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Kerouac reads at the Seven Arts Cafe in New York in 1959. Many beatnik poets would regularly read their work at the Seven Arts Photograph by Burt Glinn
On the road again

On the road again

Kerouac reads at the Seven Arts Cafe in New York in 1959. Many beatnik poets would regularly read their work at the Seven Arts Photograph by Burt Glinn

Jack Kerouac’s romantic image might have outlasted his greatest work

I don’t remember where I bought my Penguin edition of the Beat Generation Bible in the early 1970s. My copy of On The Road cost 75p, perhaps from the late-lamented Compendium Books in Camden Town. Its yellowing pages remained largely unread. English literature at school offered no context for such a novel, its style (autobiographical fiction), its milieu, its rawness. Or its jazz prosody: Bird and Parker meant nothing to me then: how could I possibly connect with a story about “the children of the American bop night”? 

And perhaps it’s true that you have to be barrelling across America, high on something, to get into the groove of Jack Kerouac’s plotless “spontaneous prose”. Cheap air travel to the United States was only just beginning when I first encountered it so Tulsa, Phoenix, San Francisco, and other waystations of so many hit songs could only be imagined. (When in 1982 I flew west for the first time I was disappointed to discover that Salinas, birthplace of John Steinbeck, and namechecked in Kris Kristofferson’s Me and Bobby McGee, was essentially a large salad bowl.)

This March marks the centenary of the birth of Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac, the second son of a French-Canadian family in Lowell, Massachusetts, a mill town known as “Little Canada”. He grew up speaking French. Only when the Kerouac archive was opened at the New York Public Library in 2006 was it revealed that he had written diaries, letters, drafts and even an entire novel – Sur Le Chemin, a precursor to On the Road – entirely in French.

Published in 1957, On the Road itself was Kerouac’s second novel. He’d made his debut seven years earlier with The Town and The City, more conventional but no less autobiographical, heavily influenced by Thomas Wolfe.

On the Road divided critics. While Gilbert Millstein raved in The New York Times about “the most beautifully executed, the clearest and the most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as ‘beat’ and whose principal avatar he is”, Norman Mailer thought it “lacked, discipline, honesty and a sense of the novel”. Truman Capote, who doubtless felt Kerouac’s success might eclipse his own breakthrough with Breakfast at Tiffany’s, famously hissed: “That’s not writing, that’s typing”. 

Kerouac’s fellow Beat Generation poets Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso (left and centre) and publisher Barney Rosset in New York in 1957, photographed by Burt Glinn

Hunter S. Thompson was also savage: “The man is an ass, a mystic boob with intellectual myopia,” a judgment he revised 40 years later, acknowledging that he “never would have become a writer were it not for On the Road… Kerouac was a great influence on me”.

As with Ulysses, which inspired On the Road, and its author James Joyce, whom Kerouac aspired to emulate, it’s possible that Jack’s Beat bible remains among the great unread novels of our age. Yet, despite its undoubted masculinity – the way of the 1950s, and 1960s – and despite the fact that the Beats were, as Allen Ginsberg put it, “a boy gang”, the novel continues to resonate, even in today’s woke age. 

Ann Douglas, Professor Emerita of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia, Kerouac’s alma mater, acknowledges that students today criticise it from a variety of angles, including its misogyny and its condescension toward Mexicans. Yet her seminar on the Beats is always vastly over-subscribed and the assignment to write an autobiographical essay in Kerouac’s style – “a summons to put aside fear of what people will say or what your family expects and to find a voice that is really their own” – leads students to do “the best writing of their careers”. 

Rachel Brandon, a twentysomething who hails from Tennessee, now works in Kerouac’s old stomping ground of Greenwich Village. She’d picked up a copy of On the Road in a thrift shop. “ I read the novel quickly, becoming immersed in Jack’s adventure traveling West by whatever way he could get there. It reminded me of a younger version of myself, and to slow down – interact with the people around me and work tirelessly on my craft or art the way Jack did his writing,” But Brandon admits  no one in her circle shares her passion. 

