Thursday, September 06, 2007

Jack Kerouac

Someone at LibraryThing recently found fault with my praise of Jack Kerouac, particularly the novels On the Road and The Dharma Bums. This person finds fault with Kerouac’s writing partly because of the drunken lifestyle that Kerouac seemingly glorifies. Having known that lifestyle intimately, the writer thinks that anyone who writes in praise of substance abuse needs to be ignored and dealt with harshly. For both this reason and Kerouac’s inability to edit his writing, the writer believes that the reality of life outweighs a PhD’s praise for Kerouac because of the assumption that PhD’s are divorced from the world and cannot distinguish good prose from bad prose and cannot recognize what damage the description of substance abuse can do to others.

I don’t recall Kerouac ever recommending to his readers that they pursue the life that his characters have known in his novels. Instead, Kerouac sought to describe experiences he has had either alone or with others and people he has known during his experiences. His characters in his prose often drink excessively, smoke marijuana, take amphetamines, and inject heroin. These substances were part of the lifestyle among many of the jazz musicians that Kerouac admired and among those friends and acquaintances of Kerouac’s who refused to conform to the corporate career and the suburban life in postwar America.

In examining Kerouac’s own life, it becomes clear that his heavy drinking toward the end of his life was not something to be admired. No one could possibly admire someone who drank fourteen boiler makers in an hour. Kerouac was in the midst of shortening his life, having been misunderstood by so many Americans, including the literary society in New York. Kerouac was thought to be the stereotypical beatnik and couldn’t be conceptualized in any other way by magazine editors and the reading public when his prose and his own personal life are much more complex. Kerouac in his novels (particularly On the Road and The Dharma Bums) is in a search for meaning, which he pursues in his companionship with his friends, in his drinking and substance abuse, in his pursuit of jazz, in his failed attempts with women, and in his exploration of Buddhism.

Kerouac wasn’t taught in those American literature survey courses or those seminars of American literature that I once had. His work may be taught at institutions other than the Naropa School of Disembodied Poetics, where his prose and poetry are revered. If I were teaching On the Road, I would approach it as a picaresque novel, that is, a novel focusing on the adventures of a vagabond, with the aim of having the students recognize in what ways the novel comments on postwar America.

Within his prose, Kerouac sought to imitate a jazz musician soloing for an extended period of time. On the Road was written long before John Coltrane created his own band and outgrew the Quartet (Jimmy Garrison, McCoy Tyner, and Elvin Jones) in his exploration of pure sound in which his solos often lasted for thirty or forty minutes. Even so, Kerouac in his own way was looking forward to that time in his prose as he pursued his own internal rhythms and his exploration of prose that qualified as music and deserved to be read aloud.

When I read On the Road for the first time, I responded to the descriptions of Sal’s travels through this country and the description of jazz. Not having discovered jazz previously, I wanted to know more about the music that Kerouac described so lovingly and with so much enthusiasm. I certainly don’t blame Kerouac for my own substance abuse that ended up spanning two decades and that started a few years before I picked up Kerouac's On the Road.