What a difference a few decades make. I read with considerable interest the Library of America’s announcement of their publication of the second volume of Jack Kerouac’s oeuvre in March 2015, one that would include Visions of Cody, Visions of Gerard, and Big Sur. As I understand it, they are grouped chronologically—Volume I included On the Road, The Dharma Bums, The Subterraneans, Tristessa, Lonesome Traveler, and some journal extracts.
Perhaps the first lesson a good student of history (literary or otherwise) should hold close is that every study reveals at least as much about the time in which it was written as it does about the putative subject. So my biography of Kerouac, Desolate Angel (published in 1979), reflects an era in which he was considered passé. Although On the Road continued to sell, many of his books were out of print, and the idea of a complete-set publication project like Library of America’s seemed unimaginable.
Like any sensible student in the ’60s, I’d read On the Road in high school and dreamed of a larger America than the claustrophobic small town in the backwoods of Maine I then inhabited. I graduated college in 1971 and began graduate school in the Department of History at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.
I was determined to exert some control over my work there, and decided that choosing a dissertation topic early would allow for that. One night I pondered choices aloud to my friend Chris; when I said something vague about the Beats, he said, “Why don’t you do Jack Kerouac? His papers are at Columbia and you can sleep on my friends’ couch at their place in the Bronx.” A kind offer, indeed, and I took him up on it.
But I should add that I saw Kerouac as something of a diarist, a witness to history. I wanted to do a life-and-times study, something that would describe the America preceding mine, the era from the depression to the ’60s, through the life of an individual. In the end, I think my choice was a good one; Kerouac’s work and life said a great deal about his nation and era, not least in the prodigious impact of On the Road on American youth.
When I began my research in 1972 there was no extant biography of the man, and I recall only one book about the Beats in general—Bruce Cook’s journalistic The Beat Generation. In 1973 Ann Charters published Kerouac, the first full-length study of Jack, and when I opened it for the first time I inevitably wondered if my previous year’s research was now redundant. Given our divergent perspectives, I concluded that plenty of room remained for another work on the man, and kept on.
I’d begun my labors by going to The Odyssey, a wonderful bookstore opposite the gates of Mt. Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts, where I found a larger number of Kerouac’s books than in any Boston or New York store. But even The Odyssey had gaps. So the late-1972 first complete publication of Visions of Cody came as a revelation. I think to this day that it contains some of Jack’s very greatest work. As a document of the evolution of a writer—from Thomas Wolfe disciple to his own man—it is unparalleled.
Kerouac had grown dissatisfied with the derivative Wolfean tone of his first novel, The Town and the City (1950), and found great inspiration in the all-out sensory attack style of a letter—“The Joan Anderson Letter”—sent him by his friend Neal Cassady early in 1951. Many of you may now be aware of this letter since it was recently rediscovered after being assumed lost forever for the past 60 years. The letter, Allen Ginsberg wrote, “reads with spew and rush, without halt, all unified and molten flow,” and Kerouac began to recast his own style into something more spontaneous, allowing the accretion of details to establish the form from within rather than imposing a structure from without.
Building on that, in October 1951 he went to Birdland to hear Lee Konitz, and jazz catalyzed his new understanding: that night he wrote in his notebook, “Blow As Deep As You Want to Blow.” Acting on a friend’s suggestion, he began to write what he called sketches—they make up the first part of Cody—and they are frequently brilliant; a bakery shop window, a diner, a movie theater, the Elevated station at 3rd Avenue and 47th St.
Although On the Road’s social impact gave me absolute confidence in the validity of studying Kerouac as an historical subject, it was reading Visions of Cody (and later Dr. Sax and Mexico City Blues) that made me aesthetically certain of his status as a truly important writer. Given the snobbishness of the academic world I was then navigating, that felt important.
Visions of Gerard is a slightly different story. It was one of the books that were out of print, and in fact it seemed impossible to find. The copies at the New York and Boston public libraries had disappeared, and I was at an impasse until at length I luckily found a kindly soul at the publishing firm of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. He went to the publisher’s own shelves, which held a copy of every book released by the press, borrowed Gerard, returned to his own office, sat me at a spare desk, and turned me loose. I was fortunate that Gerard is not terribly long. I read it through in an afternoon, and he replaced it on the shelf.
There’s a reason it was out of print. A tribute to his elder brother, who’d died when Kerouac was four, it plumbs the most romantic extremes of sentimentality generated by a cruel level of survivor’s guilt. Jack endows Gerard with a hard-to-believe saintliness and bathes the reader in what Jack’s friend Phil Whalen later called his “Edgar Guest” sensibilities. The end result is reminiscent of a very old-school Roman Catholic catechism.
Big Sur is something entirely different. Though quite painful to read and intermittently a bit tedious in its attempts to produce onomatopoeic poetry from the sounds of the sea, it is an extraordinarily detailed account of his crackup—call it the d.t.s, or, as Michael McClure put it, a “long dark night of the soul”—in Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Bixby Canyon cabin. Two recent films testify to the power of the book. One is an adaption called Big Sur with Jean-Marc Barr as Kerouac and Kate Bosworth as his lover Billie. The other film is a documentary called One Fast Move Or I’m Gone, which features the real-life book characters Michael McClure, Carolyn Cassady, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti as well as such distinguished Kerouac admirers as Tom Waits, Robert Hunter, Patti Smith, and Sam Shepard. Having fans at that level of creativity pretty well confirms the book’s artistry.
I recall Allen Ginsberg grumbling about the way Sterling Lord managed Kerouac’s publication process after On the Road’s success, seeing it as an ad hoc, shortsighted grab for cash. Of course, Jack might have had something to do with that, too.
In any case, all three men would be pleased to see the LOA effort to make all of Kerouac accessible. He deserves it.