Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac in Burroughs’s Garden, Villa Mouneria, Tangier, Morocco, 1957; gelatin silver print, 2 1/2 in. x 3 3/4 in. (6.35 cm x 9.53 cm); Collection SFMOMA, Accessions Committee Fund: gift of Collectors Forum, Doris and Donald Fisher, Elaine McKeon, and Chara Schreyer and Gordon Freund; © Allen Ginsberg Trust
Grimly reconciled though one may be to the annual flood of books by and about the Beat Generation, it’s particularly depressing to see Jack Kerouac’s poetry, of all things, enshrined in the Library of America, that magnificent series designed to preserve for posterity the treasures of our national literature. To read through these seven hundred–odd pages of Kerouac’s staggeringly slapdash effusions set in elegant Galliard, outfitted with the usual meticulous editorial apparatus, and bound—like Twain’s novels and Lincoln’s speeches—in a beautiful Library of America volume is enough to trigger a serious attack of cognitive dissonance.
Earnest souls who are prepared to give Kerouac’s outpourings every possible chance, and who yearn for guidance and insight from someone who admires them, can expect no help from the editor Marilène Phipps-Kettlewell, whose introduction mixes pages and pages of quotations from the poems themselves with doses of hyperbole about the composition of verse. (“To be a poet’s poet is to hurt. To hurt singularly, to hurt incomprehensibly, to suffer a wound that never heals, a wound not meant to heal because bleeding is the very nature of this wound—it is a divine gift—it is the wound of a savior.”) She does manage to make a couple of coherent points—namely, that Kerouac was deeply Catholic and grew up surrounded by death—but this doesn’t even begin to help us figure out what to make of these poems, throughout which, consistent in his indifference to technique, Kerouac is clearly speaking to no one but himself.
Indeed, perhaps the best way to try to get through Kerouac’s poems is to approach them not as literary texts but as private ramblings of the sort you might find in the files of a psych ward. Making one’s way through them, one gradually discerns Kerouac’s preoccupations, but a voyeuristic frisson is not the same as an aesthetic experience. Herewith, selected purely at random, one of Kerouac’s creations in its entirety:
Walking on Water
Nothing Ever Happened
Not Ever Happening
Old & New
To The Feast
“Anyway, It Happened”
Actually, that’s one of the book’s wittier and more intelligible items.
The truly diligent reader, unwilling to give up on the effort to find gold in this truckload of ordure—sorry, ore—may be tempted to seek out a key in Joyce Johnson’s new biography of Kerouac, The Voice Is All. Alas, her book doesn’t make the poems seem any better—although it does, admittedly, shed some light on the man behind them. Born in 1922 and raised in Lowell, Massachusetts, the son of French Canadians (Johnson traces his “habit of confession,” the defining attribute of his poems, to his Catholic childhood), Kerouac attended a school where classes were taught in both “classical French” and English, but at home spoke joual, a blunt, politesse-free dialect “which neither Montrealers nor Parisians would consider correct.” This may help explain why he grew up to be torn between propriety and rebellion, French and English, Europe and America, the symbolism of Rimbaud and the naturalism of Saroyan. (Certainly his poems reflect Saroyan’s advice to aspiring writers—quoted by Johnson—to ignore rules, type fast, and “be alive.”) All his life Kerouac was, Johnson underscores, both “poet and hoodlum”—part Rimbaud, part Rambo—with each side, one might add, despising the other (a fact that may account for his youthful participation in the brutal beating of a gay violinist).
Kerouac made it into Columbia University, but—finding education a threat to his freedom (he was less interested in the battles in history books than in “the battle . . . in his stormy psyche”) and seeking a way of life more suited to the great artist he already imagined himself to be—he soon dropped out and led a drunken, peripatetic life among various bums and thugs. Generously (and inexplicably) welcomed back to Columbia in 1943, he promptly began to meet most of the principals in his adult life’s cast of characters: fellow students Allen Ginsberg (whose poetry would be heavily influenced by Kerouac’s) and Lucien Carr; David Kammerer, Carr’s creepy ex-scoutmaster who’d followed him to New York; William Burroughs, an old Harvard chum of Kammerer’s; and Herbert Huncke, a felon and junkie known to the NYPD as “The Creep.”
The members of this “libertine circle” (as Ginsberg fondly called it) were united in the faith that “a plunge to the bottom of existence could, like martyrdom, result in the opening up of consciousness into a kind of beatitude,” and were thus “fascinated by evil and driven by a need to find intensity in experience by any possible means.” They achieved that dubious goal in 1944, when Carr killed Kammerer under dramatic circumstances, making tabloid headlines and plunging them all into notoriety. Later that year, Kerouac wed the first of his two wives and moved with her into a 115th Street flat that became the gang’s clubhouse; in 1946 the ménage was completed by the arrival of Neal Cassady, a footloose, priapic young psychopath who, Ginsberg felt, possessed “the secret of existence” and whom Kerouac, finding him the essence of authenticity and “cool,” would immortalize as Dean Moriarty in his novel On the Road.
Objectively speaking, Kerouac and his pals were little more than a bunch of unprepossessing misfits. And yet—with their glib contempt for capitalism and mainstream society, their romanticization of criminality, drug abuse, and the tragedy of mental illness, and their narcissistic rebranding as virtues of their own shiftlessness and dissolution—they would turn out to be, to an amazing extent, the seed of pretty much everything that was rotten about the American 1960s and their aftermath. Echoing Burroughs’s dictum that “the only possible ethic is to do what one wants to do,” Kerouac—who viewed himself as one of history’s “great ravaged spirits,” along with Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, and Hitler (yes, Hitler)—justified his colossal selfishness by pretending it was a philosophy of life, which he called “self-ultimacy.” It’s hard to decide which is more of a miracle—that all these self-regarding pseudo-intellectuals managed to find one another, or that they then managed to spark a cultural revolution that transformed the Western world.
Johnson, who had an affair with Kerouac in 1957–58 and has published a collection of their letters, tells his story effectively enough (concluding it, by the way, in 1951, eighteen years before his death), but often appears, shall we say, to miss the point. She actually seems to take things like “self-ultimacy” seriously, referring to it as an “idea” that he “formulate[d].” Kerouac scorned one splendid opportunity after another, yet Johnson plainly shares his conviction that “people like himself” were excluded “from the American dream.” She tirelessly catalogues the whole sick crew’s innumerable warts, but gives every indication of buying Ginsberg’s claim, in the famous opening line of Howl, that they were “the best minds of [their] generation.”
In the end, perhaps the most complimentary thing one can say about Kerouac is that he was the only Beat who wavered in his commitment to their facile rejection of responsibility and embrace of eternal childishness. He had, Johnson writes, a “love affair with decadence,” but also “railed against [his fellow Beats’] decadence”—now and then making an effort, at least, to find and keep a job, be a good husband, make his father proud, scrape together some cash for Mom. It’s too bad he never made a comparable attempt to lift his poetry above the level of drivel, but then again, contemporaries of his who spent their adult lives producing luminous, powerful, and brilliantly crafted poems—among them Louis Simpson, Donald Justice, and Frederick Morgan—have yet to be immortalized by the Library of America.