On the Road with Kerouac and the Beat Generation

Diane McCormick and I will be spending the week discussing Kerouac’s On the Road. We’re starting today with a background on Kerouac and the Beat Movement. Since Diane enjoys doing this, and I don’t, she has graciously consented to writing this . Enjoy.

When Jack Kerouac put on his huaraches and walked out of Lowell, Massachusetts, to hitchhike to Denver, I was nine years old. When On the Road, the story of his adventures was published, I was a sophomore at the University of Oregon.

If I recall correctly my reaction to the book was how could anyone live like that, existing on apple pie and ice cream, no clean sheets, no baths, no money, sleeping with strangers, smoking cigarettes and drinking–OK, cigarettes and beer, maybe–but the rest of it? Yuk! I realize now my reaction was that of a middle class college sophomore who never considered any other way of life, had never been out of the Willamette Valley, had figured joining the establishment some day was a worthy goal– and I married an Army officer to prove it.

Re-reading the book this month still produces the Yuk factor, but that is tempered with a wistf ulness–Gee, maybe I could had been a little more adventurous. Sal, Dean, and the guys seemed to have so much fun, at least in the beginning. Then I remember my last trip to New York, business class on American (I’m a Frequent Flyer miles junkie), tickets to Broadway plays, drinks at the Waldorf, dinner at Sardis–no, Kerouac and I would still not be best buds.

But I do recognize and admire his tenacity and his belief in himself as a writer. From there comes his influence and the huge debt writers who have come after owe him. He offered another way of viewing the world and whether I could ever join him is irrelevant. I do appreciate him.

If you want to influence others, be the first with an idea

Just how creative Kerouac was and how much of another way of thinking he offered the thoughtful public can be see n by reviewing who else was writing in the fifties: Ray Bradbury, Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, C.P. Snow, Bertrand Russell, Robert Penn Warren, Nevil Shute, Tennessee Williams, Conrad Richter, J.D. Salinger, Herman Wouk, William Faulkner, Graham Greene, James Jones,Truman Capote, Ralph Ellison, Dylan Thomas, Agatha Christie, John Steinbeck, Edna Ferber, Thomas B. Costain, Ian Fleming, Arthur Miller, Saul Bellow, Leon Uris, Thornton Wilder, William Golding, J.R.R. Tolkien, Albert Camus, William Faulkner, Nevil Shute,C. Day Lewis, Iris Murdoch, Eugene O’Neil, William Saroyan, Gore Vidal, William Inge, Dr. Seuss, Ayn Rand, Bernard Malamud, Leon Uris, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, James Thurber, Robert Penn Warren, Gunter Grass,Vance Packard, Allen Drury, John Updike, James Michener, Philip Roth,Lillian Hellmann, John O’Hara, and Harper Lee. This was the literary establishment from whom Kerouac would break. One has to admire his stamina.

In the first paragraph of On the Road Sal Paradise, the narrator of the novel and Kerouac himself, speaks of his feeling that everything was dead. I venture to say that we were all feeling a little dead. Americans had just come from an economic depression ( my family lost the Willamette Valley homestead awarded in 1850; my dad had to drop out of college) to World War II, to the witch hunts of Joseph McCarthy. Neither do other notables of the 50s bring joy: Alger Hiss, the Rosenbergs, and though we didn’t know it then, Fidel Castro. In the 50s the hydrogen bomb was developed, North Korea invaded South Korea, the U.S. recognized Vietnam and began sending supplies and arms with instructions; the McCarran Act to restrict Communist infiltration was passed. Miltown tranquilized us. In 1952 16,000 Germans escaped from East to West Berlin. The birth control pill and antihistamines were marketed. Dwight D. Eisenhower became president; Elizabeth II became queen. In 1953 a link was proved between cigarette smoking and lung cancer. It was not an easy time. And yet most of us knuckled down, went to school and to work, married, cooked dinner, got jobs. Kerouac showed us there was another way. There are days when I kick myself for not joining his Beat Generation.

"I’m not a Beatnik, I’m a Catholic."
Jack Kerouac

Under the influence of William S. Burroughs and Neal Cassady, American author Jack Kerouac, 1922-69, became the popular banner carrier for the Beat Generation which originated in the 1950s. Kerouac described himself as “actually not ‘beat’” but a “strange solitary crazy Catholic mystic.” And don’t call him a Beatnik. He deplored the evolution from Beat to Beatnik.

Born in Lowell, Massachusetts, to a Catholic middle class family (his father was a printer and businessman), Jack had an early private Catholic education at St. Joseph’s Parochial School and attended Columbia University on a football scholarship, but he quit school his sophomore year to join the Merchant Marine.

He appeared to be close to his mother throughout his life, eventually living with her in Northport, Long Island, and then St. Petersburg, Florida. He also had a sister and a brother who died at the age of nine.

He had said his final plans were to “live in a hermitage in the woods, continue writing quietly into old age with mellow hopes of Paradise which comes to everybody anyway.”

One can only hope he found the Paradise he searched for. Jack would be dead from complications of alcoholism at the age of 47.

At age 25 he began his journey from New York to California and back again several times, writing about his adventures in his most famous novel, On The Road which wasn’t published until 1957. His novel The Town and the City was publis hed in 1950; he had written his first novel at the age of nine. In Lowell he was influenced by Sebastian Sampas, a local poet who was killed in WW II. Interestingly, Jack’s third wife was also a Sampas, perhaps a sister. He was also impressed with the adventurous Jack London and admitted to be influenced by Saroyan and Hemingway and later Tom Wolfe.

Kerouac published 19 works in the years between 1950-69.

While he wrote and waited for publishers to recognize him, he did just about everything to support himself when he could not borrow or live off his friends. Most of his work involved working on ships, and railroads, but he also was a soda jerk, cotton picker, forest service fire lookout, and construction laborer.

On the Road bro ught notoriety and success. Now he was the leader of a literary movement and a way of life he thought was a passing fad. He was 35, older, wiser, sadder, and asked to be the young guru of a nihilistic life style built on drugs, sex, life on the road. He wasn’t the same man anymore, not so innocent and much more intelligent than the narrator of the novel, young Sal Paradise. Critics scoffed at the Beat Generation of writers, which must have hurt tremendously. One can say a lot about the work of Kerouac, some of it not very encouraging, but I think he took his work very seriously and honestly believed in his words. The rejection along with the fame–again the duality so apparent in Kerouac’s life– led him to alcohol (although his father was an alcoholic, too). He abandoned Buddhism, becoming dependent and irrational. One biographer likens Kerouac to Kurt Coba n, the Seattle musician, who also truly suffered.

Kerouac’s last years were spent living with his mother in Northport, Long Island where he continued playing a game of “baseball,” a card game he created, drinking cheap sweet wine like Thunderbird, the winos’ drink of choice. He remained a Catholic although his Roman faith remained colored by Buddhism.

A few years before his death he married his third wife, Stella Stampas; the first two marriages had lasted only a few months. Stella, a childhood acquaintance from Lowell, is described as “maternalistic and older.” Her function seems to have been as a caregiver to Kerouac’s aging mother.

About this time in his forties Kerouac became a political conservative, supporting the war in Vietnam and befriending William F. Buckley. Wouldn’t you love to hear those conversations?

"You are a genius all the time."

The word itself seems to have come from Burroughs’ as sociation with the street hustler Herbert Huncke who used the word “beat” to mean down and out, as in ”dead beat.” Burroughs passed the word to Ginsberg and Kerouac. Kerouac liked the word but thought of a “beat” as someone with a certain spirituality as in beatific, discussing his definition in the Playboy article “The Origins of the Beat Generation,” June 1959. In another interview he described it as a “kind of furtiveness,” an “inner knowledge.” The term was used to describe a vision, not an idea. Through time misunderstandings took place and the word evolved into a label for anyone living a bohemian life, rebelling against the norms of social manners and decency.

The San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen is credited with coining the phrase “Beatnik” after the 1958 launching of the Russian satellite “sputnik.” He appeared a little disgusted with the Beatniks, saying they were only beat when it “comes to work.” They were quite capabl e of talking, writing, attending parties.

So what is the fascination with this clique who established the Beat Generation? For me it’s voyeurism, pure and simple. They lived a life, albeit a brief one, being careless, goofy, selfish, destructive and professing to love it. I never would have been allowed into their inner circle. I’m way too up tight. I eat my vegetables and quit smoking a long time ago. But there is an attraction to their lives and like the attraction to the old south, it probably existed only for rare moments when their bellies were full, their feet were dry, and they had gas and cigarette money for the next journey.

The Beat writers saw themselves on a quest for beauty and truth, allying themselves with mysticism. The works themselves were to be streams of consciousness written down spontaneously and not to be altered or edited. “If you change it…the gig is shot,” said Kerouac.

The Beat Movement began at the end of W.W.II at Columbia Univ ersity and Times Square although San Francisco often claims it and shouted an irresistible need to be free from societal conformity. The flow and rhythm of the Beat writing took much of its inspiration from the music of the day, from the black jazz clubs that blew and wailed their improvisations late into the night.

Beat writing is about being alive and living in a moment more innocent than angry, being on the road, conversing about life with close friends, being free and unafraid. It is not about being violent. It was later that the Beats became Beatniks who threatened mayhem.

Interest in the Beat Generation, the members and their works, continues. Many biographies, new editions, criticisms were published into the late 1990s. Check Amazon.com for interesting material. Some of the really good stuff is hard to find or expensive. Carolyn Cassady’s Heart Beat now sells for $198. Holy Goof, a biography of Neal Cassady by Plummer, is out of print but may be purchased used from Amazon.

The Beat Generation was peopled with interesting, some outrageous, personalities. There is Jack Kerouac, of course, the writer chosen by the others to be the leader, the novelist inspired by Neal Cassady’s free style letters. Allen Ginsberg, the poet, and Lucien Carr met Kerouac at Columbia. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the poet and businessman, alive today, owner of City Lights Book Store in San Francisco joined the group in the early days. Herbert Huncke, the Times Square hustler who passed the word “beat” to William S. Burroughs, the older brilliant addict from downtown were members. Neal Cassady is often named as the inspiration for Kerouac, the icon of the movement, the street cowboy from Denver who remained a friend but never profited from their success. He married many times, settling with Carolyn Cassady in Los Gatos. In the 60s Cassady struck out on the road with Ken Kesey. He died in St. Miguel de Allende, Mexico, after falling asleep counting railroad ties to the next town. He lay outside all night and did not recover from the exposure. John Clellon Holmes, novelist, Gary Snyder, the Zen poet who influenced Kerouac with Buddhist religion, Chandler Brossard, Kenneth Rexroth, and Gregory Corso were all charter members. Walt Whitman would have been accepted into the Beat Writers’ Group along with the Oregon writer Ken Kesey