Vince Passaro had written a well researched and therefore an interesting piece about Jack Kerouac. Unfortunately, Passaro had done the very thing he claims had contributed to Kerouac’s fall, depression and alcoholism and which he was trying to understand and explain within the article. Passaro had criticized Kerouac’s work in terms of the mainstream commercial success criteria (the desire to advertise oneself and one’s work and attribute profits derived from such activities to creative success) and according to the established academic ideas and modes of teaching and understanding. The very elements that Kerouac and other writers of the period (Burroughs, Ginsberg, etc.) tried to analyse, criticize and change (partly via the Beat Generation construct). The irony is Passaro refers to Kerouac’s lover’s letters to criticize his unedited spontaneous prose style: ‘by 1957 (Joyce Glassman) was already a better writer than he was. Her prose in these letters shows her to be calmer, more astute, more honest, more in control of the tone and meter of her language and, in her way, more exploratory, if not of experience and sensation, then at least of herself and the people around her’. The imagined importance of the need to create emotional, linguistic thus creative constraints in order to define, establish and perpetuate the alleged ‘civilized behaviours’ is nothing more than the ruling class ideology. The Edwardian/Victorian ruling class aesthetic constructs and orders are the very things Kerouac and his contemporaries had been trying to destabilize. As well as the academic elite system which had aligned itself with the (profit driven) notions of ‘the acceptable aesthetic’ demanded by the illiterate but wealthy business owners. Kerouac and the other members of the movement had lived within the environments made up of injustice, manual labor, hate, fear, drugs and therefore crime and violence. The ruling class permits such environments to exist because it ignores them. They are not on its map because it does not want them on its map. It ignores them because it cannot exploit them. Or it explores them in the worst possible way and does not want anybody to know about it.
‘The only people for me are 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, and in the middle, you see the blue center-light pop, and everybody goes ahh…’
On The Road
Kerouac Wore Khakis
By Vince Passaro
New York Times
There is a scene near the end of Joyce Johnson’s lovely and moving 1983 memoir, ”Minor Characters,” in which she describes one of the last glimpses she will catch, in a not yet ruined literary kingdom, of two young men who contributed to a vast change in American writing: Jack Kerouac, her recent lover, and Allen Ginsberg, his friend, walking with Peter Orlovsky on a snowy Village street near the turning of the year to 1959. Forty-one years have passed since this was an actual scene in the world.
Johnson reports in the same book that 10 years later she attended a showing of ”Pull My Daisy,” the film Kerouac made with the great Swiss émigré photographer Robert Frank, and there they are again, backlit, timeless and large on the screen before her: Jack, Peter and Allen, all ”beautiful young men.”
The Beat movement was very much about beautiful young men. That these were the figures who drove it was its strength and part of its undoing — among its many personalities, only Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs lasted as important and accomplished writers, and they just barely did so. Time and changing fashion ate the rest of them up, as they tend to eat up the beautiful and young.
Alcohol and a general lack of intellectual and spiritual resources also consumed Kerouac; by the time Johnson met him, in early 1957, some months before he was turned into an international celebrity by the long-delayed publication of ”On the Road” (he’d written it six years earlier), Kerouac was already on the way downhill, unsuccessfully fighting off alcoholism, an iron-clawed mother, wandering habits of attention and a befuddled, sentimental, ever more queerly hybridized collection of religious views. His letters to Johnson over the two years of their love affair display all these problems in abundance. They display it in his itinerant behaviour; in his chronicles of new ideas and new projects, one following the other, few to be completed; and in the prose itself, as peripatetic on the page as Kerouac was on the globe.
