Jack Kerouac: ‘The Rush of What Is Said’ By WALTER KIRN

Jack Kerouac as a young football star. He also starred in track as a sprinter.
Jack Kerouac as a young football star. He also starred in track as a sprinter.

Here’s a review I like so much that I saved it in a file on my hard drive – back in 2004. I never got to read the book, but I want to post this for other readers. I love Kerouac’s writing and have read most of his works and several books about him and his writing. I agree with the author that he is among the Greats of the Canon of American writing which my New Critic professors in college kept among themselves and published, but which did not include Kerouac since he hadn’t yet been dead for 25 years – that was one of their standards. I didn’t discover Kerouac until this century, and I immediately became a fan. At first I thought of him as a sort of literary father, since he was of that age, and then I realized that he never got beyond the age which would have almost made him a literary son – I mourned his loss more thinking that, and what he could have done if his addiction hadn’t killed him young.

I also learned from the same file that this review was in that the New Critics were early proponents of the concept of making lists. I supposed today they would have earned some extra money from publishing on BuzzFeed, except back in their time a Professor already made pretty good money just being what he (and the occasional but rare she) actually was. So here’s this:

BOOK REVIEW DESK

‘The Rush of What Is Said’

By WALTER KIRN
Published: October 10, 2004, Sunday

WINDBLOWN WORLD
The Journals of Jack Kerouac, 1947-1954.
Edited by Douglas Brinkley.
387 pp. Viking. $25.95.

It’s still hard to separate Jack Kerouac the novelist from Jack Kerouac the brand. Beginning with the publication of ”On The Road” in 1957, when Kerouac became a national celebrity and appeared on TV talk shows, and especially since his death in 1969, when he became a minor industry and a leading author’s-photo postcard, his name has been used to sell so many attitudes and promote so many fashions that the artist behind the image has been obscured. For certain left-wing baby boomers, Kerouac is a political figure first — the great Eisenhower-era proto-hippie. For New Agers, he’s a spiritual pioneer who helped make America safe for Eastern religion. For college kids with powerful car stereos, he’s the original road-trip party hound. Even people who may have never read him want a piece of Kerouac,it seems (including the tabloid murder suspect Scott Peterson, who referred to him as ”Jack Cadillac” in a phone conversation recorded by the police.) Kerouac is no longer just an artist. He’s a lifestyle god.

But was Kerouac a great American writer, not just a great American personality? Strangely enough, given all the attention paid to him, this is still an open question, partly because of the pop idolatry and partly because his publishers have kept him in the literary equivalent of a permanent vegetative state by persistently digging up his bottom-drawer jottings and repackaging them as books (”Atop an Underwood,” ”Door Wide Open,” ”Book of Haikus,” etc.). Until a writer is good and dead and his works can be lined up on a shelf, it’s tough to view him with any critical distance. It’s even tougher in Kerouac’s case because of the way he mythologized himself as a blazing force of nature who wrote without any internal critical distance.+

The publication of ”Windblown World,” a collection of Kerouac’s early journals edited by Douglas Brinkley (a sober, well-known political historian who seems an unlikely candidate for the job), may at first strike readers as an attempt to squeeze yet more toothpaste out of Kerouac’s flattened tube. Fortunately, the book is better than that. For one thing, unlike other posthumous volumes that have worn Kerouac’s name, it’s readable. By doing a little tinkering and splicing, which he describes in his helpful introduction, Brinkley has made the journals flow. Most important, though, the entries tell a story of self-invention, perseverance and breakthrough that should help rescue Kerouac from the cultists and secure his admission to the mainstream hall of fame, where he deserves to rest.

The book opens with the as-yet-unpublished novelist, 25, broke and still grieving for his dead father, sitting up late in his mother’s kitchen in Queens pondering the ”morality” of Tolstoy, fantasizing about success and pushing himself to meet daily word-count quotas in the manner of someone digging a prose canal: ”2,500-words today in a few hours. This may be it — freedom. And mastery! — so long denied me in my long mournful years of work, blind powerful work.” It’s an achingly lonely, pathetic scene, made more so by Kerouac’s proud, sophomoric attachment to the ideals of loneliness and pathos — and made positively tragic by our knowledge that his grand ambitions will be fulfilled but that they won’t make him happy. They’ll make him miserable. Living back with his mother as though nothing had ever happened, he’ll die 22 years later at 47.

Toiling away at ”The Town and the City,” a panoramic autobiographical novel in the florid tradition of Thomas Wolfe, Kerouac comes off as impossibly young and serious, a comically exaggerated version of the stereotypical literary novitiate. All he needs is a hair shirt and a desktop skull. Without a trace of the self-irony endemic amongtoday’s apprentice writers, he obsesses on the fallen state of society and sings of his own misunderstood nobility. ”There’s something really wrong about being worldly,” he observes, writing with the stilted virginal earnestness of a Miss America contestant. Taking on a more Shakespearean tone, he blasts conventional middle-class types for wasting their lives in ”blind acquisitive days.” When he senses that he’s succumbing to ”ennui,” a mood that the Roman Catholic-raised Kerouac (and dedicated high school football player) seems to identify with sloth, he yanks himself up by his own spiritual bootstraps: ”Tonight I’m going to write greatly and love greatly and strangle this folly.I’m catching these damnable changes of purpose in the flesh, red-handed, and throwing them to the winds, just like that.”

One doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry or groan at such earnest, operatic oaths. They’re quixotic in the truest sense, born of profound emotional isolation. For while Kerouac was a famous nocturnal socializer, knocking around the jazzy New York streets with the likes of Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs (and even, believe it or not, attending the Ballet Russe with a group that included Gore Vidal) it often appears that he had no one to talk to except for the voices between his own two ears: ”It is suddenly occurring to me that a great new change is about to take place in mankind and in the world. Don’t ask me how I know this. And it’s going to be very simple and true, and men will have taken another great step forward.” In the face of such portentous oracular whispers, it’s a wonder that Kerouac kept his mental balance.

WORK was his fortress. Between the bursts of mysticism, the journals document Kerouac’s dogged regimen of marathon all-night writing sessions with regular breaks for marathon all-night reading sessions and marathon all-night bull sessions with Ginsberg. The man was his own intellectual personal trainer, standing over himself with a shrill whistle as he ground out the paragraphs, pored through Dostoyevsky, analyzed ”Hamlet” line by line and typed up his novel’s 1,100 page manuscript. To quantify his progress in this last task, Kerouac devised a numerical ”batting average” that he recalculated as he went. ”Did 17 pages, batting .329 — and I swear to God that I’ll never be finished with this thing.” To spur himself on, he imagines buying a ranch where he’ll settle down with friends and family and sweat away his neuroses in the hot sun. From the way he envisions this western mini-utopia — as a vast Tolstoyan property filled with the laughter of his many children and emotionally anchored by the devoted wife that he has yet to meet but knows he will — it’s plain to the reader, if not to Kerouac, that he dare not try to make it real because the place will only disappoint him. Most everything, we sense, ultimately will disappoint him. Until then, though, everything will fascinate him.

The journal entries from 1949 and 1950, when Kerouac’s first novel was finally published to pleasing reviews and meager sales, allude to these disappointments in a voice that’s calmer, sparer and more truly lyrical than his style of a couple of years before. Despite the reputation for self-indulgence that continues to cling to him, Kerouac was a reflective, vigilant artist who constantly, and consciously, strove to overcome his limitations — the chief one being, as he saw it, his own self-critical temperament. ”I’m going to discover a way,” he wrote, casting forward to ”On the Road” while he was completing ”The Town and the City,” ”of preserving the big rushing tremendousness in me and in all poets.” One could call the effect he was after ”willed spontaneity.” Verbal diarrhea it was not.

The journals show him evolving toward his ideal almost by the month. Released from his monastic labors in his mother’s kitchen, the ascetic, introverted Kerouac took an abrasive dust bath in the real world and emerged a broader, stronger artist, who combined a mind for the transcendental with a feeling for the particular. ”But at the fireworks at Denver U. Stadium great crowds had been waiting since twilight, sleepy children and all; yet no sooner did the shots begin in the sky than these unhappy people trailed home before the show ended, as though they were too unhappy to see what they had waited for.” This piercing sketch and others like it — of a sandlot neighborhood baseball game, of a day spent riding horses in Colorado — are the work of a soul that has settled into a body after floating free in the cosmos for too long.

Though Kerouac was a sort of knee-jerk Platonist who could cast almost every phenomenon he came across in sweeping, eternal terms (”no one has consciously realized the tremendous significance of American weekends, from proud sartorial Saturday night with its millions of premonitions of triumph and happiness, to dark Sunday night with its sweet and terrified loneliness”), he had an equally powerful attraction to material, ground-level, geographical fact. Among 20th-century American writers, his flair for divining the spirits of actual places, of living, peopled locales, is rivaled only by Faulkner’s, with the difference that Kerouac rambled far and wide and the Mississippian stayed home.

Here is Kerouac conjuring the differences between Minnesota’s so-called Twin Cities, whose separate essences he was able to capture on the basis of a brief bus trip: ”St. Paul is smaller and older and more rickety than Minneapolis, but there is a depressing Pittsburgh-like sootiness about it . . . even in joyous snowy winter. Minneapolis is a sprawling dark city shooting off white communities across the monotonous flats. The only soulful beauty here is rendered by the Mississippi and also by a hopeless hint of Mille Lacs and the Rainy River country to the North.” Kerouac was an indefatigable mapmaker, assembling city by city, state by state and river by river (the occult vitality of rivers was one of his abiding preoccupations) a spiritual atlas of postwar America.

THE traditional rap against Kerouac — that he was a sort of half-baked dopehead primitivist who prized sensation over sense — crumbles on a reading of his journals. For every entry concerning a wild night out with his colorful cohort of insomniac poets, opiated philosophers and autodidact ex-cons, there’s a meditation on Mark Twain or a list of favorite Renaissance poets. There’s no way around it: for all his hobo posing, Kerouac began as a New Englandhighbrow. (The Ballet Russe, remember — with Vidal!) He even brooded on international politics, concluding, like an early neocon, that Soviet Communism’s hostility to the masters of the Russian novel betrayed a fatal inner fragility. ”Don’t talk to me about the Soviet state . . . those gloomballs are dead.”

The cultural interest groups that try to claim Kerouac for their own ignore the private nature of his journey, as well as his fundamental inability to tolerate any orthodoxy for long, including that of high bohemianism. What he wanted most, the journals reveal, was to dig down into the dark American earth as his heroes Twain and Whitman had and turn up his own rich shovel-ful of truth. His enemy in this labor, he believed, was the cowardice of aesthetic perfectionism. He trusted, finally, in his own energy, but it was an energy produced from the finest sources: great books, adventurous friends, high moral purpose and wide experience. ”It’s not the words that count,” he wrote, ”but the rush of what is said.” Kerouac, who became famous for writing swiftly, first had to slowly and carefully build momentum. First came the season of rain, and then the river.

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