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.


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