Whether or not Kerouac’s most famous work is read much these day, his name and image are enduringly influential, not least because they have been so widely exploited commercially. “Kerouac wore khakis” declared a 1993 advertisement for Gap. As his friend William Burroughs once put it, he has “sold a trillion Levi’s, a million espresso coffee machines”. This year, Kim Jones, Director of Menswear at Dior, has launched a Kerouac collection that he describes as “a little bit like a suitcase you might take on a road trip”, though Kerouac actually stuffed his check shirts and socks into an Army-issue rucksack. 

Kerouac outside a Lower East Side apartment in 1953. Photograph by Allen Ginsberg

He is frequently referred to by rock stars: Dylan read On the Road in 1959 and said it changed his life, even if the credit for that change usually goes to Bound for Glory, Woody Guthrie’s picaresque memoir which has similarities. Ray Manzarek suggested that “if Jack Kerouac had never written On the Road, The Doors would never have existed”. Tom Waits has said that “Before I found Kerouac, I was kinda groping for something to hang on to, stylistically”. Even Noel Gallagher chose On the Road as his Desert Island book.

And Kerouac is the most rock’n’roll of writers, even if he actually hated the music’s post-Beat hippie counterculture. Not long before he died in 1969, he was a guest on the arch-conservative William F. Buckley’s Firing Line television show, telling musician and social activist Ed Sanders, founder of The Fugs: “You make yourself famous by protest. I made myself famous by writing songs, and lyrics about the beauty of the things that I did, and the ugliness, too. You make yourself famous by saying down with this, down with that, throw eggs at this, throw eggs at that. Take it with you. I cannot use your refuse, you may have it back.” Kerouac opposed the  Vietnam war but he thought the anti-war movement divisive. 

Kerouac was a more complicated figure than his hedonistic prose suggests – insecure, conflicted – and his most celebrated novel meant something very different to most readers than it meant to the author, for whom it was a spiritual journey. The author despised the terms “beat” and “beatniks”, though the latter had just started as  a joke by humourist Herb Caen who noted that while the Russians had its Sputniks, America had its beatniks. For Kerouac, who went to mass every day and spent a good deal of time sitting, quietly contemplative in churches, beat was shorthand for beatitudes, the blessed sayings from Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. Beat was spiritual, not political; it was about compassion and love, long before the Summer of Love. “I am not ashamed to wear the crucifix of my Lord. It is because I am Beat, that is, I believe in beatitude and that God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son to it.” He once showed a reporter a painting he’d done of Pope Paul VI, explaining: “I’m not a beatnik, I’m a Catholic.”

And an inevitably guilt-ridden one – guilty about sex, which his mother had taught him was bad; guilty about surviving when his elder brother, the favourite son, died age nine. Kerouac’s 1956 novella Visions of Gerard is a meditation on his short life. Carolyn Cassady, widow of Neal (Dean Moriarty in On the Road), once said of Kerouac: “Everything hurt him deeply. He had the thin skin of the artist as well as the guilt that his Catholic upbringing had instilled in him. In the end, he was just so depressed about how he was being misrepresented, how his great and beautiful book was blamed for the excesses of the Sixties. He just couldn’t take it.” The last five years of his life were spent in suburban St Petersburg, Florida, with his third wife and ailing mother, a retreat from Greenwich Village where the Beats and their haunts had become a tourist attraction. He wanted to be a writer, not a spokesperson, and his attempts to play along with the image created by On the Road destroyed him. He died of drink – and disillusion. 

Few of Kerouac’s circle now remain: Joyce Johnson, the girlfriend who was with him when On the Road was published, Professor Ann Charters, his bibliographer and biographer; and David Amram his great friend and musical confrère who I’ve come to know well as Artist Emeritus of The Village Trip, the festival I founded in 2018 to celebrate Greenwich Village as the forge in which much of 20th-century culture was hammered out. 

An astonishingly sprightly and busy 91-year-old whose film scores include The Manchurian Candidate, Amram worked with Joseph Papp on what is now Shakespeare in the Park and with Leonard Bernstein as the New York Philharmonic’s first Composer-in-Residence. 

