Today would have been Kerouac’s 100th birthday, if he did not die at age 47 in the year 1969. Despite how the beginning of this essay (following) may be perceived by Kerouac followers, I love Kerouac. I love what he did as a writer, and the seriousness with which he approached being an artist through the 1940s into the mid-50s. I love the way in which he embraced life through art, his breakthroughs in merging a literary style with a study of the human consciousness (and subconsciousness) — this, I think, is his real legacy: his literary work. Not the stereotype of the angry, reactionary drunk that he became in his later life, which is ultimately a terrible image to project but one that sadly persists in America at least partly due to Kerouac’s legend (though of course there are many others who promulgated the mode of masculinist drinker-artist). All of this obscures Kerouac’s important insights and importance as a writer.
To love Kerouac is to live with all kinds of contradictions. Through my 20s, 30s, and even 40s, I was unaware of or perhaps suppressed that sense of contradiction, for a variety of reasons. From where I am at now, I would sum up the reason for this as, to put it bluntly, whiteness. I wanted to have the myth of America. I wanted to believe there was some truth to the idea that America had let Kerouac down, that his sadness was of utmost importance, that he had no choice therefore but to drink himself to death, and that his big “fuck you” to the world had shown everybody. I specifically remember thinking, for a while, that the bitterness expressed in this photo (below) was cool. That was really stupid on my part.
The contradictions lie in trying to separate the art from the person, and from his avowed late-life conservatism (though how late in life this develops is open to question; the Barry Miles biography dates Kerouac’s support of Sen. Joseph McCarthy to 1954 [p. 202]). There are conservative Kerouac fans out there who celebrate his sharp right turn and see no contradiction in this at all, so if I’ve lost you here, okay goodbye. It seems to me, however, that to laud Kerouac’s conservatism is also to laud his crankiness and his increasingly alcoholism — all of which is inextricably bound up together, the negativity of his drinking and the negativity of his politics. Both of these to one degree or another have their roots in the flawed sense on Kerouac’s part that his sentimentalism about America had been betrayed by “Communists.” But all of it is just that, sentimentalism rather than reality. Kerouac’s political stance never had any real credibility, and I myself never inclined toward his kind of politics, even at the height of my own “fandom.” I thought it was funny that he responded to Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s interest in the Cuban revolution in 1960 with the retort, “I’ve got my own revolution right here in Northport — the American Revolution!” (Nicosia, p. 621) — but I never believed that it composed a serious politics. (It doesn’t.)
America, though. At one time I was deeply seduced by the myth of America, as expressed in Kerouac’s road novels. I believed in the idea of “discovering” America and went “on the road” myself, driving cross-country many times. I believed in the idea of freedom this represented, and the idea that you could live outside of restrictive or normative society by being in movement, or the distance that this provided from “home.” I really had this feeling at the time, but I would also say that it is in part an illusion that is fostered by individualism and a lack of awareness of the wider contexts that facilitate the myths of individual freedom. As Scott Obernesser writes in a 2020 essay titled “What It Means to Be On The Road: Mobility and Petrocultures during the Mid-Twentieth Century,” “Sal perceives the road as imbued with transformative power; yet, at the same time, the surface is a mixture of oil and repurposed earth. The play between material surface and transcendental pursuit is emblematic of the novel’s fundamental, yet largely overlooked conflict: submission to industry in the hope of increased personal freedom” (p. 494), further clarifying, “Though Sal is acting out his countercultural impulse . . . his mobility is always already incorporated into systems of capital and consumption” (p. 496).
Basically, I used to think it was all about me, and of course this is what Americans (especially white Americans) are trained to believe. They are not usually asked to consider the ways in which their perceptions of their personal freedom bolster an often-exploitative system of consumer capitalism, the ways in which their own illusions about supposedly having rebelled against the system instead reify it.
