with form have produced but stunted garden flowers that have no magnificence, none of that exultant always-blooming burst and power of really great American writing. But, now, in “On the Road”, you are struggling with the difficulties of form and mould. Where to put all this vast heap of material? How shape the mountain to a hill the eye can contain? …. I have seen you attack all your great lump of clay with eager, desperate, and facile hands. But always, though it may have satisfied me or someone else, it did not settle in your mind. Something had been stripped away, or you had not gotten the perspective right. You began again. No one could say you have not been tireless, patient, persevering. But it has resisted your head.

…. You have started so many times, tried so hard, and yet found it still not right…. I know that it takes little view of the hug technical hang-ups that writing entails, the endless taking of pains and blows that getting a book out of mind demands. But nevertheless I think you should get your vision straight. Do not forget what it is you are trying to give to the people. Do not despair.

I have tacked upon my working heart one of things you told me after reading some of my poor, twisted scenes toward the beginning of this book. You had read them sympathetically, at length, considering, and you turned to me and said: “The daily heap! The daily heap is everything!” And that I pinned upon my laboring heart, because I knew for a certainty that it was right. There were other things you told me: about simply saying what I had to say, and saying simply what I had to say. About the “angel-author”…. And about “the sincere tone”. I have never forgotten these things, and much that I have done in this book is the result of a painstaking scrutiny of these maxims. Now I say that you must take heart as well. Fill with that sure compassion and sadness out of which I know your best work has come.

Remember all the madness, the Fellaheen people on the dark roads, those strange apocalyptic moments with Neal, and all the other crazy things you know better than anyone else. Go back to the moment (if this can be done) when “On the Road” came to you out of nowhere. Go back to that instant, and remember it in all the naked excitement it possessed then. Do not think about the ulcers that twitter and scribble in the Rockefeller Centers of the world, or the long-nosed and petulant editors who brouse and yawn over the terrible children writers of the past have brought forth in pain and faith. Think only of your own feelings and believe in them. ……

The world will neither bow to you as a result of “On the Road”, nor will it necessarily send a posse out after you. You would have come closer to what you intend if it does the latter, but no matter. Amaze and astound yourself, and that is the most that you can expect. …. But write. Labor in your vineyard simply and with faith.

Remember the children that roam your roads, perfect yourself against the skies only insofar as your heart is not wounded. Do not cogitate the effect of your work, do not plumb the undecipherable and incalculable mysteries of the world which will choose or reject you. ….Often I tend to flatter myself that I know it better than most others. I know that you are like that iceberg…., and that what there is on the surface is only a bare shadow. …. I know that there is much inside you, and I worry, fret and feel a strange personal misery when you have trouble with it. …. There are few enough writers today who would be worth saving even if one could do so, and I count you on the first team of those that deserve preservation from the vantage-point of the future. You know, the years pass all too quickly, and I am reminded of another thing you said to me… You said: “Writers don’t work enough today. They turn out a few little, tidy books and that’s all!”… It stuck with me, because that night, later, after I had left you, another part of my life collapsed, and I knew that what you had said was true of more things than writing. But we have such short time and so much to do.”

 

Kerouac in 1942

Jack Kerouac’s 1942 journals contain considerable evidence that, during this time, he was practicing and refining various literary techniques and styles.

“The Wastrel,” written on December 5, 1942, was one of the strongest cases in point. The one page, typewritten (and wine-stained) manuscript is a dark piece of existential Dostoevskian narrative fiction. Kerouac’s attempt for once satisfied him, to which he aded a postscript that this was the style he needed to have more under his control. The narrative structure he found suitable to his purposes, comparing it a Dostoevsky translation.

“Duluoz knew that a change was undergoing in his character during these uncertain days. It was not that any of the days in his past life had not been uncertain, for God knows (if there be a God), that all his days had been such. But these were presumably his last weeks of complete freedom before entering the service of the Armed Forces of his nation, and this outward fact and outward uncertainty seemed to add intensity to his life’s chaos. He was not sure what actual change was going about in himself, but he did feel a certain fresh surge of sensibility. He hated above all things a fool: and he decided never to be one. He felt that he had been a fool before. In his comrade, Ferdinand, he had suddenly discovered the fool. Duluoz reveled in his discovery with a grim smile, and made promises to himself with a set frown to begin being sensible. Surely he would never again announce to the world that he knew the truth and that he had found himself: these he could never claim, he knew, not any more than Voltaire or others of the same illustrious ilk had.”

Kerouac’s narrative style in “The Wastrel” employs a hybrid between what Henry James called “The Invisible Narrator,” and the more personal and up-front style of first-person narrative.

Kerouac worked with this style in other stories of this period like “The Hero,” and “Life is a Tired Thing.” He also did it in his original attempt at “The Vanity of Duluoz” (an incomplete trilogy from 1942). He declared in the Introduction to Part III (The Joy of Duluoz):

“…your author, who prefers to remain anonymous…,”

He did it by structuring a fully realized form of “The Invisible Narrator.”

Kerouac had good reasons to be pleased with his literary progress, these stories and others to follow paved the way for The Town And The City.

“The Wastrel,” where Kerouac cites the guidance of Dostoevsky, is an intriguing study because it demonstrates that these influences were rooted not just in the gloomy characters and themes of the great 19th-century writer, but also in the realm of how the Russian author varied his use of narrative practices. Much time has been spent by literary critics in drawing attention to what techniques of narration worked best for Dostoevsky. In Crime And Punishment, scholars have disclosed that Dostoevsky struggled in deciding whether the story of Raskolnikov would be better served written in the first person or with an unseen narrator. Dostoevsky’s resolution to write the novel with authorial control while still allowing vestiges of first person narrative to remain, is arguably the pre-eminent literary judgement of all time.