“The Renaissance Man of American Music” (Boston Globe), he’s collaborated with a who’s who of American musicians, including Getz and Gillespie, Monk and Mingus; Pete Seeger, Patti Smith, and Wynton Marsalis; Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson, playing at all 37 Farm Aid benefits. 

David Amram, the composer and great friend of Kerouac, plays at New York’s legendary Five Spot Cafe jazz club in 1957 Photograph by Burt Glinn

In December 1957, Amram and Kerouac brought jazz and poetry to New York City, with a gig at the Brata Gallery on East 10th Street in what is now the East Village. They had met in 1956, a chance encounter at a bring-your-own-bottle party in a Village loft in those days when Bohemia was cheap. They gave an impromptu performance, and thereafter kept running into each other on Downtown’s crooked streets.

A classically trained musician with a love of jazz, Amram was “trying to become a composer”; while Kerouac was on the cusp of fame, On the Road poised for publication. “After it came out, overnight Jack went from being an unknown person wearing a flannel shirt and a cross who lived with his mother and had a Lowell accent, a patriotic, all-American boy and an ex-football player , to someone who became so famous that people would come up to him and be disrespectful,” Amram recalls. “There were people who despised him because he didn’t act the role of the uptight neurotic, pandering, simpering author of the year. He was just himself. It was wonderful.”

By the time of the Brata gig, “Jack had become the most important figure of the time. His name was magic. In spite of the carping, whining put-downs by furious critics, and the jealousy of some of his contemporaries for his ‘overnight success’ – he’d written ten books in addition to On the Road with almost no recognition – Jack hadn’t changed. But people’s reaction to him was sometimes frightening. He was suddenly being billed as the ‘King of The Beatniks’, and manufactured against his will, as some kind of public guru for a movement that never existed. Jack was a private person, extremely shy, and dedicated to writing. When he drank, he became much more expansive, and this was the only part of his personality that became publicized.”

A few months later, Kerouac and Amram began regular sessions at the Circle in the Square, where “everyone improvised, including the light man, who had his first chance to ‘wail’ on the lighting board. The audience joined in, heckling, requesting Jack read parts of On the Road, and asking him to expound on anything that came into his head. He also would sing while I was playing the horn, sometimes making up verses. He had a phenomenal ear. It was like playing duets with a great musician… he loved jazz, but he also loved Bach and Beethoven. He loved the classic literature, and he loved the way people in the street talked.”

In 1959, Kerouac and Amram and a small group of madcap friends got together to make a home movie, filmed by Robert Frank in artist Alfred Leslie’s East Village loft. Pull My Daisy, which features poets Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and Peter Orlovsky playing themselves, and artist Larry Rivers as Neal Cassady (renamed Milo) with Delphine Seyrig (aka Beltiane) as his wife Carolyn. Amram, cast as Irish jazz legend Mezz McGillicuddy, wrote the score to words Kerouac improvised over co-directors’ Leslie and Robert Frank’s 26-minute edit. Kerouac spoke, “gargantuan two-minute sentences, his words a great jazz solo, like Charlie Parker at Birdland”. 

Amram contends that far from any “Benzedrine-fuelled speed-typing” Kerouac wrote on coffee and cigarettes and that “the spontaneous prose” of On the Road was the result of copious notes and drafts. “And like Mozart he’d already written it in his head before he wrote it down on paper”.

Kerouac’s technique and inspiration was, he told the Paris Review in 1968,  the “tenor man drawing breath and blowing a phrase on his saxophone, til he runs out of breath, and when he does, his sentence, his statement’s been made… that’s how I therefore separate my sentences, as breath separations of the mind.” 

