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Another look at Jack

Historian finding truths of Kerouac legend

Web posted on: Monday, November 09, 1998 11:38:08 AM EST

(Reuters) -- Jack Kerouac is said to be the writer who launched a million coffee bars and sold as many Levi jeans to admiring readers who made him the first literary "pop" star of the 1950s television age.

Celebrity, which the mythical beatnik poet/novelist loathed while alive, has followed him in death and he remains an American legend nearly 30 years after his death in 1969.

A stream of his work has been published posthumously over the years and many books and scholarly reviews have been written to try to explain how a lower-middle-class footballer from Lowell, Massachusetts, helped change postwar America.

The Catholic boy who set out to find the divine spirit of a country along Route 66 in his seminal work, "On the Road," will forever be part myth, part man. But the myth part is in for closer inspection as historian Douglas Brinkley pores over the more than 200 volumes of Kerouac's archives, which until recently were stashed away in a Lowell bank vault.

The Kerouac estate chose Brinkley, author of a recently published biography of former President Jimmy Carter, to uncover the "real Jack" by examining the scores of letters and other writings amassed from the time Kerouac was 14 to his death at the age of 47 from the ravages of alcoholism. A sneak preview of what he found is the subject of a lengthy cover story in the November issue of The Atlantic Monthly magazine.

Brinkley says Kerouac's life was as fascinating as any story. Here was a man who eventually eschewed the "Beat" movement he created, who disdained the evolution of the term's meaning and the political devices used by fellow travelers such as Allen Ginsberg to castigate America in the 1960s.

For Kerouac "Beat" was shorthand for "beatitude" and the idea that the downtrodden are saintly, and he said the idea should be about art and spirituality, not politics. It was about art and spirituality. "Kerouac saw himself as the F. Scott Fitzgerald of the avant-garde circus that was the Beat culture," Brinkley writes.

"Kerouac was responsible for his own myth. He was so fascinated by American folklore -- Pecos Bill, Johnny Appleseed -- that he wanted the book to have a mythic quality to it."
-- Douglas Brinkley.

When Kerouac was asked to be included in a Beat anthology, one of his letters reveals that he declined on the grounds that writers such as William Burroughs and other so-called beats had "never written about ordinary people with any love." They were mere "attention-seekers with nothing on their mind but rancor toward 'America' and the life of ordinary people," he wrote.

Brinkley said his study showed that Kerouac was surprisingly devoted to his Roman Catholic beliefs, despite his forays into Buddhism, and even more bound to his mother, Gabrielle, who was his best friend and the person he lived with for his entire life, minus the many months spent on the road.

The chaos that was the writer's personal life was offset by his monkish discipline as a writer, leaving him prone to keep track of the number of words he wrote every day in the same way a baseball player tracks his batting average.

Speaking of baseball, Brinkley said Kerouac admired Boston Red Sox slugger Ted Williams and tried to top Williams' batting average with his own output. "He used that to compute, writing in his journals, that he did '250' today, or batted '320,' comparing himself to a batting average," Brinkley said.

Kerouac planned and outlined his legendary "spontaneous" outbursts of writing, keeping the prose flowing like his favorite Charlie Parker jazz tunes, but only after sketching in advance the way he would write.

"On the Road" was carefully planned. Even the myth that "On the Road" was written in one long 100-foot scroll during a three-week period is not correct. Excerpts from the writer's journals showed he had planned it two years in advance, Brinkley says, and used the outlines as a foundation for the eventual manuscript.

So where did the "On the Road" myth come from? "Kerouac was responsible for his own myth. He was so fascinated by American folklore -- Pecos Bill, Johnny Appleseed -- that he wanted the book to have a mythic quality to it," Brinkley said.

The results of some of the myth-making may have impaired Kerouac's standing with literary critics and other bellwethers in New York -- people the writer avoided.

"He was a very serious writer, creating innovations of language, and did this all through unbelievable practice. He was almost a model of how you outline like a traditionalist author would," Brinkley said.

Looked down on by some in the New York literary establishment for his "white trash" leanings, Kerouac never stopped being fascinated with the average Joe, the doughnut maker, the train conductor or the mailman.

His affinity with the working class was also tied to the fact that he never earned much money from his work, Brinkley said. "He was always broke. He lived check-to-check and constantly struggled in poverty, to be a provider for a lower middle class life."

Hollywood never turned "On the Road" into a movie, despite running talks over the years to do so, and writing fees never amounted to large sums. Brinkley said Kerouac would have used any money to buy his mother and sister a house in Florida. The historian plans to produce a multi-volume edition of the Kerouac diaries over the next few years and in 2002 a biography based on the new findings.

A quote from the writer's diary in 1949, highlighted by Brinkley, speaks loudly about the man so many still look to as the father of a truly unique American literature. "I promise I shall never give up, and that I'll die yelling and laughing. And that until then I'll rush around this world I insist is holy and pull at everyone's lapel and make them confess to me and to all," Kerouac wrote nearly 50 years ago.

Copyright 1998 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.

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