Kerouac’s character, Duluoz, in “The Wastrel,” is struggling with his desire to change, his capricious nature led him to “realize the complete dissolution and waste of his life…” After a wasted night of “Blood-red drunkenness,” he awoke in a shabby hotel where, “Homeless winds moaned at the window, and far off, in the direction of the harbor, he could hear ships crying in the cold morning desolation.” Duluoz was horrified that he had shared his room with a 30-year-old woman sprawled out across the second bed in the room. After counting his dwindling financial status, Duluoz despaired:

“He had decided to change, but the madness in him was uncontrollable.”

In language that echoes Jean-Paul Sartre’s masterpiece, “Nausea” (1938), Kerouac wrote:

“A loathsome revulsion rose from his stomach, and he thought he would vomit. He had deserted his dear friend for..this!! Quietly, he dressed and left the room.”

Like Sartre’s Antoine Roquentin, Duluoz is in a state of despair; the constant struggle they bore attempting to change, and the never-ending state of flux that the world imposed on man, left both individuals feeling psychologically nauseous.

“The Hero” is another example of Kerouac exercising and refining his narrative style of prose. The short story was a descriptive piece of writing where Kerouac (the narrator) delivered an account of a few hours in the life of a character who is only referred to as, “The Youth.”

“Presently, he lay down the book and sat up on his couch to lean a disheveled head in his hands. His large, shiny radio (which he had purchased for $40 when he had $50 in his pocket) sat on a disorderly desk emitting Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The youth stared moodily at the wall and hardly heard the symphony orchestra. He feet were housed in tattered slippers, and he wore an untidy old sweater and wrinkled blue trousers. On the large dresser, from which hung several pressed trousers jammed in the drawers, was a half-full bottle of bad whiskey. The youth rose to pace his room, when suddenly, the telephone buzzer above his door buzzed loudly and irritably, shattering the silence of the music-filled room, which was being played low, with its maddening insect-like rasp.”

Without doubt, the character is Kerouac, and the details begin with a depiction of him studying (presumably) in his dorm-room at college. His girlfriend, Edith and later called Janey, visits and treats him to a much needed meal at a nearby restaurant:

“He hadn’t eaten for a whole day, and for him, this was a true hardship, for he was a man of enormous appetite, whether gluttony or nature, he did not suspect, nor care to know.”

“The Youth,” is experiencing the same feelings of distress and anguish that Duluoz experiences in “The Wastrel.” After he finishes the meal with Edith, “the youth” accompanies her to an apartment in Harlem inhabited by a muscular, young black man. There he watches as Janey poses flirtatiously:

“…she lay stretched on the couch across the room, exposing the view of her long beautiful legs, her delicate little high-heeled shoes, and the warm white flesh around her lower thighs…”

Kerouac’s character, though aroused, curiously encounters an onset of distressing feelings:

“…he began to grow full of dismay and vexation; he sank deeper and deeper and thought with anguish of any inkling of pride…the more he thought, the more he grew glum, until finally he sat there, smoking, and gazing gloomily into space.”

The story reached a quick ending as “the youth” departs from the apartment and returns “to his lonely, dark room and lay down on the couch to sleep, feeling in a drowsy wave of agitation…” We are shown exactly the kind of incomplete “Hero” Kerouac wanted to portray with the concluding words of this prescient work of fiction: “…that he had no pride in him, that he was not a man, not even a wretch, but simply and horribly, nothing, nothing, nothing.”

Kerouac’s “Life is a Tired Thing” was also written during this period in 1942. “Tired Thing” resonates with uninhibited, determined descriptions of barrooms, pool halls, and the characters who prowl the environs of these nocturnal haunts. The language and style in “Tired Thing” led to Kerouac’s mastery of urban prose, which influenced scores of other writers, such as, Raymond Carver, Pete Hamill, Charles Bukowski, and songwriter Tom Waits. In pure, lyrically alive prose Jack brings the street alive:

“Oh, hell, thought Joe, I must get back on the beam. This is not good. He drank some more beer, it was a bit warm and rancid. Life is real and earnest, I think. I should be a poet at all times of my life. For instance, there has been Gershwin and Central Park at 5 in the morning singing with Howie. And there has been warm hearth, paper, supper cooking, dog playing with a rubber mouse squeaky, mother and sister talking, Pop’s pipe and race sheets. There has been tired work too, of all kinds….digging ditches in Maine, selling in Hartford, greasy in a garage pit, alone and weary in Maryland, newspaper offices in Massachusetts, a football field in Philadelphia, a college campus in New York, a morning born forest in New England and singing on the road to Mandalay, where the flying fishes play, ay, ay,….. A lot of things, too many for the eager soul to take in all at once. Music, books, art. yes, beer, cheap sluts, hamburgers, brawls, yes, debutantes, Riverside Drive, nite-club, yes, pouch and tobacco and old coat and dime movies, yes, yea, yea. Tears came into Joe’s eyes. They swore about women in back of him as the piano began anew its twang tune. But Joe, he was saved. He knew it, and would try to remember small moments of salvation like these.”

Though tired and sometimes wearying, life, proclaims Kerouac, is sacred. He articulates these reflections at a time when the notion of a beat generation is utterly non-existent. Kerouac’s beatific vision truly was a genuine expression of his sympathetic love of existence. The work, the play, the music and songs of life were what Kerouac felt made life more than worthwhile. The “morning forest,” “Riverside Drive,” the beer and the burgers, the books and “dime movies,” all redeemed “the eager souls” and pointed them towards salvation.