First published in OZ, 1969.
Re-published in David Widgery, Preserving Disorder, Pluto Press, London 1989, pp.62-68.
Downloaded with thanks from REDS – Die Roten.
Mmarked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
The Beats are at present doing well in the laundromat of style and a complicated and scholarly circle of enthusiasts meet and correspond, in part through Dave Moore’s excellent little mag The Kerouac Connection. Whether this leads to people actually reading Kerouac rather than attempting to dress like him, I don’t know. But he was a prodigiously gifted writer quite apart from the myth. And his premature death was a much deeper shock than the regrettably predictable death of the various rock stars our generation is supposed to have spent the 1970s mourning.
Ti Jean, Vanity Duluoz, Sal Kerouac, you’re gone now. You died age 46 in your house in Lowell, Mass., where you lived with your crippled mother and suspicious wife of one year, Stella, and they decided to do to you the American death thing and have you mummified, thread your veins with formaldehyde, tie a bow tie in position and clad your face in certain deathly cosmetics. And though Ginsberg, Orlovsky and Holmes stayed by you gently all night, dawn was soon and a Massachusetts funeral.
To read Kerouac when you were 15, scrabbling through the Ks of Slough Public Library, was a coded message of discontent; the sudden realisation of an utter subversiveness and licence. He legitimised all the papery efforts of a child writer, dream books, pretend novellas, invented games, planned and described walkouts. He expressed a solution to the pent-upness, exitlessness of youth, that feeling of wanking off inside all the time. Everyone I know remembers where they were when they read On the Road, whether newly expelled from school, public librarians (trainee) in Hammersmith, car park attendants in Dorking, knowledgeable Eisenhower drunks or hospital porters, because of the sudden sense of infinite possibility. You could, just like that, get off out of it into infinite hitchhiking futures. Armed only with a duffle coat, you could be listening to wild jazz on the banks of the Tyne or travelling east-west, across the Pennines. Mostly we never actually went, or the beer wore off by Baldcock High Street and you were sober and so cold. But we were able to recognise each other by that fine, wild, windy prose and the running-away motif that made so much sense. I, like ten thousand other fifth formers, wrote series of letters in imitation of Kerouac, spiralling indiscriminate word patterns and being able, in his shadow, to write thewordstogether if I so wanted to. A Canadian friend who thought he was Dean Moriarty sent me a notebook bound in smelly red cellophane about his runaway with an autocycle and packet of Marmite sandwiches which he was forced to abandon in a snow-drift after two miles. The notebook was about 80 pages yet seemed proper and as it ought to happen and all accountable within the terms of spontaneous bop prosody. Jazz was the other part of our underground because it meant beer and beards and arguing about the 4th trumpet in Kenton’s reconstructed front line like stamp collectors.
We would get three-quarters drunk and listen to Charlie Parker who seemed to be trying to sound like Kerouac too if you listened to the breath sounds and the oral punctuation. “Yes, jazz and bop, in the sense of a, say, tenor man drawing a breath and blowing a phrase on his saxophone, till he runs out of breath, and when he does, his sentence, his statement has been made ... that’s how I therefore separate my sentences as breath separations of the mind ... there’s the raciness and freedom and humour of jazz instead of all that dreary analysis and things like ‘James entered the room and lit a cigarette. He thought Jane might have thought this too vague a gesture.’” When Hoagy Carmichael heard Bix Beiderbeck, he fell off his chair. When Tom Paine was in hiding, he found shelter at the home of William Blake. “Now I’d been getting bored with the stereotyped changes that were being used all the time and I kept thinking there’s bound to be something else. I could hear it sometimes but I couldn’t play it. I was doing alright until I tried double tempo on Body and Soul. Everyone fell out laughing. I went home and cried and didn’t play again for three months.”
Kerouac’s writing started with home-drawn comic strips, home-made comix, whole childhood exercise book novels, long systems for horse racing and basketball games in the comfort of your front room, played with symbols and pieces of paper money.
At 18 I read Hemingway and Saroyan and began writing terse little stories in that general style. Then I read Tom Wolfe and began to write in the rolling style. Then I read Joyce and wrote a juvenile novel like Ulysses called Vanity of Duluoz. Then came Dostoevsky. Finally, I entered a romantic phase with Rimbaud and Blake which I called my “self-ultimacy period”, burning what I wrote in order to be self-ultimate. At the age of 24, I was groomed for the Western idealistic concept of letters from reading Goethe’s Dichtung und Wahreit. The discovery of a style of my own based on a spontaneous get-with-it, came after reading the marvellous free narrative letters of Neal Cassady, a great writer who happens to be the Dean Moriarty of On the Road.