In On the Road, Kerouac recalls a gig in San Francisco by Slim Gaillard, who spoke eight languages and invented a new one, Vout, a hipster-slang which involved adding “orooni” to significant words:

But one night we suddenly went mad together again; we went to see Slim Gaillard in a little Frisco night-club. Slim Gaillard is a tall, thin Negro with big sad eyes who’s always saying, “Right-orooni” and “How ’bouta little bourbon-orooni”’ In Frisco great eager crowds of young semi-intellectuals sat at his feet and listened to him on the piano, guitar, and bongo drums. When he gets warmed up he takes off his shirt and undershirt and really goes. He does and says anything that comes into his head. He’ll sing “Cement Mixer, Put-ti Put-ti”  and suddenly slow down the beat and brood over his bongos with fingertips barely tapping the skin as everybody leans forward breathlessly to hear; you think he’ll do this for a minute or so, but he goes right on, for as long as an hour, making an imperceptible little noise with the tips of his fingernails, smaller and smaller all the time till you can’t hear it any more and sounds of traffic come in the open door. Then he slowly gets up and takes the mike and says, very slowly, “Great-orooni… fine-ouvati… hello-orooni… bourbon-oroonie…  all-orooni… orooni… how are the boys in the front row making out with their girls-orooni… orooni… vauti… orooirooni…” 

When you hear it read to jazz, as I have in New York, by Soprano John Ventimiglia and a jazz ensemble led by Amram, the hairs on the back of your neck prickle. Search for links to Kerouac himself reading (and singing), including the 1959 album Poetry for the Beat Generation with TV host Steve Allen on piano (there’s also a video of Kerouac performing on the show). 

Kerouac was keener to make his mark as a poet than as a novelist – “I’d better be a poet/ Or lay down dead” he wrote in San Francisco Blues, gathered in The Library of America’s Kerouac: Collected Poems. He wrote poetry all his life (haikus, sutras, ballads, doggerel, prose poems) and in it lie the foundations of all that spontaneous bop prosody. Bob Dylan read “Mexico City Blues” as a student: “it blew my mind. It was the first poetry that spoke my own language.” Without Kerouac, Dylan would certainly not have written his “novel” Tarantula, and there’s a direct line from Kerouac to Patti Smith’s writing, whether for stage or page.

The Five Spot Cafe attracted the likes of sculptor David Smith (left), art critic Frank O’Hara (next to him) and sculptor Anita Huffington (far right) Photograph by Burt Glinn

Barack Obama picked On the Road as one of the five books that had most influenced him (titles by Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Gandhi, and Shakespeare completed the list), saying he had “been shaped, just as my character has been shaped, by that quintessential Jack Kerouac open road, looking west, seeing what’s next”. In Morocco, the poet El Habib Louai, a professor of English literature at the University of Ibn Zohr in Agadir, has spent the past 14 years translating Burroughs, Ginsberg, and Kerouac into classical Arabic. “They were American, but their resonance is universal for young people who feel they’re aliens, casualties of the environmental, economic and political instabilities of the 21st century. The only difference between my generation and the Beats is we have social media.”

Jack Kerouac didn’t set out to write a zeitgeist novel. He embarked on a quasi-mystical journey to escape the consumerism of post-War America. The man who wanted only to be with “the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars” found himself traduced by Madison Avenue’s Mad Men.  

The centenary presents an opportunity to look afresh at Kerouac, the man and his writing; to strip away the myth. There’s a new biography, Jack Kerouac: A Writer’s Life by Holly George-Warren, The Village Trip will be celebrating Kerouac 100 with readings, talks and music, including jazz/poetry, and a première of a specially commissioned classical setting by David Amram of some of his old friend’s poetry. 

“I feel blessed to have known him and he’s someone I think about just about every day and remember the amazing times we had,” says Amram. “I’m so thrilled to see his work being appreciated more than ever. He and his writing fostered creativity in others.”

Liz Thomson is the Founder and Executive Producer of The Village Trip Festival, a celebration of the arts and culture of Greenwich Village taking place this year from 11 – 24 September

This piece will appear in Anniversary, the new edition of Tortoise Quarterly, our short book of long stories. If you were lucky enough to grab a Founding Membership back in the early days of Tortoise, you’ll receive your copy in glorious, old-fashioned print. If not, then keep an eye out for a physical copy in our shop.