Equally as complicated (and problematic) is Kerouac’s framing of race, with the obvious example of On the Road once again, the famous passage where he expresses that, as a white man, “I walked . . . in the Denver colored section, wishing I were a Negro. . . .” (there are other examples that could be used here too). Kerouac’s view of Black life was that all was well before Civil Rights, and that Black people embodied ecstasy and joy, and so on. I don’t doubt that Kerouac meant his comments about wishing he were Black as laudatory and affirmative, and this is the cry that always comes from Kerouac’s uber-fans even today: He meant this as a compliment. But of course the authorial intent of these passages is not the end of the story. We as readers have a duty to analyze, as well as to question the cult of personality within Kerouac fandom, and to allow for a more critical perspective.
The charge from those who would blithely defend all of Kerouac’s literary and personal stances is that we are imposing a contemporary, so-called “woke” view on something that was supposedly perfectly acceptable in its own historical context. However, this is simply incorrect. James Baldwin, in his 1961 essay “The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy,” rightly critiqued Kerouac/Sal’s Denver statement at that time, responding that “this is absolute nonsense. . . and offensive nonsense at that...” Baldwin’s essay appeared only four years after On the Road was published and still had great cultural currency, and thus puts the lie to the notion that criticizing Kerouac’s attitudes on race is merely judging him by today’s standards.
Then there is John Clellon Holmes’s 1963 interview with Kerouac, where Holmes asks him about all this. Kerouac at least admits that it (the “wishing I were a Negro” line) was a “romantic” statement, but goes on to dismiss Baldwin: “James Baldwin wants to stir up as much interest in his Civil Rights fight as he can, get everybody involved, all the writers probably, but I have no time for politics, just Art” (The Unknown Kerouac, p. 320). Fair enough, on one level perhaps. But I don’t think you actually can separate art and politics in that way, at least not completely. And the scornful attitude toward Civil Rights is telling, the idea that it is “stirring up,” rather than simply the insistence on justice. Kerouac ended up on the wrong side of history there, and Baldwin was right. Saying so triggers a lot of people’s white fragility, however. I know this from personal experience trying to discuss these questions in Kerouac social-media forums, where the response is often a frantic defense by hero-worshipers of Kerouac against the perception that he is being accused of being a racist.
Obviously many have written about Kerouac on race long before me; it is not a new idea. I don’t know if I could say whether “Kerouac was racist” or not, as the answer to the question depends on definitions, intention versus effect, individual versus structural, etc. But this is the kind of complication that, speaking for myself, I can no longer ignore if I’m going to continue to engage with Kerouac’s work. In reality, given the society that he lived in (and to a great extent we still live in today), it would almost be a miracle if he weren’t in some way racist. These are facts about American society that people have been wrestling with since its inception.
The question then is whether it is worthwhile to engage with Kerouac at all. Is it worthwhile to engage with myself? Because of course as a product of American or “Western” society I undeniably embody many of the same dynamics, which in the scheme of things I’ve only recently started to seriously confront, trying to undo the assumptions created by one’s own whiteness and so on. Maybe these concerns are not those of most Kerouac readers, and I know all of the resistance to what I’m saying, encountered it already. But to me it is a valid question, the complication of how someone like Kerouac can on the one hand harbor some in my estimation problematic social and political views inculcated by the society around him/us, leaving those uninterrogated while at the same time making deeply meaningful and insightful observations about the nature of human existence, the relation of human beings to the natural world, to animals, to other people, about new cultural and social developments in society, in literature and art (including some very strong writing about bop jazz), being in tune with all of these in often affirmative ways, to observe the mind observing, and to render it all in a truly innovative poetic and prose style (often a poetic-prose style). But not to pretend that one exists without the other, or in one’s own insecurity about oneself to feel the need to defend the negative aspects of the personality — the inability to accept complication and ambiguity as itself part of the reality of human existence.