Cassady might, reluctantly, be compared to Trotsky in his historical span. Just as Trotsky is the sole link between Bolshevism and the post-war revolutionary movement, so it was Cassady who was the only human link between the West Coast beats and the post-Leary hippies, acting as the driver of Ken Kesey’s acidic bus Further. He stayed magnificently the same. In Kerouac he’s this incredible talker, lost into a blue streak that’s going to last all his life, pulsating even when silent,
where once Dean would have talked his way out, he now feels silent himself, but standing in front of everyone, ragged and broken and idiotic, right in front of the light bulbs, his mad face covered with sweat and throbbing veins, saying Yes, yes, yes’ as though tremendous revelations were pouring into him the whole time now, and I am convinced they were, and the others suspected as much and were frightened. He was BEAT-the-root, the soul of beatific.
And 10 years later, when drug-casseroled ex-novelist Kesey makes his American migration, there Cassady sat driving the bus.
Cassady had been a rock on this trip, the totally dependable person. When everyone else was stroked out with fatigue or the various pressures, Cassady could be still counted on the move. It was as if he never slept and didn’t need to. For all his wild driving, he always made it through the last oiled gap in the maze, like he knew it would be there all the time, which it always was. When the bus broke down, Cassady drove into its innards and fixed it. He changed tyres, lugging and heaving and jolting and bolting with his fantastic muscles popping out striation by striation and his basilic veins gorged with blood and speed.
Now Cassady’s dead too. His body was found beside a railroad track outside the town of San Miguel de Allende in Mexico. It was said that he had been despondent and felt that he was growing old and had been on a long downer and had made the mistake of drinking alcohol on top of barbiturates. His body was cremated.
Cassady’s writing had started, like Kerouac’s, in the slow, painstaking, creative-writing-course-by-post way. Then he wrote The First Third, a novel about his childhood with his alcoholic father in the Denver alley wineshops and Greyhound station johns and the way they talked to each other (like Kesey’s acid-soaked Pranksters) with “minds weakened by liquor and an obsequious manner of existence, seeming continually preoccupied with bringing up short observations of obvious trash, said in such a way as to be instantly recognisable by the listener, who has heard it all before and whose own prime concern was to nod at everything said, then continue the conversation with a remark of his own, equally transparent and loaded with generalities.” Cassady sent Kerouac a 40,000 word letter (now called the Joan Anderson letter) which Kerouac describes as “the greatest piece of writing I ever saw, better’n anyone in America, or at least enough to make Melville, Twain, Dreiser, Wolfe, I dunno who, spin in their graves” and which disappeared overboard into the sea. Kerouac and Cassady could talk each other into a state of semi-trance where their unrepressed word-slinging hotted up into a big shoot-out, bullet words whizzing backwards and forwards with words that were slippery without being gelatinous and made you tremble when you read them. “We did much fast talking, on tape recorders, way back in 1952 and listened to them so much we both got the secret of LINGO in telling a tale and figured that was the only way to express the speed and tension and the extatic tomfoolery of the age.”
Kerouac/Cassady learned from this to curve and move their acoustic prose in the air, sustaining the long line by breath, rubbish image, riff, dazzling phrasing making an awkward tightrope walk like Chaplin about to fall but never quite doing so since able to “add alluvials to the end of your line when all is exhausted but something has to be said for some specified irrational reason.” It’s Kerouac’s sound, not the coterie poetics of Creely/Olson that is behind Ginsberg’s rush on language. And from all three Americans the florid young British poets of the 1950s fed, snatching bootlegged copies from Ferlingetti’s City Lights Press and the other artistic contraband which made possible the dense undergrowth of the British small poetry magazines (especially Poetmeat, early Underdog, and the shortbreathed and “substantial” New Departures). Mike Horovitz, whose mattress prose, too, is interior sprung, describes the impact of the American orals on off-the-page British poetry wonderfully well in his afterwords to Penguin’s Poetry of the Underground in Britain.
Ferlingetti had always been social and political – “all this droopy corn about the beat generation and its being ‘existentialist’ is as phoney as a four dollar piece of lettuce ... only the dead are disengaged. And the wiggy nihilism of the beat hipster, if carried to its logical consequences, actually means the death of the creative artist himself.”
Ginsberg increasingly became political after his decision to “expose self and accuse America”. But sez Kerouac, “I agree with Joyce, as Joyce said to Ezra Pound in the 1920s, ‘Don’t bother me with politics, the only thing that interests me is style’.” Nowadays he seems to dismiss the holy goofing groin cats and wine lips of the San Francisco poetry gang: “Ferlingetti and Ginsberg, they are very socialistically minded and wanted everyone to live in some sort of frantic kibbutz, solidarity and all that. I’m a loner.” Kerouac was the lonesome traveller jumping out of cars, into fruit waggons, merchant holds, going and going as if by his movement alone he could became a molecule in a marvellous unity. He deeply wanted to believe in a total unification of the Golden Buddhist eternity; his religion was his ultimate resource and he saw it mostly in nature; the misty swelling and blooming of the seasons, sea and redwood trees he watched over for a spell. This was the wonderful still centre within all his energy; the baby Ti Jean with kitten and candy bar on a pillow while the absolutely evil Dr Sax caused the swollen oily river to rise sucking and slapping in the streets of Lowell.
It is said that as a child Kerouac was discovered trying to fuck the world; found with his prick buried in soil.
This handsome travelling man who sings and writes across the hugeness of the States is a great figure of the real migrant American. In the false America of the 1950s of Ike and Perry Mason’s fight against freedom, in the symbol-worshipping, silent, bad sociology writing, thick 1950s, his very existence was a protest. Against that world’s addiction to the inanimate, Kerouac’s response was not political or critical – just damned them with his energy. Against the moral ruin of the world, he replied in every second of his hour with the creative act. He insulted them, almost without knowing it himself, with his exuberance, his wonder, his emotions, almost crazed by the torrent of experience and finally devoured by its own appetite. Compared with him, the alleged novelists of dissent on this side of the Atlantic look and were mean, conservative and trivial.
But he seemed imprisoned within his wonder and his age, the 1950s. He doesn’t so much develop as a writer as accumulate, reworking the themes of his witness of the Beats, of his brother Gerard and family, of Mexico City and Paris with a steadily growing intensity. The compulsive nature of his writing could turn pathological; drugs and writing were the organising principles of his life, and death. “Notoriety and public confession in literary form is a frazzler of the heart you were born with, believe me.” He was unable to alter the pace set by his mind which was as out of breath at 45 as it was at his hallucinated 15. He wrote, like Victor Serge, single spacing on a continuous typewriter roll at a punishing rate (in Tangier he typed Naked Lunch for Burroughs). The Subterraneans was written in three days, a physical feat much harder than the athletic struggles of the windy field, leaving him as white as a sheet and having lost 15 pounds and looking strange in the mirror. His babble-brook book Sartori in Paris was written on cognac and malt whisky. Tristessa, the fine mystic novel about a Mexican girl faint for morphine, and the remarkable Mexico City poems, were direct from his life in Mexico where his life and writing intersected dangerously. The vain records of the pageantry of the West-Coast Beats Desolation Angels, Big Sur and The Subs indicate the pace at which he lived, the tension level at which the books are charged. Book of Dreams used even his sleeping life for material “in a style of a person half awake from sleep and ripping it out in pencil by the bed ... yes, pencil ... what a job, bleary eyes, insaned mind bemused and mystified by sleep, details that pop out even as you write them, you don’t know what they mean till you wake up, have coffee, look at it and see the logic of the dream from the language itself.” He was the last American to write quite like this: the great Romantic, a naked sheet wound round experience and registering it in wonder – “the true story of what I saw and how I saw it.”
As he grew unrelentingly older, he grew, logically, patriotic and sentimental. A rare public meeting he spoke to in Southern Italy was broken up by dumbfounded Italian kids when he defended the American war in Vietnam. His drunkenness, male adventuring, lumberjack clothes (now looking uncannily like the handsome Ronald Reagan) were of a different world now. He must have sensed it was impossible to keep hold of his old human universe when he retreated to his bungalow in Lowell. Like Dylan, his quietism is only objectionable if you interpret it politically; which of course you have to. When people started fighting back against the monster America, the nutcase radicals, Trotskyists, Black Panthers, they do so in a way that excludes him ... even disgusts him. For now protest is nowhere near enough. It’s too conventional and we need to fight America with all the science it is using to destroy us. And we must win.
We have to blaspheme against Kerouac’s religiosity and be wary of his colossal nervous system. He is a precious voice but from the past. When we win we can name streets and stars after him.
Last updated on 29.11.2004