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.


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