There could also be some who do say, “Why would I want to engage with this stuff at all then?” i.e. that given all the confused or outright fucked-up parts of him, the work is just not worth it, and no you can’t separate it, so why would I want to deal with a right-wing crypto- or not-so-crypto-racist? To that, I can only say of course fair enough. I’m not trying to convince anyone, and I can’t separate it either. It’s the same argument about Pound, Eliot, Stein, and other modernists who expressed fascist sympathies to some extent or other; maybe the time has come to stop being so obsessed with them altogether, and write about other modernist poets who didn’t have fascist leanings, and whose work never got its proper due. That totally makes sense. So I’m only speaking personally here, and obviously much of what I’ve written above is connected to my own process of self-interrogation, and thus my own previous self-identification with Kerouac comes in for criticism (he is like it or not, a subject for me). Yet, when I go back to Kerouac’s writing, there’s still something (what I wrote in the last half of my last paragraph) that seems to penetrate through the shitty personalities that a (frequently) shitty society creates for us.
We think we create our own personalities, that we have the freedom to create our selves, but this is another lie of capitalism and (often anyway) of white supremacy. On some level Kerouac himself understood that, though he would never have framed it in those terms. I’ve been rereading his Book of Dreams (1960), an often-overlooked novel(?) in his oeuvre, and it’s a compelling text, not least for its insight about the functioning of the mind. Kerouac attacks Freud for his mere interpretation of hidden motivations (“Freudianism is a big stupid mistaken dealing with causes and conditions instead of the mysterious, essential permanent reality of Mind Essence” [Book of Dreams, 2001 edition, p. 282]), and instead (influenced by Buddhism) sees dreams as part of the same mind-matter that constructs the waking world as well as the sleeping world. I think there’s an obvious component to subconscious dreams that do lend themselves to interpretation of/connection to daily quotidian conscious life, and clearly I subscribe to a certain degree to materialist “causes and conditions,” and I’d suggest that Kerouac’s unfiltered confessions in this book are in fact open to a variety of interpretations.
But again, these dynamics are perhaps merely the surface overlay of personality. Though most of Book of Dreams is just that (the actual dreams, without attempt to explain or interpret), Kerouac at times does make comment about the nature of existence, consciousness, and art. He writes,
words, images & dream are fingers of false imagination pointing at the reality of Holy Emptiness---but my words are still many & my images stretch to the holy void like a road that has an end---It’s the ROAD OF THE HOLY VOID this writing this life, this image of regrets------ (pp. 280-81)
We can’t escape these particulars or dynamics; they are the stuff of the world and inevitably of art. We might perhaps be able to turn off the conscious mind’s investment in them only sometimes, through meditation, say (which Kerouac apparently was not very good at). We (or I) might wish that Kerouac was sometimes better at negotiating the shit that the world threw his way; the alcohol didn’t help. But before it all turned bad, and coexisting with the regrets (his or mine or everyone’s), Kerouac throughout much of his poetry (by which I mean also his prose) demonstrated tenderness for all living things, through his poetics lived deeply in the world, and elaborated an innovative style out of which good things came, and which is delightful in itself.
Sometimes the pathos obscures the poetics, the alcoholic bitterness obscures the knowledge of immanent interconnection, but there are these moments in reading him where a vision of beauty or a vision of being an artist unfolds with such deep understanding in a way, that still comes forth. I feel it in the passage of Doctor Sax (written 1952) that ends “boyhood immortal night” (Grove/Black Cat edition, pp. 202-03), in any number of passages of Visions of Cody (written 1951-52) and really that novel’s whole groundbreaking, experimental form, in poems like “Mexican Loneliness,” “The Last Hotel,” Book of Blues, Old Angel Midnight, etc. This vision is not limited by “what happened to Kerouac” but is transferable and still capable of inspiring joy today.
Or, even, when he writes in Book of Dreams,
The little cat I had in my hands that had such a sweet sad little funnyface with gray eyes and finally spoke to me in a pitiful voice, like Gerard’s, “J’aime pas demain” and I said “Moi too mon ange!” and felt like crying . . . that piteous note Gerard had . . . which is in my own voice when I address little names to my cats---this kitty was an angel, and spoke the truth--- (pp. 140-41)
There is an odd kind of emotion there, to do with loss, and what is the meaning of the cat’s oracular statement “J’aime pas demain/I don’t like tomorrow”? But we all experience loss, and it is the joy of today that we want, in the face of the inevitable loss of tomorrow, and I talk to cats too.
All day, this photo: