Sunday, January 24, 2010

Making Topeka Holy

Neal Cassady on the left and Jack Kerouac on the right

Over the last several weeks, I've been reading as much Jack Kerouac as I could squeeze in before my classes started back up. I resumed reading On the Road , and finally finished it.

What struck me about that book early on was how life-affirming it was. I hadn't expected that. I knew that Kerouac was supposed to be a voice for the Beat generation, a hipster who had hung out with the likes of Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, and so I thought it might be a cool, detached, chronicle of hipness.

Instead, Kerouac exults over the tiniest details in his surroundings, in the people he hangs out with, and all that goes on. His prose exudes an exhuberant joy of life, and a fascination with the American countryside.

I am totally smitten by this book. Kerouac's way with words is so original. Kerouac's parents were French-Canadian immigrants and he spoke only their dialet, Joual, until he was six. He has said that since English wasn't his own language, it was easier to play around with it, and put "French imagery" into it.

I was relieved to learn that no one has made a movie of On the Road yet. There is no way anyone could do it justice. And they would probably get it all wrong. They'd emphasize the wild side of it --the parties, the escapades of the hyperactive, hypersexual, manic Dean Moriarty, based on Kerouac's real-life friend, Neal Cassady.

In the book, which is transparently autobiographical, Sal Paradise is the character based on Kerouac's life, and he hitchhikes across the country and hops freight trains, as the real Kerouac did. He hooks up with Dean in Denver and they take a series of trips back and forth across the continent. I did begin to lose patience with Dean, who is so addicted to being in the moment, he takes practically no responsibilty for himself or for how his actions affect others. But because we experience Dean through Sal's point of view, his humanity is elaborately sketched out for us, so he is still a likeable character.

It's a myth that Kerouac wrote the book in three days, while high on Benny's. The truth is, Kerouac was working on the book for years, keeping notes, journals and travel diaries, that he hoped to use in a book about the road. He started the book several times, and tried out various passages with different characters. His efforts to work on the book and re-start the book are found in his personal writings.

When he finally sat down to write "the original scroll" that would become the published On the Road, he was well-prepared, just as a jazz musician who blows a well-improvised solo knows his craft and has spent years practicing. Kerouac wrote the scroll from April 2 to April 22nd in 1951. He wanted it to be like the road was, long and continuous, so he taped sheets of paper togetherand put this one long strip of paper into his typewriter. He wanted to write it fast, without using paragraphs, "because the road is fast."

Kerouac dispells the myth that he wrote the book hyped up on bennies. In one of his letters to Neal Cassady he says: "

I wrote that book on COFFEE, remember said rule. Benny, tea, anything I KNOW none as good as coffee for real mental power kicks.”

Well then. I used to wonder if taking drugs would help me write. Now I know that I need to get back on the coffee. Goodbye stomach lining! Hello literary success.

Kerouac also wrote to Neal that "of course since April 22nd I've been typing and revising. Thirty days on that." Kerouac re-typed the scroll on separate pages to make it more appealing to publishers.

After having started the book in 1948, Kerouac finally saw the book published in 1957. One of the best descriptions of the book comes from Kerouac scholar Douglas Brinkley,

"If you read On the Road, it's a valentine to the United States," he says. "All this is pure poetry for almost a boy's love for his country that's just gushing in its adjectives and descriptions. You know, Kerouac used to say, 'Anybody can make Paris holy, but I can make Topeka holy."

The book was a big hit, and suddenly Kerouac was cast as the Beat spokesperson, but Kerouac was not pleased by this or the ways the book was misunderstood. He reportedly hated the beatnik routines on TV, and he criticized those "who think that the Beat Generation means crime, delinquency, immorality, amorality."

For Kerouac, the Beat Generation was about "a weariness with all the forms, all the conventions of the world." This is what sets Sal Paradise out on the road in the first place. He leaves his cozy East coast home and sets out hitching for rides, planning to end up in California.

I like what an article on the NPR website says about the book:

"At the heart of the novel is Jack’s quest and that he’s asking the same questions that keep you awake at night and fill your days. What is life? What does it mean to be alive when death, the shrouded stranger, is gaining at your heels? Will God ever show his face? Can joy kick darkness?"

"This quest is interior, but the lessons of the road, the apprehended magic of the American landscape described like a poem, are applied to illuminate and amplify the spiritual journey. Kerouac writes to be understood. The road is the path of life and life is a road."

After finishing On the Road, I read Dharma Bums, another autobiographical novel, this time depicting Kerouac's time hanging out with friends at Berkeley, their incredible hiking and mountain-climbing in the High Sierras, with descriptions of breath-taking beauty, and Kerouac's summer job all alone in a look-out station for the National Forest Service in the mountains of northern Washington state. The imagery is absolutely invigorating. It makes you want to go running screaming out of the office and head for the great outdoors, camping under the stars.

Now I'm reading The Vanity of Duluoz, in which Kerouac, once again in novel form, writes of his actual life as a young man in the late thirties, and during war-time. He won a football scholarship to Columbia university in New York City. But his sophomore year, he left one Saturday night with a suitcase. His coach said, "You have to be back by 8:00 tomorrow night!" But he didn't go back, because he wanted to be a WRITER and he needed to be writing, by god, and so he found a job as a grease monkey and rented a small room and typed on an old Underwood typewriter every night.

Well, all kinds of things happen, but eventually the war interrupts everything. He joins the military but just can't stomach military discipline, so eventually gets a psychiatric discharge. He joins the merchant marine and goes out on several ships, where he is nearly blown up.

And that's where I am now. The events of this book precede his free-wheeling, vagabond days of On the Road, but he wrote this book a few years before his death at the age of 47. Kerouac was an alcoholic and apparently died from alcohol-related causes. Whatever the case, he was brilliant.


  1. I love this post. To be able to write your reaction to literature--well, it's plain hard! You did it, Simone and I found myself ravenously devouring every word to get back the feelings I had when I read On The Road and Dharma Bums. I miss them. It was a pure experience just reading them. I haven't read The Vanity of Duluoz, but I have read Lonesome Traveler--another love and I started The Subterraneans--it's okay--there still is that feel about what it was like in the late 50s. You know, the 50s that you never thought happened, before you realized the 50s was more than just June Cleaver and poodle skirts. Thanks for the memories!

  2. Well, glad to hear that Lonesome Traveler is another good Kerouac read. I will look forward to reading it when I'm done with my classes --or maybe during spring break. I was afraid that maybe I'd already read all the good stuff and there wasn't going to be much good Kerouac left for me to read.

  3. Yes you get it! This book has changed my life. I want to talk to others about it. I do podcast I want to do a special episode for it. Think you would be interested, if so mind contacting me at