Life Lessons

Kerouac Biographer Gets Back on the Road

Thirty-five years ago, Dennis McNally wrote a life of Beat icon Jack Kerouac. Looking back, he sees things in the book he’s proud of and a couple of things that make him wince.

Allen Ginsberg/Corbis

Re-reading your own work, especially at some temporal distance, is a dangerous business. “How could I have written something so, so (fill in the negative adjective)?” But recently I did, and it proved surprising, not at all what I’d anticipated.

In 1979 I published Desolate Angel/Jack Kerouac, the Beat Generation, and America. I’d written it as a doctoral dissertation for the Department of History at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, but I’d always intended to aim it at the public—in fact, when I finished the (largely handwritten!) first draft, I dramatically vowed to do no further work until someone paid me.

On the other hand, I had no agent and was also pretty clueless about selling to a commercial press, so it was the greatest of luck for me that Carolyn Cassady, Neal (“Dean Moriarity” in On the Road) Cassady’s widow, heard that a young editor at Random House, Kathy Matthews, was seeking a Kerouac biography. Kathy took me on, and after a fair amount of sturm und drang—young writers do think every word is precious!—my book came out.

I loved the research and writing of a dissertation, but not the academic world, and after the book was published I got by with some odd jobs while I plotted and schemed on how to write the next book, which would turn out to be A Long Strange Trip/The Inside History of the Grateful Dead.

Eventually, I got invited to write that book—and even wound up working for the Dead as their publicist—and so I moved on from my studies on the Beats. Unlike the normal academic, who’d be involved in reviews, conferences, and keeping up on the scholarship of his topic, I dropped out of the Beat studies world, a move that was profoundly encouraged by a disturbing incident.

In 1982 I was invited to be part of a panel on Kerouac at the Naropa Institute’s celebration of the 25th anniversary of the publication of On the Road. In the Q and A that followed, I was asked about the source of a quote. When I looked up the reference later, I realized that it was one of the two in the whole book that were listed as a “confidential source.” I felt as though I’d been ambushed by the question, and I didn’t like it much—trying to trick me into revealing a confidential source struck me as dirty pool.

So except for the occasional encounter with Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gary Snyder, and Michael McClure—my San Francisco neighborhood poets, as it were, I checked out of the Beat world—working with the Dead was quite enough to keep me busy.

Fast forward 28 years. One day in 2010 I got a phone call from Rev. Steve Edington, the pastor of the Nashua, New Hampshire Unitarian Church, who also happened to be the chairman of “Lowell Celebrates Kerouac,” a group that held a conference in Kerouac’s hometown of Lowell every fall. He was visiting San Francisco and had questions about Desolate Angel. I was happy to have coffee and answer them. Eventually, he asked me if I’d come to Lowell and talk about my perspective on Kerouac and subsequent scholarship.

Over the years I’d come to cherish my time with Kerouac. In 2007, on the 50th anniversary of the publication of On the Road, I helped book the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir and his band RatDog into Lowell’s Boardinghouse Park. Fifty yards from the stage was a museum where the original typescript of On the Road was on display, and Weir, who’d once shared his room with Neal Cassady, celebrated Neal and the book’s memory with a show that included his song about Cassady, “The Other One,” as well as songs like “She’s On the Road Again,” “Cassidy,” and more. To top it off, I got to sit in with the band, reading passages from On the Road as they played “The Other One.”

So for reasons both sentimental and crass—a very decent fee was involved—I was happy to say yes to Steve Edington and plan a Lowell lecture. Which required me to re-read Desolate Angel.

On the whole, it was a pleasant experience. I’d like to think that I’m a better writer now, that I’ve learned a little over the years. The Dennis of the ’70s was wordy and maybe a bit too ambitious. Over the years, I’ve adopted the attitudes that “simple is better” and “less is more.” Certainly my more recent books have had an easier time of it with editors (I gave Ms. Matthews at least one good migraine with my passionate attachment to my writing). I also think that’s almost a universal rule—as you age you choose your words a bit more carefully.

Still, the book holds up for me, with a lot of good work that I’ll stand behind. But I’ll confess to two truly embarrassing discoveries from that reading. I wrote, “Charlie Parker died in New York City on his birthday, March 12, 1955, one year older to the day than Jack.” It is true that this was the day Bird died. Of course the “his” is more than a little vague; it should be “Jack’s.” But the fact is that Bird was born in 1920, and where I got the idea that Bird’s birthday was the same as his day of death is a mystery—not to mention how the sentence managed to sneak past both editor and copy editor.

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The other one is silly and perhaps because of that even more cringe-worthy. Remember, I’m a San Franciscan, and a baseball fan, which makes me a Giants fan. I’ve been walking past the words of Russ Hodges’s epic call of Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” painted on the wall of AT&T park for 14 years now. Of course, in 1979 I was only a casual fan, new to the city.

Kerouac had been a New York Giants fan, and would later write that Thomson’s home run had made him tremble with joy and write “poems about how it is possible for the human spirit to win after all!” It made for a nice scene, so I gave it a long paragraph, complete with Jack lying in his hospital bed listening to the game, Dodger pitcher Ralph Branca toeing the rubber, and so forth.

So far, so good, right? But re-reading my book in 2007, my jaw dropped as I read that the announcer who uttered the legendary “The Giants win the pennant” call (repeat four times!) was…Mel Allen, whose paychecks in fact came from the Yankees. Serious ouch. Bad enough that it wasn’t the Giants announcer, or even the Dodgers announcer. But the Yankees?

I’ve just been saved by a copy editor from misspelling the name of Lesley Riddle in my new book, On Highway 61. (Lesley was the African-American man who worked with A.P. Carter, the patriarch of the Carter Family on locating and documenting folk songs.) So I will work on keeping gratitude in my heart for fact-checking copy editors.

But God, I wish my first copy editor had caught my E-w (Error on the writer)!

Dennis McNally is the author of the forthcoming music history On Highway 61: Music, Race, and the Evolution of Cultural Freedom (on sale October 14) on the development of African-American music throughout the 20th century and its influence on abolition, civil rights, and interracial culture in the United States. He is the former publicist and authorized biographer of The Grateful Dead, as well as the author of the Jack Kerouac biography Desolate Angel: Jack Kerouac, the Beat Generation, and America.