Some readers of this wonderful new collection of letters between Johnson and Kerouac, ”Door Wide Open,” will feel a bit uncomfortable with the recognition that the young Joyce Glassman (Johnson’s maiden name) — more than a decade Kerouac’s junior, a bourgeois Barnard girl who’d rarely left the Upper West Side, never mind the continent, and an artist who, unlike Kerouac, found respect but little fame or fortune — by 1957 was already a better writer than he was. Her prose in these letters shows her to be calmer, more astute, more honest, more in control of the tone and meter of her language and, in her way, more exploratory, if not of experience and sensation, then at least of herself and the people around her. Her strengths beside Kerouac’s growing weaknesses explode some treasured myths not only about him and the male-run Beat society but about American writing in general, with its muscle and its energy and its emphasis on experience over intelligence. An example from one of Johnson’s letters, dated April 14, 1957:
”I went to hear Miles Davis, who is playing at the Cafe Bohemia in the Village. He’s really fine — beautiful crazy lines floating on top of each other. He stood up very straight and looked stern. The place was packed, but silent as a cathedral — everybody at the bar looked sad and a little apprehensive and there was a weeping girl with a cat’s face wandering back and forth looking for jazz musicians. Then — all of a sudden, a car smacked up across the street between a house and a lamppost. The people in the front seat were trapped but giggling. A man at the bar cried ‘Crazy!’ threw up his arms and ran out into the street, followed by everybody except Miles Davis who kept playing. He finished and said quietly, ‘Thank you for the applause,’ and walked off. It was like a dream.”
In a considerably weakened condition, Kerouac in 1957 was thrust into the way of a force few writers before him had to face as intensely as he did: the brutal machine of commercial publicity that obliterates identity and ideas — that is intended to obliterate identity, ideas and anything else that gets in the way of sales and simplification. ”The process by which society neutralizes the cultural irritant of avant-garde art had been set in motion,” as the art critic Roger Benjamin once put it, talking not about the Beats but about another quickly absorbed group, the Fauves.
Readers of ”Door Wide Open” can follow the process fairly closely, as the letters and Johnson’s commentary trace out the quick series of events that landed ”On the Road” on the best-seller list and Jack Kerouac on Steve Allen’s ”Tonight” show, only months after he’d been holed up and near broke in Tangier, helping William Burroughs pull together his impossible manuscript of ”Naked Lunch.” People descended on Kerouac from every direction, especially, as Johnson comments with wry irritation, ”the whole parade of predatory women,” who seemed to feel ”entitled to their own piece of Jack and were shameless about proclaiming their intentions.”
Kerouac was neither shrewd nor strong. After the commercial machinery got going he had no idea what happened to him. His writing quickly dissolved in alcohol and crude self-parody. A recent piece in The Times Literary Supplement noted that ”On the Road,” despite Kerouac’s mythologizing of it as having been written in the automatic mode, was a properly and traditionally edited novel; I don’t know if this is true, but it certainly reads as a considerably more polished and thoughtful construction than anything Kerouac published thereafter, and we will never know whether this was because of his declining talents or his insistence that nothing he wrote would ever again be mangled, or improved, by someone so spiritually and aesthetically wanting as an editor.
Shortly after ”On the Road” was published, Kerouac wrote to Johnson that he’d been sent ”photos, wild photos, by Jerry Yulsman.” In one of her sharp, dry footnotes, Johnson remarks: ”Yulsman followed Jack around the Village, taking a series of color photos for Pageant. One of them, from which I was airbrushed out, was later used for a Gap ad for khakis.” This is the caprice of history, in a period when history is written by marketers.
A surprising number of innovative and talented young writers are suddenly now appearing on the literary landscape (over the last year or so, Dave Eggers, Jeffery Renard Allen, Zadie Smith and John McManus have come along, to name a few). We get a sense of romance and intense energy in discovering new voices; it keeps us in touch with a hope that as the world changes there are people around who will understand it and capture it well enough to allow us to continue seeing it. Otherwise we don’t want it to change. ”Door Wide Open” conveys that sense of energy and excitement in a very personal way, and conveys too Johnson’s own growth as a woman and writer in the 1950’s, absorbing Kerouac’s remarkable freedom:
”It’s funny the way you and Allen and Peter came to town this winter and shook us all up. Just think — we had been here all our lives, and now suddenly Elise is in Frisco . . . and I’m going to Mexico — most peculiar. . . . I remember walking with you at night through the Brooklyn docks and seeing the white steam rising from the ships against the black sky and how beautiful it was and I’d never seen it before — imagine! — but if I’d walked through it with anyone else, I wouldn’t have seen it either, because I wouldn’t have felt safe in what my mother would categorically call ‘a bad neighborhood,’ I would have been thinking ‘Where’s the subway?’ and missed everything. But with you — I felt as though nothing could touch me and if anything happened, the hell with it. You don’t know what narrow lives girls have, how few real adventures there are for them; misadventures, yes, like abortions and little men following them in subways, but seldom anything like seeing ships at night. So that’s why we’ve all taken off like this, and that’s also part of why I love you.”