Monday, September 20, 2010

Kerouac and the Beats

I saw a bio of Kerouac at the library while looking for other things, and brought it home. By Paul Maher, Jr., who’s from Lowell, it made me think how little I have read by or learned about the Beats. Passing odd.

I never read Kerouac in high school. It seems like aspirant high school writers will naturally tilt towards Kerouac. There is an appeal there that perhaps mimics that of Catcher in the Rye. I grew out of my interest in Salinger in about a year, but I believe Kerouac remains a serious component to modernist thinking. I do not mean that Kerouac is an essential influence for anyone—I guess I do not recognize that necessity—but he certainly offers something potent to consider.

I do not know how I escaped high school without reading On the Road, but I did. My reading of the Beats proves remarkably thin. Here’s the inventory:

  • Kerouac: On the Road (partial), Visions of Cody (partial), Mexico City Blues (complete), various short things, I presume
  • Ginsberg, I have read much of his Complete Poems, his Indian Journals, and this and that
  • Burroughs, Naked Lunch (partial), Soft Machine (partial)
  • Cassady, The First Third (complete)
  • Holmes, nuthin’
  • Corso, smattering of poems

I have actually done better by the 2nd level of Beats like Welch, Whalen, Snyder, Lamantia. Two points interest me here: that I didn’t finish the novels and that I am generally poorly read in these writers.

Regarding not finishing, my experience has been that the reading just fades. I get the energy but lose interest. As to why I never read much of the Beats, something telling could lie underneath.

The Beats supply a good exemplar of the writing process, of how to just get the words out. A young writer gets the message: trust your writing inclination. The results will be miserable until you develop your aesthetics, but the Beat sense of release offers a positive program.

It is a funny group of artists, held together by the same fragile logical component as any art movement.The Beats had their own patented jive that made them both ridiculous and wonderful to the public. They were rock stars, tho without quite the outlay of lucre. Their unique path became trammeled rather quickly by poseurs and flop sweat. Really,  the dynamics were just plain weird.

Neal Cassady was no writer in any formally striving way, tho his letters and their impetus are central components to the Beat mythos. Cassady himself, in all his sociopathic marvelousness, conditioned much that went on among the Beats. And then he moved on to Kesey’s trip, furthur on. And then, like Kerouac, he died the death.

Tho my reading on Kerouac largely faded in progress, I still consider his oeuvre an essential modern object. If I haven’t read him well, it is a receptivity problem on my part. I never fully disliked reading what I’ve read by him (and I like Mexico City Blues), it just never rang my bell.

The Beat myth is pretty ragin’, it must be admitted. I’d heard the name Lucien Carr associated with the Beats. Maher’s book recounts the alarming death of David Kammerer at the hands of Carr, a story I somehow completely missed. Maher describes it oddly. Kammerer, who was Carr’s teacher, made advances on Carr one night, so Carr stabbed him 12 times with a pocket knife them weighted the body and tossed it in the river.

Only when I read Wikipedia’s account did it make more sense. Kammerer had a long history of stalking Carr. Carr left different schools 4 or 5 times to get away from Kammerer, who nonetheless showed up at the each next school. I get the 12 knife blows, knowing that. Carr went to both Burroughs and Kerouac after the killing, and Kerouac particularly abetted Carr’s attempt to cover the crime.


The Big Three—Burroughs, Kerouac, and Ginsberg—are interesting writers. Burroughs is distractingly weird but the vigour is obvious. Kaddesh, Howl and a few other poems are enough to put Ginsberg in the pantheon, but jeez, his lows were worse than Whitman. I have his early Collected Poems, and the amount of doggerel to be found there, especially later on, is discouraging. Kerouac seems to have a clearer sense of oeuvre, a dynamism of his personal aesthetic sense. Granted I have already made clear on what evidence I make these value judgments, but I think with the Beats, with so much mythos to swat aside, I’m on terra fairly firma.

I mean, how many young cats decided to hitchhike across America, or at least say they did, on the impulse and input of Jack Kerouac? That is of course so much outside the writing, and yet it aint. Young writers need the picture of energy, of the active writer who gets across. cummings is not an influence for me, in the sense of someone I loved reading. But his example of freedom was a strong gesture towards what I could accomplish. The Beats as a group, and Kerouac particularly, show how you can howl.

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