Jack Kerouac has long been one of my favorite American novelists, whose importance and value has only become more apparent with each passing decade. We also share the same birthday, which has always pleased me, and like many young people, when I was in college, I devoured Kerouac’s work, most especially his epic novel Desolation Angels, which was written in the early to mid 1950s, but only published in 1965, after the enormous success of his most popular novel, On The Road (1957).
It’s become fashionable, in some circles, to dismiss Kerouac’s work, the bulk of which was written long before it appeared in print, “published [only] in heaven” as Allen Ginsberg put it – and then, in the aftermath of On The Road, publishers were suddenly eager to print everything he’d written up until then – thank goodness. And so the work of a lifetime came tumbling out.
One of the most quoted jibes of Kerouac’s work comes from Truman Capote, who famously remarked of the non-stop writing blast that produced On The Road, “That’s not writing, that’s typing.” It’s a clever riposte, but it seems to me that in the end, Capote’s claim to lasting literary value lies only with a few books, in particular the “non-fiction” novel In Cold Blood, whereas Kerouac’s vision, which literally encompassed all of American culture, is a sprawling, multi-layered, deeply penetrating look at the society, and the values of the era he lived in.
Kerouac’s style – pure bop writing – is heavily indebted to the art of jazz riffing. Sometimes he’s simply writing to fill up the page, but the best of Kerouac’s work – On the Road, Doctor Sax, The Dharma Bums, Mexico City Blues, The Subterraneans, Desolation Angels, and Visions of Cody – repays repeated readings, and stands as a monument to Kerouac’s passion and restless intensity, which did not mix well with the pressures of overnight fame. Becoming a heavy drinker as he coped with instant celebrity, Kerouac died at the age of 47, yet still managed to leave behind a unique, and utterly compelling body of work.
So it’s nice to see this archival clip from The Steve Allen Show in 1959, in which a visibly nervous Kerouac recites some of his poetry as Allen accompanies him on piano – telling a few jokes along the way in an attempt to ease his guest’s palpable uneasiness – which is some of the only footage of Kerouac reciting his work in existence. Allen, a gifted musician and television personality of the era, made it his business to showcase rising talent – Elvis Presley and Frank Zappa come immediately to mind – and the album that resulted from their collaboration (now available on CD) is a vital and impressive piece of work – and here’s the proof.
Indeed, Kerouac is, for me, sort of an “acid test” of someone’s reaction to American writing – he comes from the tradition of Walt Whitman, Thomas Wolfe and other authentic visionaries (as he makes clear to Allen in this clip) – and Kerouac is simply driven to put down on paper the experiences of his life, and has no time for traditional prose forms. His work flows from one sentence to the next in a sweep of nearly inexhaustible improvisation, and thus he leaves himself open to rather ordinary criticism – “not enough discipline,” “dashed off,” “free form” and the like.
But that’s just the point – Kerouac is clearly working out of a driving need to create, over which he almost has no control – he was compelled to put his life down on paper. As he famously wrote in On The Road, “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,” adding later that “I want to work in revelations, not just spin silly tales for money. I want to fish as deep down as possible into my own subconscious in the belief that once that far down, everyone will understand because they are the same that far down.”